Photo of the Day

Princess Caraboo of Javasu (Mary Baker), 1817 (oil on panel) by Bird, Edward (1722-1819) Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.

Princess Caraboo

A Foreign Princess from an Exotic Land

She was walking erratically on the road. Her clothes were dirty but unusually exotic, and she sported a turban wrapped around her head. The cobbler asked the strange woman if she needed assistance, but she responded in an unfamiliar language the cobbler could not understand. Nobody knew who this woman was, but they would quickly grow to know her as Princess Caraboo.

In 1817, a mysterious, attractive woman surfaced in a small village near Bristol, England. She wore a dark turban and spoke a language that was unintelligible to baffled locals. Though she was at first assumed to be a foreign peasant, the woman — with help of a Portuguese sailor who claimed to understand her dialect — managed to convince her hosts that she was, in fact, a princess from an island called Javasu. Princess Caraboo, as she became known, spun an engrossing saga about having been abducted by pirates, whom she escaped by jumping overboard and swimming to shore through the stormy English Channel.

It was a fantastical tale, and Princess Caraboo quickly vaulted to fame. But it was, of course, too good to be true. After reading her story in a local newspaper, a woman outed Caraboo, noting that the phony Princess — whom the woman had employed as a servant — had entertained children by speaking in invented tongues. Princess Caraboo, it turned out, came from no more exotic a locale than Devonshire, England, where she was born Mary Baker, the daughter of a cobbler.

Thursday 3 April 1817 was a strange day indeed in the village of Almondsbury, near Bristol; the events that unfolded, quickly brought the village notoriety. An extraordinary woman, wearing a black turban, a plain black dress with a high muslin collar and speaking an incomprehensible language simply appeared in the midst of the village. Apparently exhausted and starving, her entire possessions were wrapped up in a small cloth bundle.

She carried a small bundle on her arm containing a few necessities, including soap and a few halfpennies and a ‘bad’ sixpence.

Villagers watched as the woman, in her mid-twenties, knocked at the door of a cottage, the home of the village cobbler, and uttered strange words to the owners. She talked in a language that no one could understand, but by her signs, the cobbler realised that she was asking for food and shelter. Given some bread and milk, she also mimed that she wanted to sleep, however the cobbler’s wife was not happy about admitting this stranger to her house and so she was taken to the Overseer of the Poor, Mr Hill, whose job it was to bring anyone suspected of vagrancy before the Justice of the Peace. He took her to Knole Park House, the home of Samuel Worrall, the Town Clerk of Bristol and a magistrate. Being kindly people, he and his wife, Elizabeth, gave the woman hospitality and tried to discover more about her background, but to no avail.

At first, it was obvious that the woman could not remain at Knole. She was a homeless girl with a counterfeit coin in her pocket and it was out of the question for someone in Worrall’s position to harbour someone who could be a criminal. However she had made quite an impression on Elizabeth and she arranged for the woman to be given a room at the local inn, The Bowl.

At the time botanical prints were all the rage and popular as decorative items and on the wall of the inn’s parlour was a picture of a pineapple. The woman pointed to the picture and said the word ‘Nanas’, Indonesian for pineapple. The effect was electrifying – the witnesses were convinced that the exotic fruit was from the mysterious stranger’s homeland and assumed her to be from Asia.

Invited back to Knole by Elizabeth, the young woman had some curious habits, including an interest in Chinese imagery, sleeping on the floor and going on to the roof of the Worralls’ home to pray. The woman apparently called herself ‘Caraboo’ and only drank tea and ate vegetables. Mr Worrall, however, was still unsure and declared that the lady was a beggar who should be taken to Bristol and tried for vagrancy.

The woman was taken to Bristol to be examined by the mayor and then on to St Peter’s Hospital, which cared for vagrants. However, she caused so many problems there that she was put back to the Worralls’ care. By now word had spread of the attractive foreign stranger and curious members of society came to visit the woman now known as Caraboo. The stranger was being treated like a visiting head of state.

After around ten days, Caraboo was introduced to a Portuguese sailor, Manuel Eynesso (or Enes) who could apparently understand her language. He translated her story – the woman claimed to be Princess Caraboo of Javasu, an island in the Indian Ocean who been kidnapped from her home by pirates and held captive on their ship. She claimed to have escaped by jumping overboard into the Bristol Channel and swimming ashore.

Numerous people learned about Caraboo and were so curious to meet her, she was visited by throngs of people. This encouraged Mrs Worrall to take Caraboo back to Knowle, where the well-travelled gentleman, who had recently returned from the Indies, came to visit.

He talked to Caraboo and “by means of signs, gestures, and articulations … found that she was (according to her own account) a daughter of a man of rank [of Chinese origin and from Javasu].” Caraboo also claimed she was a princess, “carried on men’s shoulders in a kind of palanquin, and to have been adorned with seven peacock’s feathers on her head.” Furthermore, she declared that while in her garden, she had been kidnapped, carried off by a nefarious crew, and sold to the captain of a ship that set to sea. After five weeks at sea, when the ship was near land, she claimed to have jumped overboard. She then “found herself on the Gloucestershire coast, whence she wandered about for six weeks, till she arrived at Almondsbury.”

When Worrall’s learned they had a princess in their midst, they began to call her Princess Caraboo and cater to her: Her portrait was painted and she lived in luxury for some ten weeks. But in reality, Princess Caraboo was no princess, and it did not take long for her fraud to unwind. First, she had several curious traits and habits:

“[She] preferred rice to bread; [ate] no meat, drank only water and tea … was very fond of Indian curry … refused pidgeon [sic] … that was dressed, but having a live one put into her hands, she cut off its head, which she buried together with its blood under the earth, and then dressed and [ate] the other part.”

She also bathed in garden water, shot a bow and arrow with exceptional skill, and was an excellent swimmer.

Princess Caraboo from an engraving by Henry Meyer, 1908.

For ten weeks ‘Princess Caraboo’ danced exotically for the magistrate’s friends, used a bow and arrow, fenced, prayed to her god, whom she named ‘Allah-Talla’, and even swam naked in a lake when she was on her own. Having become something of a celebrity she acquired exotic clothing, had her portrait painted and even had a ball in Bath held in her honour. Her authenticity was attested to by a Dr Wilkinson, who identified her language using Edmund Fry’s Pantographia and stated that marks on the back of her head were the work of oriental surgeons.

Moreover, her handwriting was also curious. When a handwriting sample was submitted to Archbishop Whately, he declared it to be “many pot-hooks and unmeaning scrawls, several words and some half sentences in Portuguese.” In other words, it was nothing more than humbug and, the archbishop declared it as such noting, “[it is] the writing of no known language!”

By all accounts, Princess Caraboo was having a wonderful time until the landlady of a boarding house in Bristol recognised the description of the woman in a newspaper report. She had provided her with lodgings some six months earlier.

Soon after the archbishop’s declaration, a Mrs Neale who was a housekeeper, walked into Mrs Worrall’s kitchen and exclaimed, “Ah, Mary Baker, how come you [are] here?” Neale also declared that she had long known Mary was not Princess Caraboo. With the Princess Caraboo’s fraud exposed, Mary immediately began to speak English, acknowledged her fraud, and pronounced “she was Mary (Willcocks) Baker; [and] that she was born in Witheridge, in Devonshire, in 1791.”

Her ruse, which had gone on for three months, was over. It transpired that the self-styled princess was really Mary Willcocks, who came from Witheridge in Devon. She was no princess, but the daughter of a cobbler. Apparently, she adopted the disguise in the hope that it would make her more interesting.

By now Mr Worrall had also received word from academics about Caraboo’s native script, which he had earlier asked to write down and then sent to Oxford University for examination. The academics described it as a ‘humbug language’ and treated it as a joke. The odd marks on Mary’s head were scars from a crude ‘wet cupping’ operation (a procedure intended to relieve pressure on an ‘overheated brain’ in which the back of the head was shaved, the skin scarred with parallel blades and hot glasses applied to catch the blood) carried out a poorhouse in London.

“CHARACTERS made use of by CARABOO and her AUTOGRAPH of MARY BAKER. The lettered reader will perceive a few perfectly-formed and conjoined Arabic characters; it need not be added, that she copied them from those which some Oriental Scholar wrote before her.” Copied from page 58 of Mr Gutch’s book. “Allah Tallah” is supposed identified in the third row of characters on the right side.

Mary Willcocks expressed a wish to go to America, Despite her fraud, Mrs Worrall took pity on her. She also paid Baker’s passage to Philadelphia., accompanied by a chaperone. The journey, however, was not uneventful.

Unfortunately, Baker’s boat was blown off course, and she appeared in St. Helena claiming once again to be Princess Caraboo. The story of this event appeared in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal dated 13 September 1817.

Accordingly, Sir Hudson Lowe, the official in charge of the exiled Emperor Napoleon on St. Helena, was reputedly on the beach when the princess washed ashore. Princess Caraboo, as she claimed to be, told Lowe that she and Napoleon’s fortunes were intertwined and asked to meet him. Hudson was intrigued and “introduced her to Bonaparte under the name of Caraboo!” Reputedly, Lowe declared Napoleon was so extraordinarily delighted with her it was reported,

“[He] intimated … his determination to apply to the Pope for a dispensation to dissolve his marriage with Marie Louise, and to sanction his indisoluble [sic] union with the enchanting Caraboo.”

Whether or not this outlandish story is true seems never to have been fully authenticated.

Mary Willcocks stayed in America for seven years before returning to England. She made one last appearance as Princess Caraboo in a London gallery, where she charged visitors a shilling to see her. The fake princess then returned to Bristol and married a Robert Baker, ten years her senior, and set up business in Bedminster as an importer and seller of leeches, then an important medical commodity. One of her clients was the Bristol Infirmary. Their daughter, Mary Ann, was born around 1829.

When Mary Baker died in 1864 at the age of 75, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Hebron Churchyard, Southville. Her daughter Mary Ann carried on the business of selling leeches.

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 fooling people into thinking she was a foreign princess and was published as a book in August that year.

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.

“NUMERICAL CHARACTERS, with their Significations, made use of by CARABOO.” Copied from page 59 of Mr Gutch’s book.

Real Mary’s History

Mary Baker, as she called herself, was twenty-six years old and had born in 1791, into a very poor family where six of her brothers and sisters had died young. From the age of eight she was wool spinning and weaving, and occasionally working on local farms. Later she worked as a maid in a house in Exeter but walked out after eight weeks because the work was too hard. She went back home to Witheridge, but found life there unbearable after her taste of the outside world, and ran away after a week.

On the road to Taunton Mary said she had attempted to hang herself from a tree by her apron-strings, but heard a voice in her head telling her it was a sin. She then met a man on the road who felt sorry for her and gave her enough money for three night’s lodgings in Taunton. After Taunton she went to Bristol, begging along the way, then decided to walk to London. She got within thirty miles of the city before collapsing, to be given a lift by a waggoner with two other women as far as Hyde Park Corner. Here, she again collapsed, and the two women, realising she was very ill, took her to St. Giles’ Workhouse Hospital, where she was admitted to the fever ward.

At the hospital, Mary was given boiling hot baths and had the back of her head ‘cupped’ in a painful operation without anaesthetic, which involved cutting the skin in several places and applying hot glasses to draw the blood out, supposedly to alleviate the fever. She stayed several months before she was taken into the care of a Presbyterian clergyman called Pattenden, who took a liking to her though he found her ‘odd and eccentric’. Mr Pattenden found Mary a job with a Mr and Mrs Matthews, looking after their children. Here she became good friends with the cook of a Jewish family who lived next door and developed an interest in their prayers, diet, and the Hebrew alphabet, which would come in useful when she assumed the role of Princess Caraboo four years later.

Mary also learned to read and write while she was with the Matthews family, and wrote letters home to her family. She made up imaginative stories and games for the children and all seemed to be going well.

Then, in April 1812, she suddenly left. For some reason, she spent four days at St. Mary’s workhouse, and then went back. The Matthews liked her, but found her behaviour mysterious and eccentric; she sometimes told them she would like to go and live wild in the woods.

This is a copy of Mr E. Bird’s portrait of “Caraboo” in the clothing that she made as part of her “native” costume. An engraving of this portrait was inserted into Mr Gutch’s book between pages 8 and 9. The original caption reads: “CARABOO PRINCESS OF JAVASU, alias MARY BAKER.”

In the Autumn of 1812, Mary left the Matthews house for good after an argument. She wanted to go abroad and persuaded a friend, a Mrs Baynes, to write a letter to her parents saying that she’d ‘left England with a travelling family.’ But in reality, in February 1813, she applied to the Magdalen Hospital for reformed prostitutes under the name of Ann Burgess, Burgess being her mother’s maiden name. She told Gutch and others that she mistook the place for a nunnery, but this was pure fantasy. At first, she told the Magdalen Committee that she’d been seduced by a gentleman staying at a house she’d worked at in Devon.

The gentleman had taken her to London, she said but abandoned her after a month. After this, she ‘went on the town’ leading a loose life. She was accepted and given work as a housemaid. But a few weeks later she admitted that she’d never been a prostitute, her name was not Burgess, and she’d just needed somewhere to stay. The officials asked her about living relations, her father was dead, she told him, and if they asked her anymore about her family she would hang herself. The records of Magdalen Hospital show her to have been well behaved during her stay, though ‘very eccentric’, and given to depression and restlessness. This latter was particularly true, and she left the hospital in July.

According to Mary’s story, the next thing she did was to set off back home to Witheridge, disguised as a man because of the dangers of walking across Hounslow Heath alone. She then crossed Salisbury Plain where, according to her, she was kidnapped by highwaymen who took her back to their camp. When they discovered she was a girl they were ready to shoot her as a police spy, but she begged for her life and was released.

She eventually arrived home in Autumn 1813. Her mother found her a job working for a leather-worker and tanner in Crediton, a few miles from her village. She left after three months, objecting to having to carry the hides. After a couple of other jobs, she again headed back to London, where she worked for a fishmonger in Billingsgate. Mary claimed that while working here, in Spring 1814, she had a love affair with a gentleman called Baker. After two months they were married and lived together for a while in London and possibly at Battle, near Hastings. Then her husband sent her back to London, while he sailed to Calais, promising to bring her over to France. But that was the last she ever heard from him. Whether any of this was true remains open to question, but when Mary returned to London at the beginning of 1816, she was pregnant. She managed to get a job working behind the bar in a pub run by a Mrs Clark, where she called herself  Hannah and developed a reputation for telling strange stories.

The baby was born on 11th February 1816; where, remains a mystery. He was christened John Wilcox, but Mary called him John Edward Francis Baker. As there was no father present for support and Mary had no money, both were sent to St. Mary’s Workhouse on 19th April, where they stayed until the 17th June. Here she was persuaded to give the child to the Foundling Hospital. But to do this she had to give references, personal details – something she was never happy doing – and say why she could not support the child herself. The few prosaic facts she subsequently provided are probably as close to the truth as she ever came.

She gave her name as Mary Willcocks, said she was unmarried, aged 25, and that the father of the child was John Baker, a bricklayer from Exeter. In a more detailed statement given later at the hospital, she said they’d lived together for nine months in Exeter before walking to London, where he deserted her.

After she left the hospital Mary found employment again, and visited the child at the Foundling Hospital every Monday, until, on the 27th of October 1816, he died.

At this time she was working for a family called Starling, and Mrs Starling remembered her telling them that the child had died at her mother’s house. She also said that Mary was an excellent servant but ‘out of her mind’. She described her behaviour as eccentric and unusual, always telling the children frightening stories about gipsies, and that she’d been born in the East Indies and the baby was born in Philadelphia. She was eventually sacked in November for setting fire to the beds.

She may have spent Christmas 1816 in France, but she returned to Devon in February 1817 by coach. Coach travel was expensive, so she must have had money from somewhere. She told her parents that the baby had died and she was coming to say goodbye before she sailed for the Indies. After ten days at home, she sent her trunk on ahead and set out for Bristol to leave for the Indies. But rather than going north to Bristol, she ended up begging on the road to Plymouth, and according to her account, staying with gipsies. She left them and headed back to Exeter to Bristol, where she arrived on 10th March.

She was now looking for a ship to take her to Philadelphia and found she could travel steerage on one leaving in fifteen days, for five guineas, which she would have to try and raise. She found lodgings sharing a room with a young Jewish girl called Eleanor, in a respectable house belonging to a Mrs Neale. The two girls went out begging in the streets together during the day. Apparently, after noticing the attention that French lace-makers from Normandy received wearing high lace headdresses, Eleanor persuaded Mary to use her black shawl as a turban to make her look more interesting.

They tried this for a while, but Mary was restless again and left Bristol, still pretending to be French and using her own made up language, begging at various places along the road to Gloucester. This disguise proved successful until she met someone who could speak French, but she quickly improvised and claimed to be Spanish. It was now that she met the wheelwright’s son who helped to expose her later. She spoke to him and various other people they met on the road in her strange language, and they were all eager to help her. When she arrived at a pub speaking her lingo, the landlady asked her in for a drink and soon the whole pub was offering her food and drink, but she refused.

She got away and headed back on road towards Clifton, still accompanied by the wheelwright’s son. Soon after, they met two men, one of whom said he spoke perfect Spanish, so Mary was forced to speak to him in her language, which, amazingly he claimed to understand as Spanish, ‘translating’ what she said and saying that her mother and father were following her along the road. For Mary, this was an important lesson in how to use other people’s ‘expertise’.

By now Mary was tired of the wheelwright’s son, and after letting him buy her a steak and a cup of tea at a pub on the way into Bristol, managed to lose him on the quay.  She stayed the night in lodgings and the next morning started out on the road to Gloucester, once again assuming her character as she headed towards the village of Almondsbury, and fame as Princess Caraboo.

This is a copy of Mr N. Branwhite’s portrait of “Caraboo.” A copy of this was roughly engraved as the frontispiece of Mr Gutch’s book. The original caption reads: “Mary Wilcox of Witheridge, Devonshire, alias CARABOO. Drawn and Engraved by N. Branwhite.”


M
ary Willcocks was not the first impostor to fool high society, but she was one of the most successful. The crucial factor in her hoax seems to have been people’s conviction that she could not understand or read English. Once they believed this they had no scruples about what they said in her presence, thus providing much of the information she needed for her role with their conversations and the books they showed her describing exotic places and languages.

As many who knew her noted, she had a remarkable memory. So, as Mary gathered more detailed information from the various learned visitors to Knole, her role became more substantial and her behaviour more convincingly princess-like. She acted out the role of foreign princess, behaving exactly in the way such a person was supposed to in the eyes of early 19th Century English society.

As with many hoaxes, the desire to believe something is real is extremely important and Mary was surrounded by people, Mrs Worrall in particular, who desperately wanted her to be a foreign princess. She was fulfilling a need for the romance of unseen lands and mysterious populations in people’s monotonous everyday lives. Ignominious end

Maybe she had been to France and picked up some French and Spanish, it certainly seems that she spent some time with the gypsies, as she used some gypsy words as part of her speech. But this was just the veneer – the main part of her character was developed at Knole Park.

On Sunday 28th June 1817, Mary was put on a boat for Philadelphia, in the company of three strictly religious ladies whom Mrs Worrall had asked to take care of her. When they arrived in America, Mary was greeted by enthusiastic crowds as “Princess Caraboo”, and she gave performances as the Princess while there. As Princess Caraboo, Baker appeared on-stage at Washington Hall in Philadelphia with little success.

She returned to London seven years later and, in 1824, “took lodgings in New Bond-street where she exhibited at the charge of one shilling each person.” Apparently, her appearances did not go well because it was reported few persons availed themselves of the opportunity to see her.

Mary subsequently travelled in France and Spain but returned to England to marry and settle down in Bristol, where she had a daughter in 1829. With a strange change of vocation, she made a decent living selling leeches to Bristol Infirmary Hospital. There was a kind of grim humour in the occupation  — that of an importer of leeches; but she conducted her operations with much judgment and ability, and carried on her trade with credit to herself and satisfaction to her customers 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.

And what of the mysterious Portuguese traveller Manuel Eynesso? How had he understood and ‘translated’ her language if she’d made it up? Was he an accomplice? A lover? The father of her child? He was certainly used by Mary to cement her identity. We’ll probably never know the truth, perhaps he was just another hoaxer trying his luck at breaking into high society, as Mary Willcocks had done so successfully.

Baker’s con, though seemingly outrageous, played on many of the stereotypes already held by many people in England at the time. Her portrayal of an Eastern woman—mysterious, exotic, sexual—was born of the depiction of the Orient in popular literature at the time.

Caraboo: A Narrative of a Singular Imposition

Bristol’s Princess Caraboo

Princess Caraboo – Wikipedia

Mary Baker – – Biography.com

Princess Caraboo (1817) – The Museum of Hoaxes

Mary Baker – The Princess Caraboo – Geri Walton

Princess Caraboo Appears ⋆ History Channel

Scandalous Women: The Scandalous Hoax of Princess Caraboo

Legacies – Myths and Legends – England – Bristol – Bristol’s Princess …

Princess Caraboo: A Bizarre Case of Fake Identity | Historic Mysteries

The History Press | The mysterious Princess Caraboo

Faking one’s ethnic origins isn’t all black and white | Daily Telegraph

The Mysterious 19th Century ‘Princess’ Who Fooled a Town Into …

Meet Princess Caraboo: the impostor that fooled the people of a small …


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