The Impostor Princess

On a spring day in 1817, in the small town of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, England, a local cobbler encountered a confused and disoriented young woman. Although she was English in appearance, she was wearing strange clothing, including a turban, and she did not speak or understand English.

No one knew who she was, and she had no money, so the cobbler’s wife brought her to the local Overseer of the Poor. The magistrate, Samuel Worrall, took an interest in this strange woman, so he brought her home to stay with him and his wife until her identity could be determined.

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The woman, who called herself Caraboo, spoke a language that no one could understand. She also exhibited unusual behavior, including sleeping on the floor and refusing to drink out of any glass until she washed it herself. She also grew excited when she saw a drawing of a pineapple, calling it “nanas.” These actions made the Worralls wonder if she might be from some faraway place.

Soon after her arrival, a Portuguese sailor surfaced who said he could understand her language. He told the Worralls that she was Princess Caraboo from Javasu Island in the Indian Ocean. She had ended up in England after being captured by pirates and escaped their ship by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel.

The Worralls were delighted to discover that they were hosting foreign royalty. They placed a notice in the newspapers announcing this fact and spent the next ten weeks supporting her royal lifestyle. Princess Caraboo spent those weeks in an endless round of dances and entertainments. Her foreign culture was also indulged, as she was allowed to pray to “Alla Tallah,” who she said was her god, and as the locals looked the other way as she swam naked in a nearby lake.

Princess Caraboo’s lavish lifestyle with the Worralls came to an abrupt end when a boarding-house keeper recognized her picture from a newspaper story. She informed the Worralls that Caraboo was really a servant girl from Devon, whose real name was Mary Willcocks Baker. She was well-known in her hometown for the fictitious language she invented and which she used to entertain the local children.

Caraboo admitted her deception, saying she had invented her story to garner sympathy since she could not find work. Strangely, the Worralls felt bad for her and paid for her to travel to Philadelphia, in the United States, where she lived for seven years. She returned to England in 1824, where she eventually married and had a daughter. Though she tried to capitalize on her history as Princess Caraboo, the public was no longer interested. She turned to making money by selling leeches to the Bristol Infirmary Hospital. She died in 1864 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Bristol’s Hebron Road Cemetery.

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