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Cagliostro: ‘Quack of Quacks’

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 19.1, March 2009

While on a five-country investigative tour of Europe in 2007, I twice came upon historic residences of the master deceiver who styled himself the Count of Cagliostro. Cagliostro purveyed an astonishing range of bogus paranormal phenomena to become “the most renowned of all the charlatans in the eighteenth century.” Indeed, “As the most versatile of all impostors, Cagliostro was by turns alchemist, forger of documents, prestidigitator, quack-salver, spirit conjurer, and procurer” (Francesco 1939, 209, 211), and that is only the short list. As I looked into the charlatan’s background, I was impressed at how many of today’s paranormal and pseudoscience claimants I have investigated were following in Cagliostro’s footsteps.

“Quack of Quacks”

Most sources, following an untrustworthy biography, give Cagliostro’s real name as Giuseppe Balsamo, born in Palermo in 1743. He often claimed to have been a gypsy and, indeed, “he might well have been” (Randi 1995, 52). Reportedly, by the age of thirteen he was a seminarian and soon thereafter turned his talent as an artist to counterfeiting theater tickets, then advanced to forging a will so that a marquis could obtain an illicit inheritance. Soon in and out of jail for various offences, he took up magic and fortunetelling, reinventing himself as a sorcerer by adding some chemical tricks he had learned. Using a version of the gypsies’ hokkani boro, “the great trick” (Nickell 2001, 179–184), he bilked a client of a sack of gold, which resulted in his first of many journeys to avoid arrest (King n.d., 21–60).

He became acquainted with alchemists in Messina and Malta, took the name Count Alessandro Cagliostro, and subsequently became a Freemason in London. His beautiful wife, Lorenza Feliciani (according to Guiley 1991, 77),

became his partner in various occult ventures, such as crystal-gazing, healing by laying on of hands, conjuring spirits, and predicting winning lottery tickets. They also sold magic potions, the elixir of life, and the philosopher’s stone. They held séances, transmuted metals, practiced necromancy, cast out demons, and hypnotized people.

Thomas Carlyle dubbed Cagliostro the “Quack of quacks” (1833, 31).

Before Cagliostro achieved fame, he and Lorenza lived a nomadic existence. According to Grete de Francesco in his The Power of the Charlatan (1939, 211–212):

The pair acquired consummate knowledge of their metier. After they had shown a materialization of the devil in one city, they entertained the next one with an exhibition of traditional magic art, changing hemp to silk, pebbles to pearls, powder to roses. They carried with them a mandrake root, locked in a casket lined with satin, and a crystal ball in which one could stare until one saw iridescent pictures: interiors of bedchambers, exotic landscapes, shapes of the past and future.

Here and there, the fake count and countess practiced the infamous “badger game,” a swindle in which a wife entices a would-be paramour into a compromising situation, whereupon her husband bursts in (usually with a witness) and badgers the victim into paying blackmail. Lorenza reportedly went on to have two actual affairs (King n.d., 69–70, 141–144, 206–207; cf. 267).

The pair staged theatrical deceptions—not only magic shows but séances in the form of elaborate suppers capped with spirit materializations. As well, Cagliostro used sleight of hand to cause “spirit writings” to appear on slips of paper (Waldman and Layden 1997, 85; Randi 1995, 53), foreshadowing similar trickery of the later Spiritualist movement (Nickell 2007, 39–47). They promoted their elixir of youth by personal example: Cagliostro claimed that he was centuries old, having even been witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, and that his beautiful wife, who was then in her twenties, was instead in her sixties (Randi 1995, 52–53).

In addition to his elixir, Cagliostro also claimed to possess the elusive materia prima, or “philosopher’s stone,” a magical powder capable of transmuting base metals into gold. By this supposed discovery, he laid claim to being the world’s true master alchemist. Actually, he learned that “It was only necessary to pretend that you possessed this secret, and immediately your house would be besieged by credulous dupes, eager to put down their money so that they might take a humble share in your success” (King n.d., 52). During one of his pretend transmutations, Cagliostro was observed slyly dropping a concealed lump of gold into a crucible before it entered the furnace (King n.d., 147).

A cleverer method that he may have used involved a crucible with a false bottom made of an amalgam with a low melting point. Beneath this was hidden some bits of gold. The phony alchemist would place some copper, chemical compounds, and his materia prima into the “empty” crucible, whereupon some gold would be found in the residue after it was heated. A similar trick was used to seemingly convert glass into diamonds (Gibson 1967, 35–36).

Strasbourg

Cagliostro and Lorenza frequently found themselves in trouble with authorities, but credulous patrons invariably came to their defense. Such a dupe was Louis René Édouard, the Cardinal de Rohan (1734—1803), who in 1779 had become bishop of Strasbourg, France.

From 1780 to 1783, Cagliostro and Lorenza resided in Strasbourg, living in a dwelling—now known as the Cagliostro House—at 12 rue de la Râpe. It was built in 1747, and its rococo portal (see figure 1) was inspired by paneling from a nearby palace (Strolling n.d.).

Cagliostro cultivated Cardinal de Rohan, who in any case could not have failed to learn of his alleged wonder-workings since Cagliostro had been initiated into the anticlerical Order of Illuminati (founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt), whose publicist had hyped the sorcerer’s arrival in Strasbourg:

The whole town was agog with excitement, awaiting the visit of the wonderful Count Cagliostro, the famous healer who performed miraculous cures for the sick, the practised sorcerer who controlled spirits both good and bad, the learned alchemist who could transmute base metals into gold. (King n.d., 155)

Cagliostro set up his own Egyptian Masonic Order, which he used to form bonds with the aristocracy. His healing services attracted hundreds of sick persons, and he took credit for the effects of the power of suggestion, the excitement-triggered release of endorphins that reduce pain temporarily, and the body’s own natural healing mechanisms. Like many modern show-biz faith healers (Nickell 2007, 95–103), he had a collection of cast-off crutches and canes. He also gave public séances on the order of today’s phony “psychic mediums” like John Edward and Sylvia Browne (King n.d., 154–161).

Riehen

Cagliostro’s fame spread to Switzerland. A wealthy ribbon manufacturer of Basel, Jakob Sarasin, sent his ailing wife to Strasbourg to be treated by Cagliostro. She stayed there from April 1781 to September 1782, eventually recovering. Meanwhile, her husband frequently visited her in Strasbourg, and Cagliostro and Lorenza often visited Sarasin at his Basel home in return. Through Sarasin, Cagliostro met other reputable men in Basel and decided to establish a summer home there. The residence still stands in the nearby village of Riehen at 13 Basel Street (see figures 2 and 3).

Perhaps as early as 1782, this Riehen residence was “used by the false Count Alexander Cagliostro for séances of his mysterious Egyptian Lodge” (“Map” n.d.). On occasion until 1786, the rituals (which continued until 1789) were personally directed by the Grand Kofta himself. The small structure has since been renovated several times, and nothing remains as a reminder of those days but “two small pictures”—one of “the self-confident-looking adventurer,” the other of his wife, “a southern European beauty” (Iselin 1923, 185–188).

The End

In 1785, Cagliostro stormed Paris. However, he was soon involved in the scandal known as the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, primarily due to his friendship with Cardinal Rohan. The cardinal, in attempting to ingratiate himself with Marie Antoinette, was duped by the Countess of Lamotte to purchase the necklace for the queen. However, the countess’s husband apparently absconded with the booty to London, and Marie Antoinette denied either authorizing the purchase or receiving the necklace. In 1786 the countess, Cardinal de Rohan, Cagliostro, and others were brought to trial. Rohan and Cagliostro were acquitted but exiled. The countess was sentenced to be flogged, branded, and imprisoned, although she later escaped. The affair added to the unpopularity of Marie Antoinette and thus contributed to the French Revolution of 1789–1799.

Cagliostro ended up in Rome but was arrested in 1789 for heresy as a Freemason. He was sentenced to death by the Inquisition, but the Pope commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Lorenza was imprisoned in a convent, and Cagliostro died in prison in 1795 (King n.d., 217–251; Francesco 1939, 213–221).

Called “the Last of the Sorcerers” by his perhaps most sympathetic biographer, Frank King, Cagliostro died when science was already revealing the lies of the claims of sorcerers—from alchemists to zodiac forecasters. Yet belief in sorcery is far from dead, as a visit to any bookstore will confirm. There, we can open one of the current crop of uncritical books and see Cagliostro pop out like a jack-in-the-box—wearing the persona of a “psychic” or the guise of a medical quack or other hustler. It seems to me we are inundated with Cagliostros, and I include those TV producers who make endless shows and crockumentaries on the paranormal that are an affront to science. If nothing else, the review prompted by this brief pilgrimage to two historic Cagliostro sites serves as a reminder to be ever vigilant regarding extraordinary claims.

Acknowledgments

I am supremely grateful to John and Mary Frantz, whose creation of an investigative fund makes such investigative trips possible, and Martin Mahner of CFI/Germany, who escorted me around Europe. His skills as driver, translator, investigator, and traveling companion are inestimable. I am also extremely appreciative of the gracious hospitality of the Blochs, Michael and Katalin, who hosted us in Basel. Michael drove us to the Cagliostro house in Riehen and provided published information, which he and Martin translated. And once again I am grateful for research assistance from CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga and to the entire CFI staff.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.