The Unexplained: The Mysterious Imposter

Princess Caraboo who led two lives

The disoriented young woman claimed she was Princess Caraboo and had been held captive on a boat by pirates. But was it all an act?

In the early 1800s, the good citizens of Almondsbury, Gloucestershire, England were in for an exciting event.  A cobbler in that village came upon a wandering, disoriented young woman.  She was draped in exotic robes and wore an elaborate headdress.

He tried to communicate with the confused and anxious girl, but he could not understand her language.  The kindly cobbler was able to persuade the woman to follow him home and he turned her over to his wife.  The wife could not understand her language either.

She felt the best way to help the girl was to take her to the Overseer of the Poor.  From there she was taken to magistrate Samuel Worrall.  Worrall and his wife worked with the girl for quite some time and gleaned a little information.

Her name was Caraboo and her language seemed similar to those spoken in Indonesia. She was interested in Chinese images.  She had seen some in a local establishment and zoomed right in on them.  Caraboo insisted on sleeping on the floor which did not help her plight.

Worrall had a change of heart for the worse and decided she was a beggar.  He decided to have her jailed.  This true tale of old had an interesting twist when she met another prisoner there.  Fellow prisoners witnessed Caraboo conversing easily with another prisoner.  He was a Portuguese sailor.  From this sailor who could understand Caraboo, Worrall was able to learn the girl’s personal history.

Sara Marie Hogg

The sailor, Manuel Enes, translated that she was actually a foreign princess.  She was Princess Caraboo.  She had been held captive on a boat by pirates.  When the boat got close to some land, she saw her chance in the Bristol Channel.  She jumped overboard and made a swim for it.  The girl discovered by the cobbler was from an island in the Indian Ocean, Javasu?

Then Worralls had another change of heart and took the princess back to their home where she was pampered.  She was a welcome distraction in the area.  Dignitaries marveled as she practiced fencing, shooting a bow and arrow, all with aplomb.  And oh, she was known to take swims in her birthday suit.  She said chants aloud to Allah Talla.

Highly entertained, the locals even had her portrait painted.

A Dr. Wilkinson came forward and announced to everyone that he had figured out more tidbits about her past.  He had pinned down her Indonesian language—It was Jsavasu—and he had noticed strange markings on the back of her head.  They were made by learned oriental surgeons, he opined.

Things were marvelous until one day a boarding house manager came forward with some unasked-for information.  A Mrs. Neale thought something seemed familiar about Princess Caraboo when she saw a portrait of her in the Bristol Journal.

Where had she seen her before?

It did not take long to figure out, and when she did, she thought it her duty to contact Mr. and Mrs. Worrall.  The hosts of the princess were flabbergasted.

Caraboo was actually a cobbler’s daughter from Devon, Mary Willcocks.  She had been employed all over the area as a servant girl but she had no place to stay and could not afford to pay for housing.  She cooked up the mysterious story and persona in hopes that it would lead to a better life.

Cupping was a prevalent medical practice of the time, and a botched cupping incident in a poor house had caused the scars on Mary’s head.

Samuel Worrall’s wife was an American and she could not help but take pity on the girl.  She arranged for Mary to gain passage to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, Mary Willcocks tried to again capitalize on her royal bearing.  She created a stage act at Washington Hall where she played the character, Princess Caraboo.  It was not a success.

The Worralls received a letter from Mary Willcocks from New York, so somehow she had made it to that location in November of 1817.  In the letter, she bemoaned her notoriety.

Other sparse correspondence indicated she had returned to Philadelphia and survived there somehow until 1824 when she was able to get passage back to England.  After arriving there, she tried to market herself as Princess Caraboo on Bond Street in London.

It was not SRO, in other words, quite a failure.  She possibly tried to take her Princess Caraboo act to France and Spain but returned to England a failed novelty act.

n England, she had a brief spell of stability when a Mr. Richard Baker married the widow woman Mary Burgess.  Mary Willcocks had borrowed the name of a cousin to live a more quiet life when Mr. Baker asked for her hand in marriage in 1828.  They had a daughter, Mary Ann, in 1829.

By 1839, Mary was supporting her household by selling leeches to Bristol Infirmary Hospital.  I don’t know what happened to her husband.  He either left or died.  Mary’s daughter, Mary Ann helped her in the business of selling leeches. After Mary died from a fall in December of 1864, her daughter, Mary Ann, took over the leech-selling business until she lost her life in a fire in February of 1900.

From fascinating princess to a purveyor of leeches in one fell swoop—almost.  I now must know how live leeches were harvested at the time.  No telling what other bizarre mysteries are walking all around us each and every day.

SMH

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