The cobbler's wife didn't know what to do. But thinking that she was probably a foreign beggar, took her to the Overseer of the Poor, whose job it was to arrest and punish all common vagabonds. Alas the Overseer of the Poor was just as mystified by the girl and reluctantly decided to take her up to Knole Park, the large home of Samuel Worrall, county Magistrate in Gloucestershire. Mrs Elizabeth Worrall was enchanted by the young woman’s foreign appearance, but Mr Worrall was doubtful. In language and behaviour the woman seemed to be from some distant and exotic nation, but her features were definitely European. Perhaps a Gypsy, Mrs Worrall thought.
The young woman, called Caraboo, soon came to live at Knole Park in Gloucestershire. Then a Portuguese sailor explained she was a royal princess from the unknown island of Javasu. She had been abducted from her home by pirates and had escaped into the English Channel.
When the Worralls learned that Caraboo was royal, they immediately welcomed their visitor in the newspapers, and invited their elegant friends to meet her. For a few weeks the Princess lived in a grand style, spending her days dancing and playing sport, and praying to her god Alla Tallah. The Worralls basked in the reflected glory, and every week more aristocrats poured in to Knole see the exotic lost princess. Caraboo had Orientalist portraits painted by local artists Thomas Barker of Bath and by Edward Bird of Bristol.
It was assumed that, by posing as an exotic foreigner, Mary Baker was simply protecting herself; she believed she would more easily offered assistance while travelling on the open road alone. Yet her deception was aided by the desire of the Worralls and their aristocratic friends to believe that the character was real. According to the Museum of Hoaxes, Princess Caraboo had intuitively appealed to the aesthetic of Romanticism that was emerging in Europe via Byron, Keats & Shelley. People believed Mary looked and acted like their romanticised image of the exotic Orient.
Once her hoax was revealed, Mary also came to symbolise a class issue. Through her talents alone, this working class lass had successfully challenged the upper classes and (briefly) won. The British press had pleasure repeating how she had fooled the upper classes by appealing to their own vanity.
How had this uneducated country girl manage to fool so many educated people, and why? Mrs Worrall asked the editor of Felix Farley's Bristol Journal, John Matthew Gutch, to find out something of the girl's past from Mary herself, and from those who knew her. Gutch published a book that year (1817) which reported the following. Mary Wilcocks had born in 1791, into a very poor family where her siblings had died young. As a young child she worked in wool spinning and weaving, and on local farms as a maid. Mary’s father knew that, from 15, his daughter had not been able to settle down. He thought she was mentally unstable, from rheumatic fever.
When Princess Caraboo moved into Knole Park,
she was very comfortable. And famous.
From Taunton Mary went to Bristol and thence to London, walking and begging along the way. She collapsed, and two women took her to a workhouse hospital, where she was admitted to the fever ward. She stayed several months and was helped by a cleric who found Mary jobs with decent families. These families taught her to read and write, and to care for children.
After working in London, Mary eventually arrived home in 1813 where her mother found her a tough job working for a tanner. After a couple of other jobs she again headed back to London, where she worked for a Billingsgate fishmonger. Mary claimed that while working there, in 1814, she had a love affair with a Mr Baker. After two months they were married and lived together in London. Then her husband sailed to Calais, promising to bring her over to France. But that was the last she ever heard from him. In early 1816, she found she was pregnant.
She managed to get a job working behind the bar in a pub and delivered the baby boy in Feb 1816. Both mother and baby were sent to St Mary's Workhouse and then to the Foundling Hospital. Mary found employment again, and visited the child weekly at the Foundling Hospital, until he died in October 1816. In February 1817 Mary set out for Bristol to leave for the Indies. But rather than going north to Bristol, she ended up begging on the road to Plymouth, and staying with gypsies.
She was now looking for a ship to take her to Philadelphia, and found she could travel steerage on a ship leaving soon for five guineas, a lot of money for her to raise. She found lodgings sharing a room in a respectable house belonging to a Mrs Neale, and started looking more exotic. Soon Mary was on the road again, this time to Gloucester and to her new life as Princess Caraboo.
In time Mary Wilcocks Baker became an embarrassment to the kind-hearted Worralls in Bristol, so they decided to send her to America and bought her a one-way ticket to Philadelphia. Mary sailed in June 1817 where she was greeted by enthusiastic crowds as Princess Caraboo.
After seven years she tired of America and returned to England in 1824 where, as Princess Caraboo, she occasionally gave public performances. But as the popular memory of her story faded, Mary made a decent living at the Infirmary Hospital in Bristol where she had a daughter in 1829.
Mary Wilcocks Baker died in 1864, aged 75.
Clearly Mary was not the first imposter to fool high society, but she was one of the most successful. Yet while I believe she was an neglected, overworked and possibly psychotic teenage mother who was just trying to salvage a life for herself, the historical context for well thought-out hoaxes in the 19th century/early 20th century seemed different.
Along with many other C19th hoaxers, Mary was often seen as a clever prankster, not doing much harm beyond pointing out how gullible some people were. Consider the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) who enjoyed hiding the truth from his readers, to force them to play detective. He published six famous hoaxes during his life.
In 1897 a teenage Harold Bell Lasseter (1880-?) staggered out of the Australian desert almost dead, his pockets bulging with gold, claiming to have found a 15 kilometre gold reef. Not long after the find, his horses died; he became lost and would have perished but for the intervention of an Afghan camel rider-surveyor. But no scientific team ever found the reef, despite expensive and dangerous expeditions later on.
And think about Horace de Vere Cole, the fake Sultan of Zanzibar, and his team of playful rogues in 1910 who cleverly fooled the entire British Navy. In some circles, de Vere Cole and the others were heroes, challenging the existing power structures and questioning Britain’s militarism. But in time it became clear that this compulsive hoaxer had alienated everyone in Britain, including the Navy.
In 1917 The Cottingley Fairies was a series of photographs taken by young girls near Bradford in England. The faked pictures of fairies might not have mattered, had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle not been fooled. This well respected author published the photos to prove that fairies were real and wrote widely on the topic of psychic phenomena.
Blue Plaque, 2007
11 Princess St Bristol
Mary Wilcocks Baker's last home
The community must have forgiven Mary Wilcocks Baker for fooling the newspapers, Samuel and Elizabeth Woorall and their aristocratic friends. A film of Mary Willcocks' life, Princess Caraboo, was made by Disney in 1994; it starred Kevin Kline, Jim Broadbent and Phoebe Cates. In 2007 a blue plaque was placed on the front wall of 11 Princess Street in Bristol, telling the story of Princess Caraboo and the house she lived in for the last 15 years of her life. The Blue Plaque organisers were impressed "that Mary dared to escape her menial position and perpetrate such a complicated hoax was nothing short of wondrous. Mary Willcocks should be an inspiration to anyone who feels held back by their position in society." Now a full stage musical, Princess Caraboo, opened in March 2016 in a small Earl's Court theatre. The lyrics were written by Phil Willmott and the music was composed by Mark Collins. I wonder if a musical or ballet will come out about Horace de Vere Cole or Harold Bell Lasseter any time soon.