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True crime. Casually done.

Princess Susanna: Colonial Con-woman

Thanks to Yankee worldwide cultural dominance, everyone knows the American Dream. The deal goes that — no matter where in the world you’re from, or how much money you have — you can come to the grand old US of A, and become whoever you want to be. Today’s story proves that some people have taken that proposition a little more literally than others.

This is a criminal case from the old days of America, when for some unlucky convicts, the prospect of being shipped off to the East Coast colonies was more of a nightmare than a dream. Still, with a strong work ethic (or just a major talent for [bullshitting/deception]) even those down at rock bottom could make something of themselves in the New World.

The greatest proof of that fact is the story of Princess Susana — colonial con-woman extraordinaire.

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Humble Beginnings

Princess Susana’s life didn’t have quite as royal a beginning as you might expect. And that’s not the only misleading thing about that moniker; her name wasn’t even Susanna, it was Sarah Wilson. The story goes that Sarah was born to a poor family in rural Staffordshire in 1754. 

The lives of working class women were generally pretty tough back then, but Sarah managed to catch a lucky break. She was sent off by her family to find work in London, and ended up in the service of Miss Caroline Vernon: herself a lady in waiting to the Queen.

Miss Caroline Vernon, the lady in waiting to the Queen.
Miss Caroline Vernon, the lady in waiting to the Queen.

Lifted up out of relative poverty and into Downton Abbey-esque surroundings, young Sarah found herself serving at Queen Charlotte’s private residences, on the site of modern day Buckingham Palace. She got a crash course in how to behave around nobility, and plenty of chances to watch Her Majesty go about her royal duties: a lot of fine dining and luxury parties on taxpayer money — nothing much has changed.

But there’s only so long you can watch posh folk living it up without getting envious, and Charlotte soon decided she wanted to take a little bit of that luxury for herself…

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Trouble

She found herself inside the Queen’s living quarters one day without anyone else around. It was the perfect opportunity to snatch some pricey gear: a miniature portrait of Her Majesty, a dress, and a few pieces of jewelry. When someone has so much fancy stuff, surely they wouldn’t notice a few minor pieces missing. 

Unfortunately for Sarah though, Queen Charlotte did in fact notice that someone on her staff had gotten sticky fingers, and ordered a guard to keep an eye on the pilfered wardrobe. The thief made the mistake of going to the exact same place to grab some more loot, and was caught red handed.

Queen charlotte
Queen charlotte

This led to a speedy trial on charges of theft and “violation of the royal privacy”. Back in those days, basically any offense against a royal meant death. Steal from them? Death. Chat shit about them? Bump shoulders in the corridor? Double death. 

Thankfully though, Sarah’s employer Mrs Vernon put in a plea on her behalf, and the Queen had her sentence reduced to “transportation”. This was a punishment so horrific, so severe, and so outlandish that it doesn’t bear thinking about: Sarah would be sent to America.

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Exile

The exile to British
The exile to British

Yes, penal transportation meant being sent to one of the British colonies for some hard labour — the kind of work that nobody was signing up to do willingly. Sarah was sentenced to this in 1771, when America was just a distant colony of the crown — one of a number of places that criminals could find themselves riding towards in a prison ship.

Sarah arrived via the port of Baltimore, Maryland, and was swiftly led off to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Yes, these unlucky convicts would be sold into indentured servitude for the duration of their sentence, meaning anyone with a big enough bag of cash could own them.

Baltimore Port  1849
Baltimore Port 1849

The man who bought Sarah’s contract was one Mr William Devall, who owned a plantation in Frederick County. She was supposed to serve him as a maid for 7 years, until her sentence was complete, but our heroine had other ideas.

She was able to break out of custody quickly, and fled to Virginia.

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The Con

Now, on the run from her master in a strange foreign country, she was faced with the problem of finding some food and a place to sleep. She could hardly be content with some scullery maid gig in a dodgy inn after her time among royalty, so she set her sights on a far more ambitious career path. 

Sarah already knew what every South English actor in Hollywood would teach most of us centuries later: if you have an English accent in America, you’re either a villain, or an extremely sophisticated charmer. She understandably chose the latter role. The escaped convict used her inside knowledge of aristocratic life to cast herself as a noblewoman, and thereby elicit favors from all kinds of wealthy and powerful people. 

Amazingly, she still had some of the Queen’s belongings with her, which she used as props in her act. Just like that, plain old Sarah Wilson became Princess Susanna Caroline Matilda, sister to Queen Charlotte herself. I told you she was ambitious.

Princess Susanna Caroline Matilda ( Sarah con illustration )

Now whenever she rocked up at some rich person’s doorstep, they weren’t being bothered by a beggar, they were receiving a bona fide royal visit! Princess Susanna was wined and dined by governors and other powerful colonial officials up and down the East Coast. Over candlelight dinners, she told them how she had to leave England following a family scandal, when she refused to marry the man they had chosen for her. 

Not to worry though, she would surely soon be able to return to her sister’s side in England, and would certainly be willing to put in a good word for her new friends across the pond… If only they could provide her with some new clothes, a bit of cash, a couple bottles of wine for the road… 

Her Royal Highness gave the same story to shopkeepers too, and managed to rack up huge amounts of credit through this old-timey identity theft (made all the more impressive since she was stealing an identity which never even really existed). It would only take a superficial knowledge of the British Royal Family tree to see through the whole thing, but it’s likely the promise of some cushy government position helped pull the world over people’s eyes. 

By the time the princess made her way to Charlestown, South Carolina, she had pretty much perfected all aspects of her story. The town crier announced the arrival of “her Serene Highness”, and her calendar quickly filled up with appointments with some of the most powerful people in town. 

As an edition of a magazine from the time — Rivington’s New York Gazetteer — recounted, she made “astonishing impressions in many places, affecting the mode of royalty so inimitably, that many had the honor to kiss her hand.” 

Yet when I demanded the locals kiss my hand in [New Jersey/Boston], all I got was a black eye. How does that work exactly?

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All Comes Crashing Down

Even though Sarah was having better luck than me, her good fortune was soon set to run out. Talk of a royal touring the colonies began to spread like wildfire, and eventually reached the ear of Mr Devall. He had been trying without any luck to track down his enslaved convict.

Upon hearing a description of the royal princess in the autumn of 1773, he realized why; Sarah had managed to hide herself in plain sight, while enjoying a life of luxury. He decided to take out an ad in the South Carolina papers, informing the locals of Charlestown that this princess was in fact nothing but a lowborn maid on the run.

In the same ad, he offered up a reward of five pistols for her capture, which I’m pretty sure is still the standard reward for finding a lost cat in Texas. He also sent one of his employees named Michael Dalton to go to Charlestown in person and bring her back. 

After asking around town, Dalton discovered his target was enjoying the hospitality of a plantation owner at his mansion outside of town. By the time the hunter arrived she was already gone — his princess was in another castle. Another plantation, actually, where he was finally able to snare her.

Now, this is where the story gets a little bit murky…

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Down But Not Out

See, the narrative which we’re currently knee deep in has plenty of cinematic appeal. And as we know, any time a story goes stateside, it’s given the Hollywood treatment. Back before sketchy “based on a true story” films were a thing, it was the popular magazines who played fast and loose with the truth. 

That’s why the most popular narrative around Princess Susanna states that she was at this point escorted back to her master’s mansion at gunpoint. There she remained for a couple of years, until Mr Devall decided he had other matters to attend to: shooting Redcoats with muskets, mostly.

This was the start of the American Revolutionary War. Or as we Brits call it in history class: The Great Bloody Fuss of the Ungrateful Colony. The absence of her master and many of his taskmasters meant Sarah was once again able to give them the slip. Some even say that she managed this with the old switcheroo trick, when a convict with the exact same name landed in Baltimore. 

If it sounds like the story is getting a bit ridiculous now, that’s because it is. In fact, there’s no real record of Sarah Wilson ever being taken back into servitude. After posting the ad and sending his personal manhunter after her, it seems like Mr Devall just… gave up.

Proper historians reckon that it’s likely Mr Dalton did actually catch up with the princess in Georgetown, but by this point she was already so flush with cash that she could pay her purchase price back to her master, with a tasty bit of interest on top. This was a common way for indentured servants to cut their miserable contracts off early, provided they could somehow scrape together the cash.

Either way, Princess Susanna was now free to continue on her merry way…

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Ambiguous Endings 

She continued onwards to fresh pastures in New York, pulling the same old trick with dozens of new chumps on the way. She never actually faced any consequences for her impressive campaign of impersonation, as far as we can tell. As for what did actually happen to her in the end, nobody could quite say for sure. 

Some magazines wrote that she married a man serving in the Light Dragoons of the UK military, come to receive a good thrashing from the rebel colonists (U-S-A! U-S-A!). After hooking up with the young officer in New York, Princess Susanna decided to settle down there with him after the war, starting a business and family in the Bowery. 

That ending, however, is most likely a load of nonsense. A more credible version is the one backed up by an obituary from Berwick, Maine, in the year 1780:

“Departed this life on Wednesday morning last, at the house of Mr John Costelloe (of this town) a strange lady, who called herself the Duchess of Cronenburg: But is supposed to be one Sarah Wilson, a convict […]. The generosity of Mr Costelloe in taking in this distressed person, after she was forsaken by everyone, is really worthy of being noticed.”

In plain English, that basically means Sarah fell upon hard times, and was taken in by a kind couple who saw to her in her dying days, even calling her by fake name for the sake of preserving her dignity. A happy ending? I’m not really sure.

At any rate, we’ll never know how accurate it actually is. The truth is that the story of Princess Susanna Caroline Matilda mostly just disappears from the history books, leaving room for you to imagine whatever kind of ending you think she deserves.

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Wrap-up: Romance vs Reality

In that regard, the magazines are already way ahead of you. This is a story on which journalists have been flexing their creative writing muscles for centuries, so there’s just one lasting to do before we finish up for the day: a much-needed bit of myth-busting.

As it turns out, one of the most fundamental facts in the case is actually a work of fiction: the reason for Sarah’s conviction. Rivington’s New York Gazetteer was the publication that popularized the story about her serving in the household of the Queen, but the reality is a tad less glamorous. 

Historic documents in the UK actually prove she was just a kitchen servant at the house of a man named George Lewis-Scott. She wasn’t arrested for robbing the Queen either — there’s no record of any such theft. Really, she was brought to court for doing what she did best: swindling a woman out of a dress.

A 1867 newspaper from Wiltshire reported that by her mid teens, she already had an extensive track record of assuming fake noble titles across England. She’d play the victim and tell her marks she had been cast out by her family for being the sole Protestant among a tribe of Catholics, among other tall tales. As it turns out, the reality is more impressive than the fiction.

It’s an inspiring story — testament to just how far you can go in life with nothing but a silver tongue and questionable moral compass. Although I am a little bit torn on the whole impersonating a royal thing, me being a true nobleman and all. I’ve been keeping it hush hush, cause I don’t like to brag, but I’m actually the Duke of Canterbury — no big deal. 

On an unrelated note, if there are any luxury yacht parties happening this weekend, I’m available.

Credits

https://www.ancient-origins.net/

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