Regency Bicentennial:   The "Debut" of Princess Caraboo

Without doubt, the appearance of this "princess" clearly shows that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. Two hundred years ago, this coming Monday, a discombobulated young woman was found wandering the streets of a rural village in southwestern England. Her explanation of who she was and how she came to be there was so outrageous it convinced many in the area that it must be true. It was not until several weeks later that facts came to light which caused her story to unravel and embarrass some of those who had believed her. And yet, it is clear the fictitious princess was not the only one who took advantage of the situation.

The first appearance of Princess Caraboo . . .

Late in the afternoon of Thursday, 3 April 1817, a cobbler came upon a lovely but disoriented young woman wandering in the streets near his home, in the village of Almondsbury, which was located in the southwestern part of the county of Gloucestershire. The woman was dressed in clothing he thought looked exotic, she was babbling in a strange language and did not appear to understand English. The cobbler, concerned for the attractive young woman’s welfare, but with no idea what to do with her, took her home to his wife. The young woman appeared to be about twenty-five years old and stood about five feet, two inches, with black hair and dark eyes. She was dressed in clothing those who saw her considered to be foreign; a black woolen gown with a red shawl and a black turban on her head. Though it was the spring of 1817, and Napoleon Bonaparte had been exiled to St. Helena for many months, foreign strangers could still cause a certain amount of fear and suspicion in the provinces of Britain.

Whether a practical or a fearful woman, the cobbler’s wife took the strange young woman directly to the Overseer of the Poor for the county. Due to her bizarre behavior and appearance, the overseer took her to the local county magistrate, Samuel Worrall, who lived nearby, at Knole Park. Mr. Worrall, conscious of his position, and suspicious by nature, began to interrogate the woman. But she appeared not to understand him and gave no coherent responses, even when Worrall called in his Greek manservant to question her in his native language. Worrall then tried to use hand signals to communicate with the young woman. Ideally, he was hoping to get her to provide any papers which would identify her, but when she finally turned out her pockets, she was found to be in possession of only a few halfpennies and a counterfeit sixpence. Having any counterfeit money at that time was a capital offence, which could result in a death sentence, or, at the very least, transportation to Australia. However, the young woman gave no hint that she understood the seriousness of that offence. With the exception of her clothes, her only other possession was a bar of soap, which she carried pinned inside a length of linen.

It was getting late and after a mostly fruitless interrogation, Samuel Worrall intended to send the young woman back to the poor house for the night. But his American wife, Elizabeth Worrall, was fascinated by the stranger and noted that the young woman’s hands were soft and her nails were clean, proving she was not a common laborer. Mrs. Worrall would not countenance the lovely stranger spending the night in the local poorhouse. To placate his wife, Mr. Worrall agreed to have two of his servants escort the young woman to a nearby inn for the night. The following morning, Mr. and Mrs. Worrall made their way to the inn to meet again with the strange young woman.

From the landlady, they learned that she had offered to cook a meal for the girl the night before, but by signs, she had made it clear she only wanted tea. But when the tea was set before her, she did not drink it until she had repeated a prayer several times, while holding one hand over her eyes. She insisted on washing the cup before she would accept a second cup of tea, and then prayed over it as before. When she was shown to her room that night, she had initially laid down on the floor to sleep, and it was not until the landlady’s daughter showed her the purpose of the bed that the young woman then laid down there to sleep. But only after kneeling on the floor to say several more prayers. While meeting with the Worralls, the young woman noticed a print of a pineapple on the wall of the parlor of the inn. She pointed to it and became very animated as she said "Anana" several times, indicating it was a fruit she knew from her homeland. "Ananas" is the word used for pineapple in Greek and a number of other European languages. Though her hair and eyes were dark, the young woman had a pale complexion and European features. This led Mrs. Worrall to wonder if the exotic young woman might be Spanish, Greek or even a Gypsy.

Mrs. Worrall convinced her husband to allow her to bring the young woman back to their home. There, by signs and her strange language, their guest communicated to them that her name was Caraboo. She seemed particularly interested in the porcelain and furniture in their home which depicted Chinese figures and exotic imagery. But, due to her very European appearance, the Worralls did not believe that Caraboo was from China. She continued to behave oddly, refusing any meat and only eating vegetables and drinking mostly water. Mr. Worrall continued to be suspicious of his house guest, as did his Greek manservant, and decided to take her to the mayor of neighboring Bristol for examination and possible trial, for being in possession of illegal tender, that counterfeit sixpence. However, John Hawthorne, the Mayor of Bristol, got no more intelligible information from the girl, except her name, Caraboo. Therefore, he deemed her a vagrant and ordered her committed to the workhouse for the Bristol Corporation for the Poor, known locally as St. Peter’s Hospital, while further inquiries were made.

The Bristol workhouse was overcrowded and dirty. Caraboo refused all food and would not even sleep on the beds. Several local gentlemen arrived, accompanied by various foreigners, all of whom tried to understand her language, all without success. This went on for about a week. By that time, news of this lovely, but exotic young woman had begun to circulate, and it was not long before crowds of people were coming to St. Peter’s Hospital to catch a glimpse of her. Caraboo’s growing popularity encouraged Mrs. Worrall to appeal for the young woman’s release from the workhouse. She took Caraboo to her husband’s offices in Bristol, where she remained for about ten days, in the care of Mr. Worrall’s housekeeper. During this time, several other foreign language experts visited Caraboo, though none were able to interpret her strange language. Then, a breakthrough arrived, in the person of Manuel Eynesso, a Portuguese sailor from the Malay Peninsula. He said he thought he could understand her language and spent some time in conversation with her.

After his meeting with the exotic stranger, Eynesso told Mrs. Worrall what he had learned from the girl. Caraboo had explained that she was the daughter of a man of high rank, in fact, she was a princess. She had lived with her family in an island kingdom called Javasu, located in the Indian Ocean. One day, while walking in her garden, she had been abducted by pirates and then sold to the captain of a ship that set sail from her island almost immediately. After a long and arduous journey of several weeks, she caught sight of land from the deck of the ship. Hoping to make her escape, she jumped overboard. She swam to the shore, and was able to elude her captors. She told Eynesso that she had wandered the area for several weeks, until she encountered the cobbler in the streets of Almondsbury.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Worrall were completely charmed to discover their exotic guest was a lost princess from a foreign land. Mrs. Worrall then had no trouble convincing her husband to invite Princess Caraboo back to their home at Knole Park. Believing the exotic young woman to be foreign royalty, they were eager to bask in her reflected glory. They announced her presence in their house to the local newspapers, along with the details of the fantastic story she had told. It was not long before the exotic Princess Caraboo became known throughout Great Britain.

As word of the exotic princess spread further afield, a wide array of dignitaries, as well as many important gentlemen, and often their ladies, too, paid visits to the Worralls at Knole Park. And Princess Caraboo did not disappoint her hosts, or those who came to see the exotic young woman. She continued to refuse all meat, ate only rice and vegetables, particularly enjoyed Indian curry and drank only water or tea. She demonstrated her skill at fencing and made her own bow and arrow, with which she was extremely proficient. She regularly climbed to the top of a tree to pray to her god, who she called "Alla Tallah." The princess gained additional notoriety when it became known that she enjoyed swimming naked in a pond on the estate, when she was alone. Princess Caraboo continued to speak only in her unknown language, and was even persuaded to write down some examples of words in her native tongue. She did so, writing the words using the alphabet of her unique language. The princess made herself a richly elaborate gown in an Oriental style, with materials provided by Mrs. Worrall, which she indicated was the traditional costume of her homeland.

For the next couple of months, Princess Caraboo lived a life of luxury and privilege at Knole Park. Delighted with their royal house guest and wishing to memorialize the momentous event, the Worralls had a full-length portrait painted of Princess Caraboo, wearing her traditional costume. Other likenesses of the princess were taken and some of them were used to illustrate stories about her which were published in several newspapers across the country. Dr. C. H. Wilkinson, a man of letters from Bath, gave additional credence to her story when he claimed that by referring to the book, Pantographia, by Edmund Fry, he was able to identify the language used by Princess Caraboo. He even wrote a letter to the editor of the Bath Chronicle, in support of the young woman.

Though Mrs. Worrall continued to believe in the story of the young woman she had taken into her home, one of her sons did not. One day, in Caraboo’s presence, he called her a cheat. She is said to have quickly replied, "Caraboo, no cheat!" Her apparent ability to understand English and respond in kind was chalked up by her admirers to her having spent several weeks among English speakers, by which she was slowly learning the language. Some of the written examples of her unique language which were provided by Princess Caraboo were sent to Archbishop Richard Whatley, a prominent Oxford academic and language expert, for analysis. The archbishop soon replied, stating he thought the writing samples to be just so " . . . many pot-hooks and unmeaning scrawls, several words and some half sentences in Portuguese." He declared the language of the princess to be so much humbug and that it was " . . . the writing of no known language." However, most of Princess Caraboo’s admirers assumed such a response was due to the ignorance of the bishop and continued to believe the exotic young woman was truly a foreign princess.

However, Princess Caraboo’s imaginary world came to a crashing end in early June of 1817, with a revelation from a Bristol lodging house keeper named Mrs. Neale. This new information was so detailed that not even Caraboo’s most ardent admirers could ignore it. Mrs. Neale had recognized the young woman from her description and the image of her which had been published in the Bristol Journal newspaper. She realized that this so-called princess was in fact a young woman who had been employed as a servant at her house earlier in the year. Mrs. Neale revealed that her former servant’s name was Mary Baker and she was the daughter of a tradesman in Witheridge, Devonshire. While in Mrs. Neale’s employ, Mary had often entertained her children by speaking a nonsense language she had made up, and telling them stories of exotic people and places. She had also sometimes wound a black shawl around her head in the style of a turban, pretending she was a visitor from a foreign land. When all of this came to light, Mary Baker, alias Princess Caraboo, reluctantly admitted that she was not a foreign princess and that her fantastic charade had been fraudulent.

The Worralls, particularly Mrs. Worrall, were thoroughly embarrassed. This became even worse when the British press got the news. Many newspapers were very happy to tell the story of how this young woman had duped many members of the upper classes, according to them, by appealing to the vanity of those supposedly intelligent, but social-climbing, people. Remarkably, Mary Baker’s personal charm was such that she was able to gain the forgiveness of Mrs. Worrall, who allowed her to remain at Knole Park after Mrs. Neale’s revelations. However, it was clear that the Worrall family would not allow Mary to remain indefinitely in their home. Mrs. Worrall knew that Mary wanted to go to America, and offered to pay her passage. So, on Sunday, 28 June 1817, Mary Baker, entrusted to three very religious women by Mrs. Worrall, set sail for Philadelphia. Initially, after a warm welcome by enthusiastic crowds, she carried on her charade of Princess Caraboo. But the public soon lost interest and she had to find other means of support. Nothing more is known about Mary’s time in America after November of 1817, when she wrote her last known letter to her benefactress, Mrs. Worrall.

The British press also learned of Mary Baker’s voyage, and a few weeks after her departure for America, one enterprising reporter wrote a most singular story. The reporter claimed that Mary’s ship was blown off course and was driven into the port at the island of St. Helena, where Napoleon Bonaparte was in exile. According to the story, Princess Caraboo rowed to the shore and met with the erstwhile French Emperor. Bonaparte was said to have been instantly captivated by her charms and begged her to marry him, but she refused his suit. Apparently, that news story was intended as a wild joke, since it was highly improbable that a ship bound for America could be blown so far off course as to end up that deep in the south Atlantic. Nevertheless, so many were beguiled by the idea of Napoleon and Caraboo as a love-struck couple that the story was repeated again and again and eventually came to be accepted as fact.

What was it that drove Mary Baker to take on a completely new persona? Many thought it was laziness, greed, or social aspirations, but when one knows more about her life, it is much more complicated than that. Mrs. Worrall wanted to know more about her protege, and she asked John Matthew Gutch, an author and editor of Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal to find out more about the girl. Gutch interviewed Mary before she sailed for America, and he followed up by meeting with her parents and anyone else he could find who had known her in the preceding years.

In a nutshell, Mary was born to poor cobbler and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Willcocks, of the village of Witheridge, in Devonshire. She received little education and her parents put her out to service while she was still a girl. She was an imaginative, if rather wild young woman, who hated her life of service and is believed to have run away more than once from her employers. The last time she ran away and home to her parents, her father turned her out with only the clothes on her back. She survived by begging as she traveled around the country, stopping here and there when people would take her in. She eventually made her way to London, where she found work. Sometime in 1815, she met a foreigner who told her his name was Bakerstendt. She thought he was a gentleman and when he asked her to marry him, she agreed. They went through what she thought was a Catholic wedding service and they took lodgings together. Mary was happy with her new husband and even happier when, a few weeks later, she discovered she was expecting a child. Not long after she revealed that fact to her husband, he took all their money and disappeared. Now calling herself Mary Baker, she went back into service to support herself, until she went into labor in the spring of 1816. Her employer, Mrs. Clark, took her to the City Road Hospital to give birth. Several days later, Mary returned to Mrs. Clark, with her infant son. Mrs. Clark advised her to take the baby to the Foundling Hospital, and eventually Mary agreed, thinking it was best for her little boy. Mary once again went into service with a new employer, but every Wednesday she went to the Foundling Hospital to visit her child. Then, on a Wednesday in October of 1816, Mary was devastated to learn that her little boy had died. She left London and went home to Witheridge to spend some time with her mother. She then set out for Bristol, hoping to get a ship to America. She took odd jobs where she could, but still found herself having to beg along her way just to survive. Is it any wonder that her mind sought refuge in the persona of a character completely removed from her real life, perhaps as a respite from the betrayal, grief and poverty which she had had to endure?

John Gutch shared his findings with Mrs. Worrall, then went on to write a book about the curious events. That book, Caraboo:   A Narrative of a Singular Imposition, Practised Upon the Benevolence of a Lady Residing in the Vicinity of the City of Bristol . . . , was published in August of 1817. It was very popular with the public and sold very well. Hard copies of the book are rare today and very hard to find. Fortunately, a copy has been digitized and is available at Google Books in both PDF and EPUB formats, for those who would like to read Gutch’s full story.

Mary Baker was not completely lost to history when her charade was exposed. She remained in America until 1824, when she returned to Britain. She traveled to London, taking lodgings in New Bond Street, where she briefly tried to revive her performance as Princess Caraboo. However, the story of her great hoax had been all but forgotten and it held little interest for the public. Few were willing to pay the shilling she charged to see her in costume. She then settled in Bedminster, a small village near Bristol, where she took the name of Mary Burgess, adopting the surname of one of her cousins. She married soon thereafter and had a daughter. Mary made a living for herself and her family by importing leeches, which she sold to the Infirmary Hospital in Bristol. As disagreeable as that may sound, selling medicinal leeches in the nineteenth century was a perfectly respectable trade, and provided an income well above the average. In 1853, Mary moved to Bristol, taking up residence at Number 11, Princess Street, where she lived for the rest of her life. She carried on with her business until her death, at the age of seventy-five, on Christmas Eve of 1864. She was quietly buried in an unmarked grave in the Hebron Road Cemetary in Bristol. However, in March of 2006, a blue plaque was placed outside her last residence in Bristol, to commemorate the exotic and fascinating Princess Caraboo.

Two centuries ago, a destitute and melancholy young woman transformed herself into a foreign princess and, for a time, became a well-known personage, first in Bristol, and then all across Britain. Many notable people paid her a visit, hoping that some of her celebrity might be transferred to them. Yet nearly all of these people became quite indignant when they discovered she was not what they thought her to be. Fortunately, her benefactress forgave her charade and enabled her to fulfill a lifelong wish, to travel to America. Dear Regency Authors, there are many aspects of the life of Mary Baker/Princess Caraboo which could be incorporated into a Regency romance. Perhaps Princess Caraboo might make an appearance in person, if the story is set in the Bristol area in the spring of 1817. Or, news reports about the exotic princess might make an interesting topic of conversation in novels set elsewhere in 1817. Then again, the heroine, or other characters in a story, might be subject to some of the experiences detailed in John Gutch’s book about Princess Caraboo.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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One Response to Regency Bicentennial:   The "Debut" of Princess Caraboo

  1. A remarkable imposture indeed!

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