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MODERN CONMEN ARE short-fingered vulgarians compared to Giuseppe/Joseph Balsamo aka the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. This 18th-century scam artist was in no particular order, a mystic, magician, gigolo, pimp, Coptic Freemason, alchemist, and merchant of elixirs. He was also seen as a threat to European monarchies in a time of revolution, an exemplary humanitarian, and possibly the model for Goethe’s Faust—or was that Mephistopheles?
Palermo Upbringing. Giuseppe’s father had died before his birth; his mother raised Giuseppe and his elder sister in an Arabic slum of Palermo, Sicily. Giuseppe was baptized in Palermo Cathedral, his godmother Vincenza Cagliostro (a surname to remember here).
Giuseppe showed an early talent for penmanship, one that he applied to forgeries of theater tickets and of a will that cheated the church out of a legacy. He trained as a novice monk at the Padri Fatebenefratelli di San Giovanni de Dio, (Brothers Hospitaliers of St. John of God). Today, this order runs the Vatican Pharmacy.
Back then, Giuseppe’s study of apothecary led to a life-long interest in healing the sick. And also, alchemy, faux elixirs, and ancient Egyptian Masonic beliefs
However, Giuseppe wasn’t meant for monastic life. According to the Faust article on Balsamo, “They finally threw him out when he substituted the names of saints with those of prostitutes in his reading of the Martyrology.”
In 1765, Balsamo led a wealthy goldsmith on a phony hunt for buried Saracen treasure (a scam that he was to recycle years later). At the digs, Balsamo’s accomplices donned disguises as angry demons and mugged the goldsmith.
Was It Love Or? In 1768, Balsamo married 17-year-old Lorenza Seraphinia Felichiani. Before long, he was pimping her in exchange for promoting his scams. Faust writes, “As long as there was no love, he would tell Lorenza, adultery was not a sin.”
Escaping from one scam to another, the couple traveled disguised as pilgrims to Aix, in the south of France. There, they met Giacomo Casanova, who recorded the encounter in his diary. In Spain, a wealthy merchant took Serafina, as she was then known, as his mistress; Balsamo got a fee for her congeniality.
A Topaz Con? Balsamo used the cash to buy topazes, a gemstone known for curing lunacy. In 1771, they tried this scam unsuccessfully in London. Then, for a time, Balsamo was commissioned to paint a mural at an earl’s estate, but his only skill exhibited there was in seducing the earl’s daughter.
A Conversion—Not! Giuseppe and Serafina fled to Paris in 1772, where another of her inamorati tried to convert her to an honest life. There were suits and countersuits. Things went from bad to worse: For four months, Balsamo had Serafina committed to the Sainte Pélagie convent for loose women.
“In the meantime,” Faust writes, “Balsamo lived with another woman, sold his elixirs for long life and beauty, and defrauded several gentlemen of money on the strength of claiming to be able to alchemically produce gold, and extend life.”
Reunited. Love, or whatever, conquered all, and by 1774 Giuseppe and Serafina were back together, this time in Naples as the Count and Countess Pellegrini. Then Malta, France, Portugal, and Spain.
In Cadiz, Balsamo acquired an expensive walking cane set with diamonds in its handle and containing a repeating watch (one that chimes the time on demand). “Acquired” is the appropriate term, in that the jeweler claimed theft.
Remember this walking cane in Part 2 tomorrow, even if the moniker Balsamo no longer fits. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020