Peter the Wild Boy: The Life of a Human Pet

In 1725, Peter the Wild Boy, a German handicapped youth, was found by George I and his attendants when the King was hunting during a visit to Hanover. The boy had apparently been living for some time in the Hertswold Forest of Hamelin, which is about 25 miles from Hanover. He was about twelve at the time, and, when found, he was reportedly “walking upon his hands and feet, climbing up trees like a squirrel, and feeding upon grass, and moss of trees.”[1] Moreover, prior to living in the forest the boy appeared to have been under the care of some person. This was based on the fact that he had “a shirt collar about his neck … when he was found.”[2]

Peter the Wild by William Kent, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Peter the Wild by William Kent. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After he was found, Peter was “deposited in the house of correction at Zell, and in the same month … presented [dressed all in green] to George I … The king’s interest and curiosity were excited; but the wild boy was not favourably impressed.”[3] He soon escaped, and when he was located again, he was hiding in a huge tree, which had to be sawed down. Conjecture as to how the Peter the Wild came to live in the woods was that he was the child of one of the many criminals confined to work in Hamelin, had wandered into the woods, and gotten lost “or, being discovered to be an idiot, was inhumanly turned out by his parent.”[4]

In 1726, George I’s daughter, Caroline of Ansbach, brought Peter to Great Britain. There he was treated like a “human pet” and brought out for visitors to see, a somewhat similar circumstance that befell another supposed feral boy Victor of Aveyrvon, who once visited the French socialite Madame Récamier. The evening at St. James went much better than it did at Madame Récamier‘s as it as reported that he was brought into the drawing room in the presence of the King, the Royal Family, and a group of nobility:

“It was observed, that he took most notice of his Majesty, and of the Princess giving him her glove, which he tried to put on his own hand, and seemed much pleased and also with a gold watch which, was held to strike at his ear.”[5]  

Peter was put under the care of Dr. John Arbuthnot, a Scottish physician, satirist and polymath. It was soon decided that Peter was “an imbecile, and could not be taught to articulate more than a few monosyllables.”[6] Today, it is thought that he suffered from a rare genetic disorder known as Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome because it causes developmental delays. Peter displayed many typical features of the disease: a large mouth, hooded eyelids, prominent Cupid’s bow, deep-set eyes, and a tendency to have a smiling appearance. Additionally, he was intellectually disabled and could only speak a few words saying “Peter” and “King George.”

Dr. John Arbuthnot, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dr. John Arbuthnot. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Peter was also described in the following way:

“[He was] well made, and of … middle size. His countenance had not the appearance of an idiot, nor was there any thing particular in his form, except that two of the fingers of his left hand were united by a web up to the middle joint.”[7]

Peter understood almost everything said to him, and he loved music. Upon hearing it, people said he danced, jumped, and capered about till he was exhausted. Moreover, it was said of Peter:

“[T]hough he could never be taught the distinct utterance of any word, yet he could easily learn to hum a tune … [Additionally,] at particular seasons of the year, he shewed a strange fondness for stealing away into the woods.”[8]

Eventually, Peter fell under the care of one of a bedchamber woman to the Queen. Her name was Mrs. Titchbourn, and she was given a handsome pension to take care of him. When she died, Peter was left to a friend of hers, a yeoman farmer named James Fenn. After James’s death, responsibility for Peter fell to James’s brother, Thomas, who tended to keep a close eye on him, “and sometimes even confined him.”[9]

Part of the reason for confinement was that Peter sometimes traveled far distances and then could not find his way back. In fact, that is precisely what happened to Peter under Thomas’s care in the summer of 1751. All efforts to find Peter, including advertisements, proved fruitless and it seemed as if Peter would never be found.

Peter the Wild Boy by John Simon, after William Kent, circa 1726-1742. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

On 22 October 1751, a raging fire erupted at the St. Andrew’s parish in Norwich. The fire spread so quickly through the city of Bridewell, it soon engulfed the gaol, and all the inmates had to be hastily released. Among the inmates released was a remarkable man, “a sturdy and obstinate vagrant, who would not, (for indeed he could not) give any account of himself.”[10] Shortly, thereafter, it was determined this obstinate man was Peter the Wild Boy. and he was returned to Thomas’s farm. It was then decided that to prevent any future thrilling adventures by Peter, he was to wear a brass collar inscribed with “Peter the Wild Boy, Broadway Farm, Berkhampstead.”

In later years, Peter was described as having white hair and a full white beard. He was also said to go straight to bed after eating a supper of bread and butter and that he had a penchant for spirits, sometimes enjoying a glass of brandy or beer. People also described him of being capable of sincere affection and noted that he became sincerely attached to a man who was put in charge of him by Thomas. When that man died, it was reported:

“[Peter] went to his bed-side, raised his hands, and endeavoured to awaken him; but when he found his effort unavailing, he went down stairs and seated himself by the chimney … he refused his food and pined away, till in a few days he actually died of grief, — for he never had any illness.”[11]

Peter the Wild Boy, Public Domain

Peter the Wild Boy in his later years. Public Domain.

Peter was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Church, Northchurch in 1758, three years before Madame Tussaud and Jane Austen‘s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, were born. A brass plate was affixed to the church with a picture of him and the following remembrance:

“To the memory of PETER, known by the name of the Wild Boy, having been found wild in the forest of Hertswold, near Hanover, in the year 1725. He then appeared to be about 12 years old. In the following year, he was brought to England by the order of the late Queen Caroline, and the ablest masters were provided for him. But, proving incapable of speaking, or receiving instruction, a comfortable provision was made for him at a farm-house in this parish, where he continued to the end of his inoffensive life. He died on the 22d day of February, 1785, supposed to be aged 72.”[12]

Gravestone at Northchurch, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Gravestone at Northchurch of Peter the Wild Body. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Stephen, Sir Leslie, Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 45, 1896, p. 65.
  • [2] Walker, John, A Selection of Curious Articles from the Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 2, 1814, p. 555.
  • [3] Stephen, Sir Leslie, p. 65.
  • [4] Walker, John, p. 555.
  • [5] The Scots Magazine, 1 January 1785, p. 9.
  • [6] Stephen, Sir Leslie, p. 65.
  • [7] Walker, John, p. 555.
  • [8] Ibid. p. 556.
  • [9] Granger, William, The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1805, p. 1564.
  • [10] Walker, John, p. 556.
  • [11] Timperley, Charles Henry, A Dictionary of Printers and Printing, 1839, p. 4.
  • [12] “Authentic Account of Peter the Wild Boy,” in Calcutta Gazette, 3 August 1786, p. 4.

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