In the summer of 1725 an uncouth youth was found in the forest of Hertswold near Hameln in northern Germany. It was thought the boy was aged about 10 years old though he walked on all fours and fed on grass and leaves. ‘A naked, brownish,
‘A naked, brownish, black haired creature’, he would run up trees when approached and could utter no intelligible sound. The latest in a long line of feral children – in turn celebrated, shunned and cursed through the ages – ‘The Wild Boy of Hameln’ would be the first to achieve real fame.
After a spell in the House of Correction in Celle, the boy was taken to the court of King George I, Duke of Hanover and King of the United Kingdom who was visiting his homeland at Herrenhausen. Here the young curiosity was initially treated as an honoured guest. He was seated at table with the king and dressed in a suit of clothes with a napkin at his neck.
However, he repelled his host with his complete lack of manners. He refused bread, but gorged himself on vegetables, fruit and rare meat, greedily grasping at the dishes and eating noisily from his hands, until he was ordered to be taken away. He was given the name of Peter, but was variously known as ‘Wild Peter’, ‘Peter of Hanover’, or, most famously, ‘Peter the Wild Boy’.
In the spring of 1726, after briefly escaping back to the forest, Peter was brought to London where his tale had aroused particular interest. As in Hanover, he caused a sensation and his carefree nature provided an amusing antidote to the stultifying boredom and decorum of court life. For some reason there was something about Peter that appealed to Caroline, Princess of Wales, who persuaded the king to allow Peter to move to her residence in the West End, where he was kept virtually as a pet. Though he insisted on sleeping on the floor, he was dressed carefully each morning in a tailor-made suit of green and red. He was also appointed a tutor, who had him baptised and taught him to bow and kiss the hands of the ladies at court. By all accounts this was something of a battle as Peter hated clothes and was literally wrestled into wearing them every day whilst his natural tendency was to pick-pocket and steal from those in the royal court.
It must be noted that there is no real reason to assume the boy was actually called Peter, for sadly, Peter was unable to talk.
Peter quickly became a celebrity. On one level, tales of his antics busied the London gazettes. Jonathan Swift, whose fictional ‘Yahoos’ Peter appeared to personify, noted sourly that ‘there is scarcely talk of anything else’. He was soon the ‘talk of the town’, his portrait graced the walls of the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace and an effigy of him was erected in a waxworks on the Strand. In 1727 a premature report of his death gave rise to a mocking epitaph in the British Journal. His resemblance to Swift’s fantastical characters had clearly not been missed:
Ye Yahoos mourn, for in this Place
Lies dead the Glory of your Race,
One, who from Adam had Descent,
Yet ne’er did what he might repent;
But liv’d, unblemish’d, to fifteen,
And yet, O strange, a Court had seen,
Was solely rul’d by Nature’s Laws,
And dy’d a Martyr in her Cause!
Now reign, ye Houynhnms, for Mankind,
Have no such Peter left behind,
None like the dear departed Youth,
Renown’d for Purity and Truth,
He was your Rival, and our Boast,
For ever, ever, ever lost!
But Peter could not to live up to the popular interest invested in him and as like today, a fickle public quickly abandoned him in favour of the next unfortunate oddball to appear on the London stage. His academic progress also failed to match his earlier promise. He was declared ‘unable to receive instruction’, despite the attentions of ‘the ablest masters’. He could say nothing beyond his own name and a garbled form of ‘King George’. By 1728, his tutor had given up his efforts and Peter was retired to the country. A home was found for him on a farm near Northchurch in Hertfordshire and a generous crown pension of £35 per annum was supplied for his upkeep. The ‘talk of the town’ became a humble farm hand. This though was much better than could be expected for many such people in Georgian England when they would be packed off to the Freak Show Circus to spend the rest of their natural lives being gawped at and prodded by onlookers.
Though still only what today would be known as a teenager, Peter faded into provincial obscurity and thereafter rarely gained publicity. He developed a taste for gin and loved music, reportedly swaying and clapping with glee and dancing until he was exhausted. But he never learned to speak and his lack of any sense of direction gave cause for concern. In 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rebellion, he was arrested as a suspected Highlander and, six years later, he wandered as far as Norwich, where he was thought to be a Spanish subversive. As a
In 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rebellion, he was arrested as a suspected Highlander and, six years later, he wandered east as far as the city of Norwich, where he was thought to be a Spanish subversive. As a result he was fitted with a heavy leather collar bearing the inscription: ‘Peter, the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble.’ It may look a little inhumane or rather like a collar that a slave might wear but it was not meant to be so and was a kind gesture by the local farmers who though rather fondly of Peter.
Tales of feral children always fascinate, but Peter caused a sensation. It was the Age of Enlightenment, and he became a symbol in the debate about what it meant to be human.
People were beginning to question established authority and religion. And they were interested in what distinguishes us from the animals. If he has no speech, does that mean he has no soul? Do human beings really have souls? He raised lots of philosophical questions.
Though Peter’s life is remarkable enough, what is most astounding is the sheer scale of scientific and philosophical interest that his case aroused. While wits opined that the boy might be corrupted by the sybaritic life of London high society, others saw in him an ideal test case for the nascent sciences of anthropology and psychology.
To the thinkers of the Age of Reason, Peter represented a blank slate. As humanity in its ‘raw’ state, he was what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called ‘the noble savage’, man ‘unspoilt’ by society and civilisation. He was indeed a fascinating subject, but he provoked further, disquieting, enquiry. He was undoubtedly human but, lacking speech and socialisation, could he be classed as a man? Could he have a soul? Could he possess the power of thought?
Of the numerous thinkers and writers who addressed the subject, Daniel Defoe did so with the most clarity in his pamphlet Mere Nature Delineated, published in 1726. He described Peter as an ‘object of pity’ but cast doubt on the story of his origins, dismissing it as a ‘Fib’. On the issue of Peter’s soul, he was more charitable. Possessed of the gift of laughter and thought, Peter clearly had a soul, he wrote, but its powers did not yet act within him. He was, in sum, ‘in a state of Mere Nature … a ship without a Rudder’. And it was the task of his tutors to bring him to ‘the Use of his Reason’. He deferred the final verdict on Peter, therefore, until the results of his education became apparent. If he could receive instruction – if he could be taught to heed his soul – then he would become a man. And, what was more, he would be a lesson to us all, especially, wrote Defoe, ‘those who think nobody so wise as themselves’.
Defoe wrestled manfully with the uncomfortable question that Peter posed: what was it that divided ‘us’ from ‘them’, man from the animals? Different minds arrived at different conclusions. But the habitual tidier of nature Carl Linnaeus was typical. He reassured mankind by creating a separate species of ‘wild men’ or homo ferens. Peter was still clearly an outsider – one of ‘them’.
Peter’s example was later used in numerous theories of child development, socialisation and the role of language. Many thinkers dwelt on his inability to learn to speak. The philosopher James Burnett (Lord Monboddo), whose ideas anticipated some of those of Charles Darwin, presented him as an illustration of his theory of the evolution of language in the human species. He saw Peter as evidence that ‘man was born mute, and that articulation is altogether … a habit acquired by custom and exercise’. To others, Peter was thought to demonstrate the existence of a ‘critical window’ in which language and other skills are developed in the child. Having missed the ‘window’, Peter could never learn such skills again. Hence the apparent failure of his esteemed tutors.
Other scientists concentrated on the role of ‘socialisation’ in child development. After a childhood supposedly devoid of parental care and nurture, Peter was considered to have developed a ‘mental indifference’ and a lack of empathy, reflection and memory. In common with other feral children, it was argued, he ‘lived solely to survive’, satisfying only his base desires for food and sleep. In other interpretations, Peter’s mental shortcomings were attributed primarily to his lack of language. Having never learned to speak, it was suggested, how could he comprehend his own ‘inner voice’? How could he order and make sense of his world? The result was that he was virtually unable to display higher mental functions. He was trapped in the mind of a toddler.
Rather than being a genuine ‘feral child’ then, Peter was most likely abandoned by his parents who were unable to cope with his behaviour and impairments. Though sent to the country, Peter was recorded as a small part of a very grand painting which can be found in Kensington Palace.
Recent analysis of this portrait suggests Peter had a rare genetic condition known as Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, indicated by:
- His short stature
- Lustrous mop of thick curly hair
- Hooded eyelids
- Cupid’s bow mouth, with a pronounced curve to the upper lip
- He disliked clothes, but was wrestled daily into a green suit
- Pictured holding acorns and oak leaves – symbolic of living wild in the woods – and some fingers on his left hand (not seen) were fused
The closest match is Pitt-Hopkins, a genetic condition only identified in 1978, which has severe neurological effects, says Professor Beales. “It’s severe learning difficulties, developmental difficulties and the inability to develop speech.”
Contemporary accounts chime with his diagnosis, such as this description of Peter’s first appearance at court:
“The wild boy played with a glove of Caroline’s [the Princess of Wales], grew fascinated by a pocket watch that struck the hours and, as was usual with him, attempted some mild pickpocketing. Furthermore, rumour spread that he had, in breach of all civilised decorum, seized the Lord Chamberlain’s staff and put his hat on before the king.”
Whatever his ailments, Peter was not forgotten by the royal court. His keep was paid by the crown for nearly 60 years through three reigns and when he died a brass tablet was erected to his memory at royal expense.
He was given a prime spot in the graveyard at Northchurch, which is only about 8 miles from where I live. Close to the south porch his rough-hewn stone, now shaded by an unruly dog rose, reads simply: ‘Peter the Wild Boy – 1785’. The stone was paid for by the locals and even today flowers can often be found on his grave.
Despite his moniker, Peter was never reported as being aggressive or hurting anyone and whatever the philosophical debates of the time, it seems he was a gentle, happy if very unusual human being.