Mystery surrounds men who live their lives in the service of humanity and hold themselves ultimately accountable only to their superiors. The yardsticks of social judgment and conventional morality cannot be laid beside their character. The mystery which enfolds Alexander, Conte di Cagliostro, has been compounded by groundless rumour and calumny to such an extent that, "His accepted history is too well known to need repetition, and his real history has never been told." Conscientious research has dispelled the clouds of gossip and slander enough to reveal to the unbiased eye a noble life infused with wisdom and suffused by compassion.
"I cannot," Cagliostro testified, "speak positively as to the place of my nativity, nor to the parents who gave me birth." His enemies said that he was Joseph Balsamo, a notorious adventurer and criminal from Sicily, but his words and deeds deny the identification. Not one person who had ever seen Balsamo came forth to draw the connection. According to Cagliostro's own account, he lived as a child named Acharat in the palace of the Mufti Salahayyam in Medina. His governor, an Eastern Adept named Althotas, told him that he was of noble Christian parents but refused to say more. Chance remarks, however, led Cagliostro to believe that he was born in Malta. Althotas treated him like a son and cultivated his aptitude for the sciences, especially botany and chemistry. Cagliostro learned to respect religion and law in every culture and clime. "We both dressed like Mahometans and conformed outwardly to the worship of Islam; but the true religion was imprinted in our hearts." While a child he learned Arabic and Oriental languages and also much about Egypt's ancient past.
At twelve, Althotas took him to Mecca where they remained for three years. When Acharat met the Sharif, both immediately felt a strong bond and wept in one another's presence. Though they spent much time together, the Sharif refused to discuss Acharat's origin, though he once warned him that "If ever I should leave Mecca I was threatened with the greatest misfortunes, and bid me, above all, beware of the city of Trebizond." The uniformity of life in the palace failed to assuage Acharat's thirst for knowledge and experience and in time he decided to go to Egypt with Althotas. Upon departing, the Sharif bade him a tearful farewell with the words, "Nature's unfortunate child, adieu."
In Egypt he learned that the pyramids contained secrets unnoticed by the tourist. He was admitted by temple-priests "into such places as no ordinary traveller ever entered before." After three years of travel "in the principal kingdoms of Africa and Asia," he arrived on Rhodes in 1766, whence he took a French ship to Malta. While he was lodged in the palace of Pinto, Grand Master of Malta, the Chevalier d'Aquino of Caramanica introduced him to the island. "It was here that I first assumed European dress and with it the name of Count Cagliostro." Althotas appeared in the dress and insignia of the Order of Malta.
On the basis of this remark, some have speculated that Cagliostro was the son of Grand Master Pinto and a noble lady of Trebizond, but Cagliostro never expressed this view himself. While still on Malta, Althotas died. Minutes before his passing he declared to Cagliostro, "My son, keep forever before your eyes the fear of God and the love of your fellow-creatures; you will soon be convinced by experience of what you have been taught by me."
With the Grand Master's reluctant permission, Cagliostro left Malta in the company of Chevalier d'Aquino for Sicily, the Greek islands, and eventually Naples, the Chevalier's birthplace. While the Chevalier was occupied with personal matters, Cagliostro proceeded to Rome. He retired to an apartment to improve his Italian, but soon Cardinal Orsini requested his presence and through him he met several cardinals and Roman princes.
In 1770 at the age of twenty-two, he met and fell in love with Seraphina Feliciani. Though she commanded his love and devotion for the remainder of their lives, she could never fully break with the Church and was to be used as "a tool of the Jesuits." His extreme good nature and the open confidence he placed in his friends were eventually to cause him discomfiture. Cagliostro's generosity soon exhausted his resources, and the couple was destitute by the time they journeyed to visit friends in Piedmont and Geneva. But by July 1776, when they arrived in London, they were again in good circumstances, but the cause of their improvement is, as always, lost in mystery.
They took lodgings and soon attracted admirers, though none could ascertain their origin or recent itinerary. A laboratory was established in one room to study physics and chemistry. Cagliostro's great generosity led a group of greedy impostors to attempt to defraud him through legal charges demanding money and accusing witchcraft. The latter charge was immediately dropped, but a tangle of dishonest lawyers and judges extracted every penny they could before the Count was free of their intrigues. Their character is summed up in the fact that every one of them eventually died in jail or was executed for fraud, perjury and other crimes. Cagliostro refused the opportunity to lodge countersuits, but decided to leave England.
Before his departure, however, both he and the Countess were admitted to the Esperance Lodge of the Order of Strict Observance. Its motto was "Union, Silence, Virtue," its work philanthropic and its study occultism. Through this Order Cagliostro would spread Egyptian Masonry across Europe. Leaving London in November 1777 with only fifty guineas, he travelled to Brussels "where I found Providence waiting to replenish my purse." This is always the story of Cagliostro. When he appears in history, he has everything, asks for nothing and serves all generously.
He came to the Hague where he was received as a Freemason by the local lodge of the Order of Strict Observance. His speech on Egyptian Masonry, the mother of the pure Masonic impulse, moved the Lodge to adopt the Egyptian Rite for both men and women. Countess Cagliostro was installed as Grand Mistress. Here Cagliostro's mission to purify, restore and elevate Masonry to the level of true occultism emerged. This task commands the centre of attention throughout the remainder of his life. As his numerous prophesies on matters great and small indicate, he had a clear vision of the impending upheaval in the social, political and religious order of Europe. He saw that only in the unified Lodges, servants of the wise men of the East, could nobleman and commoner come together in mutual allegiance to the highest ideals and guide Europe through the transition toward an enlightened age.
When passing through Nuremburg, he exchanged secret signs with a Freemason staying at the same hotel. When asked who he was, Cagliostro sketched on paper a serpent biting its tail. The guest immediately recognized a great being on an important mission and, taking a rich diamond ring from his hand, pressed it upon Cagliostro. By the time he arrived in Leipzig, the Order was prepared to honour him with a lavish banquet fit for a visiting dignitary, but the time had come to place Egyptian Masonry in its true perspective. After the dinner, Cagliostro gave a discourse on the system and its significance. He called upon the assembled Masons to adopt the Rite, but the head of the Lodge hesitated. Cagliostro warned that the moment of choice for Masonry had come and prophesied that the life of the head – Herr Scieffort – was in the balance: if Egyptian Masonry was not embraced, Scieffort would not survive the month. Scieffort refused to accept modifications in his Lodge, and committed suicide a few days later. Shaken and amazed, the members of the Lodge acclaimed Cagliostro, and his name was heard throughout the city. As he travelled on, the Lodges of the Order of Strict Observance warmly welcomed him. Danzig and Konigsberg treated him as a person of great distinction.
He pressed on to Mittau, capital of the Duchy of Courland and centre of occult studies, arriving there in March 1791. Cagliostro explained the meaning of Egyptian Masonry in terms of the moral regeneration of mankind. Though man had known the nature of deity and the world, the prophets, apostles and fathers of the Church had appropriated this knowledge to their own ends. Egyptian Masonry contained the truths which could restore this knowledge in a renewed humanity. Marshal von Medem and his family invited Cagliostro to stay on in Courland and introduced him to influential people. Von Medem's long interest in alchemy soon turned to other phenomena, and he begged Cagliostro for demonstrations of the powers he was rumoured to possess. At first reluctant, he eventually produced a number of phenomena besides his universally acclaimed medical cures.
Cagliostro now let it be known that he was the Grand Cophta of the Lodge, a successor in the line of Enoch, and that he obediently took orders from "his chiefs." Unfortunately, the willingness to support Egyptian Masonry was compounded with insatiable craving for more phenomena. Cagliostro showed his powers on numerous occasions but refused to be pushed into wholesale wonder-working. And for the first time he found himself called an impostor when he did not perform on command.
"Spiritualism in the hands of an adept becomes magic," H.P. Blavatsky wrote, "for he is learned in the art of blending together the laws of the Universe, without breaking any of them and thereby violating Nature." She said that such men as Mesmer and Cagliostro "control the Spirits instead of allowing their subjects to be controlled by them; and Spiritualism is safe in their hands." But, Cagliostro explained, such powers were to be used for the good of the world and not for the gratification of idle curiosity.
He determined to leave for St. Petersburg, which admitted him to the Lodge and witnessed his numerous medical cures, but did not warm to the idea of Egyptian Masonry. Refusing to produce phenomena, he was thought of as a healer, not a magician.
Warsaw was more responsive, however. There he met Count Moczinski and Prince Adam Poninski who insisted Cagliostro stay at his house. He accepted Egyptian Masonry and a great portion of Polish society followed him. Within a month, a Lodge for the Egyptian Rite was founded. In 1780 he was received on several occasions by King Stanislas Augustus. He described the past and predicted the future for a lady of the Court who doubted his powers. She immediately verified the former, while history proved the latter true.
Cagliostro left Warsaw on June 26 and was not seen until September 19, when he arrived at Strasburg. Crowds waited on the Pont de Keehl to see his carriage and he was cheered when he entered the city. He immediately began to serve the poor, buying debtors out of prison, healing the sick, and providing remedies without charge. Both friends and enemies agreed that Cagliostro refused to receive any remuneration or benefit from his tireless labours. Though the nobility became interested, he refused to perform phenomena save on his own strict terms. Soon he was on intimate terms with Cardinal de Rohan for whom he predicted the exact hour of the death of Empress Maria Theresa. The Cardinal invited him to lodge in his palace and later declared that he had witnessed Cagliostro produce gold in the alchemist's crucible on several occasions. "I can assure you," he insisted to a lady who doubted Cagliostro's ability, "he has never asked or received anything from me."
General Laborde wrote that in the three years Cagliostro lived in Strasburg, he attended fifteen thousand sick people of whom only three died. His reputation was confirmed when he saved the Marquis de Lasalle, Commandant of Strasburg, from a hopeless case of gangrene. During this period the Cardinal's cousin, the Prince de Soubise, fell ill in Paris. The doctors gave up all hope and the alarmed Cardinal begged Cagliostro's help. He travelled incognito to Paris with the Cardinal and brought the Prince back to health in a week. Only after the cure was his identity announced, to the astonishment of the Parisian medical faculty.
While in Strasburg, Cagliostro was visited by Lavater, the face reader from Zurich, who inquired about the source of Cagliostro's great knowledge. "In verbis, in herbis, in lapidibus," he responded, suggesting three great treatises by Paracelsus.
It was at this time that Cagliostro was moved by the impoverished condition of a man named Sacchi and employed him in his hospital. Within a week Cagliostro discovered that the man was a spy for some jealous doctors and had extorted money from his patients in order to discredit him. Turned out of the hospital, Sacchi threatened Cagliostro's life and was immediately expelled from Strasburg by the Marquis de Lasalle. Sacchi concocted and published a libelous story in which he asserted that Cagliostro was a criminal son of a Neapolitan coachman. This absurdity was to be used against Cagliostro throughout the remainder of his life.
Cardinal de Rohan, who had installed a bust of Cagliostro by the sculptor Houdon in his study at Saverne, sprang to his defence. Three letters arrived in March 1783 from the court of Versailles for the Royal Baylor of Strasburg. The first, from the Comte de Vergennes, Minister of Foreign Affairs, noted: "M. di Cagliostro asks only for peace and security. Hospitality entitles him to both. Knowing your natural inclinations, I am convinced that you will make haste to see that he enjoys all those perquisites and amenities which he personally deserves." The second came from the Marquis de Miromesnil, Keeper of the Seal: "Conte di Cagliostro has been actively engaged in helping the poor and unfortunate, and I know of a notably humane deed performed by this stranger who deserves to be granted special protection." The third, from Marshal de Segur, Minister of War, said: "The King charges you not only that he should not be harassed in Strasburg. . . but also that he should receive in that city the full consideration which the services he has rendered the sick and poor fully entitle him to."
In June a letter arrived from Naples informing him that the Chevalier d'Aquino, his companion in Malta, was seriously ill. He rushed to Naples only to find the Chevalier dead. The Perfect Union Lodge welcomed him with honours and he remained several months, since the Neapolitan government had just removed the ban on Freemasonry. Bordeaux invited him to come there, and he decided to do so, making the trip in slow stages.
The Comte de Saint-Martin had already prepared the ground at Bordeaux and Lyons by instituting the Rectified Rite of Saint-Martin which had purified and ennobled the idea of Masonry. The Duc de Crillon and Marshal de Mouchy personally welcomed him, showed him the city and feted him at banquets. The poor flocked to him and were cured. In Bordeaux Cagliostro had a dream in which he was taken into a brilliant chamber in which Egyptian priests and noble Masons were seated. "This is what your reward will be in the future," a great voice announced, "but meanwhile you must work with still more diligence!" The time had come to root Egyptian Masonry firmly.
Alquier, Grand Master in Lyons, led a host of delegations requesting that he settle there permanently. Admitted with full ceremony into the Lyons Lodge, he was invited to establish a Lodge for Egyptian Masonry. A subscription taken among Masons provided funds to raise a beautiful building according to Cagliostro's instructions. Construction soon began on the Lodge of Triumphant Wisdom, which was to be the mother lodge of all Egyptian Masons, and Cagliostro was given full management of Alquier's Lodge.
Cagliostro instructed his new disciples to withdraw into meditation for three hours daily, for knowledge is attained by "filling our hearts and minds with the grandeur, the wisdom and the power of the divinity, by drawing near to it through our fervour." Each must cultivate tolerance for all religions since there is universal truth at their core; secrecy, because it is the power of meditation and the key to initiation; and respect for nature, for it contains the mystery of the divine. With these three imperative injunctions as a base, the disciple could hope for spiritual and moral immortality. The motto which must ever be borne in mind is Qui agnoscit mortem, cognoscit artem – he who has knowledge of death knows the art of dominating it.
Having established Egyptian Masonry on the firm foundation erected by Saint-Martin, Cagliostro was not destined to witness its flowering in the grand temple built for it. Cardinal de Rohan urgently insisted that he come to Paris. The Order of Philaléthes had organized the General Convention of Universal Masonry. Prominent Masons from all the Lodges of Europe had come to the first assembly held in November 1784. Mesmer and Saint-Martin had been invited. Now was the chance for the closing benediction of the Egyptian Rite – "Wisdom will triumph" – to be realized. Cagliostro decided to go in January 1785. Setting the affairs of the Lodge in order, he established the permanent officers and reminded them of their commitment:
When Cagliostro arrived in Paris, he attempted to live a life of retirement in order to work for the union of Masonic orders. But the sick stormed his house and he again spent long hours curing them. Handbills appeared all over Europe with a portrait of le divin Cagliostro executed by Bartolozzi, below which were inscribed the words:
Cagliostro came to further the cause of Egyptian Masonry. He quickly established two Lodges. Savalette de Langes invited him to join the Philaléthes along with Saint-Martin. The latter refused on the grounds that the Order pursued spiritualistic practices, but Cagliostro provisionally accepted, and stated his mission:
After fruitless negotiations, he sent a message:
Finally, after it became clear that the great Convention would come to no agreement, he sent a last sad letter: "Since you have no faith in the promises of the Eternal God or of His minister on earth, I abandon you to yourselves, and I tell you this truth: it is no longer my mission to teach you. Unfortunate Philaléthes, you sow in vain; you will reap only tares." Thus the greatest possibility for laying the foundations of universal brotherhood in Cagliostro's time was lost.
The remainder of Cagliostro's life is tragic. Cardinal de Rohan wished to win a place in the court, but Marie Antoinette disliked him. Madame de Lamotte, unknown to the Queen, saw a chance for great personal gain in the Cardinal's frustration. Posing as a confidante of the Queen, she forged letters from Marie Antoinette to de Rohan and pretended to carry replies back to Versailles. Eventually she induced the Cardinal to purchase a gaudy necklace worth one million, six hundred thousand livres for the Queen on his own credit. When the first installment was due, the Queen, who knew nothing of the affair, did not pay and de Rohan was forced to default. The subsequent court battle saw Madame de Lamotte defend herself by accusing the Queen of treachery and Cagliostro of stealing the necklace which she herself had broken up and sold. The Queen was furious, and all the parties to the case were arrested and locked in the Bastille. Though Cagliostro was completely innocent, both he and Seraphina spent six months in prison. The case reached such ugly proportions that Sacchi's old diatribe was read out against Cagliostro, but the Parliament of Paris ordered its suppression as "injurious and calumnious." Cagliostro was eventually declared innocent and released to the cheers of ten thousand Parisians who waited for him. The 'Diamond Necklace Affair' is generally admitted to be the prologue to the Revolution. Marie Antoinette considered the release of Cagliostro and the Cardinal as a blow to her reputation. The King ordered Cagliostro to leave France and stripped the Cardinal of his offices.
Cagliostro left for England but his enemies, now aware of the full nature of his mission, saw the chance to destroy him. Hardly had he arrived in England when the notorious editor of the vicious Courier de l'Europe attacked him. Cagliostro lodged Seraphina with the artist de Loutherbourg and journeyed to Switzerland in 1787.
Seraphina joined him in the company of de Loutherbourg shortly thereafter. Egyptian Masonry was practised by small groups in Bale and Bienne, but they could not support the Cagliostros. Since his own powers could only be used for others and not for himself, and now that others shunned him, he was forced to travel on without repose.
By 1789 he had arrived in Rome to meet with secret Freemasons at the Lodge of the True Friends. But the Church, fully aware of the spiritual threat Cagliostro presented to itself, sent two Jesuits to pose as converts to Egyptian Masonry. Upon their being admitted to the order, they summoned the papal police, and the Cagliostros were imprisoned in Castle St. Angelo on December 17. Whether Seraphina turned against Cagliostro or collapsed in fear before the Inquisition, is not clear. But her depositions were damaging. After dozens of interrogations at which the rack was ominously displayed, the Inquisition knew only what everyone knew: that Cagliostro was a Mason, a heretic for his belief that all religions are equal, and a despiser of religious intolerance. The farce ended on March 21, 1791, when the Inquisition condemned Cagliostro to death. Before the Pope signed the sentence, however, a stranger appeared at the Vatican. Giving the Cardinal Secretary a word, he was immediately admitted to audience. After he left, the Pope commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Seraphina was released only to be arrested on fresh charges and consigned to the convent of Santa Apollonia of Trastevere. Nothing more is heard of her and her body has never been found. Cagliostro was sent to Castle San Leo, perched inaccessibly on top of a rock. There he languished until 1795. An inscription he made on his cell wall bears the date March 15. Rome reported that he died on August 26.
Here history ends, but Masonic tradition whispers that Cagliostro did escape death. Endreinek Agardi of Koloswar reported that the Count d'Ourches, who as a child had known Cagliostro, swore that Monsieur and Madame de Lasa, the toast of Paris in 1861, were none other than the Count and Countess Cagliostro. Born in mystery, Cagliostro passed in mystery, whilst his life was devoted to the service of humanity and the promise of spiritual immortality.