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,
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
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.
time Devall gave up the chase.
She later married William Talbot, a young
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.
Gordon, S. The Book of Hoaxes.
London, Headline, 1996, pp. 470-2
Larson, E. The Deceivers.
London, John Baker,1966, pp. 52-57.
by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.
on Mysterious People