One famous French beauty and socialite was Madame Récamier. She was known to hobnob regularly with aristocrats and the elite, and one day, in 1803, when she was hosting and mingling, a rather interesting incident occurred. It involved Jean March Gaspard Itard. He was a French physician at the National Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and he had been accompanied to Madame Récamier’s by a feral boy* whose case he had taken up and whom he named Victor of Aveyron.
The story of Victor of Aveyron begins when he was first spotted by woodsmen near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in the commune of Aveyron as early as 1794. Periodically, between 1797 and 1798, Victor was again seen. Stories differ as to whether he emerged from the forest on his own or whether woodsmen captured him with their nets. However, once he emerged from the woods, he stayed with numerous people, although he also ran away regularly and was recaptured.
After Victor of Aveyron was found, a local commissioner wrote:
“I have ordered brought to your orphanage … an unidentified child of twelve to fifteen years of age, who appears congenitally deaf and mute. Not only is he interesting because of his sensory losses, there is moreover, something extraordinary in his behavior, which makes him seem close to the state of wild animals. In every respect, this interesting and unfortunate being invites the care of humanity, perhaps, even the attention of a philanthropic observer.”’
Eventually, a local naturalist who taught biology named Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre examined Victor. Bonnaterre decided to keep him indoors and assigned him his own bedroom. While Victor was living indoors, Bonnaterre noticed that the weather seemed to hold great sway over him. For example, a sudden burst of sunlight might elicit joy from him, or, at other times, he would be frantic, wild, and filled with rage. Bonnaterre reported that one morning, after a particularly heavy snow storm, Victor of Aveyron looked out his bedroom window and with a cry of joy, ran half-dressed into the garden, where “giving vent to his delight by the most piercing cries, he ran, rolled in the snow, and gathered it up by the handful, devoured it with incredible eagerness”
Victor, who some nineteenth century researchers sometimes referred to as a beast child, supposedly also possessed several peculiar habits. One tendency was his ‘squirrel-like habit of climbing trees.” He also lapped or sucked water and was known to eat “raw fruits or seeds, such as acorns; of roots, bark, leaves, grass, and various vegetables.”
Authorities finally decided it was best to take Victor of Aveyron to Paris. However, despite him obviously being able to hear, he was placed at the National Institute of the Deaf in Paris to be studied by the renowned French abbé and instructor of the deaf, Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard. Sicard soon became frustrated with Victor’s lack of progress. He and others felt Victor lacked reason and understanding, and, so, they therefore characterized him as uncivilized and decided he needed to be civilized, but Sicard’s attempts to do so did not work.
In the meantime, Itard, who was a young medical student, thought part of the issue related to Victor’s lack of improvement was that he roamed the institution freely, and, so, he decided to take the boy under his wing. He took him home and attempted to do everything possible to socialize him beginning the process by monitoring and assisting Victor with his daily development. In addition, Itard published regular reports on his progress.
Itard believed that two things separated animals from humans: empathy and language, and so he strove to teach Victor of Aveyron to speak and tried to help him understand and communicate his emotions. He initially showed great progress, but his success was nothing more than rudimentary, although he did on occasion show proper human emotion. For instance, when Itard’s housekeeper lost her husband and was crying about his death, Victor noticed her sadness, stopped what he was doing, and attempted to comfort and console her.
Victor’s ability to speak was never outstanding, and it initially relied on Itard building up Victor’s vocal skills. The two things Victor primarily said were lait (milk) and O Dieu! (my God!), the O Dieu! having been acquired from his governess and her fondness for repeating the phrase. Victor also understood gestural language and would respond appropriately. For instance, if his governess needed water, she held the pitcher upside down, and he would comply.
After Victor of Aveyron arrived in Paris, he was naturally the talk of the town. Everyone was curious and everyone wanted to get an up close look at the boy who had lived for so many years in the woods. To help socialize him, Itard planned various outings. Madame Récamier learned about Victor and could not resist hosting a party with him in attendance and begged Itard to make it happen. So, when Victor was about 15 years old, an outing was planned for him and Itard to dine at Madame Récamier’s with her and her guests.
It was a momentous occasion. Everyone had heard in advance that Madame Récamier was to have a special visitor and her home was filled with excited guests. When Victor of Aveyron finally arrived, he was seated next to Madame Récamier at the dinner table. He seemed famished and gulped and swallowed everything put on his plate with delight. Dessert was no less appealing, and, in fact, Victor stuffed his pocket full of sweet delicacies before he surreptitiously departed from the table.
No one noticed that Victor left the table because guests were busy socializing. A heated discussion had erupted related to the astronomer Jérôme Lalande’s delight for spiders when suddenly an unexplained and raucous noise was heard coming from the garden. It was then that Itard realized Victor was missing, and as he rushed towards the noise in the Park, the curious guests followed. One guest then recounted what happened:
“[Victor] we soon glimpsed running across the lawn with the speed of a rabbit. To give himself more freedom of movement, he had stripped to his undershirt. Reaching the main avenue of the park, which was bordered by huge chestnut trees, he tore his last garment in two, as if it were simply made of gauze; then, climbing the nearest tree with the ease of a squirrel, he perched in the middle of the branches.”
The sight of a naked boy in the trees was beyond decorum, and the male guests attempted to recapture Victor and end his escape. They employed a variety of means to do so, and Itard also attempted to reclaim Victor. But nothing anyone said or did enticed the boy, and no promise of future punishment by Itard stopped Victor of Aveyron from leaping gleefully from tree to tree. He was in his element and must have decided to make the most of his freedom. Finally, however, a gardener had enough sense to suggest that the men use a basket of peaches and, “nature ceding to this argument, the runaway came down from the tree and let himself be captured.”
*A French surgeon and researcher on feral children named Serge Aroles maintains that Victor of Aveyron was not a genuine feral child. According to Arole, scars on his body were not the consequence of living in the forest but acquired because of physical abuse by his parents or whoever raised him. Arole also maintains that it would practically impossible for a 5 or 6-year-old child to live on his or her own. Itard’s intensive training also seems to indicate that Victor was likely mentally disabled or suffered from autism, which may further explain why his caregivers abused and mistreated him.