Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lady Pirates: The German Princess

Fame comes to many people. More in our technological age then ever before, or so it seems. Stories like that of Mary Carleton, the counterfeit German Princess who took London by storm and then became a hooker in Port Royal, Jamaica make me wonder. Mary's story points up that dubious celebrity is a thing of all times, not just our own. It also shows that pirates didn't always operate on the high seas. Some stuck close to shore.

Mary Carleton was born Mary Moders, probably in August of 1642, in Canterbury, England. Reports vary but her family was probably on one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder. One biographer claims her father was an itinerant musician who barely kept bread on the table. Mary must have been a precocious girl with an eye toward something better and those two traits combined would have her butting heads with society and it's norms all of her life.

She married young. Most sources agree the man in question was a shoemaker. Clearly he was only a stepping stone. When we next hear of Mary she has moved on to the seaside town of Dover to begin swindling the wealthy who have come to take the air. Here she marries again, this time a man of education, but the shoemaker tracks her down and she is arrested for bigamy. After a brief stint in jail the record drops Mary like a hot potato.

Until 1663 when Mary turns up at the Exchange Tavern in London. She is now claiming her name is Mary, Princess van Wolway and that she is on the lamb from her father, a wealthy nobleman in Cologne, Germany. Her evil father wants to marry her off to a decrepit mummy and she has come to London dressed in rags, having abandoned a fortune back home to escape a life of misery with an unwanted husband. The sailors at the Exchange ate this story up with a spoon and soon Mary, the German Princess, had every comfort a girl could hope for. Including another husband in the form of the tavern owner's brother-in-law.

Someone, I'm betting it was the tenacious shoemaker, exposed Mary again and a sensational trial ensued. Mary insisted she really was a princess and - though she made a ton of friends among the hoy paloy in Newgate prison - she continued with that story throughout the trial and beyond. Pamphlets were published, including one by Mary herself entitled The Case of Madame Mary Carleton, wealthy celebrities came to the trial and even King Charles II privately threw in his hat for poor, misunderstood Mary. She was eventually acquitted.

The whirl of fame swirled around Mary for some months more but, after failing miserably on stage (which seems the most surprising thing about the entire story), Mary went back to her gold digging. Having never divorced her prior husbands (although one has to imagine annulments would be managed) she married twice more, steeling her spouses goods and money in the process. The courts of London finally had enough and Mary Carleton was transported to the cesspool of vice and crime that managed to line the Crown's pockets with Spanish gold: Port Royal.

Mary arrived in Jamaica in 1671 at the height of Henry Morgan's buccaneering glory. For a smart girl who was willing to be unscrupulous in her mode of employ, Port Royal's streets were lined with gold. It goes without saying that Mary probably didn't have a scrupulous bone in her body and she seems to have gotten right to work fleecing the local "bully-ruffians" - as she called the pirates - of their ill-gotten pieces of eight. As always, Mary had an eye to the future. She'd whore as long as she had to and put her money away. Sooner or later she was going back to London.

It was Mary herself who documented her time in Port Royal, for the most part anyway. She wrote what amounts to a pamphlet which she called News from Jamaica in a Letter from Port Royal Written by the Germane Princess to Her Fellow Collegiates and Friends in New-Gate. Even writing to convicts, she is still the "Germane Princess". She tells of the men in Port Royal competing with one another to compliment her and swore that her only concerns were either being killed with pirate kindness or drowning in rum. One has to think that Mary was painting the rosiest possible picture. A contemporary chronicler gives us another glimpse of Mrs. Carleton:

A stout frigate she was, or else she never could have endured so many batteries and assaults. A woman of unexampled modesty, if she may be her own herald. But she was as common as a barber's chair; no sooner was one out but another was in.

At some point, probably in 1672, Mary either snuck aboard or conned her way onto a ship heading back to London. Once arrived she went right to work again, defrauding middle class or wealthy men for whatever she could take away and probably marrying more than one. In early 1673 her luck may have run out. She was arrested for stealing silver from a smith's. When it was discovered that she was an escapee from penal transportation she was sentenced to hang. The days of celebrity and acquittals were very much over.

Mary met the noose in January of 1673 at the Old Bailey in London. Doubtless some of her previous supporters showed up for the spectacle, their velvet masks firmly in place and pomanders held to their noses. What they thought goes undocumented. I'd be more interested in the opinions of the boys back in Port Royal. I'm betting more than one bumper of punch was drunk to the German Princess when the news of her death reached Jamaica's shores.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, that Mary sure got around in her brief 30 years on earth. She was a busy, busy girl... Not very productive, but certainly busy. I doubt that it was a fun life, but she seems to have made the most of it. That was a pretty funny post, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! If I'm honest, I like Mary a lot. The diseases and vermin she probably experienced, not so much; but nobody could ever tell her she "lost her moxie", that's for sure.

Undine said...

I first read about Mary a few years ago in one of Scottish true crime writer William Roughead's books. You know what? God knows why, but I wound up liking the old rogue myself!

I couldn't help but think that gumption like that deserved a better fate than the end of a rope.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! Many thanks for your support of Triple P! Your points are well taken, and some of the reasons Mary has joined my pantheon of Lady Pirates.

Hope to hear from you again soon.