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Representation of Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson: The Trickster Who Rose from Convict to Princess

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Sarah Wilson was an Englishwoman who made a name for herself during the 18 th century. The gist of her colorful story is that she was convicted of theft in England, sent to America as a prisoner, sold into slavery, escaped, and impersonated as a non-existent English princess! Although it is unclear as to how much truth is contained in the story of Sarah Wilson, it is undoubtedly an extraordinary tale of how one woman was able to make the most out of the unfavorable circumstances she found herself in, albeit through trickery and deceit.

Sarah Wilson’s Early Life

Sarah Wilson is said to have been born in a village in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands, in 1754 and was the daughter of a bailiff. She is presumed to have spent her childhood in the village of her birth. At the age of 16, however, Sarah left for London to seek employment. Some have suggested that she was bored of village life and desired to become famous. This would provide a convenient explanation for the motivation behind her later activities in America.
In any case, Sarah was extremely fortunate. Several weeks after her arrival in London, she was employed as a maid by Caroline Vernon, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III . As Caroline’s servant, Sarah had many opportunities to see the queen herself and quickly learned much about life at the English court, as well as the private lives of the royals.

Queen Charlotte in Robes of State

Queen Charlotte in Robes of State. (Huelam987 / Public Domain )

Sarah Wilson The Thief

Eventually, Sarah took advantage of her position to enrich herself. One day, while she was all alone in the queen's closet, Sarah broke open the cabinet and stole some jewelery, several rings, a miniature portrait of the queen, and one of the queen's dresses. Although we may never know the exact reasons that drove Sarah to commit this crime, it has been speculated that she was envious of the luxuries that those around her enjoyed and that she assumed the queen would not be aware of the loss of such small items.
Unfortunately for Sarah, the queen did notice that some of her things were missing, as she had the habit of counting her valuables. Expecting the thief to strike again, the queen had her closet watched. True enough, several days after the first theft, Sarah returned to steal from the same place and was caught red-handed. She was charged with theft and the violation of royal privacy. Her sentence was death, though through Caroline’s intercession, Sarah’s sentence was reduced to transportation, i.e. being sent to the colonies to serve her sentence.

The Queen set a trap for Sarah

The Queen set a trap for Sarah. ( Grafvision / Adobe)

In July 1771, Sarah was put on a prison ship that was bound for Baltimore, Maryland. When the ship arrived at its destination, Sarah was sold to William Duval (sometimes spelled as Devall) of Bush Creek, Frederick County, Maryland. Almost immediately, however, Sarah was able to escape to Virginia and began her life as an impostor.

Sarah Wilson The Princess

Sarah adopted the persona of ‘Princess Susanna Caroline Matilda of Mecklenburg-Strelitz’, the sister of Queen Charlotte. She claimed that she was forced into exile in America as a consequence of a scandal and a family quarrel. Somehow, Sarah was still in possession of some of the objects she stole from the queen, including the dress, the miniature portrait, and a ring. These items, in addition to Sarah’s knowledge of court affairs, made her impersonation much more convincing.
The ‘princess’ was invited to the homes of various Virginian gentlemen, some curious to meet a ‘genuine’ royal, while others hoping to obtain favors once she was restored to her rightful position in England. Nevertheless, some were beginning to have their suspicions about this mysterious ‘princess’. For instance, as the ‘princess’ belonged to a German dynasty, she was expected to speak German. Sarah, however, refused to speak this language simply because she was unable to do so. Additionally, the suspicions of some people were aroused because they had never heard of the queen having a younger sister.

Sarah Wilson The Fugitive

In the meantime, Duval, who had purchased Sarah for a considerable amount of money, was looking for her. During his search for his runaway slave, Duval heard about Princess Susanna and figured out that she was in fact Sarah. Therefore, he circulated advertisements exposing Sarah as an impostor and promised a reward to anyone who captured her. He also sent an employee of his, Michael Dalton, to track her down. Although Dalton tracked her down to a plantation in Charlestown, Sarah left before he arrived.

Sarah took on the persona of a princess and eluded capture

Sarah took on the persona of a princess and eluded capture. (Jbarta / Public Domain )

Eventually, Dalton caught up with Sarah and brought her back at gunpoint to Duval. Sarah was forced to work Duval, but she immediately began plotting her escape. The opportunity arrived two years later, when Duval went to fight as a militia in the American War of Independence. At the same time, another Sarah Wilson appeared and she somehow traded places with the new arrival.
Sarah then fled northwards, where she met and married William Talbot, an officer of the Light Dragoons. The couple continued living in America and eventually settled down in the Bowery in New York. Thereafter, Sarah Wilson disappears from the pages of history.

Top image: Representation of Sarah Wilson. Source: Petermichaelgenner / Public Domain .

By Ḏḥwty

References

Atom Bash, 2019. Sarah Wilson: English Royal family impostor. [Online] Available at: https://atombash.com/sarah-wilson-english-royal-family-impostor/

Haughton, B., 2002. Sarah Wilson - The Princess Susanna Hoax. [Online] Available at: http://www.mysteriouspeople.com/princess_hoax.htm

Patzer, M. S., 2015. Wicked Woman - Sarah Wilson - The Princess Imposter. [Online] Available at: http://www.historyandwomen.com/2015/04/wicked-woman-sarah-wilson-princess.html

Rolph, D., 2014. The Remarkable Career of Sarah Wilson: Convict, Princess, and Marchioness of Colonial America. [Online] Available at: https://hsp.org/blogs/history-hits/the-remarkable-career-of-sarah-wilson-convict-princess-and-marchioness-of-colonial-america

The Esoteric Curiosa, 2010. 'I Wanna Be A Princess': 'The Princess Susanna Hoax' Sarah Wilson. [Online] Available at: http://theesotericcuriosa.blogspot.com/2010/05/portrait-of-lady-princess-susanna-hoax.html

Comments

Some of the above is true. Others are false.

There are a number of untrue stories about Sarah. The first appeared in Rivington’s New York Gazetteer on 13 May 1773 that Sarah was a maidservant to Caroline Vernon, lady-in-waiting for Queen Charlotte, and began to steal the jewellery and clothing of the queen. She was apprehended and first condemned to death but eventually the sentence was commuted to penal transportation to the American colonies. This story was reprinted in several American and English newspapers, as well as the Gentleman’s and London Magazines. While much of the detail in the report in Rivington’s New York Gazetteer is either true, or likely to be true, the record is clear that Sarah was transported for obtaining clothes by false pretenses from a Mrs Davenport. There is no record of Queen Charlotte’s jewels or clothes being stolen.

Later inventions were that she was born in Staffordshire in 1754, the daughter of a bailiff (it is more likely that she was born in London in about 1745). That she was dragged back to Bush Creek where she remained for two years before escaping again. She later married a British army officer named William Talbot, moved to New York, had a large family and lived happily ever after.

Sarah was an imposter and a fraudster, a real life Moll Flanders who created a remarkable series of different lives for herself on both sides of the Atlantic.

Beginning in her late teens Sarah wandered alone all over England, living dangerously on her wits, inventing new identities for herself including the Princess of Mecklenburgh, Countess of Normandy and Lady Countess Wilbrahammon, and telling different stories to suit different audiences in order to fool people into providing her with food and shelter, money and fine clothes. A Coventry Justice of the Peace described Sarah as “The greatest Impostress of the present Age”.

After four or five years on the road one of her crimes caught up with her. Sir John Fielding sent Sarah to prison to await trial for obtaining a full set of clothes by false pretences. She was found guilty and sentenced to be transported to America. In 1768, after a spell in Newgate awaiting the next convict ship, she sailed for Maryland where escaped from her master and began a new set of adventures.

In Virginia and the Carolinas she was passed from one plantation house to another as an honoured guest in the guise of the Queen’s sister where, according to Rivington’s New York Gazetteer for 13 May 1773, she,

… made astonishing impressions in many places, affecting the mode of royalty so inimitably, that many had the honour to kiss her hand; to some she promised governments, to others regiments, with promotions of all kinds, in the Treasury, Army and in the Royal Navy [and] levied heavy contributions upon some persons of the highest rank in the Southern colonies.

The same newspaper said that an agent of her former master recaptured her while she was visiting a neighbouring plantation. If that was true, it is possible that she bought her freedom by using some of her ill-gotten gains. None of the subsequent newspaper reports about her, gave any indication that she was a wanted fugitive.

After Charleston, Sarah moved north. She stayed in Boston from 7 December 1773 to 11 January 1774 as Princess Carolina Matilda, Princess of Cronenburgh, Marchioness de Waldegrave. She might have been one of the thousands of spectators who watched the Sons of Liberty throwing the chests of tea from the three ships in Boston Harbour on the night of 16 December 1773.

While still maintaining her royal pretentions, Sarah decided to play the religious card in puritan New England at the onset of the War of Independence, becoming the house-guest of Congregationalists, some of whom took an active part on the revolutionary side.

Sarah’s story is told a new book, Impostress: The Dishonest Adventures of Sarah Wilson, published by The History Press (UK).

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