The Princess Caraboo Hoax
On the evening of Thursday April 3rd 1817,
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,
of Samuel Worrall, the county Magistrate. Mr. Worrall and his American wife
Elizabeth had a Greek manservant who spoke several European languages, and from
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
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
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
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
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.
By now newspapers were full of descriptions of 'Princess
Caraboo' and she had become a national figure. But this notoriety was to prove her
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
she'd sometimes entertained them by speaking in her own made up language. When
she left the house she'd been wearing a turban.
The 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
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.
on Mysterious People