The Theosophical Forum – March 1936


A Messenger Long Misunderstood


Cagliostro was removed to the fortress of San Leo, in the Duchy of Urbino. On May 4th, 1791, the public burning at the hands of the executioner of Cagliostro's papers, effects, and Masonic paraphernalia, was celebrated with all the ceremonial drama of the Inquisition. As each article was thrown into the fire, the crowd clapped their hands and uttered cries of joy. What could they know about Freemasonry? The only plausible reason for their joy, if it was spontaneous, must have been that their God had been saved from the terrible onslaughts of — a Cagliostro!

The abjuration is described by a modern author:

The Holy Office desired to offer the thaumaturge to the populace as a spectacle, to show this heretic Freemason as an abject penitent. Cagliostro, in his penitent's garb, feet bare, a candle in his hand, between the two files of monks, passed from the castle of Sant' Angelo to Santa Maria. There, on his knees before the altar, he asked pardon of God and of the Holy Church and abjured his errors. . . .

Somehow the thing seems overdone: one would like to ask several questions on the matter. However, let us follow what has been published.

On the morrow, the prisoner, suddenly awakened, was conducted by night, under a strong escort, to San Leo. While he was asleep they had taken away his clothes and substituted a new suit which he had to put on. All these precautions were ordered by the Cardinal Secretary of State, who hoped perhaps to find some trace of a correspondence with persons outside. At any rate the Cardinal Zelada directed the governor of Sant' Angelo (1) to give all possible facilities to the two agents of the Holy Office who had been given orders from the Sovereign Pontiff to make a minute search, both in the cell where Joseph Balsamo had been imprisoned and among his clothes, his rags and books that remained.

They had not yet discovered his secret. The search must go on!

Imprisoned in San Leo, they yet feared a possible escape, for they knew that Cagliostro had really extraordinary powers. Any other man would have been safe enough there, but this man had power that might even laugh at the grave, if he chose to use it. So a convenient anonymous letter being received by Cardinal Doria, denouncing a project of the French for rescuing Cagliostro, gave the needed excuse for putting him in an oubliette, (literally "a place forgotten"), practically a well, instead of his stone chamber. Balloons were then attracting much attention, and Cagliostro had declared that before balloons could be steered they must be made in some other shape than globular! Therefore rumor said a balloon was to be used to rescue him; this gave excellent color to the plan of putting him in an underground hole.

The governor of the prison himself is our authority for some of the details of the life of his prisoner in San Leo. The cruel cynicism of his description is revolting. Mysterious confessors visited his cell, ever seeking to drag his 'secret' from him. If Cagliostro showed himself 'obstinate' there were other means of "bringing him to reason." Shrieks and blood-curdling cries are said to have come from his cell and disturbed the whole fortress.

"Cagliostro is drunk again," said the governor of the prison, cynically. As if he could obtain anything more than just enough food to keep life in his body!

The prisoner makes some statement which appears paradoxical. The confessors for the day are irritated at their non-success.

"It is evident that a man who says such things is insane," declares the governor. "The bastonnade was even insufficient to make him keep silence!" says this agent of the Inquisition, Sempronio Semproni, in a letter dated July, 1793.

There is a famous mot: "One doesn't live ten years in the Inquisition's hands." That a man should live six months under such a deliberate system of slow death and torture is one of the greatest wonders in connection with this wonderful life. That Cagliostro lived until August 28th, 1795, more than five years from the date of his arrest, is but a proof the more that he possessed powers and a will of extraordinary development — powers such as he exhibited to the public even in such humanitarian work as that of a thaumaturgic healer.

He died, it is said, of an apoplectic attack at the time when the French armies entered Italy, a convenient date for those who feared him and the liberating legions of Napoleon, the Freemason.

If the reader is dissatisfied with this veracious account, there is an alternative. The Pope's Secretary told the antiquary Hirt that Cagliostro was really put to death in his cell for having tried to throttle one of the confessors who was paying him a visit.

If still dissatisfied with the second veracious statement of Cagliostro's death, there is a third account which some like to believe, since it is given on the authority of one who made thousands of seemingly impossible statements, not one of which has yet been proved untrue, while most have been absorbed into 'common knowledge' in the fifty or so years since they startled the world with their novelty. We refer to H. P. Blavatsky. Able investigators have done wonders to clear up the story of Cagliostro, though they reject the cornerstone of the whole fabric in denying that he had anything to do with Count Saint-Germain, or that Madame Blavatsky's information is worth consideration, or that even Eliphas Levi (2) (the Abbe Louis Constant, the famous Kabalist) knew anything about him.

The explanation of this is simple. It is Madame Blavatsky who gave to the world information as to the real fate of Cagliostro and of his connexion with Count Saint-Germain and the learned Dr. Mesmer of Vienna. It is she also who quotes a Polish Count of that name at that time in France, a mystic mentioned in Madame de Krudner's letters which are with the writer's [H. P. B.'s] family, and one who belonged, together with Mesmer and Count Saint-Germain, to the Lodge of the Philalethes. Where are Savalette de Langes' manuscripts and documents left by him after his death to the Philosophic Scottish Rite [Lost?]

In Lucijer, Vol. V, p. 393, H. P. Blavatsky writes:

Many are the absurd and entirely contradictory statements about Joseph Balsamo, Count de Cagliostro, so called, several of which were incorporated by Alexander Dumas in his Memoires d'un Medecin, with those prolific variations of truth and fact which so characterize Dumas pere's romances. But though the world is in possession of a most miscellaneous and varied mass of information concerning that remarkable and unfortunate man during most of his life, yet of the last ten years and of his death, nothing certain is known, save only the legend that he died in the prison of the Inquisition. True, some fragments published recently by the Italian savant, Giovanni Sforza, from the private correspondence of Lorenzo Prospero Bottini, the Roman ambassador of the Republic of Lucca at the end of the last century, have somewhat filled the wide gap. This correspondence with Pietro Calandrini, the Great Chancellor of the said Republic, begins from 1784, but the really interesting information commences only in 1789, in a letter dated June 6 of that year, and even then we do not learn much.

It speaks of the "celebrated Count di Cagliostro, who has recently arrived with his wife from Trent via Turin to Rome. People say he is a native of Sicily and extremely wealthy, but no one knows whence that wealth. He has a letter of introduction from the Bishop of Trent to Albani. . . . So far his daily walk in life as well as his private and public status are above reproach. Many are those seeking an interview with him, to hear from his own lips the corroboration of what is being said of him." From another letter we learn that Rome had proven an ungrateful soil for Cagliostro. He had the intention of settling at Naples, but the plan could not be realized. The Vatican authorities who had hitherto left the Count undisturbed, suddenly laid their heavy hand upon him. In a letter dated 2 January, 1790, just a year after Cagliostro's arrival, it is stated that: "last Sunday secret and extraordinary debates in council took place at the Vatican." It (the council) consisted of the State Secretary and Antonelli, Pillotta and Campanelli, Monsignor Figgerenti performing the duty of Secretary. The object of that secret council remains unknown, but public rumour asserts that it was called forth owing to the sudden arrest on the night between Saturday and Sunday, of the Count di Cagliostro, his wife, and a Capuchin, Fra Giuseppe Maurijio. The Count is incarcerated in Fort St. Angelo, the Countess in the Convent of St. Apollonia, and the monk in the prison of Araceli. That monk who calls himself "Father Swizzero," is regarded as a confederate of the famous magician. In the number of crimes he is accused of is included that of the circulation of a book by an unknown author, condemned to public burning and entitled "The Three Sisters.'' The object of this work is "to pulverise certain three high-born individuals."

The real meaning of this most extraordinary misinterpretation is easy to guess. It is a work on Alchemy; the "three sisters" standing symbolically for the three "Principles" in their duplex symbolism. On the plane of occult chemistry they "pulverize" the triple ingredient used in the process of the transmutation of metals; on the plane of Spirituality they reduce to a state of pulverization the three "lower" personal "principles" in man, an explanation that every Theosophist is bound to understand.

The trial of Cagliostro lasted for a long time. In a letter of March the 17th, Bottini writes to his Lucca correspondent that the famous "wizard" has finally appeared before the Holy Inquisition. The real cause of this slowness of the proceedings was that the Inquisition, with all its dexterity at fabricating proofs, could find no weighty evidence to prove the guilt of Cagliostro. Nevertheless, on April the 7th 1791 he was condemned to death. He was accused of various and many crimes, the chiefest of which are his being a Mason and an "Illuminate," an "Enchanter" occupied with unlawful studies; he was also accused of deriding the holy Faith, of doing harm to society, of possessing himself by means unknown of large sums of money, and of inciting others, sex, age and social standing notwithstanding, to do the same. In short, we find the unfortunate Occultist condemned to an ignominious death for deeds committed, the like of which are daily and publicly committed now-a-days, by more than one Grand Master of the Masons, as also by hundreds of thousands of Kabbalists and Masons, mystically inclined. After this verdict the "arch heretic's" documents, diplomas from foreign Courts and Societies, Masonic regalias and family relics were solemnly burned by the public hangmen in the Piazza della Minerva, before enormous crowds of people. First his books and instruments were consumed. Among these was the MS. on the Maconnerie Egyptienne, which thus can no longer serve as a witness in favour of the reviled man. And now the condemned Occultist had to be passed over to the hands of the civil Tribunal, when a mysterious event happened.

A stranger, never seen by anyone before or after in the Vatican, appeared and demanded a private audience of the Pope, sending him by the Cardinal Secretary a word instead of a name. He was immediately received, but only stopped with the Pope a few minutes. No sooner was he gone than his Holiness gave orders to commute the death sentence of the Count to that of imprisonment for life, in the fortress called the Castle of St. Leo, and that the whole transaction should be conducted in great secresy. The monk Swizzero was condemned to ten years' imprisonment; and the Countess Cagliostro was set at liberty, but only to be confined on a new charge of heresy in a convent.

But what was the Castle of St. Leo? It now stands on the frontiers of Tuscany and was then in the Papal States, in the Duchy of Urbino. It is built on the top of an enormous rock, almost perpendicular on all sides; to get into the "Castle" in those days, one had to enter a kind of open basket which was hoisted up by ropes and pulleys. As to the criminal, he was placed in a special box, after which the jailors pulled him up "with the rapidity of the wind." On April 23rd 1792 Giuseppe Balsamo — if so we must call him — ascended heavenward in the criminal's box, incarcerated in that living tomb for life. Giuseppe Balsamo is mentioned for the last time in the Bottini correspondence in a letter dated March 10th 1792. The ambassador speaks of a marvel produced by Cagliostro in his prison during his leisure hours. A long rusty nail taken by the prisoner out of the floor was transformed by him without the help of any instrument into a sharp triangular stiletto, as smooth, brilliant and sharp as if it were made of the finest steel. It was recognised for an old nail only by its head, left by the prisoner to serve as a handle. The State Secretary gave orders to have it taken away from Cagliostro and brought to Rome, and to double the watch over him.

And now comes the last kick of the jackass at the dying or dead lion. Luigi Angiolini, a Tuscan diplomat, writes as follows: "At last that same Cagliostro, who made so many believe that he had been a contemporary of Julius Caesar, who reached such fame and so many friends, died from apoplexy August 26th1795. Semironi had him buried in a wood-barn below, whence peasants used to pilfer constantly the crown property. The crafty chaplain reckoned very justly that the man who had inspired the world with such superstitious fear while living, would inspire people with the same feelings after his death, and thus keep the thieves at bay. . . ."

But yet — a query! Was Cagliostro dead and buried indeed in 1792 [1795], at St. Leo? And if so, why should the custodians at the Castle of St. Angelo of Rome show innocent tourists the little square hole in which Cagliostro was said to have been confined and "died"? Why such uncertainty or — imposition, and such disagreement in the legend? Then there are Masons who to this day tell strange stories in Italy. Some say that Cagliostro escaped in an unaccountable way from his aerial prison, and thus forced his jailors to spread the news of his death and burial. Others maintain that he not only escaped, but, thanks to the Elixir of Life, still lives on, though over twice three score and ten years old!

"Why" asks Bottini, "if he really possessed the powers he claimed, has he not indeed vanished from his jailors, and thus escaped the degrading punishment altogether?"

We have heard of another prisoner, greater in every respect than Cagliostro ever claimed to be. Of that prisoner too, it was said in mocking tones, "He saved others; himself he cannot save . . . let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe. . . ."

How long shall charitable people build the biographies of the living and ruin the reputations of the dead, with such incomparable unconcern, by means of idle and often entirely false gossip of people, and these generally the slaves of prejudice!

So long, we are forced to think, as they remain ignorant of the Law of Karma and its iron justice. — H. P. B.

[This concludes the study of Cagliostro, which began in The Theosophical Path, April, 1932. It is hoped to publish further researches on Cagliostro in future numbers of THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM, but in closing we feel that a study of such paramount interest to students of Theosophy and the occult, and involving, as has the present study by Professor Malpas, so much devoted research, could be no more fittingly justified than by the following direct statements by two Theosophical Leaders who have written on this subject, H. P. Blavatsky and G. de Purucker. We give them verbatim and entire. — Eds.]


1. "In Rome, Darbargiri Nath [a high chela] went to the prison of Cagliostro at the Fort Sant Angelo, and remained in the terrible hole for more than an hour. What he did there, would give Mr. Hodgson the ground work for another scientific Report if he could only investigate the fact." — Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, p. 110 (return to text)

2. Eliphas Levi refers to Cagliostro in his Dogme de la Haute Magie, I, 219-20, as having "died forsaken in the cells of the Inquisition," a statement which H. P. Blavatsky challenges with the direct assertion that it was a false statement, and that, moreover, the Abbe Constant (Eliphas Levi) "knew it was so." (return to text)

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