I have tried to show that alchemy aimed at giving experimental proof of a certain theory of the whole system of nature, including humanity. The practical culmination of the alchemical quest presented a threefold aspect; the alchemists sought the stone of wisdom, for by gaining that they gained the control of wealth; they sought the universal panacea, for that would give them the power of enjoying wealth and life; they sought the soul of the world, for thereby they could hold communion with spiritual existences, and enjoy the fruition of spiritual life.

The object of their search was to satisfy their material needs, their intellectual capacities, and their spiritual yearnings. The alchemists of the nobler sort always made the first of these objects subsidiary to the other two; they gave as their reason for desiring to make gold, the hope that gold might become so common that it would cease to be sought after by mankind. The author of An Open Substance says: "Would to God ... all men might become adepts in our art, for then gold, the common idol of mankind, would lose its value, and we should prize it only for its scientific teaching."

But the desire to make gold must always have been a very powerful incentive in determining men to attempt the laborious discipline of alchemy; and with them, as with all men, the love of money was the root of much evil. When a man became a student of alchemy merely for the purpose of making gold, and failed to make it - as he always did - it was very easy for him to pretend he had succeeded in order that he might really make gold by cheating other people. Such a man rapidly degenerated into a charlatan; he used the language of alchemy to cover his frauds, and with the hope of deluding his dupes by high-sounding phrases. And, it must be admitted, alchemy lent itself admirably to imposture. It promised unlimited wealth; it encouraged the wildest dreams of the seeker after pleasure; and over these dreams it cast the glamour of great ideas, the idea of the unity of nature, and the idea of communion with other spheres of life, of calling in the help of 'inheritors of unfulfilled renown,' and so it seemed to touch to fine issues the sordidness of unblushing avarice.

Moreover, the working with strange ingredients and odd-fashioned instruments, and the employment of mouth-filling phrases, and scraps of occult learning which seemed to imply unutterable things, gave just that pleasing dash of would-be wickedness to the process of consulting the alchemist which acts as a fascination to many people. The earnest person felt that by using the skill and knowledge of the alchemists, for what he deemed a good purpose, he was compelling the powers of evil to work for him and his objects.

It was impossible that such a system as alchemy should appear to the plain man of the middle ages, when the whole scheme of life and the universe rested on a magical basis, to be more than a kind of magic which hovered between the black magic of the Sorcerer and the white magic of the Church. Nor is it to be wondered at that a system which lends itself to imposture so easily as alchemy did, should be thought of by the plain man of modern times as having been nothing but a machinery of fraud.

It is evident from the Canon's Yeoman's Tale in Chaucer, that many of those who professed to turn the base metals into gold were held in bad repute as early as the 14th century. The "false chanoun" persuaded the priest, who was his dupe, to send his servant for quicksilver, which he promised to make into "as good silver and as fyn, As ther is any in youre purse or myn"; he then gave the priest a "crosselet," and bid him put it on the fire, and blow the coals. While the priest was busy with the fire,

      This false chanoun - the foule feend hym fecche! - 
      Out of his bosom took a bechen cole, 
      In which ful subtilly was maad an hole, 
      And therinne put was of silver lemaille 
      An ounce, and stopped was withouten faille 
      The hole with wex, to kepe the lemaille in.

The "false chanoun" pretended to be sorry for the priest, who was so busily blowing the fire: -

      Ye been right hoot, I se wel how ye swete; 
      Have heer a clooth, and wipe awey the we't. 
      And whyles that the preest wiped his face, 
      This chanoun took his cole with harde grace, 
      And leyde it above, upon the middeward 
      Of the crosselet, and blew wel afterward. 
      Til that the coles gonne faste brenne.

As the coal burned the silver fell into the "crosselet." Then the canon said they would both go together and fetch chalk, and a pail of water, for he would pour out the silver he had made in the form of an ingot. They locked the door, and took the key with them. On returning, the canon formed the chalk into a mould, and poured the contents of the crucible into it. Then he bade the priest,

      Look what ther is, put in thin hand and grope, 
      Thow fynde shalt ther silver, as I hope. 
      What, devel of helle! Sholde it ellis be? 
      Shavyng of silver silver is, parde! 
      He putte his hand in, and took up a teyne 
      Of silver fyn, and glad in every veyne 
      Was this preest, when he saugh that it was so.

The conclusion of the Canon's Yeoman's Tale shows that, in the 14th century, there was a general belief in the possibility of finding the philosopher's stone, and effecting the transmutation, although the common practitioners of the art were regarded as deceivers. A disciple of Plato is supposed to ask his master to tell him the "name of the privee stoon." Plato gives him certain directions, and tells him he must use magnasia; the disciple asks -

      'What is Magnasia, good sire, I yow preye?' 
      'It is a water that is maad, I seye, 
      Of elementes foure,' quod Plato. 
      'Telle me the roote, good sire,' quod he tho, 
      Of that water, if it be youre wille.' 
      'Nay, nay,' quod Plato, 'certein that I nylle; 
      The philosophres sworn were everychoon 
      That they sholden discovers it unto noon, 
      Ne in no book it write in no manere, 
      For unto Crist it is so lief and deere, 
      That he wol nat that it discovered bee, 
      But where it liketh to his deitee 
      Man for tenspire, and eek for to deffende 
      Whom that hym liketh; lo, this is the ende.'

The belief in the possibility of alchemy seems to have been general sometime before Chaucer wrote; but that belief was accompanied by the conviction that alchemy was an impious pursuit, because the transmutation of baser metals into gold was regarded as trenching on the prerogative of the Creator, to whom alone this power rightfully belonged. In his Inferno (which was probably written about the year 1300), Dante places the alchemists in the eighth circle of hell, not apparently because they were fraudulent impostors, but because, as one of them says, "I aped creative nature by my subtle art."

In later times, some of those who pretended to have the secret and to perform great wonders by the use of it, became rich and celebrated, and were much sought after. The most distinguished of these pseudo-alchemists was he who passed under the name of Cagliostro. His life bears witness to the eagerness of human beings to be deceived.

Joseph Balsamo was born in 1743 at Palermo, where his parents were tradespeople in a good way of business.[5] In the memoir of himself, which he wrote in prison, Balsamo seeks to surround his birth and parentage with mystery; he says, "I am ignorant, not only of my birthplace, but even of the parents who bore me.... My earliest infancy was passed in the town of Medina, in Arabia, where I was brought up under the name of Acharat."

   [5] The account of the life of Cagliostro is much condensed 
   from Mr A.E. Waite's Lives of the Alchemystical Philosophers.

When he was thirteen years of age, Balsamo's parents determined he should be trained for the priesthood, but he ran away from his school. He was then confined in a Benedictine monastery. He showed a remarkable taste for natural history, and acquired considerable knowledge of the use of drugs; but he soon tired of the discipline and escaped. For some years he wandered about in different parts of Italy, living by his wits and by cheating. A goldsmith consulted him about a hidden treasure; he pretended to invoke the aid of spirits, frightened the goldsmith, got sixty ounces of gold from him to carry on his incantations, left him in the lurch, and fled to Messina. In that town he discovered an aged aunt who was sick; the aunt died, and left her money to the Church. Balsamo assumed her family name, added a title of nobility, and was known henceforward as the Count Alessandro Cagliostro.

In Messina he met a mysterious person whom he calls Altotas, and from whom, he says in his Memoir, he learnt much. The following account of the meeting of Balsamo and the stranger is taken from Waite's book: "As he was promenading one day near the jetty at the extremity of the port he encountered an individual singularly habited and possessed of a most remarkable countenance. This person, aged apparently about fifty years, seemed to be an Armenian, though, according to other accounts, he was a Spaniard or Greek. He wore a species of caftan, a silk bonnet, and the extremities of his breeches were concealed in a pair of wide boots. In his left hand he held a parasol, and in his right the end of a cord, to which was attached a graceful Albanian greyhound.... Cagliostro saluted this grotesque being, who bowed slightly, but with satisfied dignity. 'You do not reside in Messina, signor?' he said in Sicilian, but with a marked foreign accent. Cagliostro replied that he was tarrying for a few days, and they began to converse on the beauty of the town and on its advantageous situation, a kind of Oriental imagery individualising the eloquence of the stranger, whose remarks were, moreover, adroitly adorned with a few appropriate compliments."

Although the stranger said he received no one at his house he allowed Cagliostro to visit him. After various mysterious doings the two went off to Egypt, and afterwards to Malta, where they performed many wonderful deeds before the Grand Master, who was much impressed. At Malta Altotas died, or, at anyrate, vanished. Cagliostro then travelled for some time, and was well received by noblemen, ambassadors, and others in high position. At Rome he fell in love with a young and beautiful lady, Lorenza Feliciani, and married her.

Cagliostro used his young wife as a decoy to attract rich and foolish men. He and his wife thrived for a time, and accumulated money and jewels; but a confederate betrayed them, and they fled to Venice, and then wandered for several years in Italy, France, and England. They seem to have made a living by the sale of lotions for the skin, and by practising skilful deceptions.

About the year 1770 Cagliostro began to pose as an alchemist. After another period of wandering he paid a second visit to London and founded a secret society, based on (supposed) Egyptian rites, mingled with those of freemasonry. The suggestion of this society is said to have come from a curious book he picked up on a second-hand stall in London. The society attracted people by the strangeness of its initiatory rites, and the promises of happiness and wellbeing made by its founder to those who joined it. Lodges were established in many countries, many disciples were obtained, great riches were amassed, and Cagliostro flourished exceedingly.

In his Histoire du Merveilleux dans les Temps modernes, Figuier, speaking of Cagliostro about this period of his career, says:

"He proclaimed himself the bearer of the mysteries of Isis and Anubis from the far East.... He obtained numerous and distinguished followers, who on one occasion assembled in great force to hear Joseph Balsamo expound to them the doctrines of Egyptian freemasonry. At this solemn convention he is said to have spoken with overpowering eloquence;... his audience departed in amazement and completely converted to the regenerated and purified masonry. None doubted that he was an initiate of the arcana of nature, as preserved in the temple of Apis at the era when Cambyses belaboured that capricious divinity. From this moment the initiations into the new masonry were numerous, albeit they were limited to the aristocracy of society. There are reasons to believe that the grandees who were deemed worthy of admission paid exceedingly extravagantly for the honour."

Cagliostro posed as a physician, and claimed the power of curing diseases simply by the laying on of hands. He went so far as to assert he had restored to life the dead child of a nobleman in Paris; the discovery that the miracle was effected by substituting a living child for the dead one caused him to flee, laden with spoil, to Warsaw, and then to Strassburg.

Cagliostro entered Strassburg in state, amid an admiring crowd, who regarded him as more than human. Rumour said he had amassed vast riches by the transmutation of base metals into gold. Some people in the crowd said he was the wandering Jew, others that he had been present at the marriage feast of Cana, some asserted he was born before the deluge, and one supposed he might be the devil. The goldsmith whom he had cheated of sixty ounces of gold many years before was in the crowd, and, recognising him, tried to stop the carriage, shouting: "Joseph Balsamo! It is Joseph! Rogue, where are my sixty ounces of gold?" "Cagliostro scarcely deigned to glance at the furious goldsmith; but in the middle of the profound silence which the incident occasioned among the crowd, a voice, apparently in the clouds, uttered with great distinctness the following words: 'Remove this lunatic, who is possessed by infernal spirits.' Some of the spectators fell on their knees, others seized the unfortunate goldsmith, and the brilliant cortege passed on" (Waite).

From Strassburg Cagliostro* went to Paris, where he lived in great splendour, curing diseases, making gold and diamonds, mystifying and duping people of all ranks by the splendid ritual and gorgeous feasting of his secret society, and amassing riches. He got entangled in the affair of the Diamond Necklace, and left Paris. Trying to advance his society in Italy he was arrested by the agents of the Inquisition, and imprisoned, then tried, and condemned to death. The sentence was commuted to perpetual imprisonment. After two years in the prison of San Angelo he died at the age of fifty.

   *Transcriber's Note: Original "Cagliosto".