“O young Caraboo is come out of the West,
In frenchified tatters the damsel is drest;
But, save one pair of worsted, she stockings had none,
She walk’d half unshod, and she walk’d all alone;
But how to bamboozle the doxy well knew–
There never was gipsey like young Caraboo.”
(The Bristol Mirror, 1817)
She was an inspired liar; a clever little vagrant. Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter, was born in 1791, in Witheridge, Devon – a tiny village, made of granite and gray. She had no formal education; composed of a wild and uncontrolled disposition, Mary was beyond the control of any teacher. She ran away from home. She was a servant girl, but her roaming ways wouldn’t let her stay in one house for long. She traveled with gypsies. She worked in a pub – calling herself Hannah – and developed a reputation for telling strange stories. She was as opportunistic as a seagull.
In 1817, a disoriented young woman wearing exotic clothes and speaking a mysterious language was found wandering in Almondsbury, Gloucestershire. Seemingly lost and of an itinerant nature, she was taken from the Overseer of the Poor to the local magistrate, Mr. Worrall. He and his wife Elizabeth – being of a sympathetic nature – arranged for the lost one to spend the night in a local public house, with a maid to see to her still obscure needs.
Once in the house’s parlour, she was taken with the dated Chinoiserie carvings and the framed print of a pineapple, calling it “anana”. She ate no flesh, but expressed a desire for tea, over which she prayed, covering her eyes and bowing her head. She could not write her name, but would cry “Caraboo, Caraboo”, pointing to herself. She slept on the floor.
Despite her beguiling eccentricities, Worrall toed the line: she was taken to Bristol where she was tried for vagrancy, then imprisoned at St. Peter’s Hospital “a receptacle for vagrants”. During this time a Portuguese sailor, Manuel Eynesso, claimed he could speak her still unrecognized language and so was introduced to her in the hopes that her history could be discovered. And the story he decrypted would fool the rural upper classes for months.
The oddity they had in custody was Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu, close to Sumatra. She spoke a mix of dialects stirred within the East Indies. A woman of rank, she was a great prize, and was kidnapped by pirates – bound hand and foot, gagged – though her father in desperation swam after her. After eleven days she was sold to the captain of the Tappa Boo and sailed to Europe. Upon reaching what turned out to be the Bristol Channel, she unloosed herself and swam ashore. In better days she wore a crown of peacock feathers. Her mother wore gold chains, and her nose was pierced with a single jewel – decorations she thought suitable for her daughter, but her father would not consent.
Out of solicitation and fascination, the Worralls set Caraboo up at their home. For ten weeks, she became the favorite plaything of gossips, writers, society hostesses and local dignitaries. She used a bow and arrow, fenced, swam naked and prayed to her god, Alla-Tallah, watching over her from Salem (heaven). According to a witness, “upon giving her some calico, she made herself a dress in the style she had been accustomed to wear… She wore no stockings, but open sandals on the feet with wooden soles.”
The authenticity of her speech was confirmed by Dr. Wilkinson, who – led by his “love of the marvelous” – identified her language using Edmund Fry’s Pantographia, a work 16 years in the making, describing every existing alphabet. He also stated that the odd marks on the back of her head were surely the work of oriental surgeons. (Bristol Times, June 6, 1817)
A craniological description was even taken: “She has SPACE exceedingly developed–in other words, she must be of a roving disposition, and prefer liberty, and “the whole world before her, where to chuse,” to good cheer and a collar, even although it were of gold–that is, she is fitted for a Gypsey–to which she will return.”
Her self-control was even tested. A gentleman, possessed of both humor and curiosity, drew his chair close to her and declared, “You are the most beautiful creature I ever beheld. You are an angel.” But she remained unmoved, her apparent serenity disturbed by neither blush nor smile.
Then suddenly the Princess disappeared. Mrs. Worrall – decidedly more sympathetic than her husband – began a frantic search for her royal on the run. Not surprisingly, Princess Caraboo next appeared in Bath: with its history of the Prince Regent, the Royal Crescent, the Pump Room, beaus and dandies, it was the closest to high society that Gloucestershire got.
By the time the Princess was discovered, she was already the center of the fashionable attentions of the Georgian haut ton. One lady knelt before her; another took her by the hand, begging for a kiss. But when Elizabeth Worrall hurried into the room, the witty girl fell to her knees, embracing her benefactress with such gratitude and grace that her new spectators were captivated. She was able to claim, with great subtlety and conviction that it was the desire to return to Javasu which induced her to run away.
But the truth – sometimes an enemy, sometimes a challenge to the devious personality – eventually came out. A boarding-house keeper, Mrs. Neale saw the princess’ portrait in the Bristol Journal and recognized a former boarder. She immediately informed the Worralls.
More embarrassing facts came out: her strange language was an invention, a sampler of made-up and gypsy words she had picked up from her wanderings with them. The marks on her head were scars from a ‘cupping’ operation she endured in a London poorhouse: the skin would be cut then covered with boiling-hot glasses to draw the blood out; a primitive and painful cure for brain fever.
The British press crackled with glee at the duping of society. In a Sporting Intelligence Extra, raunchy with italics and capitalizations, the Bristol Mirror announced:
‘CARABOO is entered to run for the Knole plate! She is thought by all who have seen her to be the cleverest mare in this part of the country, being very perfect in all her paces, an easy pleasant goer, and of great speed. She is well bred, shews a good deal of both blood and bone, and has an admirable forehand. She is 5 feet 2, and rising 26. Caraboo’s pedigree is warranted to be true Circassian; got by the Chinese Corsair, JESSUE MANDUE, out of a Devonshire Gipsey… It is acknowledged, that she is fond of playing at hide and seek, and is very apt to bolt.This match has excited uncommon bustle amongst the Greeks, Malayans, Chinese, Shanscritians, Arabians, Persians, Sumatrans,–and ALLAH TALLAH only knows how many Ans besides.’
Upon receiving the true details of Mary Baker’s life, via letters from her parents, the Worralls procured a passage for her to America. She was furnished with clothes and money as well, perhaps the very assistance she would have received should she have initially been sent on her way months ago. She departed June 28, 1817.
But perhaps Mary Baker was destined to be surrounded by delicious rumor. In September 1817 a letter appeared in the Bristol Journal, supposedly from the official in charge of the exiled Emperor Napoleon. It claimed that the ship bearing the beautiful swindler was caught in a storm and driven ashore an island lying close to St. Helena. Supposedly the princess pretender cut herself adrift, came ashore and so enthralled the emperor that he had requested from the Pope a dispensation to marry her.
Yet maybe not. Or possibly Pius VII simply refused the request. For records state that she left America in 1824, bound once more for England. Once in London – then in Bath and Bristol – she tried again to play the part of Princess Caraboo but with considerably less success than before. She married. She had a daughter. And she made her living selling leeches to the Bristol Infirmary Hospital until her death on Christmas Eve, 1864. She lies buried in an unmarked grave.
This covert burial is ironic, a bleak satire: that such a restless personality who made an art of the alias, collecting names like charms…should finish her life hidden in a disregarded and ignored slumber.
“We have heard of the power of maniacs to concert deep-laid plans with the greatest subtlety, but I recollect no one being carried on so successfully, for so long a time, and under such a variety of circumstances.”
(‘Caraboo. A NARRATIVE OF A SINGULAR IMPOSITION, PRACTISED UPON THE BENEVOLENCE OF A LADY RESIDING IN THE VICINITY OF THE CITY OF BRISTOL,
By a Young Woman OF THE NAME OF MARY WILLCOCKS, alias BAKER, alias BAKERSTENDHT, alias CARABOO, PRINCESS OF JAVASU.’ – John Matthew Gutch, 1817)