On 3 April 1817, a cobbler in Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, England, met an apparently disoriented young woman with exotic clothes, who was speaking a language no one could understand. The cobbler’s wife took her to the Overseer of the Poor, who left her in the hands of the local county magistrate, Samuel Worrall, who lived in Knole Park. Worrall and his American-born wife Elizabeth could not understand her either; all they could determine was that she called herself ‘Caraboo’ and that she was interested in Chinese imagery. They sent her to the local inn, where she identified a drawing of a pineapple with the word ‘ananas,’ which means pineapple in many Indo-European languages, and insisted on sleeping on the floor. Samuel Worrall declared she was a beggar and should be taken to Bristol and tried for vagrancy.
During her imprisonment, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel Eynesso (or Enes) said he knew the language and translated her story. According to Enes, she was Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean. She had been captured by pirates and after a long voyage she had jumped overboard in the Bristol Channel and swam ashore.
The Worralls brought Caraboo back to their home. For the next ten weeks, this representative of exotic royalty was a favourite of the local dignitaries. She used a bow and arrow, fenced, swam naked and prayed to a god, whom she termed Alla-Tallah. She acquired exotic clothing and a portrait made of her was reproduced in local newspapers. 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.
Baker’s Javasu Writing
Eventually the truth came out. A boarding-house keeper, Mrs. Neale, recognised her from the picture in the Bristol Journal and informed her hosts. The would-be princess was actually a cobbler’s daughter, Mary Baker (née Willcocks) from Witheridge, Devon. She had been a servant girl in various places all over England but had not found a place to stay. She had invented a fictitious language out of imaginary and gypsy words and created an exotic character. The strange marks on her skin were the scars from a crude cupping operation in a poorhouse hospital in London. The British press had a field day at the expense of the duped rustic middle-class.
Her hosts arranged for her to leave for Philadelphia, and she departed 28 June 1817.
On 13 September 1817, a letter was printed in the Bristol Journal, allegedly from Sir Hudson Lowe, the official in charge of the exiled Emperor Napoleon on St. Helena. It claimed that after the Philadelphia-bound ship bearing the beautiful Caraboo had been driven close to the island by a tempest, the intrepid princess had impulsively cut herself adrift in a small boat, rowed ashore and so fascinated the emperor that he was applying to the Pope for a dispensation to marry her. The story is unverified.
In the USA, she briefly continued her role, appearing on-stage at the Washington Hall, Philadelphia, as ‘Princess Caraboo,’ but with little success. Her last contact with the Worralls was a letter from New York in November 1817, in which she complained of her notoriety. She appears to have returned to Philadelphia until she finally left America in 1824, returning to England.
In 1824 she returned to Britain and briefly exhibited herself in New Bond Street, London, as ‘Princess Caraboo’ but her act was no longer very successful. She may have briefly travelled to France and Spain in her guise but soon returned to England. In September 1828, she was living as a widow in Bedminster under the name Mary Burgess (in reality the name of a cousin). There she married a Richard Baker, and gave birth to a daughter the next year. In 1839, she was selling leeches to the Bristol Infirmary Hospital. She died on 24 December 1864 and was buried in the Hebron Road cemetery in Bristol.
The hoax was the basis of the 1994 film Princess Caraboo, written by Michael Austin and John Wells, which added some fictional incidents to the true story.