In the comments to my short write-up on Count Cagliostro, someone introduced a very interesting topic.
Who IS Count Cagliostro?
In my post on Cagliostro, I said he said “almost certainly” Giuseppe Balsamo, an Italian peasant from a humble family. His true identity is still disputed, but what’s clear is that he was not Egyptian and he was not three thousand years old (as he claimed). He had an Italian accent and was only too mortal.
The evidence linking Cagliostro to Giuseppe Balsamo is the following:
1. An anonymous letter was sent to the Paris police. The man claimed to be from Palermo, where he knew a man named Antonio Braconniere, who claimed to have identified Count Cagliostro as his nephew, Giuseppe Balsamo. Braconierre made this identification by looking at popular engravings of the time. In other words, print of drawings, which were probably not particularly accurate representations of Cagliostro.
2. Cagliostro confessed to it under the Inquisition–in other words, under torture.
Still, Giuseppe Balsamo seems to be the only and the most likely candidate for Cagliostro’s true identity. The young Balsamo was involved in the kind of scamming and petty trickery that you might expect from a con man in training.
But, some might ask, how could this uneducated peasant suddenly metamorphose into the sophisticated Count Cagliostro, accepted into the highest circles of European society? A good spot of acting and a lot of psychological acuity, I think. He had no trouble pretending to be what he was not. He also understood people’s weaknesses and how to exploit them. A can man works through lies and cultivating trust in his victims. This does not really need much education or cultivation, just a knowledge of what buttons to press. Cagliostro was also smart enough not to stay around the same places for too long; he and his wife moved about quickly before they wore out their welcome.
So, personally, I do believe they are the same person. Frankly, there is no positive proof that Cagliostro was Balsamo, and there probably never will be. There is still room for conjecture.