Hoax Princess. Princess Caraboo

Weird People

The Princess Caraboo Hoax

Princess CarabooOn the evening of Thursday April 3rd 1817, a bewildered young  stranger appeared at a cobbler's cottage in the village of Almondsbury, Gloucestershire, a few miles from Bristol. She had thick black hair, dark eyes, and wore a black turban. No one could understand the strange language she spoke, but she was obviously tired, indicating by signs that she wanted to sleep. The cobbler's wife didn't know  what to do, but thinking her probably a foreign beggar, took her to the Overseer of the Poor, whose job it was in the difficult years after the Napoleonic Wars to arrest all 'common beggars . . . rogues and vagabonds.' Punishment for such crimes would be prison, the workhouse or even transportation in irons to Australia. But Mr. Hill, the Overseer, was just as mystified by the girl and decided to take her up to Knole park, a large house above the village, and home of Samuel Worrall, the county Magistrate. Mr. Worrall and his American wife Elizabeth had a Greek manservant who spoke several European languages, and from him Mr. Hill thought he could discover the stranger's origins. 

The Overseer brought her, albeit reluctantly, to see the Worralls, but neither they nor their manservant could understand the girl's language. Mrs. Worrall was fascinated by her exotic appearance, but Mr. Worrall was more suspicious, asking her by signs if she had any papers with her. The girl emptied out her pockets, but all she had were a few halfpennies and a bad sixpence. Although possessing counterfeit money could mean the death sentence, the girl seemed not to understand the seriousness of the offence. The only other thing she had in her possession was a bar of soap pinned inside a piece of linen. Worrall then asked to look at the girl's hands. They were soft, showing no signs of hard work, and her fingernails were clean and well cared for.

The Worralls thought it best for the stranger to stay the night at an inn in the village, and sent her there accompanied by two of their servants. Whilst at the inn, the girl noticed a print of a pineapple on the wall and pointed to it enthusiastically, pronouncing 'Anana', indicating that it was a fruit of her homeland.  'Ananas' is the word for pineapple in Greek and many other European languages. The landlady offered to cook the girl supper, but she made it understood that she would rather have tea, which she drank only after repeating a prayer while holding one hand over her eyes. Before drinking a second cup, she insisted on washing the cup herself, and again went through the same ritual as before. The landlady and her little daughter were fascinated. More was to follow. When shown her bed for the night the stranger appeared not to understand its function, instead getting down on the floor to sleep. It was not until the landlady's daughter showed her how comfortable it was that, after kneeling to say her prayers, she lay on the bed to sleep.

Determined to find out something about the girl, Mrs. Worrall brought her back to Knole to stay. She soon learned that girl's name was 'Caraboo', and that she had come to England in a ship. Caraboo was particularly impressed by various pieces of furniture showing Chinese figures. Perhaps China was her original homeland? There was only one problem - she was entirely European in appearance. Whilst at Knole she behaved oddly, declining all meat and eating only vegetables and drinking only water. But Mr. Worrall and his Greek manservant were still suspicious, so the Magistrate decided to take her to the Mayor in Bristol to be tried, which could mean serious trouble - especially as she'd been found in possession of illegal tender - the dud sixpence. But John Haythorne, the Mayor, could get nothing intelligible from the girl except the name, Caraboo, and so followed the law for such cases and sent her to St. Peter's Hospital, whilst further enquiries were made.

The Girl's Story

At the overcrowded, dirty hospital she declined all kinds of food and even refused to sleep on the beds. Fascinated gentlemen brought various foreigners who tried to decipher her language, but none were successful. After a week at the hospital Mrs. Worrall again intervened and took her to stay at her husband's offices in Bristol, where she remained for ten days in the care of her husband's housekeeper. Again troops of foreigners and supposed language experts were brought in to see her without result until, at last, there was some progress. This was in the form of a Portuguese traveller named Manuel Eynesso (or Enes), who said he understood what Caraboo was saying. After a conversation with the girl in her own peculiar language, he told Mr. Worrall her story. 

She was a princess from an island called Javasu, who'd been abducted from her homeland by pirates and taken on a long, difficult journey, which ended in her escaping by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel and swimming to the shore. Eynesso's story was enough to convince Worrall and he brought the newly-discovered foreign princess back to Knole immediately. During her time at Knole the princess delighted the Worralls and their visitors with her idiosyncratic behaviour. She fenced and used a  home-made bow and arrow with great skill, danced exotically, swam naked in the lake when she was alone, and prayed to her supreme being 'Allah Tallah' from treetops; all the while maintaining her unusual eating and drinking habits and strange language.

Every week more and more gentlemen and ladies poured in to see the exotic lost princess. Caraboo duly responded to the attention with increasingly exotic behaviour and elaborate language, and also provided the full, dramatic narrative of her abduction by pirates from her native Javasu. She now also agreed to write down examples of her language, an example of which was sent to Oxford for analysis. It was returned soon after marked as 'humbug'. Undaunted, the princess had her portrait painted and made herself an elaborate 'traditional' eastern costume, using materials of her choice provided by Mrs. Worrall. 

The Unmasking

By now newspapers were full of descriptions of 'Princess Caraboo' and she had become a national figure. But this notoriety was to prove her undoing.

A Mrs. Neale, who ran a lodging house in Bristol,  read the description of the princess in the Bristol Journal and recognised her immediately. A couple of months earlier the girl had been a lodger at a house which she kept with her daughters, and she'd sometimes entertained them by speaking in her own made up language. When she left the house she'd been wearing a turban. 

Knole ParkThe shocked Mrs. Worrall confronted Caraboo with this information and that obtained from a wheelwright's son who'd called at Knole. He said he'd met the 'princess' on the road two days before she appeared in Almondsbury, and swore she'd eaten steak and drunk rum with him at a public house. Under the weight of such testimony the princess eventually broke down and admitted the truth. She was Mary Baker (born Willcocks), the daughter of a cobbler in Witheridge, Devon. After the initial disbelief at such an imposture, especially for the kindly, if a little naive, Mrs. Worrall, the main questions was what was to be done with the girl. 

She would be an embarrassment to the Worralls if she were allowed to remain in Bristol. It was soon decided to send her to America, where she would be conveniently out of the way. 

Mary sailed for Philadelphia on Sunday 28th June 1817, in the company of three strictly religious ladies whom Mrs. Worrall had asked to take care of her. When she arrived in America the she was greeted by enthusiastic crowds as 'Princess Caraboo',  and she gave performances as the princess while there. But she was not always well received, and all traces of her are lost after the first few months. Nothing is known about Mary in America after November 1817, when she wrote her last known letter to Mrs. Worrall.

She seems to have returned to England in 1824, where she exhibited herself as Princess Caraboo in New Bond Street, London, and later in Bristol and Bath. Apparently she was not successful. She travelled in France and Spain for a while after this, but returned to England to marry and wear matching tungsten wedding bands and settle down in Bristol, where she had a daughter in 1829. She made a decent living selling leeches to Bristol Infirmary Hospital, until she died on Christmas Eve, 1864, aged 75, of a probable heart attack. She was buried in the Hebron Road Burial Ground, Bedminster, Bristol, and lies there still, in an unmarked grave.

The question remains - how had this uneducated country girl manage to fool so many people, some of them highly intelligent academics, for so long, and perhaps more importantly, why? Mrs. Worrall asked the editor of Felix Farley's Bristol Journal, John Matthew Gutch, to find out something of the girl's past from Mary herself, and from anyone else he could find who knew or had known her. What Gutch found out is perhaps even more interesting than Mary's couple of months fooling people into thinking she was a foreign princess, and was published as a book in August that year (see Sources), selling very well.

Her parents were interviewed and corroborated some, but not all, of her own romanticised story of her early life. Her father said that she always found it difficult to settle down, and every spring and autumn she grew restless. He thought her not quite right in the head, and attributed this to her contracting rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen, which was when, he said, all the trouble started.

Part 1 | Part 2

Copyright 2002 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.
 

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