« Chapter 25 | Main | 15 - Upon England's Mountains Green »

Alaskan Range: Princess Caraboo

...Princess Caraboo was born plain Mary Wilcox, a poor cobbler’s daughter, in 1791, but she convinced thousands of Britons that she was a lost princess from an unknown land...

Greg Hill emphasises the need to check your sources of information.

“Verify the sources of the information you cite” was instilled in fledgling librarians in library school. It’s more crucial than ever in the Internet Age, when the relentless gushing of information makes determining what’s worth knowing daunting even for experienced librarians who know how solid research can save much subsequent heartache. For example, if you should receive Valentine’s greetings from presumptive royalty like Princess Caraboo or Countess Bathory, you better do some background research.

Princess Caraboo was born plain Mary Wilcox, a poor cobbler’s daughter, in 1791, but she convinced thousands of Britons that she was a lost princess from an unknown land. She ran away to London as a teenager, did a stint in a workhouse hospital, and learned how to play upon the sympathy of good Samaritans. One of these gave Mary a nanny job, and a Jewish cook who worked next door taught her about the Hebrew diet, prayers, and alphabet. Then she learned reading and writing English.

Mary soon fled the nanny job and shortly thereafter entered the Magdalen Hospital for reformed prostitutes, later claiming she mistook it for a nunnery. Then she was kidnapped by highwaymen, spent time with gypsies, married a guy named Baker, and had a baby who died in the Foundling Hospital. Along the way she worked as a tanner’s helper and housemaid, and inevitably impressed her employers with her “eccentric.” She lost her last housekeeping job, for instance, after telling the family stories about being born in the East Indies and for setting the beds on fire.

One evening, while begging for money for boat passage to Philadelphia, she wore a shawl around her head in the style of Norman lacemakers to appear more exotic. Since Mary knew no foreign languages, she drew upon her time with the Jewish cook and the gypsies and invented a fake one. She discovered that her supposed inability to understand English made people more willing to help her. It certainly helped Mary convince a well-meaning Bristol magistrate named Worrall and his American wife that she was actually Princess Caraboo.

A mysterious and ultimately unreliable Portuguese traveler claimed to understand Princess Caraboo’s speech and verified that she was a princess from Javasu Island who’d been abducted by pirates. Mary’s benefactors desperately wanted her to be as exotic as she claimed, and this, along with her elaborate rituals, make-believe alphabet and writing, and ability to remember her lies and maintain consistency, confounded even well-educated experts. Word of her spread across England, crowds arrived in Bristol to see her. Soon her cover was blown, and the embarrassed Worralls shipped her off to Philadelphia. Mary continued claiming to be Princess Caraboo for a decade, but she died plain Mary Baker at age 75 on Christmas Eve in Bristol, where she sold leeches to the local hospital for decades.

Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian countess and contemporary of Elizabeth I, but history remembers her as “the Blood Countess” after she used false information to lure to her castle 80 to 600 girls and young women who didn’t verify their information and soon found themselves being tortured and murdered by the Countess. Bathory was never formally tried, but was eventually bricked into a small part of her castle where she died.

The Blood Countess’ gruesome career has been compared to that of Vlad the Impaler of Romania, who acquired achieved literary fame in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” which has been translated into a tweet. Tweets are those brief messages sent over cell phones that are limited to 140 characters of text. “Dracula,” for example, tweets as “Creep preys on the veins and sexual desire of eager young women. Despite immortality, his thirst is forever quenched by one heroic doctor.” I suspect that tweeting great works of literature is a passing fad that won’t last long. Homer’s tweeted “Iliad,” for example, is “Goddesses squabble, start war, heroes and villains die, sneaky Greeks win, Trojans killed or sold as slaves, civilization officially begins.”

Check reliable sources and you’ll find that “civilization began two thousand years before Troy fell, when writing and libraries were invented and folks could begin verifying information” is a statement that you can tweet with confidence.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.