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Occultist, Charlatan, Adventurer—Who Was Count Cagliostro?

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Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Alessandro Cagliostro achieved immortality in all kinds of ways: through opera, as a screen villain, even as a font. The occultist Aleister Crowley claimed that Cagliostro lived through him, as one of his own earlier incarnations. And while Cagliostro may have preferred to obtain immortality the simple, old-fashioned way—not dying—little about the man was ever that straightforward.

Of course, Count Alessandro di Cagliostro wasn’t even real himself. His title was completely spurious, and his surname was lifted from a rich aunt and uncle. Instead, it was Giuseppe Balsamo who began life in Palermo, the seat of Sicily, on June 2, 1743. He was born to poor parents, though his mother claimed descent from Charles Martel, the medieval Frankish leader who halted the Umayyad Caliphate’s conquest of Europe in 732 C.E. Although his family was poor, Balsamo was reportedly bright, and as a teenager he became a novice with the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God. 

This Catholic order devoted itself to medicine and service. It was here that Balsamo began to learn about pharmacy, though the monastic life did not suit him. After leaving the order (having either escaped or been expelled, depending on the source), he began to focus on a number of talents that served his less than above-the-board career choices. He studied art for a while, which helped his prodigious skill for forgery. He made a name for his knowledge of secret and sacred rites, which reinforced his reputation as a magician. And he began swindling people, including one incident in which he tricked a goldsmith into thinking he’d been attacked by demons while searching for buried treasure (in fact, Balsamo had robbed the goldsmith, and fled Palermo shortly after). 

Cut loose from the city of his birth, Balsamo began traveling the world, or at least around the Mediterranean. It was around then that he reinvented himself as Count Cagliostro, a student of mysteries and alchemy, once an orphan named Acharat in the holy Muslim city of Medina. He claimed to have spent time in Egypt with a mentor named Althotas, who allegedly led alchemical experiments, sought out mystic local rites, and became a Knight of Malta with Balsamo (the details vary depending on the account). Allegedly the pair also traveled as far as Mecca, Ethiopia, and India to learn the arcane arts. In 1768, Cagliostro reappeared in Rome and became secretary to Cardinal Virgilio Orsini, of an illustrious family.

That same year, Cagliostro married Lorenza Feliciani, who preferred to be called Serafina. As it turned out, she also had a gift for scamming people, and the pair became trusted partners in a number of confidence tricks throughout their lives. Some claim that the couple left Rome because they attracted the attention of the Inquisition. Either way, they continued Cagliostro’s earlier travels, performing séances and selling elixirs. In Paris, Cagliostro was welcomed with open arms and supposedly recommended as Benjamin Franklin’s personal physician. In Russia, Catherine the Great wrote scathing verse about their charlatanry. It was in London, however, on April 12, 1776, that Cagliostro was initiated as a Freemason, which began his period of greatest notoriety.

Cagliostro is credited with co-founding Egyptian Freemasonry the early 1780s. The sect is supposedly based on the rites of the ancient deities Isis and Osiris, and features extensive death and rebirth imagery. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute draws strongly from this theme, and some music historians have linked the opera’s wise mystic Sarastro, who triumphs over the Queen of the Night, to Cagliostro. Most importantly, the Egyptian Rite became huge in France, where Cagliostro became immensely popular with the nobility.

In 1785, it all came crashing down. Accounts of Cagliostro’s level of involvement differ, but ultimately the occultist became tied to an incident in which a con artist convinced a cardinal to buy an enormously expensive diamond necklace on behalf of Marie Antoinette (the con artist actually had the necklace sold in London, and pocketed the profit). Cagliostro was arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille for nine months, though a trial could not prove he had any part in the matter. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace, as it became known, so soured the French public that many credit the scandal with contributing to the French Revolution a few years later.

Reconstruction of the necklace involved in the Diamond Necklace Affair,Jebulon via Wikimedia // Public Domain

When Cagliostro was released, his troubles were not over. A muckraker in London publicly accused him of being Giuseppe Balsamo (which he was), with all his attendant past crimes and scams. Cagliostro noisily refuted the claims and earned a retraction. He then returned to Rome in 1789, but despite attempting to earn a living with his usual menu of magic, medicine, and communing with spirits, the Inquisition sniffed him out again. He was arrested that December, and sentenced to death, as Giuseppe Balsamo, for the crimes of freemasonry, heresy, and magic. (Serafina, meanwhile, was shuffled off to a convent.) The pope, however, commuted the execution to life imprisonment. After an attempted escape from the Castel Sant’Angelo near Rome, Cagliostro was sent to the Fortress of San Leo in the north of Italy. He died there on August 26, 1795, at the age of 52. 

One of the few people to interview Cagliostro’s (or Balsamo’s) family—people who had known him in life—was German cultural giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. During a visit to Palermo in 1787, Goethe tracked down none other than Felicità Balsamo, Cagliostro’s mother, who dispelled many of the myths Cagliostro had built up about his early life. Cagliostro had made a great impression on Goethe, for good or ill. Some scholars argue that Cagliostro serves as a model for Goethe’s seminal Dr. Faustus; others, however, point to a less well-intentioned deceiver in the literature—the devil Mephistopheles.

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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