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A New View of Cagliostro by C. J. Ryan


As printed in The Theosophical Path, XVII, No 3, September 1919


In the study of universal history there is a strange fascination in the accounts of the numberless martyrs who have been slandered and persecuted with. an almost incredible ferocity because they tried to help their fellowmen to a higher ideal and practice of brotherhood. Not the least interesting of these was the extraordinary man known as Alessandro, Count di Cagliostro, who first appears in authentic history in London in 1776, and vanishes from sight in the Papal prison of San Leo in Italy in 1795. During the meteoric career of those nineteen years we see him reach dazzling heights of glory, wealth, and fame. He becomes a familiar and honored figure in the best society in Europe, establishes innumerable lodges of 'Egyptian Masonry' with the avowed object of helping humanity to greater freedom in thought and action, and of elevating and purifying the secret societies so numerous in that age.

He is the lifelong friend of many of the greatest and noblest thinkers, such as Goethe and Schiller; he performs many curious psychological experiments, marvelous in the eyes of the ignorant, but now slowly becoming recognised as the result of a knowledge of obscure natural laws; he cures multitudes of sick persons of the most dangerous diseases, and is ultimately dragged into the amazing Diamond Necklace Trial in Paris. From this he is released without a stain upon his character. Though beloved and revered by thousands, an enthusiast for humanity, he suffers rancorous persecution from bigots and depraved villains, and is finally plunged into the utmost depths of misery in a subterranean dungeon where he is supposed to have perished. It is no wonder that so strange and tragical a story has never ceased to be the subject of absorbing interest, and that anything new about Cagliostro is sure to attract attention.

H. P. Blavatsky, another reformer who suffered in the cause of Brotherhood, said that the twentieth century would see a great change in the popular estimation of Cagliostro. Of the three great mystics of the eighteenth century, Mesmer has already been vindicated from the charge of quackery by recent re-discoveries in psychology and hypnotism; Count Saint-Germain is still a baffling mystery to historians. Cagliostro was so shamefully and vindictively assailed by the unscrupulous, that


*Cagliostro, the splendor and misery of a Afaster of i'vfagic: by W. H. Trowbridge: London, Chapman and Hall.


his rehabilitation has been long delayed. The apparent circumstantiality of the accusations against him have prejudiced the minds of historians; even Carlyle, who would have revolted at the idea of knowingly slandering an innocent man, was bamboozled by them, and has stood as a serious obstacle in the way of the facts becoming known. And it must be recognised that to a certain degree Cagliostro was himself responsible for some part of his fate and unfortunate reputation. He does not stand upon the high level of Count Saint Germain, his superior. A writer stepped forward, some little time ago, to re-open the old question of Cagliostro 's true standing. Mr. W. R. H. Trowbridge is an independent researcher, who holds a brief for the truth, not for Cagliostro's rehabilitation, and this makes his opinion all the more valuable. He says: "The object of this book is not so much an attempt to vindicate Cagliostro as to correct and revise what I believe to be a false judgment of history." He wisely makes no attempt to 'whitewash' the subject of his fine mono- ALESSANDRO, COUNT DI CAGLIOSTRO graph; he considers that the facts speak sufficiently strongly in favor of that victim of prejudice and malice. What is definitely known of the story of Cagliostro is romantic enough, but what is merely hinted at by himself is possibly far more so. According to his own account, he was left an orphan when only a few months old; his childhood was spent in Arabia, where he was luxuriously brought up in a palace. At the age of twelve he set out on his travels, during which he was received with honor by various distinguished persons in many lands, eastern and western. He declared that princes, cardinals, and the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta had helped him in various ways. With the. latter he lived for some time, but he refused to remain in Malta and take orders. In his youth Cagliostro studied botany and chemistry under a mysterious person named Althotas, apparently an Adept in Oriental sciences; but after leaving Malta he plunged deeply into medicine and other branches of learning. At the age of twenty-two, in 1770, he married an Italian girl named Serafina (or Lorenza) Feliciani, who afterwards accompanied him in his travels. She was quite illiterate, and H. P. Blavatsky says: "The chief cause of his life's troubles was his marriage with Lorenza Feliciani . . . an unworthy woman." She was the tool of an organization bitterly opposed to his aims. Up to the year 1776 there appears to be absolutely nothing to be gleaned about his life except from his own statements, but in that year he comes plainly into public view in London.

The Count and Countess di Cagliostro, when they appeared in London, were obviously persons of wealth and some distinction, and were immediately spotted by several unscrupulous wretches as possible sources of plunder. In the goodness of his heart Cagliostro prophesied a winning number in a lottery for one of these. It was done casually, and he absolutely refused to repeat the operation.

To force him to do so, he was persecuted in the most cruel ways and threatened with imprisonment for debts which he did not owe. After being subjected to extreme annoyance he was released from arrest. The history of this affair, which is fully gone into by Mr. Trowbridge, is an amazing picture of the state of the law at that period, and of human depravity on the part of the scoundrels who tried to blackmail Cagliostro. It also proves his simplicity, good-nature, and kindness of heart. His ignorance of the English language was partly responsible for the victimization he suffered. Being an honest man, instead of decamping, as he had opportunities of doing, and saving his time, money, and peace of mind, he honorably faced all the perils of 'justice' in the eighteenth century, and did not leave London till he had fulfilled all his obligations.

He was defrauded of over $15,000 in one way or another, but he declined to have recourse to the law, though he had a clear case ; it is not altogether unsatisfactory to learn that all his persecutors, including the unjust magistrate, met with serious trouble before long.*

In England, Cagliostro became a Freemason in the Esperance Lodge of the Order of Strict Observance, a secret but not revolutionary society, of purely philanthropic and social aims. This act was to have fatal consequences in the end. He left England in 1777, unknown and impoverished, and we hear nothing more of him till 1779, when he arrived in Courland. He was received everywhere by the lodges of the Order of Strict Observance with cordiality, and he spent his time and energy in promoting




his own system of 'Egyptian Masonry.' This had for its main object the moral regeneration of the world and the reorganization of society on the basis of universal brotherhood. Cagliostro believed that the pure teachings of religion had been consciously and unconsciously perverted in later times, and his system of Egyptian Masonry was partly designed to restore the true spirit of the primeval revelation, once the property of all mankind. He also believed he had the power to communicate with highly-advanced beings in the invisible worlds who could teach certain important truths. Naturally such a declaration of advanced principles was bound to provoke the bitterest and most desperate opposition from vested interests and from the majority who were perfectly satisfied with things as they were, and so the slander was quickly circulated that Cagliostro's only object was to make money.

Mr. Trowbridge shows that there is not a single authenticated instance in which he can be proved to have derived pecuniary profit from his so-called 'impostures.' This is sufficient to destroy the main portion of the charges against Cagliostro.

The history of Cagliostro's proceedings in Mittau, Courland, is carefully examined by our author. The unfavorable opinion which the Countess von der Recke, sister-in-law of the reigning Duke, did not feel nor express till long after she had given out different views, is responsible for much of the hostility with which historians have regarded Cagliostro. The Countess said nothing against him until he was suffering from the unjust obloquy which political partisanship had thrown over him during the Diamond Necklace Affair; and the author believes that her later opinion, given after she became a pronounced rationalist, under the influence of a man named Bode, a leading member of the 'Order of the Illumines,' from which Cagliostro had withdrawn, has been greatly overestimated. There are plenty of accounts of Cagliostro's honorable conduct under conditions which severely tried his integrity in Courland, to offset the change of opinion expressed by the Countess five years after, when it was popular to abuse him. As a matter of fact he left Courland in a blaze of glory, loaded with handsome presents from his admirers, regretted, honored, and recommended to the highest personages in Russia.

In Russia his Egyptian Masonry was not a success, and, in order to sustain his reputation, he turned his knowledge of medicine and chemistry to account and appeared for the first time as a healer. The usual crop of slanders appeared, and it is probable that the opposition of the Court physicians was the chief cause of his leaving Russia. The stories told against him in Russia are singularly unconvincing; for instance he was charged with bearing a false name, and passing himself off as a Prussian colonel, while he actually had in his possession letters from the highest nobility in Courland introducing him in his own name. The rumors against him sedulously propagated in Russia, in no way influenced the opinion of his admirers in Courland, though they must have been well acquainted with them owing to their close connexion with the Russian official world.

In May, 1790, he arrived in Warsaw, where society was on intimate terms with the great world of St. Petersburg, and was received with the most flattering welcome. Here he tried alchemical experiments, with apparently little success; the accounts of his doings are contradictory to the last degree. Hearsay evidence, at second or third hand contradictory with itself also - -declares that he was ignominiously exposed at the Polish Court, while direct testimony is to the opposite effect. There is considerable evidence, including a letter from Laborde, the Farmer-General, that Cagliostro showed undeniable clairvoyant faculties while in Warsaw, and that he prophesied certain events to King Stanislaus Augustus and others which afterwards came to pass to the letter. As for Cagliostro's alchemical attempts, it is possible that they did not succeed, and that the disappointed gold-seekers took their revenge upon him in calumny.

We next hear of Cagliostro in Strassburg, where he spent much time healing the sick. He undoubtedly performed remarkable cures, and not only absolutely refused any pay but actually supported many poor patients while they were unable to work. He is said by Laborde to have attended fifteen thousand sick people in three years, of whom only three died. This appears to have upset the regular physicians, to whom he gave no explanation of his marvelous success. They are said to have looked upon him "with contempt born of envy."

His rapid cure of the Prince de Soubise, cousin of the Cardinal Prince de Rohan, Grand Almoner of France, whose case had been given up as hopeless, led to his meeting the Cardinal, who was one of the most powerful, brilliant, and intellectual men in France, though an ecclesiastic not particularly distinguished for morals. The charge has been made that Cagliostro benefited financially by his intimacy with the illustrious Cardinal, but the facts, as usual, are all the other way. The Cardinal, though possessed of fabulous revenues, was heavily in debt, and he testified that Cagliostro "has never asked or received anything from me." The obligation was on the other side, for Cagliostro's knowledge of 'chemistry ' is credited with enabling him to make a diamond worth 25,000 livres as a present to the Cardinal. The fact remains that he gave the Cardinal the diamond.

Still, Cagliostro's prominence was bound to attract blackmailing, slander, and persecution, the latter particularly from the doctors; and among others of the meanest charges that malice and envy could · invent, it was declare that he was living riotously and intemperately at the Cardinal's expense. The truth was, as many of his contemporaries who were unfavorably disposed to him but not liars, frequently said in derision, that he was noted for his abstemious habits. Madame d'Oberkirch, a strong opponent, writes contemptuously that "he slept in an arm-chair and lived on cheese." But we must pass to the Diamond Necklace Affair, during which the passions let loose were the beginning of Cagliostro's final ruin. For some time before this extraordinary and melodramatic event, his Egyptian Masonry had been steadily rising in favor in France, and it seemed as if Freemasonry in general was about to be restored to "its original Egyptian character" and to take a leading part in the peaceful revolution in conduct and principles that Cagliostro, in common with so many other noble minds of the age, was working for.

Suddenly, when he was almost at the summit of fame and the idol of rich and poor, came the bolt from the blue that ruined all his plans. But for the misfortune of Cagliostro's downfall, who can say that the course of the Revolution would not have been very different, and that the rivers of blood would never have flowed in the streets of Paris! The Necklace Affair, the Prolog of the Revolution, is so well known that it is not necessary to describe it. Cagliostro was fully exonerated from all blame or connexion with the Countess de Lamotte's swindle. Immense crowds of sympathizers greeted his appearance from the Bastille on his release. He was congratulated not only on account of his popularity but because the verdict was considered as an affront to Marie Antoinette, who had then lost the esteem of the French people.

Furious at the temper of the public, Louis XVI vented his rage upon the innocent Cagliostro by ordering him to leave France immediately. From London Cagliostro made a dignified reply to this outrage in his famous 'Letter to the French People,' which was aimed, not at the King but at de Breteuil, the head of the government, whom he held to be directly responsible for his exile. Upon the publication of this Letter, which made a tremendous sensation in France, the infamous Theveneau de Morande, the editor of the Courrier de l' Europe, a journal which circulated widely in Europe, began with almost Satanic cleverness and perhaps under orders from Versailles, to attack the writer. It was Morande, a creature of incredible baseness, who seems to have fabricated the story that Cagliostro was the notorious Giuseppe Balsamo. He collected all the facts of Balsamo's criminal career, blended them skilfully with the false reports and accusations already brought against Cagliostro, spread them broadcast in his vile paper, and then, after satisfying the French Government by his zeal, had the effrontery to ask his victim what he would give to purchase his silence! Cagliostro indignantly refused to consider such a. proposition, and Morande then induced several other conspirators as bad as himself to swear that Cagliostro owed them money. With great difficulty did Cagliostro escape the debtors' prison. Mr. Trowbridge says:

"But in the curious mass of coincidence and circumstantial evidence on which the popular conception of Cagliostro has been based, ingenious and plausible though it is, there is one little fact which history has overlooked and which Morande was careful to ignore. In turning Cagliostro into Giuseppe Balsamo, the fantastic idealist-enthusiast into the vagabond forger, 'the charlatan' as the Queen's friend Besenval describes him, 'who never took a sou from a soul, but lived honorable and paid scrupulously what he owed,· into the vulgar souteneur, Morande, by a trick of the imagination, with all the cunning calumnies of the French Court, and the so-called 'confession' wrung from its victim by the Inquisition, to aid him, could not succeed in making the two resemble one another. Yet it is on the word of this journalist-bravo, hired by the French Ministry to defame an innocent man whose unanimous acquittal of a crime in which he had been unjustly implicated was believed by Marie Antoinette to be tantamount to her own conviction, that Cagliostro has been branded as one of the most contemptible blackguards in history. "Surely it is time to challenge an opinion so fraudulently supported and so arbitrarily expressed .... It requires no effort of the imagination to surmise what the effect would be on a jury of today if their decision depended upon the evidence of a witness who. as Brissot says, 'regarded calumny as a trade, and moral assassination as a sport.' "


The unpleasant notoriety which Morande succeeded in inflicting upon Cagliostro, and other causes upon which it is impossible to dwell in the short space at our disposal but which Mr. Trowbridge enters into in detail, made an unfavorable impression upon the English Masons, and Cagliostro felt that it was of no use staying any longer in England. While in England he enjoyed the friendship of De Loutherbourg, a prominent artist and Royal Academician, a man of high character, and greatly respected by all. This in itself speaks volumes for Cagliostro's probity. After the terrible experiences he had passed through since the Necklace Trial, Cagliostro after various attempts, more or less successful for a while, to establish his Egyptian Masonry in Switzerland, Austria, and Northern Italy, finally, "as if driven by some irresistible force to his doom," found his way to Rome. Here, in poverty and wretchedness, he sought the assistance of the Masonic Lodge of 'Les Vrais Amis,' a secret organization, for the Order was not tolerated in the city of the Popes. The remainder of his tragical career is well known. Arrested and convicted as a Freemason, he was sentenced to a living death in the dungeons of San Leo, an isolated castle on a precipitous rock near Montefeltro.

During his trial he declared all religions to be equal, and that "providing one believed in the existence of a Creator and the immortality of the soul, it mattered not whether one was Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, or Jew." He confessed to "a hatred of tyranny, especially of all forms of religious intolerance.'' Mr. Trowbridge says: "when he died or how, is absolutely unknown," but he thinks that the French, when they took San Leo in 1797, would have released him if he had still been living, for they regarded him as a martyr in the cause of liberty, and anxiously inquired after him. H. P. Blavatsky says: "But yet - a query! Was Cagliostro dead and buried indeed at San Leo? And if so why should the custodians at the Castle of St. Angelo of Rome show innocent tourists the little square hole in which Cagliostro is said to have been confined and 'died'? Why such uncertainty or - imposition, and such disagreement in the legend? Some say that Cagliostro escaped in an unaccountable way from his aerial prison and thus forced his jailors to spread the news of his death and burial. Others maintain that he not only escaped, but, thanks to the Elixir of Life, still lives on, though over twice three score and ten years old!"

She also says that Cagliostro, having largely failed in the work he had to do, was "withdrawn" when he could no longer be of service. Mr. Trowbridge examines at length the preposterous charge that Cagliostro, a person of cultivation and refinement, aristocratic and elegant in manners, the favorite of intellectual and eminent persons, was the vulgar ruffian known as Giuseppe Balsamo, who was almost certainly hanged for his crimes; and finds no scrap of plausible evidence to that effect. In referring to Carlyle's condemnation of Cagliostro as a quack, he declares that Carlyle's mistakes were inexcusable, for they were not due to the lack of evidence for Cagliostro, but to strong prejudice. Although Balsamo was well known to the police and to many persons in various cities in Europe, not a single individual who had ever known him personally was ever brought forward to identify Cagliostro as Balsamo. The whole Balsamo story is a pure libel. To quote H. P. Blavatsky once more:

"How long shall charitable people build the biographies of the living and ruin the reputations of the dead, with such incomparable unconcern, by means of idle and often entirely false gossip of people, and these generally the slaves of prejudice! "So long, we are forced to think, as they remain ignorant of the Law of Karma and its iron justice."