The Characters #3: Count Cagliostro (1743-1795)
It has been ascertained that Count Alessandro di Cagliostro was almost certainly Giuseppe Balsamo, an Italian adventurer and occultist who made his living by tricking wealthy people into believing in all kinds of fantastic tales and in his own spiritual powers. In other words, he was a con man and a cheat.
This begs the question, What in the name of all that is [un]holy does a man like this have to do with a jewel heist perpetrated by a desperate and very obscure scion of a defunct royal house?
First, to begin at beginning; if Count Cagliostro was the Giuseppe Balsamo that he is believed to be, he was born in 1743 in Sicily. His lineage was very humble and his family not particularly wealthy. He did, however, receive a good education and began early to trick and swindle the wealthy people around him [some interesting stories are included in this Wikipedia article]. The story is that the coarse and crude Italian “metamorphosed” (as Frances Mossiker puts it) into the sophisticated, unctuous, sought-after, and influential Count Cagliostro. Frances Mossiker, for one, has her doubts that Giuseppe Balsamo was Count Cagliostro.
However, it is established fact that Count Cagliostro toured Europe extensively, selling his act. His act was that of a mystic and occultist, a knower of things and doer of incredible deeds. He was “apostle, prophet, adept” and “Grand Cophta to the Masons”. He claimed to be an Egyptian (a very old Egyptian) and an initiate into the secrets of nature. He could cure disease and prolong life. He lived in opulence, but apparently no one could ascertain the source of his wealth, though it hardly takes much imagination to assume that his wealthy admirers had something to do with the affluence.
He kept everything cloaked in secrecy, the better to create an air of mystery. Doubtless, he knew some convincing parlor tricks and was able to fool people who were largely uneducated and superstitious. To this day, people are susceptible to suggestion; they see and hear what they wish to see and hear. In the late eighteenth century, science was in its infancy and old mysticism remained side by side with Enlightenment concepts of rationality. France still adhered to the Catholic faith, which is based on the miracles of transubstantiation and the saints. Surely, a little of this belief in the miraculous bled into the acceptance of Count Cagliostro’s occultism.
In September 1780, Count Cagliostro arrived in the city of Strasbourg in France, the home of Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan. The Cardinal, like many other wealthy, important, and trendy personages throughout Europe, believed in Cagliostro. At first, Count Cagliostro played hard to get–a useful method of winning trust. He appeared to be too important to waste his time with a mere Cardinal and Prince of the Blood. Soon enough, Cagliostro and his wife–who was lovely and illiterate–were ensconced in the Cardinal’s chateau at Saverne (and at the Cardinal’s expense). He became one of the Cardinal’s closest advisers. His presence there became a source of curiosity. This interesting first hand account is from the Baronness d’Oberkirch (again, I am indebted to Frances Mossiker’s book):
Just as soon as we returned from our trip to Germany, we went immediately to Saverne, where His Eminence had built and decorated a palace fit for a sovereign. . . . It was three o’clock in the afternoon when we arrived, and His Eminence was just coming from his chapel, wearing a scarlet moiré soutane and an absolutely priceless rochet of English lace. . . . The Prince came forward, in his hand a rare and magnificent illuminated book of devotions. . . He was describing a recent trip to his diocese across the Rhine when he was suddenly interrupted by a footman, who, flinging wide not one but both the double doors–the highest mark of honor–announced, “His Excellency, Count Cagliostro!”
I whirled around in my chair. I had heard talk of this adventurer, of course, ever since my return to Strasbourg, but I had not yet seen him. I was absolutely stunned to see him make this kind of earnest entrance into the Cardinal’s salon, to hear him announced with such pomp and ceremony; still more amazed when I witnessed the welcome the Cardinal gave him.
While not actually handsome, his face was the most remarkable I have ever seen. His eyes, above all. They were indescribable, with supernatural depths–all fire and yet all ice. It seemed to me that if any two artists sketched him, the two portraits , while having some slight resemblance, might yet well be totally dissimilar. . . .
Cagliostro had fixed his eyes upon me from the moment he had entered. My husband must have been making signs to me to suggest our leaving, but I never noticed at the time. I was conscious of only one thing: Cagliostro’s eyes boring into my brain like a drill. I can find no other expression to fit the sensation.
Suddenly, Cagliostro interrupted the Cardinal and spoke abruptly:
“You lost your mother long ago. You hardly remember her. You were an only child. You have one daughter–and she will be an only child. You will have no more children.”
I started in surprise and looked over my shoulder to see who it was to whom he was talking, for I simply could not believe that he had had the audacity to address me, a woman of quality, directly (a surprise I have not got over to this day).
In fact, Cagliostro was correct about what he supposedly predicted.
It was while under the Cardinal’s protection that Jeanne de La Motte-Valois accompanied her patroness, the Marquise de Boulainvilliers, to see Count Cagliostro. The Marquise believed in his powers and went to Strasbourg to be healed, taking along Jeanne, who met both Cardinal Rohan and (probably) Count Cagliostro at this time.
Some time later, after the Marquise’s death, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois once again reappeared at the Cardinal’s home, this time calling herself a good friend of the queen’s. Count Cagliostro apparently read the signs and declared the omens to be good: the supposed correspondence with the queen (conveyed through Jeanne) would bring about great political gains for the Cardinal. This, along with Jeanne’s own careful manipulation of the situation, convinced the Cardinal of Jeanne’s honesty.
Of course, it was all a plot to bilk the Cardinal of his money and, eventually, to steal a massively expensive diamond necklace when the opportunity presented itself. This plot dragged in the queen, whose name Jeanne used to gain the Cardinal’s confidence. As soon as the top was blown off the entire affair and she was arrested, Jeanne wasted no time in implicating Cagliostro.
If nothing else, Cagliostro made the trial interesting. He had a flair for the spectacular (in the sense of “making a spectacle”). While being questioned, Cagliostro remarked that he could think of no misdeed to account for his arrest, unless it were the assassination of Pompey Magnus, although he had done that only on Pharaoh’s orders. The interrogator replied dryly that he would refrain from going into criminal matters that had transpired under his predecessors in office (touché!).
Whatever his role may have been in the jewel heist, Cagliostro was acquitted. Parlement (Court) acquitted him for his sheer cheek and entertainment value, Cagliostro managed to cover his tracks sufficiently, or perhaps Cagliostro was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was asked to leave France anyway by a king whose wife had been thoroughly insulted. He resumed his travels through Europe, getting up to all of his old (parlor) tricks. Cagliostro ended up finally in an Italian jail. In December 1789, he and his wife were locked up in the papal Castel Sant’Angelo after being apprehended by the Inquisition. They were sentenced to life in prison. Cagliostro made inscriptions on his cell’s walls; the last one dates from March 6, 1795, and in October he was reported dead. The Papal states were invaded in 1797, but those who went to free Cagliostro were told he had recently died. His exact date of death is unknown. Perhaps he didn’t die at all and there is something to his mystical nonsense.
The involvement of such a person as Count Cagliostro in the Affair of the Necklace gives it something of a carnival feel, like an insane stage play gone wrong. Imagine David Blaine or Kris Angel being involved in a theft of Fort Knox involving an adventuress who turned out to be related distantly to the Kennedys, and somehow implicating President Obama. Oh, and a common hooker was plucked off the streets to play the part of Mrs Obama (actually, here the analogy fails because Mrs Obama is highly respected and Marie-Antoinette had a salacious reputation). That would give some idea of just how incredible this entire tale must have seemed. Truth really is stranger than fiction.
Mossiker, Frances. The Queen’s Necklace. London: Phoenix, 2004.