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.

18 Surprising Things Stolen From Libraries

The 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France was stolen from the Boston Public Library.
The 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France was stolen from the Boston Public Library.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s no secret that library books disappear. Many are misshelved and eventually resurface. Others are lost by library users, and some are borrowed and kept long after their return date. In many cases, the borrower pays the corresponding fine—just ask Emily Canellos-Simms, who returned a book to the Kewanee Public Library in Illinois a full 47 years late, at a cost of $345.14.

Then there’s theft, a common problem for libraries both big and small. In some of the most costly cases, these thefts are carried out by dedicated “tome raiders” who target rare books, maps, and documents, normally to sell to collectors. But it’s not always books that go missing: In recent decades, everything from presidential rocking chairs to swords and skeletons have been stolen from libraries across the world.

1. Alan Turing’s Order of the British Empire and other memorabilia

When Julia Schinghomes visited Alan Turing’s former school in Dorset, England, in 1984, she quietly walked out with an entire collection of artifacts Turing's mother had donated to the library. Bizarrely, the woman later wrote to the library to express her joy at having the items in her possession before returning some pieces by mail. But she held on to Turing’s OBE medal, his diploma from Princeton, school report cards, and a letter from King George VI. In 2018, the same woman offered the items to the University of Colorado, but under a different name: Julia Turing. She claimed to be related to the mathematician, but it’s believed she was just a Turing-obsessed superfan. The Department of Homeland Security confiscated the items, and there's now a lawsuit to have them officially forfeited to the U.S. government.

2. A 400-year-old Geneva bible

People working at desks inside a library
The interior of the main branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

A Geneva Bible, published in 1615, was one of the rarest books to disappear from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library during one of the largest library heists ever recorded. The pilfering, which took place over two decades, was allegedly an inside job. So far 40 books have been recovered, including the bible. It was sold to the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands for $1200 and returned to Pittsburgh when the museum’s owners realized it had been stolen.

3. President Harry S. Truman’s diamond-studded swords and daggers

In 1978, thieves broke into the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri—but they weren’t looking for books. Their target was a case in the lobby that contained swords, scabbards, and daggers gifted to Truman by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Saud and the Shah of Iran. The weapons, which were variously decorated with gold, diamonds, emeralds, and rubies, had a combined value of more than $1 million. The robbery took less than a minute and the items have never been recovered.

4. A copy of Columbus’s first letter from the New World

In 1875, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, Italy, acquired a Latin copy of the first letter Christopher Columbus wrote to Ferdinand, King of Spain, describing his discoveries in the Americas. The letter, known as the Plannck I edition, was stolen from the library between 1985 and 1988. It disappeared without a trace, until, in May 2003, a collector unwittingly purchased the letter from a rare book dealer in the United States. He was tracked down by investigators, and the copy was examined and found to be the genuine Plannck I. The owner agreed to turn the document over, which must have been a crushing blow, considering its estimated market value of $1.3 million.

5. A “holey dollar” and other rare coins

An Australian "holey dollar" against a white background
A single "holey dollar" is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
State Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 AU

When a thief broke into an armored glass display case in the State Library of New South Wales, he managed to make off with 12 Australian coins with a total value of almost $1 million AUD ($660,995.00 USD). The earliest and by far the most expensive coin was a “holey dollar,” the first currency minted in Australia. Only around 300 holey dollars are known to exist today. The stolen coins were never recovered.

6. President John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair

After the death of John F. Kennedy, his family entrusted Kennedy’s longtime personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, with the safekeeping of his personal effects. Lincoln was tasked with gathering together all the items while Kennedy’s family decided which to keep and which to donate to the Kennedy Library. Lincoln, however, decided to hold onto many of the pieces, including Kennedy’s rocking chair from the Oval Office, eventually giving them away or selling them. It was not until 2003 that the National Archives and Records Administration managed to reacquire many of the objects.

7. A copy of Ukraine’s oldest printed book

In 2017, a copy of the Apostolos, the first book printed in modern-day Ukraine, went missing from Ukraine’s National Conservation Center. At the same time, an artist working on the book’s restoration also went missing, prompting an ongoing search for both the book and the man. The man’s wife later phoned the library, promising her husband would return to explain everything. He never did. It wasn't the first time a version of the 16th-century tome disappeared. Another copy of the Apostolos, valued at around $150,000, went missing the year before, stolen from the Vernadsky National Library by a man claiming to be a supervisory authority.

8. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s official portrait and inaugural address

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, has been the scene of two notable disappearances. In 2004, the library’s director realized a 5-foot-by-4-foot portrait of FDR had mysteriously disappeared. Apparently the painting had been left in a shipping crate upon its return from a loan at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It was never seen again, and was either stolen from the crate or accidentally thrown away. Later, in 2011, two men were arrested in the library while trying to steal documents. The FBI raided the apartment of one of the men, where they found 10,000 stolen items, including seven copies of FDR’s 1937 inaugural address, all previously stolen from his presidential library.

9. A 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France

Before his arrest and conviction in 2006, the notorious American art thief Forbes Smiley had stolen at least 97 rare maps valued at more than $3 million. One of his favorite haunts was the Boston Public Library, whose map collection was a relatively easy target for Smiley. One map that went missing from the library was the 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France, which details an area stretching from current day Maine to Quebec and Newfoundland. Smiley never admitted to stealing the map, but he was the last person to view it, according to library records.

10. A fiberglass skeleton was stolen from an Australian city library.

In 2017, the Adelaide City Library was hosting a traveling exhibition by the Australian Orthopaedic Association. It’s fair to say no one was expecting a heist. However, the exhibition was infiltrated by a group of three men pretending to be council workers. Their target, for reasons unknown, was a fiberglass skeleton with a street value of about $300 USD. The men were caught on CCTV cameras casually walking out of the library and then boarding a bus, accompanied by the skeleton. No one was ever arrested for the crime.

11. Lyndon B. Johnson’s class ring

Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech to the Coast Guard Academy’s graduating class of 1964. As a thank you, the Academy presented LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson with customized class rings made of 14-carat gold with yellow sapphire settings. The president's ring was gifted to the LBJ Presidential Library in 1970, but disappeared in 1989 during library renovations. To this day, no one knows if the ring was stolen or simply misplaced during the remodeling.

12. The Well of the Scribes sculpture

Exterior of the Los Angeles Central Library entrance
The Los Angeles Central Library has been without the Well of the Scribes since 1969..
Karen, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1969, the Los Angeles Central Library demolished its entire West Lawn to make room for more parking space. One of the main features of the lawn was the Well of the Scribes, a bronze sculptural basin weighing more than 3000 pounds. During the renovations, it somehow disappeared. Fifty years later, the city librarian received a call from an antique store owner in Arizona, who claimed to have in his possession a panel from the Well of the Scribes. It checked out. The man had purchased the piece—one of three panels from the sculpture—10 years previously for $500, from a woman who had kept it in her garden. It was returned to the library, and the search for the other two panels continues.

13. A Boer War veteran's diaries and possessions

The South Australian State Library was once home to Boer War artifacts belonging to an Australian soldier and ornithologist named Captain Samuel Albert White. The items included diaries, letters, photographs, uniform badges, a fob watch, and a compass, which together formed a compelling history of Captain White’s experiences. In 2015, the library informed the police that the entire collection was missing. But this was no smash and grab theft: The collection had been housed in a non-public storage area, raising suspicions of an inside job. So far, the artifacts have not been recovered.

14. A 15th-century register of blacksmiths' statutes

The Biblioteca Passerini-Landi in Piacenza, Italy, is yet more proof that renovations are a prime time for thievery. While the library was undergoing repairs in 1985, 145 rare volumes were stolen, including a priceless manuscript called Matricula et statuta paratici fabrorum ferrariorum, which documents the economic exchange and work of blacksmiths in Piacenza in the 15th century. The Carabinieri art squad, which had been trying to track down the book for decades, eventually found it on an internet auction site for the measly sum of 600 euros, far less than its actual value. It was returned to the library.

15. The first Prime Minister of India's gold dagger

A black and white headshot of Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru served as Prime Minister of India from 1947 to 1964.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, died in 1964, many of the gifts he had received from visiting dignitaries were given to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. One such item was a janbiya, a gold dagger with a short curved blade, presented to Nehru by the King of Saudi Arabia. In 2016, library staff discovered a display case containing the dagger, as well as a precious ivory box and a scroll container, had been broken. Only the dagger had been removed. Two of the museum’s sanitation workers were eventually arrested. They pleaded guilty and admitted to stealing the dagger as a means to pay off their debts.

16. Rare LDS books and an original portrait of Porter Rockwell

In 2018, the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was the target of a self-proclaimed Latter-day Saints antiquities dealer. The culprit, Kevin Mark Ronald Schuwer, checked out eight books valued at $300 each, having first switched the barcodes with other tomes. He also stole an original photo of Porter Rockwell, a Wild West lawman known as “The Destroying Angel of Mormondom,” which he replaced with a fake copy to avoid detection. Schuwer’s scheme eventually fell apart after he sold the items to collectors, partly because the books had markings that showed they belonged to the university.

17. Rare medical books

When books began disappearing from the Moody Medical Library in 1989, suspicion soon fell upon Emil Frey, the head librarian at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where the library is located. During the course of the year, some 80 books had vanished from the 12,000-volume rare book collection. Frey was only charged for five of the missing books, which were valued between $750 and $20,000.

18. Individual pages from ancient books

In 2009, a millionaire named Farhad Hakimzadeh was found guilty of stealing individual pages from ancient books from both the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Using a scalpel, he carefully stripped out pages from 16th- and 17th-century tomes, including a 500-year-old map painted by Henry Vlll’s court artist. When suspicion fell on Hakimzadeh, investigators found that of the 842 volumes he had requested, 112 had been mutilated. Police raided his flat in London and found more than 100 pages from the ancient books, some with intriguing titles such as Unheard-of Curiosities and A History of Monsters. Hakimzadeh claimed his obsessive-compulsive bibliomania drove him to remove the pages to complete his own vast collection, even telling the court that on his wedding night he left his bed to go polish his books. The court was unsympathetic and sentenced him to two years in prison.

Secret Doorway Discovered in London’s House of Commons

Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
ITV News, YouTube

Earlier this week, England’s Parliament announced that a secret door had been discovered in the walls of Westminster Hall.

BBC News reports that the 360-year-old passageway, located in the cloister on Westminster Hall’s west side, opens into a small chamber that would have led right to Westminster Hall if the other entry hadn’t been sealed. There are still traces of that entryway inside the passage, though, which include the original hinges for two wooden doors that would’ve been just under 11.5 feet tall.

Liz Hallam Smith, a University of York historical consultant for Parliament, explained that she and her team had been sifting through 10,000 uncatalogued documents about the Palace of Westminster when they uncovered old plans for the doorway, which they then located in person.

“As we looked at the paneling closely, we realized there was a tiny brass keyhole that no one had really noticed before, believing it might just be an electricity cupboard,” Smith said in a statement.

After several attempts, the Parliamentary locksmith managed to design a key that unlocked the door, revealing the long-forgotten passageway. Dendrochronologists analyzed wood from the ceiling and determined that the trees had been cut down in 1659, which tracked with historical accounts of the construction having occurred between 1660 and 1661 for the coronation banquet of Charles II.

According to Parliament’s statement, the passageway was used for coronations, Speaker’s processions—in which the Sergeant at Arms escorts the Speaker of the House of Commons from his apartments in the palace to the Commons chamber—and shortcuts by members of Parliament.

It hasn’t been used for decades, but it’s not completely empty: There’s a light switch and a working light bulb that historians believe was installed during renovations after World War II, and there’s also some cheeky “graffiti” from about 100 years before then. Bricklayers who restored the room in the years after the fire of 1834 scrawled “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale” and “These masons were employed refacing the groines [sic] August 11th 1851 Real Democrats” on its walls.

“The mystery of the secret doorway is one we have enjoyed discovering,” Mark Collins, a Parliament estates historian who helped find the passage, said in the statement. “But the palace no doubt still has many more secrets to give up.”

[h/t BBC News]

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