She turned up in Gloucestershire in 1817, claiming to be Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu - saying she had been kidnapped by pirates before escaping and making her way to England.
And the fact that Mary Willcocks' tale was completely invented arguably makes her story no less remarkable.
The young woman who said she was a princess from a faraway island was later proved to be a 26-year-old cobbler's daughter from Devon, whose exotic foreign dialect had been a fictitious language.
The supposed princess arrived in the Gloucestershire village of Almondsbury, near Bristol, on 3 April 1817, wearing a black turban and black dress, with her possessions wrapped up in a small bundle.
She appeared exhausted and starving and was speaking a language nobody in the village could understand.
The villagers thought she was a foreign beggar and she was taken to the home of Samuel Worrall, the local county magistrate.
Mrs. Worrall was fascinated by her exotic appearance, but Mr. Worrall was more suspicious, asking her by signs if she had any papers with her. The girl emptied out her pockets, but all she had were a few halfpennies and a bad sixpence. Although possessing counterfeit money could mean the death sentence, the girl seemed not to understand the seriousness of the offence. The only other thing she had in her possession was a bar of soap pinned inside a piece of linen. Worrall then asked to look at the girl's hands. They were soft, showing no signs of hard work, and her fingernails were clean and well cared for.
The Worralls thought it best for the stranger to stay the night at an inn in the village, and sent her there accompanied by two of their servants. Whilst at the inn, the girl noticed a print of a pineapple on the wall and pointed to it enthusiastically, pronouncing 'Anana', indicating that it was a fruit of her homeland. 'Ananas' is the word for pineapple in Greek and many other European languages. The landlady offered to cook the girl supper, but she made it understood that she would rather have tea, which she drank only after repeating a prayer while holding one hand over her eyes. Before drinking a second cup, she insisted on washing the cup herself, and again went through the same ritual as before. The landlady and her little daughter were fascinated. More was to follow. When shown her bed for the night the stranger appeared not to understand its function, instead getting down on the floor to sleep. It was not until the landlady's daughter showed her how comfortable it was that, after kneeling to say her prayers, she lay on the bed to sleep.
Determined to find out something about the girl, Mrs. Worrall brought her back to Knole to stay. She soon learned that girl's name was 'Caraboo', and that she had come to England in a ship. Caraboo was particularly impressed by various pieces of furniture showing Chinese figures. Perhaps China was her original homeland? There was only one problem - she was entirely European in appearance. Whilst at Knole she behaved oddly, declining all meat and eating only vegetables and drinking only water. But Mr. Worrall and his Greek manservant were still suspicious, so the Magistrate decided to take her to the Mayor in Bristol to be tried, which could mean serious trouble - especially as she'd been found in possession of illegal tender - the dud sixpence. But John Haythorne, the Mayor, could get nothing intelligible from the girl except the name, Caraboo, and so followed the law for such cases and sent her to St. Peter's Hospital, whilst further enquiries were made.
At the overcrowded, dirty hospital she declined all kinds of food and even refused to sleep on the beds. Fascinated gentlemen brought various foreigners who tried to decipher her language, but none were successful. After a week at the hospital Mrs. Worrall again intervened and took her to stay at her husband's offices in Bristol, where she remained for ten days in the care of her husband's housekeeper. Again troops of foreigners and supposed language experts were brought in to see her without result until, at last, there was some progress. This was in the form of a Portuguese traveller named Manuel Eynesso (or Enes), who said he understood what Caraboo was saying. After a conversation with the girl in her own peculiar language, he told Mr. Worrall her story.
She was a princess from an island called Javasu, who'd been abducted from her homeland by pirates and taken on a long, difficult journey, which ended in her escaping by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel and swimming to the shore. Eynesso's story was enough to convince Worrall and he brought the newly-discovered foreign princess back to Knole immediately. During her time at Knole the princess delighted the Worralls and their visitors with her idiosyncratic behavior. She fenced and used a home-made bow and arrow with great skill, danced exotically, swam naked in the lake when she was alone, and prayed to her supreme being 'Allah Tallah' from treetops; all the while maintaining her unusual eating and drinking habits and strange language.
Every week more and more gentlemen and ladies poured in to see the exotic lost princess. Caraboo duly responded to the attention with increasingly exotic behavior and elaborate language, and also provided the full, dramatic narrative of her abduction by pirates from her native Javasu. She now also agreed to write down examples of her language, an example of which was sent to Oxford for analysis. It was returned soon after marked as 'humbug'. Undaunted, the princess had her portrait painted and made herself an elaborate 'traditional' eastern costume, using materials of her choice provided by Mrs. Worrall.
Newspapers began to ran stories on her, but it was this publicity which would bring Miss Willcocks' spell as a princess to an end.
After two months, the owner of a Bristol lodging house, Mrs. Neale, saw a picture of her in a newspaper and realized "Princess Caraboo" was the same young woman who had stayed with her earlier in the year - and entertained her daughters with an invented language.
But rather than being the end of her time in the limelight, the truth extended it further, with Miss Willcocks now being hailed as a working class heroine who had deceived high society.
She arrived in Philadelphia to find herself famous, and was persuaded by a showman called Sanders to appear at the Washington Hall as ‘Princess Carraboo’, dancing and speaking her language. The show was not a success, and in her last letter to Mrs Worrall, written in November 1817, she was in New York, complaining of the horrors of celebrity.
She spent the last few years of her life back in Bristol, making living selling leeches to the city's hospital, before dying at the age of 75 in 1864.
A film of Mary Willcocks' life was made by Disney in 1994 - titled Princess Caraboo and starring Kevin Kline and Jim Broadbent and with Phoebe Cates in the title role.
How did she do it?
Mary Willcocks was not the first imposter to fool high society, but she was one of the most successful. How had she managed to maintain the hoax? The crucial factor seems to have been people's belief that she could not understand or read English. Once they convinced themselves of this, they had no scruples about what they said in front of her, 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.
So, as Mary gathered more detailed information from the various learned visitors to Knole, particularly those who wanted to show off their knowledge, her role became more substantial and her behavior more convincingly princess-like. She was also surrounded by people, Mrs. Worrall in particular, who desperately wanted to believe she was a foreign princess, much like Fox Mulder's 'I want to believe' in extraterrestrials in the X-Files. She was fulfilling a need for the romance of unseen lands in people's 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 lingo. But these were just the trimmings, the main part of her character was developed at Knole park.
And what of the mysterious Portuguese traveler Manuel Eynesso? How had he understood and 'translated' her language if she'd made it up? Was he an accomplice? A lover? The father of her child? He was certainly used by Mary to cement her identity. We'll probably never know the truth, perhaps he was just another hoaxer trying his luck at breaking into high society, as Mary Willcocks had done so successfully.
On Monday 26 March, 2006, a blue plaque commemorating the life of Princess Caraboo was unveiled at Number 11, Princess Street, Bristol, where Mary lived the last 11 years of her life. In attendance at the ceremony were children from St. Mary Redcliffe Junior School, wearing period costume, and Mary Willcocks's great niece Christine Medley, who travelled up from Mary's home county of Devon to be at the unveiling.
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