08 November 2016

19th century hoaxes: the exotic Princess Caraboo

In April 1817, a confused young woman appeared at a cobbler's cottage in the village of Almondsbury near Bristol. This very attractive stranger wore a black shawl twisted turban-style and spoke a bizarre language.

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.

Princess Caraboo, 
by Edward Bird, 1817
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The excitement only ended when a Mrs Neale, who ran a lodging house in Bristol, read the description of the princess in the Bristol Journal and recognised her. Apparently Caraboo had recently been employed as a servant at Mrs Neale’s house, where she had entertained the children by speaking a made-up language. The Princess’s true name was actually Mary Wilcocks Baker (1791-1864), a Devonshire cobbler’s daughter.

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.


Dina said...

I saw the film. Cute comedy but not too much of an analysis of 19th century class divisions.

LSK said...

The father was a piece of work, the husband was worse and the baby died. What a life.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Mary's early story sounds like a novel by E.F. Benson--who knows, he may have been inspired by her. America, the home of P.T. Barnum, was famous for hoaxes, so no wonder Mary found a good reception there. Barnum knew that people like to be 'humbugged,' and if that also brought down people with pretensions, the laugh was so much the better.

Andrew said...

I'm starting my day with a smile after reading about Princess Caraboo.

Hels said...


Since it was a Disney production, I suppose we could have expected a Cinderella-isation of Mary's story. But when I read the details of the film plot, it seemed over the top in the attention paid romance eg
Mr Worrall recruited investors for the spice trade which would be facilitated by Princess Caraboo when she returned to her native land;
the editor of Felix Farley's Bristol Journal, John Matthew Gutch, fell in love with Mary and left with her for the USA;
Mr Worrall wanted to have Mary hanged, so Mrs Worrall gave Mr Gutch documents implicating her own husband in a bank fraud.

Hels said...


if the details of Mary's life that Gutch uncovered were true, and they seem to be, the young lass had a typically miserable life of a lower class Georgian female. Being taken to a workhouse hospital, where she was admitted to the fever ward, was an act of kindness I suppose. But no woman on the planet would have wanted to live in a brutal workhouse. The same with having to place her beloved baby in a Foundling Hospital, and then watching him die. Nightmare after nightmare.

Hels said...


re PT Barnum knowing that people like to be humbugged, that is a new and important observation to me. That seemed to be what was said about Edgar Allan Poe's hoaxes; he _enjoyed_ hiding the truth from his readers, to get them involved. I presume there was always a revealing moment at the end when the American audiences were shown how they had been fooled.

My feeling about the British and Australian hoaxes were different. If the hoaxers were caught out in the end, it was accidental. In the Ern Malley literature hoax in Australia, careers were ruined :(

Hels said...


I also had a smile when I read that Mary dared to escape her menial position and for her to perpetrate such a complicated hoax was nothing short of wondrous. Mary should be an inspiration to anyone who feels held back by their position in society.

Ironic yes, but also a humorous look at the unhappy world of class struggle.

Parnassus said...

Hello again, If people like Barnum admitted their hoaxes, it was only after they were exposed, or the hoax had run its course and fooled as many people as possible. Otherwise, word would get out and the promoters could not keep cashing in on them. A couple of Barnum's most famous were the Fiji Mermaid (a monkey-fish taxidermy creation), and Joice Heth, an old woman who was claimed to be George Washington's nurse when he was little. On the other hand, you're right. Hoaxes like these were meant to fool the public, not to survive professional scrutiny by doctors and scientists.
I guess we need a classification system of hoaxes according to intent. America has also had its share of serious hoaxes. But surely Princess Caraboo is the spiritual cousin of Joice Heth.


Hels said...


I looked up the 1835-6 Joice Heth hoax, one I had never heard of, and found it to be very strange indeed. I can understand why Barnum did it - to draw crowds, make money and become famous as a showman. But did the Barnums of this world see themselves as part of a long and proud history of creating famous hoaxes? Not the Princess Caraboo and Joice Heth stories - they were too early in the 19th century and in any case Mary Wilcocks Baker was largely illiterate.

But Horace de Vere Cole and his friends were university educated aristocrats with entirely too much time on their hands. By 1910 I can easily see them wanting to be part of the long hoaxing tradition.

Hels said...

Victorian Musings has just reviewed a novel called The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor. It is set of course in Yorkshire and seems to be well worth following up.


Joseph said...

Look what I found, Hel

FairyTale: A True Story is a 1997 French-American fantasy drama film directed by Charles Sturridge and produced by Bruce Davey and Wendy Finerman. It is loosely based on the story of the Cottingley Fairies. Its plot takes place in 1917 in England, and follows two children who take a photograph soon believed to be the first scientific evidence of the existence of fairies.

Hels said...


thank you. I was quite surprised to read that that original event during WW1 was still having an impact on films and literature 80 years later.