Mary Baker – The Princess Caraboo

Princess Caraboo, Public Domain
Princess Caraboo, Public Domain

On 3 April 1817, on a road near Bristol, a fatigued but beautiful young woman, about twenty-five years old, was discovered. She spoke a language no one understood, made signs of distress, and wore foreign garb — “she was clad in a black stuff gown, with a muslin frill at the neck, round her shoulders she wore a red and black cotton shawl, and a black shawl … covered her head.” As no one could understand her, she was taken to the house of the magistrate, a Mr. Worrall, who resided in Knowle in the parish of Almondsbury.

The magistrate’s wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Worrall, took pity on the young woman and sent her with her maid to a public house in the village where she ate supper and was given a bed. The next morning Mrs. Worrall visited the young woman hoping to discover something about her. But no one could understand her language — either written or spoken — until, after some time and great effort, somehow the young woman came to understand what was “desired of her, [and] she pointed to herself and cried ‘Caraboo.'”

Princess Caraboo
Princess Caraboo, Public Domain

The next day Mrs. Worrall took Caraboo to Bristol where she was committed as a vagrant to St. Peter’s Hospital. However, in the meantime, 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 a well-traveled 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.”

Javasu Characters Written by Princess Caraboo, Public Domain
Javasu Characters Written by Princess Caraboo, Public Domain

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

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.”

Despite Baker’s fraud, Mrs. Worrall took pity on her. She also paid Baker’s passage to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, however, 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.

Princess Caraboo, Public Domain
Princess Caraboo, Public Domain

From St. Helena, Princess Caraboo went to America. Her reputation preceded her there and she was besieged by curiosity seekers. 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.

After this Baker faded into obscurity, until she died on 4 January 1865, when the following snippet was published in a newspaper summing up her life: “On being desposed [sic] from the honours which had been accorded to her:

“[The] Princess’ … retired into a comparatively humble life, and married. There was a kind of grim humour in the occupation which she subsequently followed — 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.”

She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Hebron Road Cemetery in Bristol.

References:

  • Blacker, Rev. Beaver H. ed., Gloucestershire Notes and Queries: An Illustrated Quarterly, Vol. 3, 1887
  • “Death of the Princess Caraboo”, in Western Times, pg 8, 20 January 1864
  • Farrar, Mrs. John, My Life’s Romance, or Recollections of Seventy years’ Experiences in Various Parts of the Word, 1888
  • Hebron Road Cemetery / unmarked grave of “Princess Caraboo” (Bristol) on wikimapia
  • Gutch, John Mathew, Caraboo, 1817
  • “Princess Caraboo,” in Exeter Flying Post, 25 January 1865
  • “Princess Caraboo ,” in Western Morning News, 28 April 1921
  • “The Princess Caraboo,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 19 January 1865
  • “The Princess Caraboo,” in Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 19 January 1865
  • Timbs, John, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, 1877

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