The Story of the Mysterious 19th Century ‘Princess’ Who Fooled a Town
On April 3, 1817, a confused young woman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in the small village of Almondsbury, a few miles north of Bristol in England.
Dressed in a shabby gown and shawl with a turban around her head, she seemed utterly exhausted, as if she had just a long journey. She carried a small bundle of belongings with her, including a bar of soap and some basic toiletries. Most curiously of all, she spoke a language no one in the village could understand.
The locals, understandably, were mystified by her.
They presumed that she was some kind of beggar, so they took her to the overseer of the local poorhouse. But the overseer was suspicious of foreign agents amidst the tense climate following the Napoleonic Wars, so instead of taking her in, he turned her over to the Knole House, the palatial country residence of the local magistrate, Samuel Worrall.
The magistrate called upon his Greek valet, who had an extensive knowledge of many Mediterranean languages, to try to translate what the woman was saying, to no avail. So they have gestured her to produce identification papers but the woman merely emptied a few coins from her pockets.
Worrall was suspicious, but his wife was more fascinated than alarmed by the woman and the circumstances that surrounds her. Mrs. Worrall’s had the mystery woman sent to spend the night at the local inn However, once there, she refused a meal and only drank tea, reciting a prayer beforehand with one hand over her eyes. She seemed to recognize a hanging print of a pineapple on the inn’s wall, giving the locals the impression that she came from some far-flung tropical land. And when she was shown to her room for the night, she just stared curiously at the bed before curling up on the floor to sleep instead.
The next day, Mrs. Worrall had the woman brought back to Knole House. By then, she had been pointing to herself and repeatedly uttering the word “Caraboo.” But Mr. Worrall was fed up and believed she’s doing an act and had her arrested on a charge of vagrancy.
“Caraboo” spent a few days in St. Peter’s Hospital for Vagrants in Bristol,but Mrs. Worrall stepped in and had her removed to Worrall’s offices. By then, news of Almondsbury’s mysterious woman had begun to spread, and dozens of curious locals went for a visit, bringing speakers of different languages. Despite several visitors during her 10-day stay, no one could understand a single word she utters.
Until, finally, someone did.
Upon hearing news of the unsual stranger, Portuguese sailor Manuel Eynesso, who happened to be in Bristol, visited Worrall’s offices to meet with her. Having traveled extensively, Eynesso claimed he recognized Caraboo’s language as a mixture of native tongues from Sumatra. He immediately began to translate her extraordinary story.
Caraboo, Eynesso explained, was no beggar. She was a princess from the Indian Ocean island of “Javasu”. She told Eynesso she had been kidnapped from her homeland by pirates and held captive and that she managed to escape by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel. She had been wandering the countryside for six weeks before reaching Almondsbury.
It was a tale that Mrs. Worrall needed to hear: Caraboo was royalty, and it would be an honor to have her stay at Knole House. For the next 10 weeks, parties and soirées were arranged in Caraboo’s honor, academics highest of high society fawn over here — they were amazed by the story of the penniless beggar who had turned out to be a princess. A certain Dr. Wilkinson wrote a glowing account of her, noting, “Nothing has yet transpired to authorize the slightest suspicion of Caraboo.” But all that was about to change.
Word of Princess Caraboo continued to spread and a few weeks later a description of her was printed in the Bristol Journal. A copy found its way to Mrs Neal, the owner of a local boarding house, who immediately recognized the controversial woman — but not as a kidnapped Javanese princess. Mrs. Neale believed Caraboo was actually Mary Baker, a former guest of her and a cobbler’s daughter from Witheridge, a village 70 miles away. The mysterious Princess Caraboo, Mrs. Neale said, was a hoax.
Messages soon reached Mrs. Worrall who was at first skeptical of Mrs. Neale’s version of events. Mrs. Worrall had “Princess Caraboo” accompany her to Bristol under the pretense of having her portrait painted for her. What Mrs. Worrall really wanted to do was meet with Mrs. Neale in person, and after a brief conversation, she was convinced that “Princess Caraboo” was indeed an imposter. Following months of deception, once confronted by Mrs. Worrall, a tearful “Caraboo”—a.k.a. Baker – admitted everything.
Mary Baker was born in rural Devon in 1791. She had a falling out with her parents at a young age. She has had a string of jobs across the south of England before ending up begging on the streets in and around Bristol in the early 1810s. It was there that she realized that posing as a foreigner allowed her to elicit more sympathy (and therefore money) from the public. After coming up with the character of “Princess Caraboo” to entertain the children at Mrs. Neale’s guesthouse, she then applied her inventiveness to deceive the people of Almondsbury. There never was any “Javasu.”
Once news of Baker’s hoax broke, the press were on it again — but rather than turn it against her, the majority of journalists spun the tale as an unlikely triumph of the working classes over the aristocracy. Baker actually became an unlikely heroine: an ill-educated, downtrodden girl who, through her own quick-wittedness and guts, had managed to infiltrate the highest of high society, thereby exposing their fickleness and vanity.
Even Mrs. Worrall came to appreciate Baker’s success.
Although initially angry, Mrs. Worrall soon came to view Baker’s real-life story with empathy and open-mindedness as she had the princess’s tale. She resolved to continue to help Baker make a better life for herself, and raised funds for her to relocate to Philadelphia in 1817 to make a fresh start.
Once in America, Baker cashed in on her notoriety and put on a short-lived stage show in New York based on her Princess Caraboo character. A few years later, she returned to England and staged the same show in London but it was only a marginal success as the Caraboo craze has already subsided.
Census records show that by the late 1820s, Baker (now a widow named Mary Burgess) was living back near Bristol, and making her living selling leeches to the local infirmary. She continued that vocation for 30 years, before dying of a heart attack in 1864—taking the mysterious character of “Princess Caraboo” with her.
As for the “Portuguese sailor” who translated her story, it’s not clear how he could have understood a made – up language — unless he, too, was an imposter.