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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

Cagliostro, Conte Alessandro (1743?-1795) Cagliostro, referred to by historian Thomas Carlyle as the “Prince of Quacks,” was one of the most infamous characters of the French Revolution. Said to have been born in 1743 at Palermo, Sicily, as Joseph (Giuseppe) Balsamo (a claim that has been seriously questioned, since there is only one source for it, and that a dubious one), he liked to claim that he was a Gypsy, which he might well have been. Since so much of his career was described by himself, it is well to treat it all with some caution. However, some aspects have been well established.
      Cagliostro professed to be a count, a magician of the Hermetic school and an alchemist. He claimed to be accompanied by an invisible “master” named Althotas, only one of the many imaginary items invented by the count.
      He began his fabulous career in Palermo in a minor way by forging a few theater tickets and a falsified will, then he robbed his uncle and was accused of a murder. At this point he decided upon a much safer way of earning money by pretending that he was able to locate gold and buried treasure for paying clients. The man who was to become Cagliostro would show gullible customers sites where he said he sensed concealed assets.
      Marrying very well in Naples, Cagliostro next went into the eternal-youth business in 1780 at Strasbourg. He and his wife, Lorenza Feliciani, traveled Europe selling age-regression potions to wealthy clients, illustrating their point by claiming that Lorenza, then twenty, was actually sixty years old. They offered for sale his “spagiric food” (from the Latin spagiricus, meaning “chemical”) as an “elixir of immortal youth.” About this time Cagliostro assumed the title of Grand Copt and said that he had lived for centuries. He claimed that he had witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, but that he appeared much younger than he was as a result of regularly using his magical elixir.

Cagliostro, the shady figure who haunted pre-revolutionary France.

      Paris went wild over him, with Cardinal de Rohan, not noted for his discernment, becoming a prominent fan and supporter of the Sicilian faker. Cagliostro related fanciful stories about his conversations with angels, lurid accounts of his childhood discoveries of his powers, and descriptions of gigantic cities in remote parts of the earth. There were available, of course, the usual number of people who always seem ready to listen to such charlatans and to believe them. For these he made his usual promise to locate gold and jewels, taking a fee, then moving on to other locations before having to make good on his promises.
      The fake count lived in high luxury, with estates all through Europe filled with treasures of every sort. He created a very fashionable secret society called the Egyptian Lodge and was consulted by statesmen and philosophers, many of whom declared him to be genuine and possessed of real magical powers. Very much in the manner adopted a century later by H. P. Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, Cagliostro demonstrated physical marvels such as writing that appeared on slips of paper which seemed to materialize from thin air and were said to have been penned by spirits or beings from other planets.
      In Paris, in 1785, Cagliostro became involved in the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, a scandalous event that is thought by some historians to have been an important element in precipitating the French Revolution. Cagliostro was brought to trial along with his dupe, Cardinal de Rohan. Though he defended himself cleverly and effectively against those charges, he was imprisoned in the Bastille for other reasons. Eventually released after nine months, he was ordered to leave France.
      He went to England, where it seems he was no longer as welcome as before, and he was locked up in Fleet Street Prison. Fleeing through Europe and once more back in Rome, he was denounced by his wife to the Holy Inquisition, charged with heresy, and condemned to death, but old friends intervened. The sentence of the Inquisition was commuted by the pope and Cagliostro was imprisoned at the San Leo Prison in Urbino until his death in 1795.
      Alexander Dumas' Memoirs of a Physician and Goethe's Grand Cophta [sic] are based on events in Cagliostro's incredible life.
      Cagliostro obviously employed various optical and chemical methods, along with some basic sleight of hand, to produce small tricks as convincing evidence of his powers. His name was even evoked by the famous French conjuror Robert-Houdin to add luster to one of that master's more spectacular feats, and modern conjurors often name certain of their tricks after the Sicilian charlatan who so effectively fleeced his world for so many years.
      When Cagliostro died, so effectively died a belief in genuine sorcery, though it peeps from out of its grave occasionally even today. The era of the admitted trickster dawned, in which audiences were no longer asked to believe that those who performed mysterious demonstrations did so with divine or demonic assistance. The real, honest conjuror stepped to the front of the stage and took a bow for skill, originality, and dedication.

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