Sarah Wilson: The Trickster Who Rose from Convict to Princess
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. (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.
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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. (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.
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