As we continue with our women series, we will look at a famous British imposter who went right to the top of her profession. Sarah Wilson posed as Queen Charlotte’s sister for many years before she was caught.
Working for the lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte
We don’t know very much about Sarah Wilson except that she was well versed in courtly affairs, she was able to fool Virginia landowners into thinking she was the queen’s non-existent sister.
Queen Charlotte (Sophia Charlotte; 19 May 1744 – 17 November 1818) was the wife of King George III. Now Sarah was the daughter born a bailiff in 1754 in a village in Staffordshire,in the West Midlands region of England. Sarah had her sights on bigger and better things. She had no intention of living in obscurity in a small village. She left the village to seek work and evidently to seek fame. She was fortunate enough to find work as a maid to Miss Caroline Vernon, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte. Sarah was only 16 when she was lucky enough to get this job in London.
Since Sarah was the maid to the lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte she was able to see and learn all of about Queen Charlotte and King George III and to familiarize herself with the affairs and customs of the court.
“Before too long, this quick-witted girl began to grow envious of all the wealth and finery surrounding her. One day, when alone in the Queen’s closet, she broke open the cabinet and stole a diamond necklace, a miniature portrait of the Queen, and one of the Queen’s dresses.”
Sarah Wilson probably thought such a small theft would not be noticed but she did not know the Queen Charlotte kept a sharp eye on her belongings and knew exactly what she had at all times. Sarah was dumb enough to try it again only this time the Queen made sure her cabinet was watched at all times and lo and behold Sarah was caught red-handed.
Sarah was quickly sentenced to death, but Queen Charlotte relaxed on the death sentence due to the pleadings of her lady in waiting. Sarah was banished from England and sent on board ship to the American colonies.
It is documented that she was transported by the prison ship to Baltimore, Maryland. She was only 17. She was lucky to become an indentured servant rather than being incarcerated in a filthy prison. However, Sarah was not content to be the servant of Mr. William Devall of Bush Creek, Frederick County she wanted more.
It is not known why she still had in her possession the things she stole from Queen Charlotte but that was enough to convince the Americans that she was ‘Princess Susanna Caroline Matilda, Marchioness de Waldegrave, a sister of Queen Charlotte’, forced into exile in America following a scandal and a family quarrel.”
The popularity of the Princess Susanna Caroline Matilda persona soon attracted many gentlemen callers. She travelled around the colonies in style. She was admitted to higher society and offered her host government posts for a fee of course. Many believed it would just be a matter of time when she would be restored to her place in the English court and they wanted to to shower her with gifts and money so they would be seen in good favor with the King and Queen of England.
However, some of the colonists did suspect that something was not quite right. For example, Princess Susanna never spoke German yet she was born in Germany and should be fluent in the language. Also, some colonists of greater means wondered why they never heard of her, especially the more recent English colonists who settled in the area.
Mr. Duvall finds her
Meanwhile her previous slave owner Mr. Devall was searching all over for his runaway slave. He began to suspect that this mysterious princess was really Sarah Wilson. He sent one of his servants to look for her and he published her description in the Virginia Gazette on June 3, 1773. He described her as having stooped shoulders, black rolled hair and a blemish in one of her eyes. He offered a handsome reward of “five pistols and all expenses as a reward.”
There are different accounts of what happened next. One account has her travelling around and eventually disappearing from sight after leaving for New York in 1775. Another account has the servant of Mr. Devall tracked her down to a Charlestown plantation. She managed to escape to a nearby plantation only to be found and taken there at gunpoint.
Different accounts of what happened next
After two years she escaped yet another time from Mr. Duvall. Some how she was able to switch identities with another English girl named Sarah Wilson; this time Duvall did not go after her. He joined the militia to fight for the American War of Independence.
“Sarah later married Capt. William Talbot, a young officer in the Light Dragoons. After the war the couple stayed in America, possibly because she would have been arrested again if she returned to England. Sarah used the money earned from her role as Princess Susanna to set her husband up in business. Her wandering days over, they subsequently had a large family and lived in the then respectable area of the Bowery, New York.”
This is an amazing story of how a English criminal was able to dupe American High Society!