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.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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