On this day in 1817, Princess Caraboo appeared in an English village and took the country by storm.
On 3 April, the village of Almondsbury, near Bristol, England, was abuzz with the news: a confused young woman wearing strange clothes and speaking an incomprehensible tongue had wandered into town looking for help. Thinking she was a foreign beggar, villagers took her to the local poorhouse. Unsure what to do with her, the Overseer of the Poor carted the girl to the local county magistrate, Samuel Worrall, in Knole Park. The Worralls couldn’t understand the strange girl either, and suspicious that she was an agent of Napoleon, sent her to a local inn to spend the night. There, the girl saw a print of a pineapple and excitedly identified it “ananas.” When shown the bed, she appeared confused and slept instead on the floor.
Soon, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel Eynesso arrived in town and claimed to understand the girl’s language. He relayed her story: The girl’s name was Caraboo and she was a princess from the Indian Ocean island of Javasu. She had been abducted by pirates, taken on a long journey, and escaped by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel before swimming ashore and wandering into Almondsbury. Townspeople were delighted to be in the midst of a foreign princess, and embraced Caraboo. For months, she was treated as foreign royalty. Local dignitaries came to see her and she impressed all with her foreign customs–using a bow and arrow, swimming naked, dancing exotically, and praying to a different god. The newspapers were filled with portraits and articles of the exotic Princess Caraboo and she quickly became a national figure in England.
And then, sometime in June, a certain Mrs. Neale, owner of a Bristol lodging house, saw a picture of “Princess Caraboo” in the local paper and immediately recognised her. She had been a lodger and often entertained Mrs. Neale’s daughter with an invented foreign tongue, play-acting with a black turban. Princess Caraboo was, in fact, Mary Baker (née Willcocks), a cobbler’s daughter from Witheridge, Devon. She had worked as a servant girl all over England and needed a place to stay, so she made up a fictitious language and created an exotic character. Once again, the papers were filled with stories of the commoner-turned-exotic princess hoax, which presented Baker as a working class heroine who duped high society and exposed the vanity of the experts who visited her.
On 28 June, Mary Baker was shipped off to Philadelphia where she was enthusiastically received and asked to perform as Princess Caraboo. In 1824 she returned to England, where she continued her act unsuccessfully. She eventually settled down and married in Bristol, had a daughter, and made a living selling leeches to the hospital. She died in 1864 at the age of 75. On 26 March 2006, a plaque commemorating her life was unveiled in Bristol, where she lived the last 11 years of her life.