Famous Imposters, by Bram Stoker

2. Practitioners of Magic

Paracelsus

I FEEL that I ought to begin this record with an apology to the manes of a great and fearless scholar, as earnest as he was honest, as open-minded as he was great-hearted. I do so because I wish to do what an unimportant man can after the lapse of centuries, to help a younger generation to understand what such a man as I write of can do and did under circumstances not possible in times of greater enlightenment. The lesson which the story can tell to thinking youth cannot be told in vain. The greatest asset which worth has in this world is the irony of time. Contemporaneous opinion, though often correct, is generally on the meagre side of appreciation — practically always so with regard to anything new. Such must in any case be encountered in matters of the sixteenth century which being on the further side of an age of discovery and reform had hardened almost to the stage of ossification the beliefs and methods of the outgoing order of things. Prejudice — especially when it is based on science and religion — dies hard: the very spirit whence originates a stage of progress or reform, makes its inherited follower tenacious of its traditions how- ever short they may be. This is why any who, in this later and more open minded age, may investigate the intellectual discoveries of the past, owe a special debt in the way of justice to the memories of those to whom such fresh light is due. The name and story of the individual known as Paracelsus — scholar, scientist, open minded thinker and teacher, earnest investigator and searcher for elemental truths — is a case in point. Anyone who contents himself with accepting the judgment of four centuries passed upon the great Swiss thinker, who had rendered famous in history his place of birth, his canton and his nation, would inevitably come to the conclusion that he was merely a charlatan a little more clever than others of his kind; an acceptor of all manner of eccentric beliefs (including the efficacy of spirits and demons in pathological cases), a drunkard, a wastrel, an evil liver, a practiser of necromancy, an astrologer, a magician, an atheist, an alchemist — indeed an “ist” of all defamatory kinds within the terminology of the sixteenth century and of all disputatious church-men and scientists who have not agreed with his theories and conclusions ever since.

Let us begin with the facts of his life. His name was Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, and he was the son of a doctor living in Einsiedeln in the canton of Schwyz, named Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, natural son of a Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. He was born in 1490.

It was not uncommon for a man of that age who was striving to make a name for himself, to assume some nom de plume or de guerre; and with such a family record as his own, it was no wonder that on the threshold of his life the young Theophrastus did so. In the light of his later achievements, we can well imagine that he had some definite purpose in mind, or at least some guiding principle of suggestiveness, in choosing such a compound word from the Greek as Paracelsus (which is derived from “para,” meaning before, in the sense of superior to, and Celsus, the name of an Epicurean philosopher of the second century.) Celsus appears to have had views of great enlightenment according to the thought of his own time. Unhappily only fragments of his work remain, but as he was a follower of Epicurus after an interval of between four and five centuries, it is possible to get some idea of his main propositions. Like Epicurus he stood for nature. He did not believe in fatalism, but he did in a supreme power. He was a Platonist and held that there was no truth which was against nature. It is easy to see from his life and work that Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim shared his views. His intellectual attitude was that of a true scientist — denying nothing prima facie but investigating all.

“There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

His father moved in 1502 to Villach in Carinthia, where he practised medicine till his death in 1534. Theophrastus was a precocious boy; after youthful study with his father, he entered the University of Basel when he was about sixteen, after which he prosecuted chemical researches under the learned Trithemius Bishop of Sponheim who had written on the subject of the Great elixir — the common subject of the scientists of that day, — and at Wurzburg. From thence he proceeded to the great mines in the Tyrol, then belonging to the Fugger family. Here he studied geology and its kindred branches of learning — especially those dealing with effects and so far as possible with causes — metallurgy, mineral waters, and the diseases of and accidents to mines and miners. The theory of knowledge which he deduced from these studies was that we must learn nature from nature.

In 1527, he returned to Basel, where he was appointed town physician. It was a characteristic of his independence and of his mind, method and design, that he lectured in the language of the place, German, foregoing the Latin tongue, usual up to that time for such teaching. He did not shrink from a bold criticism of the medical ideas and methods then current. The effect of this independence and teaching was that for a couple of years his reputation and his practice increased wonderfully. But the time thus passed allowed his enemies not only to see the danger for them that lay ahead, but to take such action as they could to obviate it. Reactionary forces are generally — if not always — self — protective, without regard to the right or wrong of the matter, and Paracelsus began to find that the self-interest and ignorance of the many were too strong for him, and that their unscrupulous attacks began to injure his work seriously. He was called conjurer, necromancer, and many such terms of obloquy. Then what we may call his “professional” enemies felt themselves strong enough to join in the attack. As he had kept a careful eye on the purity of medicines in use, the apothecaries, who, in those days worked in a smaller field than now, and who found their commerce more productive through guile than excellence, became almost declared opponents. Eventually he had to leave Basel. He went to Esslingen, from which however he had to retire at no distant period from sheer want.

Then began a period of wandering which really lasted for the last dozen years of his life. This time was mainly one of learning in many ways of many things. The ground he covered must have been immense, for he visited Colmar, Nurnberg, Appengall, Zurich, Augsburg, Middelheim, and travelled in Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Tartary, Italy, the Low Countries and Denmark. In Germany and Hungary he had a bad time, being driven to supply even the bare necessaries of life by odd — any — means, even to availing himself of the credulity of others — casting nativities, telling fortunes, prescribing remedies for animals of the farm such as cows and pigs, and recovering stolen property; such a life indeed as was the lot of a mediaeval “tramp.” On the other hand, as a contra he did worthy work as a military surgeon in Italy, the Low Countries and Denmark. When he got tired of his wandering life, he settled down in Salsburg, in 1541, under the care and protection of the Archbishop Ernst. But he did not long survive the prospect of rest; he died later in the same year. The cause of his death is not known with any certainty, but we can guess that he had clamorous enemies as well as strong upholding from the conflicting causes given. Some said that he died from the effects of a protracted debauch, others that he was murdered by physicians and apothecaries, or their agents, who had thrown him over a cliff. In proof of this story it was said that the surgeons had found a flaw or fracture in his skull which must have been produced during life.

He was buried in the churchyard of Saint Sebastian; but two centuries later, 1752, his bones were moved to the porch of the church, and a monument erected over them.

His first book was printed in Augsburg in 1526. His real monument was the collection of his complete writings so far as was possible, the long work of Johann Huser made in 1589–91. This great work was published in German, from printed copy supplemented by such manuscript as could be discovered. Then and ever since there has been a perpetual rain of statements against him and his beliefs. Most of them are too silly for words; but it is a little disconcerting to find one writer of some distinction repeating so late as 1856 all the malignant twaddle of three centuries, saying amongst other things that he believed in the transmutation of metals and the possibility of an elixir vital, that he boasted of having spirits at his command, one of which he kept imprisoned in the hilt of his sword and another in a jewel; that he could make any one live forever; that he was proud to be called a magician; and had boasted of having a regular correspondence with Galen in Hell. We read in sensational journals and magazines of today about certain living persons having — or saying that they have — communion in the shape of “interviews” with the dead; but this is too busy an age for unnecessary contradictions and so such assertions are allowed to pass. The same indifference may now and again have been exhibited in the case of men like Paracelsus.

Some things said of him may be accepted as being partially time, for his was an age of mysticism, occultism, astrology, and all manner of strange and weird beliefs. For instance it is alleged that he held that life is an emanation from the stars; that the sun governed the heart, the moon the brain, Jupiter the liver, Saturn the gall, Mercury the lungs, Mars the bile, Venus the loins; that in each stomach is a demon, that the belly is the grand laboratory where all the ingredients are apportioned and mixed; and that gold could cure ossification of the heart.

Is it any wonder that when in this age after centuries of progress such absurd things are current Paracelsus is shewn in contemporary and later portraits with a jewel in his hand transcribed Azoth — the name given to his familiar daemon.

Those who repeat ad nauseam the absurd stories of his alchemy generally omit to mention his genuine discoveries and to tell of the wide scope of his teaching. That he used mercury and opium for healing purposes at a time when they were condemned; that he did all he could to stop the practice of administering the vile electuaries of the mediaeval pharmacopoeia; that he was one of the first to use laudanum; that he perpetually held — to his own detriment — that medical science should not be secret; that he blamed strongly the fashion of his time of accounting for natural phenomena by the intervention of spirits or occult forces; that he deprecated astrology; that he insisted on the proper investigation of the properties of drugs and that they should be used more simply and in smaller doses. To these benefits and reforms his enemies answered that he had made a pact with the devil. For reward of his labours, his genius, his fearless struggle for human good he had — with the exception of a few spells of prosperity — only penury, want, malicious ill-fame and ceaseless attacks by the professors of religion and science. He was an original investigator of open mind, of great ability and application, and absolutely fearless. He was centuries ahead of his time. We can all feel grateful to that French writer who said:

“Tels sont les services eminents que Paracelse a rendu a l’humanite souffrante, pour laquelle il montra toujours le devouement le plus desinteresse; s’il en fut mal recompense pendant sa vie que sa memoire au moins soit honoree.”

Cagliostro

THE individual known to history as Comte Cagliostro, or more familiarly as Cagliostro, was of the family name of Balsamo and was received into the Church under the saintly name of Joseph. The familiarity of history is an appanage of greatness in some form. Greatness is in no sense a quality of worth or morality. It simply points to publicity, and if unsuccessful, to infamy. Joseph Balsamo was of poor parentage in the town of Palermo, Sicily, and was born in 1743. In his youth he did not exhibit any talent whatever, such volcanic forces as he had being entirely used in wickedness — base, purposeless, sordid wickedness, from which devolved no benefit to any one — even to the the criminal instigator. In order to achieve greatness, or publicity, in any form, some remarkable quality is necessary; Joseph Balsamo’s claim was based not on isolated qualities but on a union of many. In fact he appears to have had every necessary ingredient for this kind of success — except one, courage. In his case however, the lacking ingredient in the preparation of his hell-broth was supplied by luck; though such luck had to be paid for at the devil’s usual price — failure at the last. His biographers put his leading characteristics in rather a negative than a positive way — “indolent and unruly”; but as time went on the evil became more marked — even ferae naturae, poisonous growths, and miasmatic conditions have to manifest themselves or to cease to prevail. In the interval between young boyhood and coming manhood, Balsamo’s nature — such as it was — began to develop, unscrupulousness working on an imaginative basis being always a leading characteristic. The unruly boy shewed powers of becoming an unruly man, fear being the only restraining force; and indolence giving way to wickedness. When he was about fifteen he was sent to a monastery to learn chemistry and pharmacy. The boy who had manifested a tendency to “grow downwards” found the beginning of a kind of success in these studies in which, to the surprise of all, he exhibited a form of aptitude. Chemistry has certain charms to a mind like his, for in its working are many strange surprises and lurid effects not unattended with entrancing fears. These he used before long to his own pleasure in the concern of others. When he was expelled from the religious house he led a dissolute and criminal life in Palermo. Amongst other wickednesses he robbed his uncle and forged his will. Here too, he committed a crime, not devoid of a certain humorous aspect, but which had a reflex action on Ms own life. Under promise of revealing a hidden treasure, he persuaded a goldworker, one Morano, to give him custody of a quantity of his wares. It was what, in criminal slang is called “a put-up job,” and was worked by a gang of young thieves with Balsamo at their head. Having filled the soft head of the foolish goldsmith with ideas to suit his purpose, Joseph brought him on a treasure hunt into a cave where he was shortly surrounded by the gang dressed as fiends, who, in the victim’s paralysis of fear, robbed him at their ease of some sixty ounces of gold. Morano, as might have been expected, was not satisfied with the proceedings and vowed vengeance which he tried to effect later. Balsamo’s pusillanimity worked hand in hand with Morano’s vindictiveness, to the effect that the culprit incontinently absconded from his native town. He conferred the benefit of his presence on Messina where he was naturally attracted to a noted alchemist called Althotas, to whom he became a sort of disciple. Althotas was a man of great learning, according to the measure of that time and his own occupation. He was skilled in Eastern tongues and an adept occultist. It was said that he had actually visited Mecca and Medina in the disguise of an Oriental prince. Having attached himself to Althotas, Cagliostro went with him to Malta where he persuaded the Grand Master of the Knights to supply them with a laboratory for the manufacture of gold, and also with letters of introduction which he afterwards used with much benefit to himself.

From Malta he went to Rome where he employed himself in forging engravings. Like other criminals, great and small, Comte Alessandro Cagliostro — as he had now become by his own creation of nobility — had a faculty of working hard and intelligently so long as the end he aimed at was to be accomplished by crooked means. Work in the ordinary ways of honesty he loathed and shunned; but work as a help to his nefarious schemes seemed to be a jojr to him. Then he set himself up as a wonder-worker, improving as he went on all the customs and tricks of that calling. He sold an elixir which he said had all the potency usually attributed to such compounds but with an added efficacy all its own. He pretended to be able to transmute metals and to make himself invisible; indeed to perform all the wonders of the alchemist, the “cheap jack,” and the charlatan. At Rome he became acquainted with and married a very beautiful woman, Lorenza de Feliciani, daughter of a lace-maker, round whom later biographers weave romances. According to contemporary accounts she seems to have been dowered with just such qualities as were useful in such a life as she had entered on. In addition to great and unusual beauty she was graceful, passionate, seductive, clever, plausible, soothing, and attractive in all ways dear and convincing to men. She must have had some winning charm which has lasted beyond her time, for a hundred years afterwards we find so level-headed a writer as Dr. Charles Mackay crediting her, quite unwarrantably with, amongst other good qualities, being a faithful wife. Her life certainly after her marriage was such that faithfulness in any form was one of the last things to expect in her. Her husband was nothing less than a swindler of a protean kind. He had had a great number of aliases before he finally fixed on Comte de Cagliostro as a nomine de guerre. He called himself successively Chevalier de Fischio, Marquis de Melina (or Melissa), Marquis de Pellegrini, Comte de Saint–German, Baron de Belmonte; together with such names as Fenix, Anna, Harat. He wrote a work somewhat of the nature of a novel called Le Grand Cophte — which he found useful later when he was pushing his scheme of a sort of new Freemasonry. After his marriage he visited several countries, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Poland, Russia, Greece, Germany; as well as such towns as Naples, Palermo, Rhodes, Strasbourg, Paris, London, Lisbon, Vienna, Venice, Madrid, Brussels — in fact any place where many fools were crowded into a small space. In many of these he found use for the introductory letters of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, as well as those of other dupes from whom it was his habit to secure such letters before the inevitable crash came. Wherever he travelled he was accustomed to learn all he could of the manners, customs and facts of each place he was in, thus accumulating a vast stock of a certain form of knowledge which he found most useful in his chosen occupation — deceit. With regard to the last he utilised every form of human credulity which came under his notice. The latter half of the eighteenth century was the very chosen time of strange beliefs. Occultism became a fashion, especially amongst the richer classes, with the result that every form of swindle came to the fore. At this time Cagliostro, then nearing his fortieth year, began to have a widespread reputation for marvellous cures. As mysticism in all sorts of forms had a vogue, he used all the tricks of the cult, gathering them from various countries, especially France and Germany, where the fashion was pronounced. For this trickery he used all his knowledge of the East and all the picturesque aids to credulity which he had picked up during his years of wandering; and for his “patter,” such medical terminology as he had learned — he either became a doctor or invented a title for himself. This he interlarded with scraps of various forms of fraudulent occultism and all sorts of suggestive images of eastern quasi-religious profligacy. He took much of the imagery which he used in his rituals of fraud from records of ancient Egypt. This was a pretty safe ground for his purpose, for in his time the Egypt of the past was a sealed book. It was only in 1799 that the Rosetta stone was discovered, and more than ten years from then before Dr. Young was able to translate its three inscriptions — Hieroglyphic Demotic and Greek — whence Hieroglyphic knowledge had its source. Omne ignotum pro magnifico might well serve as a motto for all occultism, true or false. Cagliostro, whose business it was to deceive and mislead, understood this and took care that in his cabalistic forms Egyptian signs were largely mixed with the pentagon, the signs of the Zodiac, and other mysterious symbols in common use. His object was primarily to catch the eye and so arrest the intelligence of any whom he wished to impress. For this purpose he went about gorgeously dressed and with impressive appointments. In Germany for instance he always drove in a carriage with four horses with courier and equerries in striking liveries. Happily there is extant a pen picture of him by Comte de Beugnot who met him in Paris at the house of the Comtesse de la Motte:

“of medium height and fairly fat, of olive colour, with short neck and round face, big protruberant eyes, a snub nose with open nostrils.”

This gives of him anything but an attractive picture; but yet M. de Beugnot says: “he made an impression on women whenever he came into a room.” Perhaps his clothing helped, for it was not of a commonplace kind. De Beugnot who was manifestly a careful and intelligent observer again comes to our aid with his pen:

“He wore a coiffure new in France; his hair parted in several little cadenottes (queues or tresses) uniting at the back of the head in the form known as a ‘catogan’ (hair clubbed or bunched). A dress, French fashion, of iron grey, laced with gold, scarlet waistcoat broidered with bold point de spain, red breeches, a basket-hilted sword and a hat with white plumes I”

Aided by these adjuncts he was a great success in Paris whither he returned in 1785. As an impostor he knew his business and played “the game” well. When he was at work he brought to bear the influence of all his “properties,” amongst them a tablecloth embroidered with cabalistic signs in scarlet and the symbols of the Rosy Cross of high degree; the same mysterious emblems marked the globe without which no wizard’s atelier is complete.

Here too were various little Egyptian figures — “ushabtui” he would doubtless have called them had the word been in use in his day. From these he kept his dupes at a distance, guarding carefully against any discovery. He evidently did not fear to hurt the religious susceptibilities of any of his votaries, for not only were the crucifix and other emblems of the kind placed amongst the curios of his ritual, but he made his invocation in the form of a religious ceremony, going down on his knees and in all ways cultivating the emotions of those round him. He was aided by a young woman whom he described as pure as an angel and of great sensibility. The said young person kept her blue eyes fixed on a globe full of water. Then he proceeded to expound the Great Secret which he told his hearers had been the same since the beginning of things and whose mystery had been guarded by Templars of the Rosy Cross, by Magicians, by Egyptians and the like. He had claimed, as the Comte Saint–German said, that he had already existed for many centuries; that he was a contemporary of Christ; and that he had predicted His crucifixion by the Jews. As statements of this kind were made mainly for the purpose of selling the elixir which he peddled, it may easily be imagined that he did not shrink from lying or blasphemy when such seemed to suit his purpose. Daring and recklessness in his statements seemed to further his business success, so prophecy — or rather boastings of prophecy after the event — became part of the great fraud. Amongst other things he said that he had predicted the taking of the Bastille. Such things shed a little light on the methods of such impostors, and help to lay bare the roots or principles through which they flourish.

After his Parisian success he made a prolonged tour in France. In la Vendee he boasted of some fresh miracle — of his own doing — on each day; and at Lyons the boasting was repeated. Of course he occasionally had bad times, for now and again even the demons on whose acquaintance and help he prided himself did not work. In London after 1772, things had become so bad with him that he had to work as a house painter under his own name. Whatever may have been his skill in his art this was probably about the only honest work he ever did. He did not stick to it for long however, for four years afterwards he lost three thousand pounds by frauds of others by whom he was introduced to fictitious lords and ladies. Here too he underwent a term of imprisonment for debt.

Naturally such an impostor found in Freemasonry, which is a secret cult, a way of furthering his ends. With the aid of his wife, who all through their life together seems to have worked with him, he founded a new branch of freemasonry in which a good many rules of that wonderful organisation were set at defiance. As the purpose of the new cult was to defraud, its net was enlarged by taking women into the body. The name used for it was the Grand Egyptian Lodge — he being himself the head of it under the title of the Cophte and his wife the Grand Priestess. In the ritual were some appalling ceremonies, and as these made eventually for profitable publicity, the scheme was a great success — and the elixir sold well. This elixir was the backbone of his revenue; and indeed it would have been well worthy of success if it had been all that he claimed for it. Dispensers of elixirs are not usually backward in proclaiming the virtues of their wares; but in his various settings forth Cagliostro went further than others. He claimed not only to restore youth and health and to make them perpetual, but to restore lost innocence and effect a whole moral regeneration. No wonder that he achieved success and that money rolled in! And no wonder that women, especially of the upper classes, followed him like a flock of sheep! No wonder that a class rich, idle, pleasure-loving”, and fond of tasting and testing new sensations, found thrilling moments in the great impostor’s melange of mystery, religion, fear, and hope; of spirit-rapping and a sort of “black mass” in which Christianity and Paganism mingled freely, and where life and death, good and evil, whirled together in a maddening dance.

It was not, however, through his alleged sorcery that Cagliostro crept into a place in history; but by the association of his name with a sordid crime which involved the names of some of the great ones of the earth. The story of the Queen’s Necklace, though he was acquitted at the trial which concluded it, will be remembered when the vapourings of the unscrupulous quack who had escaped a thousand penalties justly earned, have been long forgotten. Such is the irony of history! The story of the necklace involved Marie Antoinette, Cardinal Prince de Rohan, Comte de la Motte — an officer of the private guard of “Monsieur” (the Comte d’Artois), his wife Jeanne de Valois, descended from Henry II through Saint–Remy, his natural son and Nicole de Savigny. Louis XV had ordered from MM. Boemer et Bassange, jewellers to the Court of France, a beautiful necklace of extraordinary value for his mistress Madame du Barry, but died before it was completed. The du Barry was exiled by his successor, so the necklace remained on the hands of its makers. It was, however, of so great intrinsic value that they could not easily find a purchaser. They offered it to Marie Antoinette for one million eight hundred thousand livres; but the price was too high even for a queen, and the necklace remained on hand. So Boemer showed it to Madame de la Motte and offered to give a commission on the sale to whoever should find a buyer. She induced her husband, Comte de la Motte, to join with her in a plot to accomplish the sale. De la Motte was a friend of Cagliostro, and he too was brought in as he had influence with the Cardinal Prince de Rohan whom they looked on as a likely person to be of service. He had his own ambitions to acquire influence over the queen and use her for political purposes as Mazarin had used Anne of Austria. De Rohan was then a man of fifty — not considered much of an age in these days, but the Cardinal’s life had not made for comparative longevity. He was in fact something of that class of fool which has no peer in folly — an old fool; and Jeanne de la Motte fooled him to the top of his bent. She pretended to him that Marie Antoinette was especially friendly to her, and shewed him letters from the queen to herself all of which had been forged for the purpose. As at this time Madame de la Motte had borrowed or otherwise obtained from the Cardinal a hundred and twenty thousand livres, she felt assured he could be used for the contemplated fraud. She probably had not ever even spoken to the queen but she was not scrupulous in such a small matter as one more untruth. She finally persuaded him that Marie Antoinette wished to purchase the necklace through his agency, he acting for her and buying it in her name. To aid in the scheme she got her pet forger, Retaux de Vilette, to prepare a receipt signed “Marie Antoinette de France.” The Cardinal fell into the trap and obtained the jewel, giving to Boemer four bills due successively at intervals of six months. At Versailles de Rohan gave the casket containing the necklace to Madame de la Motte, who in his presence handed it to a valet of the royal household for conveyance to the queen. The valet was none other than the forger Retaux de Vilette. Madame de la Motte sent to the Cardinal a letter by the same forger asking him to meet her (the queen) in the shrubbery at Versailles between eleven o’clock and midnight. To complete the deception a girl was procured, one Olivia, who in figure resembled the queen sufficiently to pass for her in the dusk. The meeting between de Rohan and the alleged queen was held at the Baths of Apollo — to the deception and temporary satisfaction of the ambitious churchman. When the first instalment for the purchase of the necklace was due, Boemer tried to find out if the queen really had possession of the necklace — which had in the meanwhile been brought to London, it was said, by Comte de la Motte. As Boemer could not manage to get an audience with the queen he came to the conclusion that he had been robbed, and made the matter public. This was reported to M. de Breteuil, Master of the King’s household, and an enemy of de Rohan. De Breteuil saw the queen secretly and they agreed to act in concert in the matter. Louis XVI asked for details of the purchase from Boemer, who told the truth so far as he knew it, producing as a proof the alleged receipt of the queen. Louis pointed out to him that he should have known that the queen did not sign after the manner of the document. He then asked de Rohan, who was Grand Almoner of France, for his written justification. This being supplied, he had him arrested and sent to the Bastille. Madame de la Motte accused Cagliostro of the crime, alleging that he had persuaded de Rohan to buy the necklace. She was also arrested as were Retaux de Vilette, and, later on at Brussels, Olivia, who threw some light on the fraud. The King brought the whole matter before Parliament, which ordered a prosecution. As the result of the trial which followed, Comte de la Motte and Retaux de Vilette were banished for life; Jeanne de la Motte was condemned to make amende honourable, to be whipped and branded with V on both shoulders, and to be imprisoned for life. Olivia and Cagliostro were acquitted. The Cardinal was cleared of all charges. Nothing seems to have been done for the poor jewellers, who, after all, had received more substantial injury than any of the others, having lost nearly two million livres.

After the affair of the Necklace, Cagliostro spent a time in the Bastille and when free, after some months, he and his wife travelled again in Europe. In 1789 he was arrested at Rome by order of the Inquisition and condemned to death as a Freemason. The punishment was later commuted to perpetual imprisonment. He ended his days in the Chateau de Saint–Leon near Rome. His wife was condemned to perpetual seclusion and died in the Convent of Sainte–Appolive.

Mesmer

ALTHOUGH Frederic–Antoine Mesmer made an astonishing discovery which, having been tested and employed in therapeutics for a century, is accepted as a contribution to science, he is included in the list of impostors because, however sound his theory was, he used it in the manner or surrounded with the atmosphere of imposture. Indeed the implement which he used in his practice, and which made him famous in fashionable and idle society, was set forth as having magic properties. He belonged to the same period as Cagliostro, having been born but nine years before him, in 1734, in Itzmang, Suabia; but the impostor pure and simple easily picked up the difference by beginning his life-work earlier and following it quicker with regard to results. Mesmer was not in any sense a precocious person. He was thirty-two years of age when he took his degree of Doctor of Medicine at Vienna in 1765. However he had already chosen his subject, animal magnetism as allied with medical therapeutics. His early script under the title De planetarum influoci is looked on as a legal reminiscence of judicial astronomy. He left Vienna because, he said, of a cabal against him, and travelled in Europe, particularly in Switzerland, before he went to Paris to seek his fortune. This was in 1778, when he was some forty-four years of age; his reputation, which had been growing all the time, preceded him. He was then a man of fine appearance, tall and important-looking and conveying a sense of calm power. He produced much sensation and was at once credited — not without his own will or intention — with magic power. He posed as a benefactor of humanity; a position which was at once conceded to him, partly owing to the fact that an extraordinary atmosphere of calm seemed to surround him, which with his natural air of assurance founded on self-belief, was able to convey to his patients a sense of hope which was of course very helpful in cases of nervous failure and depression. He settled in the Hotel Bouret near the Place Vendome and so in the heart of Paris; and at once undertook the treatment of patients hitherto deemed incurable. Fashion took up the new medical “craze” or “sensation,” and he at once became the vogue. It was at this time of his life that Mesmer came to the parting of the ways between earnest science and charlatanism. So far as we know he still remained earnest in his scientific belief — as indeed he was till the end of his days. Inasmuch as fashion requires some concrete expression of its fancies, Mesmer soon used the picturesque side of his brain for the service of fashionable success. So he invented an appliance which soon became the talk of the town. This was the famous baquet magique or magic tub, a sort of covered bath, round which his patients were arranged in tiers. To the bath were attached a number of tubes, each of which was held by a patient, who could touch with the end of it any part of his or her body at will. After a while the patients began to get excited, and many of them went into convulsions. Amongst them walked Mesmer, clad in an imposing dress suggestive of mystery and carrying a long wand of alleged magic power; often calming those who had already reached the stage of being actually convulsed. His usual method of producing something of the same effect at private seances, was by holding the hand of the patient, touching the forehead and making “passes” with the open hand with fingers spread out, and by crossing and uncrossing his arms with great rapidity.

A well-attended seance must have been a curious and not altogether pleasant experience even to a wholesome spectator in full possession of his natural faculties. The whole surroundings of the place together with the previously cultured belief; the dusk and mystery; the “nrysterious sympathy of numbers” — as Dean Farrar called it; the spasmodic snapping of the cords of tensity which took away all traces of reserve or reticence from the men and women present; the vague terror of the unknown, that mysterious apprehension which is so potent with the nerves of weak or imaginative people; and, it may be, the slipping of the dogs of conscience — all these combined to wreck the moral and mental stability of those present, most of whom it must be remembered were actually ill, or imagined themselves to be so, which came practically to the same thing. The psychical emotion was all very well in the world of pleasure; but these creatures became physically sick through nervous strain. As described by the historian, they expectorated freely a viscous fluid, and their sickness passed into convulsions more or less violent; the women naturally succumbing more readily and more quickly than the men. This absolute collapse — half epileptic, half hysterical — lasted varying periods according to the influence exercised by the presence of the calm, self-reliant operator. We of a later age, when electric force has been satisfactorily harnessed and when magnetism as a separate power is better understood, may find it hard to understand that the most advanced and daring scientists of the time — to whom Frederic–Antoine Mesmer was at least allied — were satisfied that magnetism and electricity were variants of the same mysterious force or power. It was on this theory that he seems to have worked his main idea to practical effect. The base of his system was animal magnetism, which could be super-induced or aided by mechanical appliances. He did not deceive himself into believing that he had invented the idea but was quite willing to make the utmost use he could of the discoveries and inventions of others. So far as we can gather his intentions from his acts, the main object in his scientific work was to simplify the processes of turning emotion into effect. Magnetism had already been largely studied, and means were being constantly sought for increasing its efficacy. Father Hehl had brought to a point of accepted perfection the manufacture of metal plates used in magnetic development, and these Mesmer used, with the result that a violent controversy took place between them. So far as we can follow after the lapse of time, Mesmer was consistent in his theories and their application. He held that the principle was one of planetary influence on the nervous system, and its manifestation was by a process of alternate intension and remission. It is possible that Mesmer — who held that the heavenly bodies floated in a limitless magnetic fluid and that he could make all substances, even such things as bread or dogs magnetic — had in his mind the wisdom of following the same theory in matters of lesser significance, though of more individual import, than those of astronomy and its correlated sciences. If so he was wise in his generation, for later electricians have found that the system of alternating currents especially at high tension, is of vast practical importance. That he was practical in his use of the ideas of others is shown by the fact that he preferred the metallic plates of Father Hehl to his own passes, even though the report of the Royal Commission ruined him — at any rate checked his success, by stating that similar effects to those attending his passes could be produced by other means, and that such passes had no effect unless through the patient’s knowledge; in fact that it was all the work of imagination. Mesmer had been asked to appear before the Commission of the Faculty of Medicine appointed in 1784 to investigate and report, but he kept away. It would not have injured any man to have appeared before such a commission if his cause had been a good one. There were two such commissions. The first was of the leading physicians of Paris, and included such men as Benjamin Franklin, Lavoisier, the great chemist, and ‘Bailly, the historian of astronomy.

It was distinctly to his disadvantage that Mesmer always kept at a distance the whole corps of savants such as the Faculty of Medicine and the Academy of Sciences — for they would no doubt have accepted his views, visionary though they were, if he could have shown any scientific base for them. True medical science has always been suspicious of, and cautious regarding, empiricism. More than once he stood in his own light in this matter — whether through obstinacy or doubt of his own theory does not matter. For instance, in Vienna, when his very existence as a scientist was at stake in the matter of the effects of his treatment of Mademoiselle Paradis, he introduced a humiliating clause in his challenge to the Faculty which caused them to refuse to accept it. Mademoiselle Paradis was blind and subject to convulsions. After treating her by his own method Mesmer said she was cured. An oculist said, after testing, that she was as blind as ever, and her family said that she was still subject to convulsions. But Mesmer persisted that she was cured, that there was a conspiracy against him, and that Mademoiselle Paradis had feigned. He challenged the Faculty of Medicine on the subject of his discovery. Twenty — four patients were to be selected by the Faculty; of these twelve were to be treated by Mesmerism and the other half by the means ordinarily in use. The condition he imposed was that the witnesses were not to be of the Faculty.

Again, when in answer to a request on his part that the French Government for the good of the community should subsidise him, a proposal was made to him, he did not receive it favourably. The request he made to Marie Antoinette was that he should have an estate and chateau and a handsome income, so that he might go on experimenting; he put the broad figures at four hundred or five hundred thousand francs. The Government suggestion was that he should have a pension of twenty thousand francs and the Cross of Saint Michael (Knighthood) if he would communicate for public use, to a board of physicians nominated by the King, such discoveries as he might make. After his refusal of the Government proposition Mesmer went to Spa, taking with him a number of his patients, and there opened a magnetic establishment where he renewed his Paris success. He asked Parliament to hold an impartial examination into the theory and working of Animal Magnetism. Foiled in his scheme of state purchase on his own terms, he sold his secret to a group of societies, the members of which were to pay him a subscription of a hundred louis per capita. By this means he realised some 340,000 livres — representing today over a million. The associated body was composed of twenty-four societies called “societes de l’harmonie” — a sort of Freemasonry, under a Grand Master and Chiefs of the Order. A member had to be at the time of admission twenty-five years of age, of honest state and good name, not to smoke tobacco, and to pay an annual subscription of at least sixty francs. There were three grades in the Order: Initiated Associates, Corresponding Associates and Uninitiated. Amongst those belonging to the Society were such men as Lafayette, d’Espremisnil, and Berthollet the great chemist. Berthollet had, however, peculiar privileges, amongst which was the right of criticism. On one occasion he had a “row” with Mesmer about his charlatanism. At length the French public, wearied with his trickeries and angry with his cupidity, openly expressed their dissatisfaction. Whereupon he left France, taking with him a fortune of three hundred and forty thousand francs. He went to England and thence to Germany. Finally he settled down in Mersbourg in his native country, Suabia, where he died in 1815, at the age of eighty-one.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30