This Is How An Exotic 19th-Century Woman Tricked A Town Into Believing She Was A Kidnapped Princess

It was a Thursday evening in April 1817 when a strangely dressed woman knocked on the door of a cottage in Almondsbury, a village in the south-west English county of Gloucestershire. She spoke in a foreign tongue of which the cottage’s occupants knew nothing. What on Earth were they going to do with this mysterious young woman?

First, the cottagers decided they needed the help of authority, so they approached the parish overseer. However, he was equally puzzled by the woman, so he went to Almondsbury’s manor house, Knole Park, the home of Samuel Worrall and his wife Elizabeth, who had been born in America. Worrall’s position as a magistrate meant he was an authority figure in the village.

Consequently, the Worralls were confronted by a young woman 5 feet 2 inches tall, with dark eyes, black hair a short nose and regular white teeth. Her hands were well cared for and had the appearance of someone unaccustomed to hard labor. She wore a black gown, a black shawl wound around her head in the manner of a turban and a black and red shawl across her shoulders. She looked to be in her mid-20s.

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Worrall’s butler was Greek and had a basic understanding of most of the Middle Eastern languages, but he could not understand the woman’s speech. Nonplussed, the Worralls now sent the stranger to the village inn, The Bowl, where she was given a bed for the night.

The next morning, Elizabeth Worrall went early to the inn to see the young woman. It turns out the local vicar had brought illustrated travel books, and the woman appeared excited by pictures of China. Subsequently, Worrall took the stranger back to Knole Park, where the woman managed to communicate by signs that her name was Caraboo. When she was offered food, she would take nothing but water.

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The next day Caraboo was taken to nearby Bristol, an important port city, where she was questioned by the mayor and other officials. After that, it was decided that she was in fact an itinerant beggar. As a consequence, she was committed to St. Peter’s Hospital for Vagrants.

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However, Caraboo’s incarceration was short-lived and also afforded her the opportunity to explain who she was. At St. Peter’s, she met a Portuguese mariner by the name of Manuel Enes, who said he could understand her strange language. Consequently, Enes was now able to reveal to the world who the mystery woman really was.

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Caraboo, Enes related, was a native of an island called Javasu in the East Indies. She had been abducted by pirates from her home and after traveling across the seas had grabbed an opportunity to escape by diving overboard. Thus, she found herself in the Bristol Channel and managed to swim ashore. And, remarkably, Caraboo was of royal lineage. She was the Princess Caraboo no less.

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These revelations from the strange young woman who’d appeared in the sleepy village of Almondsbury apparently from nowhere changed everything. Next, the Worralls quickly rescued her from the vagrant’s home and took her back to the much more fitting setting of Knole Park. Fitting, that is, for an East Indies princess. Never mind that no one had ever heard of Javasu before.

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And now the Princess Caraboo was feted. One of those who attended her was a certain gentleman who said he had traveled widely in the East Indies. In conversation with Caraboo, partly conducted in sign language, this gentleman was able to add flesh to the bones of her extraordinary story.

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Her father, an important man, had been killed in battle and she had later been seized by pirates led by a captain called Cheeming. In the struggle of her kidnapping, she’d wounded two men with her dagger, one of whom died of his injuries. Then she was sold on to another captain and sailed for 11 weeks to England, where she had jumped overboard.

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After swimming ashore, Caraboo had wandered the byways of Gloucestershire for six weeks. She had exchanged her fine silk dress embroidered with gold thread for the strange outfit she’d been wearing in Almondsbury. Before his death, her father had been carried about by commoners in a palanquin. Her mother had a jewel in her nose attached to a gold chain running to her temple.

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It seems the good citizens of Almondsbury and the surrounding countryside were agog at these revelations about the splendid Princess Caraboo and her impossibly exotic and exciting life. Caraboo maintained the interest at fever pitch by writing down letters from her language, demonstrating her skills with a bow and arrow and swimming nude in a lake.

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By now, newspapers were taking an interest in this extraordinary and scarcely believable story. A Dr. Wilkinson from the city of Bath had been much fascinated by Caraboo and wrote a piece about her that was published in the Bath Chronicle. The Bristol Journal also published an article, illustrated with a portrait of Caraboo.

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The portrait in the Bristol Journal was the author of Caraboo’s downfall. A Mrs. Neale, a boarding house landlady, recognized the woman in the picture as Mary Willcocks, the daughter of a cobbler. Far from hailing from an obscure East Indies island, Willcocks was in fact from the village of Witheridge in Devonshire, about 65 miles from Almondsbury.

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Willcocks had been born in Witheridge in 1791, so she’d been 25 when she appeared in Almondsbury in 1817. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, her father had said that the girl had “never been right in the head.” She’d left home at the age of 19, lived rough for a while and then taken a job as a nursemaid in Clapham, now a London suburb, then a village on the outskirts of the city.

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Losing her position in Clapham, she spent some time in the insalubrious-sounding Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes in London. When it was discovered that she wasn’t a prostitute, she was discharged. She later became pregnant but gave the baby up to a foundling hospital. The child did not survive, and Willcocks joined a band of gypsies.

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And it may have been her time with the gypsies that equipped her with some of the pretend language she used in Almondsbury with the unfortunately gullible Worralls, who now became a national laughing stock. Willcocks, on the other hand, sailed across the Atlantic to Philadelphia in search of fame and fortune. Mrs. Worrall, generous to a fault despite being the victim of a hoax, paid Willcocks’s fare to America. Perhaps she was glad to see the back of her.

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Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While in Philadelphia, Willcocks appeared on stage as the Princess Caraboo, but this appears not to have been a particularly successful enterprise. After that, she returned to England in 1824, appearing in a public show, this time in London. Sadly, this performance seems to have enjoyed no more success than those in Philadelphia.

Image: A. Topping

In the end, Mary Willcocks spent the rest of her days in Bristol making a living by selling leeches to the Bristol Infirmary. Finally, she married, had a daughter, and died on Christmas Eve 1864. To cap off her story, in a fitting epitaph, historian Brian Haughton told the BBC in 2007, “That Mary dared to escape her menial position and perpetrate such a complicated hoax is, I believe, nothing short of wondrous. Mary Willcocks should be an inspiration to anyone who feels held back by their position in society.”

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