The Theosophical Forum – February 1936



CAGLIOSTRO left for Trent on November 11, 1788, after his brief stay at the little Tyrolese town of Roveredo. Trent was only thirteen miles away, and the local physicians would have instantly denounced any attempt at defying the decree they had extracted from the Emperor against him. By sowing suspicion among Cagliostro's patients, by falsifying his prescriptions, by allowing a dishonest servant to sell prescriptions and remedies in his name, they had done everything possible to cause the failure of his cures. These were indeed marvelous in their results and in the sense that they were examples of the utilization of remedies and natural forces not known to the science of the day. But they needed the universal ingredient of all successful medicine — faith; and this being undermined by slanderous tongues, there were naturally failures and relapses.

There was another reason for the departure from Roveredo. The Countess Cagliostro was a Roman and a Roman Catholic. Her husband, the Count, never interfered with religion, but actually sent his patients to the churches to give public thanks to God for their recovery, precisely as others had been told: "Go, show thyself to the priest. . . ." But in these last days the priests persuaded Cagliostro's wife to make public professions of her religion, to confess, and to open her mind to them on religious matters. This, as Cagliostro probably suspected and as afterwards proved to be the case, was in reality one more method of entrapping him. The object was to destroy him as a Freemason, or, alternatively, to gain his wonderful knowledge for their own propaganda or secret advantage.

On the other hand, Cagliostro actually entertained hopes that he could induce the Pope to accept his system, and, with the support of the Knights of Malta, to make it of use in the Roman Catholic world! We do not know upon what data he based this idea, but it was from Malta that he had set out on his Masonic travels over Europe, and it is probable that he had received his training as a chemist and physician there, under the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. There were secret associations on both sides and it is not at present known to history whether the Pope was not personally under obligations to support Cagliostro and at the same time, officially, his deadliest enemy. At any rate many believe the Pope knew that Cagliostro was no impostor.

At that period there was a vast amount of heterogeneous thought masked as orthodoxy in official life, and it seemed to have been tolerated where no great scandal arose. An example of this has been seen in the case of the Prince Cardinal de Rohan, in France. Enjoying splendid semi-regal state at Saverne and a vast dignity at the French court, even though temporarily out of favor with the Queen, he was in reality about as worldly as any Frenchman of the day. Cagliostro introduced him to a new world, in fact, when he began to turn the Cardinal's attention to spiritual matters. Similarly, other important dignitaries of the Church were sometimes in reality quite different from what their official position appeared to make them. The converse was also true, that many who appeared to be anything but orthodox Roman Catholics were in reality stanch supporters of that Church.

It is in such a paradoxical world that we have to follow the fortunes of this grand Freemason during the tragic last years of his life in Europe. The task is not easy, nor can it be fully completed until the day when the records of the fraternities to which Cagliostro belonged are given to the world. Many are the missing links and seeming paradoxes, but one thing is certain, that the Life of Joseph Balsamo given so eagerly to every country in Europe in 1791 by his self-constituted accusers and judges, is of no more weight than, say, the histories of the Roman Emperors by the early Christian fanatics, their enemies, or the later veracious chronicle for the benefit of monarchical schoolrooms which described the Emperor Napoleon as "the Lieutenant-General of the Armies of the King"!

There was one of Cagliostro's patients in Trent who invited him to that place, and there were others, among them the Margrave of Anspach, who knew him well. We find him high in favor with the Prince-Bishop, who discussed matters of common interest with him in an apparently friendly way. Whether this was merely another attempt to spy upon him or to entrap him, it is difficult to say, but there is no question that those around the Prince-Bishop of Trent were doing all they could, probably under a friendly guise, to collect anything that could be twisted into evidence against Cagliostro. It mattered little what the evidence was, so long as it would serve to get up a plausible case against him. The 'delenda est' had gone forth, and only the formal occasion remained to be developed.

Serafina Cagliostro, his wife, a vivacious daughter of the Church, talked and confessed and chattered to her heart's content. It is customary to declare that this woman, for whom Cagliostro sacrificed so much since their marriage in Rome, betrayed him only from ignorance, or at the most, from a religious 'conscience,' and the reluctance on the part of sentimental writers to condemn her, because she was a woman and a very fascinating one at that, is natural. Yet there is no excuse for her betrayal, even though some things she said without malice were twisted into damning statements against her devoted husband. At Trent, indeed, of all the enemies that surrounded him, she was the worst.

Whether the Prince Bishop was an enemy or, what he appeared to be, a very good friend, is hard to say; but when pressure was brought to bear upon him, again through the Emperor, to get rid of so dangerous a man as one of the Illuminati, and one who was also the Grand-Master of a proscribed rite — a Mason, in short — he let Cagliostro go. The Prince-Bishop gave Cagliostro letters of recommendation for the Cardinals Albani Colonna and Buoncompagni, at Rome. These letters would be accepted as proofs of the good will of the giver, were we not so accustomed to seeing Cagliostro's worst enemies, in the guise of friends, give him similar guarantees — that he might fall into the waiting hands of their confederates. It is one of the mysteries of such a life that the martyr, accepting his doom, bears his own Cross to his Calvary without a murmur. History is amazed at the seeming blindness with which a man of vastly superior intelligence is apparently so unable to distinguish friend from foe, but history itself does not know that the sacrifice made to help the individual or to help humanity includes responsibility for the consequences of failure on the part of those helped to profit by the Promethean fire from Heaven. The chained God of the Caucasus cannot escape his doom until he has paid the penalty for those he has enlightened. Enlightenment has its birth-pangs for those who bring to birth the souls of men.

A month only, and Cagliostro having passed through Venice and Turin, arrived in the Eternal City, the city of doom, where, twenty-one years before, he unfortunately married the girl who was to prove his Delilah.

So in the month of May, 1789, the fourteenth year of the Masonic effort of which he was permitted to form a part, Cagliostro arrived at the Scalinata hostel in the Piazza di Spagna, in Rome, shortly afterwards removing to the Piazza Farnese. He was known in Rome, besides having the introductions from the Cardinals at Trent; and his wife was a Roman. There is no need to suppose that she was of low caste merely because of her ignorance of writing; she had been brought up in the fashion of the time, unable to write, because of the parental logic current in good society — a girl who could not write could not correspond with a lover without the knowledge of her parents! However, the fact remains that Serafina Cagliostro, though not of humble origin, could not even write her name.

If we were dealing with the story of an ordinary man, there is much that would be almost impossible to explain in the conduct of Cagliostro at Rome during this fatal year, 1789, without access to the records of the Fraternity to which he belonged. The indescribable mental agony of the months passed in the Bastille in 1785 and 1786 would have been enough to deter all but one man in a million from taking similar risks again — but Cagliostro was the one man in a million, or in several millions. He not only took the risks but even seemed to court disaster. Freemasonry was actually a crime by the laws of the Church, which artlessly pointed out that as its practice was secret it might be against the public interest. But Cagliostro had not practised Freemasonry within the limits of the Pope's jurisdiction. Therefore he was unassailable, as yet. The situation, however, was one that could be speedily altered, and it was.

A monk, a French Capuchin, Francesco di San Maurizio, attached himself devotedly to Cagliostro, and led the Count to the point of initiating him into the Egyptian Rite. Cagliostro's amazing appearance of ignorance as to the man's treachery is the best proof that can be offered of his knowledge of the snare. Again and again, at Mitau, at Lyons, at London, we find this paradox of a man, when judged by ordinary standards, not only walking into the simplest traps set for him by treacherous friends, but actually predicting their treachery. This kind of prediction was a sore trial to Cagliostro's most devoted disciples, because the future traitor always seemed such a faithful and enthusiastic supporter, sometimes until a few hours before the act of betrayal took place. Only disciples who had received his deeper teachings were fully aware that there was not only no coincidence in this, but the working of a well-known law; for those, such as the banker Sarrasin and the Irish Mason O'Reilly, who remained faithful to the end, were really 'worthy and well qualified' to judge; they were balanced and responsible men, and Masons. And even the Prince Cardinal de Rohan, in spite of his worldly dignities and ecclesiastical and social artificialities, remained faithful to him; for the Cardinal had seen much and knew much, and yet remained cool-headed and mentally balanced.

However fantastic such matters appear in print, the elementary phenomena with which Cagliostro illustrated his philosophy were a severe test for any man's mentality. If his mental balance were not strong, the reaction of incredulity might come in a moment and with it a moral obliquity leading usually to treachery. The purity of mind and singleness of purpose required to maintain mental balance under such circumstances, were no more common then than they are today; but as that balance did not necessarily affect the intellect, it ought perhaps to be called moral balance rather than mental. We are dealing with very obscure mental aberrations and moral cataclysms, but never, so far as we know, clearly explained as to causes. The facts remain. Cagliostro, as an expert in such matters, chose to take incredible risks for the sake of his mission, which was, to give the world through the individuals he contacted an opportunity to progress in spiritual evolution, and only a man capable of making such a superhuman sacrifice of personal interests is really capable of judging his acts. If those acts cannot be understood in the light of the average mentality of our day, it is only a proof that there is a vast field for their action even now. When we can trace a logical purpose in the doings of a Cagliostro, linking apparently disconnected actions and phenomena, it is probable that we shall be closely observing the precise course followed by him, and doubtless understood by his deeper students. For others, we must be content with strange apparent paradoxes, such as this one of treating certain inevitable traitors as confidants, after having predicted their treachery in detail.

Francesco di San Maurizio, known as Father Suizzero, was initiated into the Egyptian Rite, and on Sunday, December 27, 1789, when the Sun lay in the tomb of the old year, the Holy Inquisition held a solemn meeting in the rooms of Cardinal Zelada. There were only four cardinals in this terrible tribunal, the other three being Cardinals Campanella, Antonelli, and Pallotta. The Pope himself was the nominal head of this one body, as indicating its importance, but he rarely took active part in its deliberations, reserving his interference for the most serious occasions. Breaking an absence of years, he attended this council in person. Grave decisions were evidently in the balance.

And that evening Cagliostro was arrested with his wife and the Capuchin San Maurizio. His rooms were stripped and all his property and papers seized, precisely as in the case of his arrest at Paris some four years earlier. By one of those fatal mistakes which appear so obvious as to be deliberate challenges thrown in the face of fate, Cagliostro here also appears to have taken no precautions whatever in regard to his papers and precious documents; doubtless some of his priceless drugs were seized in the general confiscation as well.

The gates of the formidable castle of Sant' Angelo closed behind the devoted 'criminal' — and the crime charged was — Freemasonry!

The comedy, which was at the same time one of the greatest tragedies the world has known, was well staged, as might be expected. It is easier to extract the fibers from the mango-fruit than to obtain any degree of real accuracy from the official accounts. Only by the application of other keys can the doors be opened upon the real drama behind the painted curtain. For some of the actors the matter was serious enough. The hue and cry drove out of Rome on the instant all who had ever had the slightest connexion with Cagliostro. High nobles fled, a marchioness escaped in the guise of a Hungarian ameer; the Queen of Naples hastened to disclaim all connexion with him and to declare that she had surrounded him with spies; the Duke of San Demetrio was imprisoned on suspicion; the Margrave of Anspach left Naples with precipitate haste; brother Masons, unable to stand during 'times that try men's souls,' denounced Cagliostro as an adventurer; a high officer of the order of Malta, though with difficulty, fled to that island; the police made mysterious arrests all over the city; rumors of amazing plots by the Masons were set afloat and the police were or pretended to be in mortal fear of revolution; all was chaos, suspicion, terror, rumor, disturbance of the peace — all the machinery of the Inquisition brooded over the city. No one was exempt.

Remember that while Cagliostro was accused only of initiating a Freemason, and was guilty of nothing more, from December 1789 to April 1791, fifteen months (before condemnation), he suffered in the cells of Sant' Angelo things which few men could suffer and live without going insane. That the torture was mostly mental at this time (the physical torture in its worst form came later) only makes it worse.

Warmth is refused him though it is winter and he is suffering. He is manacled and chained by the neck. Every effort is made to 'break his will.' The accusation that he had practised Masonry at Rome within the jurisdiction of the Holy Father and the Inquisition is a mere pretext. Every hole and corner of his life is ransacked for 'evidence'; anything, no matter what, is used to show that he is a danger to the world. His wife is made to 'confess,' is encouraged to talk about him, and every possible statement that can be used against him is carefully doctored to meet the case. The spies that have surrounded him for years are all utilized for the same purpose. He himself is worried, bullied, cajoled, questioned again and again on the same points until he says something that can be taken out of its setting and made to appear against him. He is dismissed, and before leaving is suddenly called back and asked again a question he has answered a dozen times already, in the hope that he will appear to contradict himself; every art and wile that a subtil psychology can invent is used to ruin him. And yet he maintains the power of thinking clearly, even of an occasional hard hit at his persecutors. There is a story that he was asked if he knew the seven capital sins. He had irritated the inquisitors and the question was angrily flung at him.

"Luxury, envy, greed, gluttony, and idleness. . . ."

Cagliostro stopped.

"You forget pride and anger!" he was reminded.

"Pardon me," he replied, gently. "I did not forget. I refrained from naming them out of respect, and in order not to offend you!"

This frankness was avenged in the official Life of Cagliostro in which he is shown to be a terrible person because he did not even know, when questioned, how many capital sins there are.

 There is some mystery as to the exact position of the Pope. Both Jeanne d'Arc and Jacques de Molay had claimed an appeal to the Pope, and now Cagliostro himself declares that if he is permitted to lay his case before the Pope, the latter will not only adopt Egyptian Masonry as an ecclesiastical order, but will set him free at once! He is reported by the Vatican apologist to have declared:

. . . all that I have done I have done by the command of God, with the power that he has communicated to me and to the advantage of God and the Holy Church; and I can give proofs of all that I have said and done, not only physically, but morally, showing that as I have served God for his own sake, and by the power of God, he has at last given me the antidote to confound and to combat hell, for I know no other enemies than these; and if I am wrong the Holy Father will punish me; if I am right, he will reward me; and if the Holy Father could have the report of this examination in his hands tonight, I predict to all my brethren, believers and unbelievers, that I should be free tomorrow morning.

Cagliostro had spoken.

The offense was the practice of Masonry in the dominions of the Pope. The accusation and examination wandered all over Europe, into every detail of Cagliostro's life, back into the history of Masonry, suggesting, leading, driving, using words of double meaning, bringing the 'evidence' of his wife against him, twisting his words out of their order and circumstance — it was not a trial of Cagliostro, but the trial of Masonry through Cagliostro. One instance of the methods adopted should make Masons think.

He had declared that after his experiences in a London lodge, where he had been treated, after the coarse manner of the time, as a butt for tasteless pleasantries, he had doubts as to the propriety of such Masonry. Now he declared that his Egyptian rite (founded on the original and true Eastern Masonry) was for the advantage of religion.

"You have avowed and subscribed to the confession that Masonry is contrary to religion; now you say it is for the advantage of religion. How do you reconcile these statements?" he was asked, in substance. "One of them is evidently a lie."

"I do not understand these verbal subtilties," he replied with asperity. "Surely I know what I am talking about!"

The methods of the examination were neither new nor unusual. Cagliostro attempted to answer freely, and his replies were promptly suppressed because he was wandering from the case. The Vatican reporter says that the judge had to "lead him, as it were by the hand." His wife was easier to "lead," and she said just about what she was told to say. She was not brought into the examination at all, but if Cagliostro attempted to cite her as a witness on his behalf he was met with the information —

"Yes, she has been examined on the matter, and has given evidence against you!"

If he was faced with some new accusation, some new falsehood, he learnt to recognise that she had been induced to make it, and instead of appealing to her evidence in his defense, he remarked:

"If my wife said that, she is a miserable wretch!"

Promptly the answer is entered against him. "If he were not guilty, he would not have suspected his wife of denouncing him on the point. Therefore it is one more admission on his part."

His judges condemned him to death. It was their highest card. It was promptly trumped, but only the lowest trump was used — purposely. An unknown stranger demanded an audience of the Pope and on giving his name was instantly admitted. The interview was short, and the stranger departed. The Pope decided that Cagliostro should not die there and then. This is what the Vatican apologist says:

His defense was brought forward; it showed both the talent of his defenders [indeed it did!] and the bad state of his case: finally the time came for judgment. It was preceded, as all the rest of the procedure had been, by the most rigorous forms and practices in use even in ordinary criminal tribunals; these constitute the good administration of justice and prove to the accused that they are not unjustly condemned.

It is the tool of the Inquisition that is speaking; apparently he counts upon an audience devoid of either information or intelligence. The examination was interminably drawn out so long as there was the least hope of extracting new damaging details from the accused, and if his memory was short, the torture chamber inevitably refreshed it. This "rigorous form and practice of justice" has been well described by a recent Italian author precisely as we state it.

The case was then, after these "rigorous forms of justice," brought to the "assembly general of the Holy Office" on March 21, 1791, and before the Pope himself on April 7th.

"The judgment needed no great discussion," says the Vatican agent. "Cagliostro had confessed; the most convincing proofs demonstrated that he was the restorer and propagator of Egyptian Masonry in a great part of the world, that he had even practised it at Rome, and that he had there received two candidates."

Let it not be forgotten in the maze of Inquisitorial jargon that the last fifteen words are absolutely the whole case against Cagliostro.

It was in vain that he had wished to avail himself of the sentiments of those who commute the penalty incurred by a heretic, a dogmatist, every time that he displays contrition and repentance: it was in vain that he had wished to utilize in his defense the proofs of repentance that he had given at the last: the edict of the council of state, of which we have spoken in the preceding chapter, cannot be put aside: the penalty of death which is there pronounced, is moreover fitting to a man who, both in matters of faith and in matters profane, has given himself up to every sort of rascality, and must be considered as one of the most pernicious members of society. [This emanates from the Vatican press!]

But the consultive judgment of his destiny was entrusted to persons full of gentleness, the gentleness and the indulgence which inspire religion, and which animate the consulters of the Holy Inquisition; and his definitive sentence was reserved to the great Pius VI, who, in the course of his glorious pontificate, has always known how to unite the characters of a just prince and a clement prince. He desired not the death of the malefactor and preferred to leave him time for a true repentance. Behold then the sentence which the supreme oracle pronounced upon the person of Joseph Balsamo; it entirely accords with justice, equity, prudence, religion, and public tranquillity, both for the estates of the Pope and for the rest of the world; we give it here in its entirety:

"Joseph Balsamo, attainted and convicted of several crimes, and of having incurred the censures and penalties pronounced against formal heretics, dogmatists, heresiarchs, masters and disciples of superstitious magic, had incurred the censures and penalties established, both by the Apostolic laws of Clement XII and Benedict XIV, against those who, in whatever manner, favor and form societies and conventicles of Freemasons, and also by the edict of the Council of State decreed against those who render themselves guilty of this crime at Rome or in any other place of the pontifical domination. However, as a special grace, the penalty which delivers the guilty man to the secular arm [that is to say to death], is commuted to perpetual imprisonment in a fortress, where he will be strictly guarded, without hope of pardon: and after he shall have made abjuration, as a formal heretic, in the present place of his detention, he will be absolved from censures, and there will be prescribed for him the salutary penances to which he has to submit.

"The manuscript book which is entitled Egyptian Masonry, is solemnly condemned, as containing rites, propositions, a doctrine, and a system, which open a long road to sedition; as likely to destroy the Christian religion; and as superstitious, blasphemous, impious, and heretic. This book shall be publicly burnt by the hand of the executioner, with the instruments belonging to that sect.

"By a new Apostolic law are confirmed, not only the laws of the preceding pontiffs, but also the edict of the Council of State, which forbid societies and conventicles of Freemasons, making particular mention of the Egyptian sect, and of another vulgarly called the Illuminati: and there will be established the gravest corporal penalties, especially those of the heretics, against any person whatsoever who associates with these societies or shall protect them."

(To be continued)


1. This article is a continuation of a series in The Theosophical Path. (return to text)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition