Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Scandalous Hoax of Princess Caraboo

It was a story that wouldn't have looked out of place on the front page of the News of the World or The Examiner. A young woman stumbles into a Gloucestershire village on April 3, 1817, wearing a black turban and a black dress, carrying her possessions in a rolled up bundle. Exhausted and starving, she spoke a language that no could understand. The villagers thought she was some foreign begger, so they turned her over to Samuel Worrall, who was the local country magistrate.




It was a dangerous time to be a homeless foreigner roaming the countryside. Napoleon had finally been defeated for the last time and sent into exile on St. Helena, but the British were still worried about foreign agents. At this time, anyone found disturbing the peace was in danger of being transported to Australia, everyone's favorite dumping ground for the criminal class at this time.



The Worralls found the young woman intriguing to say the least. Mrs. Worrall in particular was taken by her. The young woman's hands were soft indicating that she had not done any manual labor, and when she noticed a painting of a pineapple on the wall, she pointed to it excitedly, jabbering away in her language. She also exhibited very strange behavior, refusing to sleep in the bed in the room provided for her, and refusing to drink out of a glass unless she washed it herself. It was clear from the woman's features that she was European but from where? Was she Spanish, Greek or a Romany Gypsy?



The young woman eventually came to live with the Worralls at Knole Park, while Mrs. Worrall tried to solve the mystery. The first thing they learned was that her name was Caraboo. Then a Portuguese sailor claimed to be able to speak her language. The story came out that she came from the island kingdom of Javasu. She had been kidnapped from her homeland by pirates, and managed to escape by jumping overboard into the English channel and swimming for the shore.
Once the Worralls discovered that they were in the presence of royalty, they immediately informed the media, and soon the entire country knew about the mysterious Princess Caraboo and her story. Now a minor celebrity, Caraboo spent the next few weeks enjoying her fame, entertaining the many visitors who came to see her. She even scandalized the gentry by swimming naked in the lake when she was alone. The Worralls, of course, basked in her reflected glory.



Like most hoaxes this one had to come to an end eventually. A woman named Mrs. Neale recognized the description of Caraboo in the papers and revealed that the young woman had been a servant in her house, where she had entertained the children with a made-up language. It turned out that Caraboo's real name was something decidedly less exotic, Mary Baker. Baker didn't come from a foreign background but from the very English Witheridge Devonshire where she was the daughter of a cobbler.



No one is sure why or how Mary Baker decided to assume the identity of Princess Caraboo. The people who knew her as Mary Baker explained that she always had a theatrical bent, prefering to live in her own world of fantasy than in the real world. She'd had many jobs over the years, bouncing from one position to another. Her parents, when they were located, mentioned that Mary had been restless since childhood, unable to settle down. Why was she able to fool so many people? She was helped by the very people she was fooling. Like Anna Anderson who claimed to be Anastasia was able to fool membefs of the Romanovs, the people Mary Baker fooled wanted Caraboo to be real.



It was the romantic age in Britain, Keats, Shelley and Bryon were the poets of the era, writing about exotic places. To them, she looked and acted exactly the way they imagined someone from the Far East would look and sound. Once she had convinced them that she couldn't speak or understand English, they felt free to speak in front of her, providing her with the tools she needed to continue her deception. She also had remarkable memory. She was mysterious and beautiful and she brought excitement to their corner of the world, raising the social status of the Worralls. Her deception also pointed out to a gleeful press how easily the aristocracy could be fooled by the designs of a lower middle class girl with a rudimentary education.



What happened to Princess Caraboo after the truth came out? Mary Baker's natural charm and charisma contributed to Mrs. Worrall offering her money to allow her to sail to Philadelphia. The British press, showing the inventiveness of which they've become legendary in the 20th century, printed a story that Caraboo's ship had blown her off course and landed her on the island of St. Helena where Napoleon had fallen in love with her and proposed marriage (never mind the fact that exiled Emperor was still married). Although the story was intended to be joke, it proved to be so appealing that accounts of Caraboo have reported the story as fact.



In the States, her fame preceded her, and Caraboo spent 7 years traveling around making appearances and telling her story. She finally returned to England in 1824, where she continued to make appearances as Caraboo for awhile but the novelty had worn off. Her fifteen minutes were over. She settled down in Bristol, selling leeches to the Infirmary Hospital, apparently a respectable job in the 19th Century.



She died on January 4, 1865 and was buried in an unmarked grave. She might have gone down in history as nothing but a curiousity if hadn't been for the film Princess Caraboo starring Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline that brought her story to a new generation. On Monday 26 March, 2006, a blue plaque commemorating the life of Princess Caraboo was unveiled at Number 11, Princess Street, Bristol, where Mary lived the last 11 years of her life.



Mary Baker aka Princess Caraboo's story is as much as inspiration as it is the story of a hoax. Mary Baker managed to break out of her own glass and beat high society at their own game. Using her own unique talents and her appeal, she managed to raise above the circumstances of her position.

2 comments:

Joyce Hanson said...

Whoa. I love this story. As you said, "the people Mary Baker fooled wanted Caraboo to be real." I also think it's fantastic that rather than be punished for her sin, she was rewarded with an all-expenses-paid journey to America. In my Bad Girl Blog research, I've found that many wild women, like Princess Caraboo, are rewarded for being bad. Considering that so many of us women worry about whether we're good enough, there's something freeing in knowing that it pays to be bad!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree. Look at Lola Montez, the badder she was, running around with her whip, the more poor Ludwig worshippped her and gave her titles, until the students turned against her and she had to get the heck out of Dodge. And Jane Digby ended up happy living in the desert with her love until her death, despite the husbands and lovers she left behind in her wake.