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

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.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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