Worthy of Stories: Cagliostro, Prince of Quacks?

J Patrick Allen

A new, monthly series by J Patrick Allen–author of Dead West–featuring his investigations into lives and events which are…worthy of stories. It’s your one stop shop for inspiration, and the hankering urge to think, “Hey, I should use that in a story.” Look for it the first Monday of every month, only on 18thwall.com.

There was a legend of a magician, loved by the common people and scorned by the nobility. He traveled all of Europe, collecting a menagerie of hundreds of disciples. He treated the sick and the afflicted free of charge, drawing crowds so thick that the constabulary had to step in. This man knew the secrets of the philosophers and could transmute lead into gold. Born of an exotic origin and knowing of powerful secrets, he came to spread the wealth of his knowledge.

Or did he?

I first hear the name Cagliostro in Hayao Miyazaki’s amazing Lupin The Third adventure, The Castle of Cagliostro. The movie itself was loosely based on the Arsene Lupin novel, La Comtesse Cagliostro or “The Countess Cagliostro.” In truth, Cagliostro had no castle, and his ties to any sort of noble title were tenuous at best. Still, in trying to track down some of the inspirations for one of my favorite Miyazaki movies, I came across some really interesting stuff.

According to his detractors, the “Prince of Quacks” Alessandro Cagliostro was born under the humble name Guiseppe Balsamo. Throughout his history, Cagliostro styled himself as a noble magician and alchemist. Even from an early age he claimed to have secret knowledge of things. At the age of twenty-one he convinced a local silversmith of the existence of a great treasure nearby. All that was needed to acquire it was a small sum of silver to acquire the necessary tools. But when they arrived at the site to begin the dig, Balsamo attacked the silversmith and fled with his money. For his part, the silversmith reasoned that the djinns guarding the treasure must have possessed the young man.

After learning forgery in exchange for an evening with his young wife Serafina, Balsamo took on the name Alessandro di Cagliostro and traveled to London. Here he met the legendary alchemist and occultist, the Comte de Saint-Germain. Here, he was also inducted into the order of Freemasons.

During this time, he spent his days traveling mainland Europe, attempting to win converts to and build lodges for his new style of “Egyptian Freemasonry.” He began acting as a physician for the poor, winning acclaim and adoration from the common folk for refusing to accept payment in exchange for his services. In addition to these small things, he began holding seances. In later years, those seeking to discredit him would lay claim to witness testimonies by disciples and street-children who helped his confidence game by rigging the seances.

One of the episodes for which he is perhaps most famous is a confidence-game plotted in France, involving a lady-thief named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, a desperate jeweler, and even Marie Antoinette herself. The necklace in question had been crafted for a particular noble woman who proved unable or unwilling to purchase the finished product. Having gone nearly bankrupt on material cost alone, the jeweler was desperate to unload the necklace. He soon learned that the only people who could possibly afford it were none-other than the royal couple itself.

Multiple times, Antoinette refused the necklace, stating the money would be better spent elsewhere. Jeanne, pretending to be an intermediary for the queen, conned the jeweler into “selling” her the necklace. She then attempted to pawn off the diamonds individually, but was caught and arrested. There is speculation as to Cagliostro’s participation in the events, or whether this was a convenient moment for the Vatican to implicate him in something. After all, Freemasonry was illegal according to the Catholics.

After fleeing France, Cagliostro was picked up by the Roman Inquisition. He died in prison a short time after, suffering multiple strokes in one day.

Several works and testimonies have been produced in the years afterward, supporting or attacking the assumptions that Cagliostro was the man he claimed to be. In present times we are now quite sure that he was what his enemies claimed: A charlatan and a fake, a confidence artist of a scale one simply does not see anymore. He is certainly a product of his time: An age when mysticism was high, and one with the proper connections and charisma could support themselves as a supposed “adventurer.”

Whether he was what he claimed or not, one certainly has to admit that he led an interesting life—a life worthy of stories.

Tell Me More

How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair by Jonathan Beckman [Da Capo]

“Occultist, Charlatan, Adventurer—Who Was Count Cagliostro?” by Esther Bergdahl [Mental Floss]

“Cagliostro” [Faust]

J Patrick Allen grew up exploring the American West with his family. He climbed mountains, fished, camped, visited the family cattle ranch, and explored a castle. Author of the Dead West series, JP writes about the monsters we take with us. Every week you can listen to JP on the Rocket Punch Radio podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn, where he and his friends hold roundtable discussions about all things geeky. In 2016 his story “Dragon Shadow” was awarded Best Short Story from the Pulp Ark New Pulp Awards. When he’s not hard at work, he and his wife can be found curled up with a beer and a book or game. And you can find him at his website, https://www.jpatrickallen.net/.

1 Comment

  1. This is fascinating information. I’ve encountered several of the names mentioned in this article in my reading over the years. I was aware that they were actually real people in an historic context, but had never pursued historic details. I’m looking forward to more of this type of inspiration!

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