hoax princess

Weird People

Sarah Wilson - The Princess Susanna Hoax

Sarah Wilson was born in a Staffordshire village in 1754, the daughter of a bailiff. She left for London when she was just 16, and after only a few weeks in the city had the fortune to be employed as a maid to Miss Caroline Vernon, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte. Miss Vernon seems to have admired her intelligence and conscientiousness. 

At the 'Queen's House' (where Buckingham Palace now stands) she saw Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, frequently and learned much about private royal affairs and life at Court. But soon this quick-witted girl began to grow envious of all the wealth and finery surrounding her. One day, when alone in the Queen's closet, she broke open the cabinet and stole some jewellery, some rings, a miniature portrait of the Queen, and one of the Queen's dresses. Perhaps she thought such relatively minor theft would go undetected, but the Queen was in the habit of counting her most valuable pieces and noticed some were missing. She had the closet watched to find the culprit. A few days later Sarah again went to steal from the same place, but this time she was caught in the act. She was charged with theft and violation of the royal privacy, and sentenced to death. But after Caroline Vernon's pleas to the Queen on Sarah's behalf, the punishment was commuted to transportation and, in July 1771, at the age of seventeen, Sarah was taken by prison ship to Baltimore, Maryland.

On arrival in America she was sold to a Mr. W . Devall of Bush Creek, Frederick County, but she escaped to Virginia almost immediately. Somehow, she still had amongst her personal belongings some of the stolen items from the Queen - including a ring, a dress, and the miniature portrait. Now the imposture began to take shape. She transformed herself into 'Princess Susanna Caroline Matilda, sister of Queen Charlotte', forced into exile in America following a scandal and a family quarrel. 

With her intimate familiarity with Court life and her knowledge of the gossip of upper class English society, 'Princess Susanna' was soon in demand at various gentlemen's houses. She particularly impressed those of the older generation of settlers who were emigrants from England themselves, as they listened fascinated to her stories of the old country. Some had other motives; as people not unreasonably assumed, the princess would soon be restored to favour back in England, so in return for favours to be granted when she regained her rightful position, she was often given money and gifts. 

The imposture was proving a success, although some were suspicious about her refusal to speak German, despite being born in the country, and her perfect grasp of the English language. There were also those who wondered why they had never heard of a younger sister of the Queen before.

Meanwhile, Sarah's former owner, Mr. Devall, who'd paid a considerable sum for her, had been trying hard to find his escaped slave, and eventually came to hear about this travelling 'princess'. He knew from the description that it was Sarah Wilson.  So, in the Autumn of 1773, he circulated an advertisement saying that the supposed princess was in fact his escaped servant girl, and that whoever caught her would receive five pistols and all expenses as a reward. He also sent one of his employees, Michael Dalton, to find her. Dalton tracked her down to a plantation in Charlestown, but she had left before he arrived; he eventually found her on a neighbouring plantation and brought her back to slavery in Bush Creek at gunpoint.

This seemed to be the end of the story, and for a while Sarah worked without incident for Devall. But after two years, she found the opportunity she'd been waiting for to plan her escape. Another slave girl named Sarah Wilson had recently arrived in Maryland, and she utilized this coincidence and a further piece of good luck - Devall's departure to fight in the militia in the American War of Independence - to the full. Somehow she was able to exchange the new Sarah Wilson for herself, and escaped northward out of slavery once and for all. 

This time Devall gave up the chase.

She later married William Talbot, a young officer in the Light Dragoons. After the war the couple stayed in America, possibly because she would have been arrested again if she returned to England. Sarah used the money earned from her role as Princess Susanna to set her husband up in business. Her wandering days over, they subsequently had a large family and lived in the then respectable area of the Bowery, New York.

Sources and Further Reading

Gordon, S.  The Book of Hoaxes. London, Headline, 1996, pp. 470-2

Larson, E. The Deceivers. London, John Baker,1966, pp. 52-57.

Copyright 2002 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.

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