The Mysterious 19th Century ‘Princess' Who Fooled a Town

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On April 3, 1817, a young woman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in the rural village of Almondsbury, just a few miles north of Bristol in southwest England.

Dressed in a shabby black gown and shawl with a turban on her head, she seemed confused and utterly exhausted, as if she had just completed a long journey. Under her arm, she carried a small bundle of belongings, including a bar of soap and some basic toiletries wrapped in a piece of linen. Most curiously of all, she spoke an exotic language no one in the village could understand.

The locals, understandably, were mystified.

Presuming that she was some kind of beggar, the villagers took the woman to the overseer of the local poorhouse. But instead of taking her in, the overseer—suspicious of foreign agents amid the tense climate following the Napoleonic Wars—turned her over to the local magistrate, Samuel Worrall, at his palatial country residence known as Knole House. The magistrate called upon his Greek valet, who had an extensive knowledge of many Mediterranean languages, to try to translate what the woman was saying, with no luck. When asked using a series of gestures to produce identification papers, the woman merely emptied a few coins from her pockets.

Worrall was suspicious, but his wife was empathetic, and clearly more fascinated than alarmed by the woman’s sudden appearance in the village. At Mrs. Worrall’s request, the mystery woman was sent to spend the night at the local inn—and once there, her behavior became even more erratic. She refused a meal and drank only tea, reciting a bizarre prayer beforehand while holding one hand over her eyes. She appeared to recognize a print of a pineapple hanging on the wall of the inn, giving the staff and locals the impression that she had traveled from some far-flung tropical land. And when the time came for her to be shown to her room for the night, she stared cluelessly at the bed before curling up on the floor to sleep instead.

After what must have been a perplexing night for the inn's staff, Mrs. Worrall brought the woman back to Knole House. By then, she had revealed—by pointing to herself and repeatedly uttering the word—that her name was "Caraboo." But Mr. Worrall was fed up: The woman was clearly nothing more than a beggar, he declared, and had her arrested on a charge of vagrancy. "Caraboo" spent several days in St. Peter’s Hospital for Vagrants in Bristol before Mrs. Worrall again stepped in and had her removed to Worrall’s offices. By then, news of Almondsbury’s unusual stranger had begun to spread, and dozens of curious locals were visiting the woman, each bringing speakers of an array of different languages. Despite numerous visitors during her 10-day stay, no one could decipher a single word she said.

Until, finally, someone did.

Frontispiece from Carraboo, Carraboo: The singular adventures of Mary Baker. Image credit: Harvard University via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Upon hearing news of the mysterious woman, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel Eynesso, who happened to be in Bristol, dropped in at Worrall's offices to meet with her. Having traveled extensively in the Far East and the Dutch East Indies, Eynesso seemingly recognized Caraboo’s language as a mixture of native tongues from Sumatra, and immediately began to translate her extraordinary story.

Caraboo, Eynesso explained, was no beggar. She told him she was a princess from the Indian Ocean island of “Javasu" who had been kidnapped from her homeland by pirates and held captive before escaping by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel. She had then wandered the countryside for six weeks before finding herself in Almondsbury.

It was quite the tale, and gave Mrs. Worrall all that she needed to hear: Caraboo was royalty, and it would be an honor to have her come to live at Knole House. For the next 10 weeks, grand parties and soirées were arranged in Caraboo's honor, and the princess was scrutinized by academics and fawned over by the highest of high society—they were amazed by the story of the penniless beggar who had turned out to be a foreign princess. A man named Dr. Wilkinson wrote a glowing account of her, noting, “Nothing has yet transpired to authorize the slightest suspicion of Caraboo.” But that was about to change.

Edward Bird via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Word of Princess Caraboo continued to spread in the press, and a description of her was printed a few weeks later in the Bristol Journal. A copy found its way to a boarding house run by a local lady named Mrs. Neale, who immediately recognized the woman—but not as a kidnapped Javanese princess. Mrs. Neale believed Caraboo was actually a former guest of hers named Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter from Witheridge, a village just 70 miles away. Princess Caraboo, Mrs. Neale said, was a hoax.

Messages were soon being relayed from house to house and town to town until word finally reached Mrs. Worrall. Initially skeptical of Mrs. Neale’s version of events, Mrs. Worrall made arrangements for “Princess Caraboo” to accompany her to Bristol under the pretense of having a portrait painted of her. Instead, Mrs. Worrall used the trip to meet with Mrs. Neale in person—and after a brief conversation, she was left in no doubt that “Princess Caraboo” was indeed an imposter. Following months of deception, the extraordinary ploy came crashing down and, once confronted by Mrs. Worrall, "Caraboo"—a.k.a. Baker—admitted everything, in tears.

Baker had been born in rural Devon in 1791. She had a falling out with her parents at a young age, and afterward worked a string of jobs across the south of England before ending up begging on the streets in and around Bristol in the early 1810s. It was there that she discovered that posing as a foreigner allowed her to elicit more sympathy (and therefore cash) from the public. After inventing the character of “Princess Caraboo”—along with her indecipherable language—to entertain the children at Mrs. Neale’s guesthouse, she applied her inventiveness to the extraordinary deception of Mrs. Worrall and the people of Almondsbury. There never was any "Javasu."

Once news of Baker’s hoax broke, the press were quick to pounce yet again—but rather than turn it against her, the majority of journalists spun the tale as an unlikely triumphing of the working classes over the aristocracy. Baker became an unlikely heroine: an ill-educated, downtrodden girl who, through her own quick-wittedness and unquestionable guts, had managed to infiltrate and deceive the highest of high society, thereby exposing their fickleness and vanity.

And even Mrs. Worrall came to appreciate Baker’s success.

Although initially angry, Mrs. Worrall soon came to view Baker’s real-life story with the same empathy and open-mindedness as she had the princess's tale. She resolved to continue to help Baker make a better life for herself, and raised funds for her to relocate to Philadelphia in 1817 to make a fresh start. Once in America, Baker managed to cash in on her notoriety and put on a short-lived stage show in New York based on her Princess Caraboo character. A few years later, she returned to England and staged the same show in London—but by then, the Caraboo craze had subsided and the show was only a marginal success.

Census records show that by the late 1820s, Baker (now a widow named Mary Burgess) was living back near Bristol, and making her living selling leeches to the local infirmary. She continued that vocation for 30 years, before dying of a heart attack in 1864—taking the mysterious character of “Princess Caraboo” with her. As for the "Portuguese sailor" who translated her story, it's not clear how he could have understood a made-up language—unless he, too, was an imposter.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Submarine Expedition Reveals Parts of the Titanic Have Fully Decayed

NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

In 1985, oceanographers Robert Ballard, Jean-Louis Michel, and their crew located the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Images of the shipwreck have since become as iconic as photographs of the ocean liner taken before the 1912 tragedy. But the ruin's time in the ocean is limited. As part of an upcoming documentary, a crew of scientists carried out the first manned expedition to the wreck in 14 years and discovered the Titanic is rapidly decaying, BBC reports.

After it sank, the Titanic settled in two parts on the seafloor about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the wreck is still intact, but a lot has changed since 2005, when it was last visited by a human-occupied submersible.

While working on a film for Atlantic Productions London, an exploration team from Triton Submarines visited the wreck five times over eight days and discovered that entire sections of the ship have disappeared. The starboard side of the officer's quarters has deteriorated, and the captain's bathtub is totally gone. The deck house on the same side and the sloping lounge roof of the bow are also on the brink of collapse, according to the crew.

Unlike other artifacts and historic sites, there's no way to preserve the wreckage of the Titanic for future generations. Churning ocean currents, corrosive salt, and metal-eating bacteria will continue to break down the steel behemoth until it becomes part of the sea. Some experts estimate that by 2030, it's likely that no part of the wreck will remain.

Whether that projection is off by years or decades, these findings suggest that every new team that visits the Titanic may find something different than the team before them. On this most recent expedition, the Triton Submarines exploration team was able to film the wreck in 4K for the first time. That footage may end up being some of the last ever captured of many elements of the ship.

[h/t BBC]

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