Alchemist, forger, quack, pimp – in the 18th century, the self-styled Count Alessandro di Cagliostro was all of these and more. He might have been forgotten were it not for his alleged involvement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1785. The event – involving the theft of an expensive diamond necklace by means of Marie Antoinette’s forged signature — cast suspicion on the unpopular queen and may have contributed to the French Revolution. Although Cagliostro was found innocent of any involvement in the crime, he nevertheless was held in the Bastille for nine months and eventually asked to leave France.
Cagliostro was most likely born Giuseppe Balsamo in Palermo, Sicily. Although his family was poor, Balsamo had a tutor and eventually became a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God. Before he was expelled, he learned chemistry as well as religious rites.
Balsamo’s first known sting occurred in 1764, when he was just 17. Using a varation of the gypsies’ hokkani boro (the “great trick”), he convinced a wealthy goldsmith that there was a long-hidden treasure buried at Mount Pellegrino. To fund the expedition, the goldsmith gave Balsamo seventy pieces of silver. When the time came to dig up the treasure, however, the two were brutally attacked and the goldsmith knocked unconscious. When he came to, Balsamo – who had hired the thugs — had disappeared with the money. It was the first of many times during Balsamo’s life that he he would leave town in order to avoid arrest.
Over the next few years, Balsamo resided in Malta and Rome, becoming a skilled pharmacist and eventually a secretary to Cardinal Orsini. But Balsamo grew bored with the job and began selling “Egyptian” amulets and fake works of art on the side. Through his criminal contacts, Balsamo met and married fourteen-year-old Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani.
Soon after the marriage, Balsamo became friends with a forger and swindler, who in exchange for allowing him to have sex with Lorenza, taught Balsamo how to forge letters, diplomas and other official documents. Balsamo would go on to become such an extraordinary forger, that the famed writer and womanizer, Giacomo Casanova, wrote in his autobiography that Balsamo/Cagliostro had been able to forge one of his letters, despite being unable to understand it.
It was at this point that Balsamo and Lorenza adopted the fake identities of the Count and Countess Cagliostro. They traveled throughout Europe practicing the “badger game,” a swindle in which a woman entices the victim into a compromising situation, during which her husband bursts in and “badgers” the victim into paying blackmail to keep it quiet.
The couple also staged magic shows and séances in which Cagliostro used sleight of hand to cause “spirit writings” to appear on slips of paper. They sold an elixir of youth by claiming that Lorenza — then in her twenties — was in her sixties, and that Cagliostro himself was centuries old and had even witnessed Christ’s crucifixion. Cagliostro claimed to possess the elusive “philosopher’s stone,” which could transmute base metals into gold, and “proved” it with fake transmutations.
In one instance, Cagliostro dropped a concealed lump of gold into a crucible before it entered a furnace. In another, he is said to have hidden some gold in a crucible containing a false bottom made of an amalgam with a low melting point. Using this method, a so-called alchemist would place copper, chemicals, and the “philosopher’s stone” into the supposedly empty crucible. When heated, the amalgam would melt, leaving behind the pre-concealed gold in the residue. A similar trick could make it seem as if glass had been converted into diamonds.
Cagliostro’s fame as an alchemist and healer grew. During one of Benjamin Franklin’s trips to Paris, Cagliostro was even recommended to him as a physician. By the mid-1780s, Cagliostro had struck up an acquaintance with Louis René Édouard, the Prince and Cardinal de Rohan.
Rohan was disliked by Marie Antoinette, but needed her approval in order to achieve the high government position he desired. Rohan sought to achieve this through a young woman calling herself the Countess de La Motte, who claimed to be close to Marie Antoinette. In actuality, the countess was Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, the wife of a con man, Nicholas de la Motte, with a dubious claim to nobility.
Rohan began what he thought was a correspondence with the queen. Letters from the queen – forged by the de la Mottes and conveniently delivered by Valois – soon convinced Rohan that Marie Antoinette had fallen in love with him.
Rohan asked the countess to arrange a meeting with the queen. Valois obliged by hiring a prostitute who looked like Marie Antoinette. Rohan began giving the countess large sums of money, believing they were for the queen’s charity work. Instead Valois used the sums to fund a lavish lifestyle and make her way into respectable society. Based on her boasts about her relationship with the queen, many believed her. But the real scam had yet to begin.
In 1785, the fake countess convinced Rohan that the best way to win Marie Antoinette’s heart was to buy her an extravagant diamond necklace that Louis XV had commissioned from the famed jewelers, Boehmer and Bassenge, for his mistress, Madame du Barry. The purchase had never been completed, and the jewelers had tried unsuccessfully for years to find a buyer for the ridiculously expensive piece, which would have cost over $100 million in today’s currency. Believing Valois had a close relationship with Marie Antoinette, they asked her to help them sell the necklace to the queen.
Valois somehow convinced the Cardinal that the way to obtain Marie Anotinette’s favor was to buy her the necklace. He agreed to purchase it in installments over the course of several years. Valois (or her husband) forged Marie Antoinette’s signature on the purchase order, and the jewelers delivered the piece to her in Rohan’s presence, whereupon she handed it to a man purporting to be the queen’s valet. The man was, in fact, Valois’ husband, who immediately absconded to England, where he dismantled the necklace and sold the gold and diamonds individually on the international black market.
When the jewelers failed to receive their payment, an official investigation ensued. Various parties were implicated in the crime, including the queen herself. The purchase order was established as a forgery and Rohan was found to be an innocent dupe. Though Marie Antoinette was found innocent of any wrongdoing, the fact that Rohan was found not guilty led many to believe that she had set him up out of her noted dislike for him.
Valois was found guilty and sentenced to be flogged naked, with rods, branded upon both shoulders with a “V” for voleuse (thief), and locked up for life in the prostitutes’ prison at the Salpêtrière. She escaped within a short time, however, dressed as a boy, and fled to London, possibly with the help of anti-royalists.
Cagliostro was arrested by virtue of having previously suckered Rohan into giving him large sums of money. Due to a complete lack of evidence that he’d had anything to do with the affair, however, he was acquitted without reprimand.
Cagliostro’s luck ran out in 1789 when, on a visit to Rome, he met two people who turned out to be spies for the Inquisition. He was arrested on the charge of being a Freemason and sentenced to death. The Pope commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in the Castel Sant’ Angelo, but after Cagliostro attempted to escape, he was moved to the virtually impregnable Fortress of San Leo near San Marino, where he soon died.
Cagliostro’s legend, however, lives on. Visitors to San Leo (or YouTube) can see the cell where Cagliostro was imprisoned. Or they can watch Christopher Walken as Cagliostro in a scene from 2001’s The Affair of the Necklace. Because who better than Walken to play a charismatic, possibly centuries-old alchemist, swindler, pimp, hustler and all-around creep?