Count Allesandro Cagliostro was widely known as the man who held the secret of the philosopher's stone, the alchemist who turned lowly metals into gold and in Strasburg produced alchemically a diamond which he presented to Cardinal Louis de Rohan. Cagliostro was said to have invented the "water of beauty," a virtual fountain of youth, and when the best doctors in Europe admitted their defeat in difficult cases, they summoned the count and his curative powers. Although most students of sorcery and magic regard Cagliostro as a charlatan, certain scholars of the occult still regard him as one of the greatest magi of all time.
By the time he was 14, Cagliostro (Peter Basalmo) was an assistant to an apothecary in Palermo, Italy, and had become an expert in the principles of chemistry and medicine. Driven to obtain less conventional knowledge, the teenager fell in with a group of vagabonds who were continually in trouble with the police. When he was 17, he had gained a reputation as one who could evoke the spirits of the dead, but he used this knowledge to fleece a wealthy citizen of Palermo and he fled to Messina, where he assumed the title and the identity of Count Cagliostro.
It was in Messina that the young man met the mysterious Althotas, a man of Asian appearance, dressed in caftan and robes, who upon their first encounter proceeded to reveal the events of Cagliostro's past. As they became better acquainted, Althotas said that he didn't believe in ordinary magic, but maintained that the physical laws were mutable and could be manipulated by the powers of mind. The two traveled together to Egypt where they visited the priests of many esoteric traditions and received much secret knowledge. From Egypt they went to Asia and began to pursue alchemical experiments.
When Althotas died on the island of Malta, Cagliostro returned to Italy with a considerable fortune accumulated from his work with various alchemical teachers. In 1770, when he was 26 years old, he met Lorenza Feliciani while in Rome, and he asked her to marry him. Lorenza's father was impressed by Cagliostro's apparent wealth and readily consented to the wedding. While some biographers believe his riches came from his successful alchemical experiments, others accuse the count of duping wealthy aristocrats out of their inheritances and of running disreputable gambling houses. His marriage to Lorenza is also clouded with charges of chicanery and deceit. Although most accounts depict her as an honest and good woman, she traveled throughout Europe and Great Britain with Cagliostro and appears to have been involved in his various schemes. By far the most important of Cagliostro's creations was the Egyptian Masonic rite, whose lodges admitted both sexes and whose main temple was presided over by the Grand Mistress Lorenza and the Grand Copt Cagliostro.
In the lodges ruled by the Grand Mistress and the Grand Copt, women were so emancipated that they were encouraged to remove all of their clothing to be initiated into the mysteries of nature. Those women who received the magnetic powers bestowed upon them by the Grand Copt were promised the ability to make full use of their own occult force. In the Egyptian Masonic lodge, physical happiness was equivalent to spiritual peace.
Wealthy members of European royalty sought his magical elixir of regeneration, and Count Cagliostro is said to have cured thousands of people with his lotions and potions during his reign in Europe as a master conjurer. Today, researchers can only guess if these illnesses were linked to hysteria or psychosomatic delusions.
Although the church had chosen to ignore accusations of deception and charlatanism directed against Cagliostro, it could not overlook the formation of another Masonic lodge. And when the Grand Copt sought to establish a lodge within the boundaries of the papal states, he was arrested on September 27, 1789, by order of the Holy Inquisition and imprisoned in the Castle of Saint Angelo. Inquisitors examined Cagliostro for 18 months, and he was condemned to death on April 7, 1791. However, his sentence was commuted to perpetual imprisonment in the Castle of Saint Angelo. Unable to accept such a fate, Cagliostro attempted to escape. He was placed in solitary confinement in a cistern in the Castle of San Leo near Montefeltro where he suffered with little food, air, or movement. Sometime in 1795, the governor took pity on the prisoner and had him removed to a cell on ground level. It was here, around March 6, the unhappy magi died. Although the records are incomplete, it is thought that his wife, Lorenza, who had been sentenced to the Convent of St. Appolonia, a penitentiary for women in Rome, died in 1794.