Mary Baker was a cobbler's daughter who, in 1817, appeared in a British village speaking a strange language. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo, from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean, and drew visitors and admirers from far and wide before she was exposed.
An Exotic Stranger
Mary Baker was born Mary Willcocks in Witheridge in Devon, England in 1791. Little is known about her early life.
In April 1871, Baker arrived at the home in Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, England. Speaking an exotic language and dressed in a black turban and unusual clothes, Baker appeared to come from a foreign land. The cobbler and his wife took her to the county officials.
The local overseer for the poor, unsure of what to do with the woman, took her to the county magistrate, Sam Worrall, and his wife Elizabeth. The Worralls were suspicious of Baker, and took her to stay at the local inn for the night. At the inn, Baker pointed to a pineapple, and excitedly indicted that it was a fruit from her homeland called "Anana"— which means pineapple in several different languages. She also chanted a strange prayer, and slept on the floor.
Conning the Locals
Back at the Worralls', the mystery of their strange guest's identity was becoming clear. Portugese sailor claimed to understand Baker's story and translated what she was saying. Her name was Princess Caraboo, he said, and she hailed from he island of Javaus in the Indian Ocean. He said she had been kidnapped by pirates, and escaped by jumping overboard and swimming ashore.
Impressed by their guest's royal background, the Worralls announced her presence in newspapers. The news spread fast, and for weeks admirers visited the Worralls' home. Baker put on a show, praying to her god 'Alla Tallah,' climbing trees, and swimming naked.
Alas, Princess Caraboo's charade didn't last forever. A woman named Mrs. Neale recognized a description of Caraboo in a newspaper, and realized that Caraboo was her former servant. Working in Mrs. Neale's home, Baker has made up nonsense languages to entertain the children. Finally, Baker admitted that Princess Caraboo was an act.
The Worralls shipped Baker off to Philadelphia, where she attempted the Princess Caraboo act yet again. Legend has it that on the way she even stopped off at the Island of Helena, to visit Napoleon in exile. After seven years, she returned to England. In 1828, going by the name Mary Burgess, she gave birth to a daughter. She later worked selling leeches to a hospital in Bristol, and died in Bristol on December 24,1864. The 1994 film Princess Caraboo, starring Phoebe Cates, was based on her story.
Baker’s con, though seemingly outrageous, played on many of the stereotypes already held by many people in England at the time. Her portrayal of an Eastern woman—mysterious, exotic, sexual—was borne of the depiction of the Orient in popular literature at the time.
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