A way with words
Soon she became restless and left Bristol, still pretending to be French, but using her own contrived language, begging at various places along the road to Gloucester. This disguise proved successful until she met someone who could speak French, but she quickly improvised and claimed to be Spanish.
She managed to get away but soon after she met two men, one of whom said he spoke perfect Spanish, so Mary was forced to speak to him in “Spanish”, which, amazingly, he said he understood. For Mary this was an important lesson in how to use other alleged “expertise” of others for her own ends.
She stayed that night in lodgings and the next morning started out on the road to Gloucester, once again assuming her character as she headed towards the village of Almondsbury, and fame, as Princess Caraboo.
Mary Willcocks was not the first impostor to fool high society, but she was one of the most successful. The crucial factor in her hoax seems to have been people’s conviction that she could not understand or read English. Once they believed this they had no scruples about what they said in her presence, thus providing much of the information she needed for her role with their conversations and the books they showed her describing exotic places and languages.
As many who knew her noted, she had a remarkable memory.
The deception was brilliant
© Copyright Bristol Museums & Art Gallery - Edward Bird 1772-1819 Princess Caraboo, oil on panel 1817
So, as Mary gathered more detailed information from the various learned visitors to Knole, her role became more substantial and her behaviour more convincingly princess-like. She acted out the role of foreign princess, behaving exactly in the way such a person was supposed to in the eyes of early 19th Century English society.
As with many hoaxes, the desire to believe something is real is extremely important and Mary was surrounded by people, Mrs. Worrall in particular, who desperately wanted her to be a foreign princess. She was fulfilling a need for the romance of unseen lands and mysterious populations in people's monotonous everyday lives.
Maybe she had been to France and picked up some French and Spanish, it certainly seems that she spent some time with the gypsies, as she used some gypsy words as part of her speech. But this was just the veneer - the main part of her character was developed at Knole Park.
On Sunday 28th June 1817, Mary was put on a boat for Philadelphia, in the company of three strictly religious ladies whom Mrs. Worrall had asked to take care of her. When they arrived in America, Mary was greeted by enthusiastic crowds as "Princess Caraboo", and she gave performances as the Princess while there.
She returned to England in 1824, where she exhibited herself as Princess Caraboo in New Bond Street, London, and later in Bristol and Bath. Mary subsequently travelled in France and Spain, but returned to England to marry and settle down in Bristol, where she had a daughter in 1829. With a strange change of vocation, she made a decent living selling leeches to Bristol Infirmary Hospital, until she died on Christmas Eve, 1864, aged 75, of a probable heart attack. She was buried in the Hebron Road Burial Ground, Bedminster, Bristol, and lies there still, in an unmarked grave.
Words: Brian Haughton