Wilson, Sarah (1750–?)
Wilson, Sarah (1750–?)
English thief, adventurer, and impostor . Name variations: (alias) Susanna (or Sophia) Carolina Matilda, Marchioness de Waldegrave. Born in 1750 in a village in Staffordshire, England; date and place of death unknown; married Captain William Talbot, after 1775.
Sarah Wilson was born in 1750 in a small village in Staffordshire, England. Little is known about her early years except that she apparently escaped country life while in her teens and journeyed to London. She found a job as a servant with Caroline Vernon , who was a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz , wife of King George III (r. 1760–1782). In the spring of 1771, Wilson crept into the queen's boudoir and stole one of Charlotte's miniature portraits, a diamond necklace, and a gown. Attempting a second episode of thievery later that evening, Sarah was caught, tried, found guilty of burglary, and sentenced to death. Vernon and the queen intervened on her behalf, and her sentence was commuted to indentured servitude in the British colonies in North America.
The convict ship carrying Wilson arrived in Maryland in the autumn of 1771. William Devall of Bush Creek, Frederick County, Maryland, acquired Wilson's indenture, but she was hardly the ideal candidate for service, and she escaped soon after. Undetected, she had managed to keep the goods she had stolen in England, and she traveled throughout the Colonies styling herself as Susanna (or Sophia) Carolina Matilda, marchioness de Waldegrave, a sister of the queen of England. For approximately 18 months, from late 1771 through 1773, she cultivated friends among the upper ranks of society in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia by displaying the miniature portrait of "her sister" and exploiting her own wit, charm, and dramatic flair. Winning the confidence of the Colonies' finest citizens, and even gaining an introduction to the governor of North Carolina, Wilson duped several victims by claiming to be able to secure government posts and army commissions—for substantial fees.
Devall hired attorney Michael Dalton to find and return his servant, and posted a reward in the Virginia Gazette of June 3, 1773, describing her as possessing "a blemish in her right eye, black roll'd hair, stoops in her shoulders." Accounts differ from this point onward. One report indicates that she avoided capture and traveled to Boston—where she was spotted in January 1774—by way of Philadelphia, New York, and Newport. From Boston, she went to Portsmouth and Newcastle, New Hampshire, and then back to Newport, where the Mercury printed notices of her arrival and subsequent departure for New York in July 1775. According to this first account, she then vanished. Another report claims that she was apprehended and returned to Devall in 1773 but escaped again in 1775. Traveling north, she eventually met and married a British army officer, Captain William Talbot. After about 1775, no further traces of Sarah Wilson surfaced. Her epitaph seems to have been penned by a Boston printer who, in the Providence Gazette of January 22, 1774, characterized her as "the most surprizing [sic] genius of the female sex that was ever obliged to visit America."
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.
Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California