Princess Caraboo

21 Jan

A Painting of Princess Caraboo

Totally true story.

1817. Almondsbury in +.

On the evening of Thursday, April 3rd a bizarre young woman with black hair, black eyes and a black turban showed up at the house of a cobbler. The woman spoke an indecipherable language, but seemed to want somewhere to sleep.

In those days in England being homeless was against the law, as was begging. Beggars and homeless (or homeless beggars) were sent to work houses, prison or even Australia. The cobbler’s wife ahd no idea what to do with the stranger so followed the law and took her to the Overseer Of The Poor.

The Overseer however, was bewildered by the girl. He attempted to discover which language she spoke and when he could not, decided to take her to the Magistrate, whose wife had a Greek manservant familiar with many European languages. The girl has distinctly European characteristics, and so he hoped to find out her story.

Thus the Magistrate, Samuel Worrall came to meet the girl. However neither the servant, nor anyone else at his home could decipher the girl’s speech. All she had in her pockets was a few coins, one of them counterfeit, an offense punishable by death, and a bar of soap wrapped in a piece of linen. Her hands were quite well manicured and soft, showing no signs of real work. She had strange marks on the back of her head.

They sent her to a local inn to stay the night. When she saw a picture of a pineapple on the wall she pointed to it excitedly and said “Ananas!” over and over again. The innkeeper watched her pray strangely many times (to Allah Tallah)?, decline all meat and refuse to sleep on the bed, only sleeping on the floor.

By the time, several days later, she was taken to St. Peter’s hospital in Bristol to await trial for vagrancy all they had managed to figure out was that her name was Caraboo.

At the hospital the girl continued to refuse all sorts of food (including meat), not sleep in beds and pray in her strange way. Finally, however, a Portugese travellor heard her talking and understood her (to a degree). Her story came out:

She was a princess from an island called Javasu, who’d been abducted from her homeland by pirates. During the long, arduous ship ride that followed she managed to jump overboard while the ship was in the Bristol Channel. She swam to shore and wandered until she reached the cobbler’s home where she was first seen.

Upon hearing this, Samuel Worrall immediately brought the princess back to his hometown of Knole to live at his home.

“During her time at Knole the princess delighted the Worralls and their visitors with her idiosyncratic behaviour. She fenced and used a  home-made bow and arrow with great skill, danced exotically, swam naked in the lake when she was alone, and prayed to her supreme being ‘Allah Tallah’ from treetops; all the while maintaining her unusual eating and drinking habits and strange language.”


One Dr. Wilkinson, identified her language using Edmund Fry’s Pantrographia (a book which contained the alphabet of over 200 languages across the globe) and stated that the marks on the back of her head were the work of oriental surgeons.

And thus Princess Caraboo came to stay in Gloucestershire England.

The End.

Except for, as Columbo would say, one last thing.

Each week more and more gentlement and ladies came to check out the princess and her exotic behavior would grow and grow, as would the complexity of her language. She was asked to write something and the writing sample was sent to Oxford. It was returned with only the word “Humbug.”

Newspapers ran stories on her, her portrait was painted, her likeness drawn and printed. She became famous. Aaaaaaaaaaaand that’s when it all fell apart.

“A Mrs. Neale, who ran a lodging house in Bristol,  read the description of the princess in the Bristol Journal and recognised her immediately. A couple of months earlier the girl had been a lodger at a house which she kept with her daughters, and she’d sometimes entertained them by speaking in her own made up language. When she left the house she’d been wearing a turban. ”

In addition, a wheelwright’s son (wheelwright= someone who makes and fixes…. bueller?…. yes, wheels) claimed to have met the princess two days before she showed up at the cobbler’s and eaten meat and drunken rum with him at a public house.

Confronted, she broke down and admitted she was in fact, Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter from Witheridge, Devon. She had wandered all over England as a servant girl, never able to stay anywhere for very long. Indeedn, every spring and autumn she would have a hard time resisting the urge to wander off. She had cared for children, had an excellent memory and imagination and had been fooling around with her own little invented language for years.

The Worralls were shocked, scandalized and immediately put Mary Baker on a ship for America where her notoriety had reached but her exposure had not. Mary tried to keep the princess thing up for awhile, but after a few months all traces of her were lost.

She seems to have returned to England four years later and after giving the Princess thing a few more failed attempts, eventually settled down in Bristol and had a daughter. She sold leeches to the Bristol Infirmary and eventually died in 1865 at 75. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Hebron Road cemetery in Bristol.

The actual end.

P.S.: Apparently there is a 1994 film about all this called, appropriately enough: Princess Caraboo. I have not personally seen it, but it’s out there if you want to.


Posted by on January 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


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3 responses to “Princess Caraboo

  1. Cherries Jubilee

    January 24, 2012 at 12:57 am

    It seems that the Victorian middle class was pretty gullible. There were dozens of scams like this.

    • Valerie

      January 25, 2012 at 9:11 pm

      they just wanted to believe in the exotic and adventurous. but you’re right it happened a lot!

  2. Graham King

    January 26, 2012 at 1:41 am

    An intriguing and touching story. I had heard somewhat of it before but not the whole thing, I think. Thanks for posting it here!


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