Marie-Angélique

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Peter the Wild Boy

CHAPTER 5 [EXTRACT]


Peter the Wild Boy

 

MOUNTING his horse in a London innyard on a June morning in 1782, Lord Monboddo, now aged 68, and possibly with his black manservant, Gory, in attendance, rode out to meet the second and last feral child whom he would encounter, Peter the Wild Boy.


This time Monboddo had only 26 miles (42km) to ride to a farmhouse in Hertfordshire. And this would be a far different meeting to those in Paris in 1765 with Marie-Angélique, since Peter, by then an old but still-handsome man of about 70 with a full white beard (Figure 5.8), could, it seems, speak only three words: ‘Peter’ and ‘King George’. This must have meant that when the two old men met, perhaps in the farmhouse kitchen, all they could have done is to have observed one another across the table. But, as usual, Monboddo had been thorough in preparatory research, somehow obtaining copies of most (if not all) of the news gazette reports about Peter that had appeared in 1726 when he was brought to England at the command of Caroline Princess of Wales after being found crawling naked on all fours in a forest near the German town of Hamelin.


Monboddo later persuaded an Oxford divinity scholar, Thomas Burgess, a future Bishop of Salisbury, to observe Peter independently and was to go on to publish both their accounts in his Antient Metaphysics. In a way, what is surprising is that he waited so long before going to meet Peter in person, whom he first wrote about in 1773 and probably first read about in Buffon’s Natural History in 1759. But the point is that he did, and this, which is one of the last two accounts of Peter the Wild Boy (the other is that of Burgess), is what he wrote:

 

It was in the beginning of June 1782 that I saw him, in a farmhouse called Broadway, within about a mile, as I have said, of Berkhamstead, kept there upon a pension, which the King [George III] pays. He is but of low stature, not exceeding five feet three inches; and, though he must be now about 70 years of age, has a fresh, healthy look. He wears his beard; his face is not at all ugly or disagreeable; and he has a look that may be called sensible and sagacious for a savage. About twenty years ago, he was in use to elope, and to be amissing for several days; and once, as I was told, he wandered as far as Norfolk: But, of late, he has been quite tame, and either keeps the house, or saunters about the farm. He has been, the thirteen last years, where he lives at present; and, before that, he was twelve years with another farmer, whom I saw and conversed with. This farmer told me that he had been put to school somewhere in Hertfordshire, but had only learned to articulate his own name, Peter, and the name of King George; both which I heard him pronounce very distinctly. But the woman of the house where he now is, (for the man happened not to be at home) told me that he understood every thing that was said to him concerning the common affairs of life; and I saw that he readily understood several things that she said to him while I was present. Among other things, she desired him to sing Nancy Dawson, which accordingly he did, and another tune that she named [Peter, it seems, could only hum these tunes]. He never was mischievous, but had always that gentleness of nature, which I hold to be characteristical of our nature, at least till we become carnivorous, and hunters or warriours. He feeds at present as the farmer and his wife do; but, as I was told by an old woman, (one Mrs Callop), living at a village in the neighbourhood, called Hempsteed, who remembered to have seen him when he first came to Hertfordshire, which she computed to be 55 years before the [p. 63/p. 64] time I saw her, that he then fed very much upon leaves, and particularly upon the leaves of cabbage, which she saw him eat raw. He was then, as she thought, about 15 years of age, walked upright, but could climb trees like a squirrel.


At present he not only eats flesh, but also has got the taste of beer, and even of spirits, of which he inclines to drink more than he can get [Peter, as Thomas Burgess reported, was very fond of gin]. And the old farmer above mentioned, with whom he lived twelve years before he came to this farmer, told me that he had acquired that taste before he came to him, that is, about 25 years ago. He is also become very fond of Fire, but has not yet acquired a liking for money; for, though he takes it, he does not keep it, but gives it to his landlord or landlady, which I suppose is a lesson that they have taught him. He retains so much of his natural instinct, that he has a fore-feeling of bad weather, growling and howling, and shewing great disorder, before it comes on.


These are the particulars concerning him which I observed myself, or could learn by information from the neighbourhood. (Antient Metaphysics, vol. 3 (1784), pp. 63–64)

 

We now know, from research by the English historian Lucy Worsley into a painting of Peter that hangs on a staircase at London’s Kensington Palace (Figure 5.9), that he probably suffered from Pitt–Hopkins Syndrome – an only-recently identified genetic disorder that causes mental impairment and physical abnormalities in children – which presumably was what led his parents to abandon him in the forest. Peter died, aged about 72, and he has a simple gravestone – ‘Peter the Wild Boy 1785’ (Figure 5.10) – just outside St Mary's Church in the village of Northchurch in Hertfordshire, next to which visitors still place flowers.


THIS is the full text of the letter that the Oxford scholar Thomas Burgess wrote to Lord Monboddo after observing Peter himself.


Peter the Wild Boy lives at a farmer Brill’s, at a place, or rather a farm, called Broadway, about a mile from Berkhemstead, where he has lived about thirteen years. The farmer said he was eighty-four years old. He has a fair clear countenance, and a quick eye. He is about five feet six inches high; and is still very robust and muscular. In his youth he was remarkable for his strength. He is said to have sometimes run seventy or eighty miles a-day. His strength always appeared so much superior, that the strongest young men were afraid to contend with him: And this strength continued almost unimpaired till about a year and a half ago, when he was suddenly taken ill, fell down before the fire, and for a time lost the use of his right side; since which, it has been visibly less than before. The farmer told me that his portrait has been lately several times taken. A print of him would be a great curiosity, and an ornament to your book.

 

I could get no intelligence of the old woman whom you mentioned; but I met with an old gentleman, a surgeon, at Hempstead, who remembers to have seen Peter in London, between the years [p. 368/p. 369] 1724 and 1726. He told me, that, when he first came to England, he was particularly fond of raw flesh and bones, (he is at this day very fond of a bone, with which he will amuse himself for a long time after it has been picked by any other person); and that he was then always dressed in fine clothes, (the dress he remembers him in was green and gold), of which Peter seemed not a little proud. He still retains his passion for finery, fine curtains, clean breaches, smart hat, &c.; and, if any peson has anything smooth or shining in his dress, it will soon attract his notice, and Peter will show his attention by stroaking it. He is not a great eater. At dinner, he is commonly content with a bit of pudding or meat. He is fond of water; after he has drunk his breakfast of tea, or even of milk, he will often go out to the pump, and drink several draughts of water. He is not fond of beer; and, till lately, he would not drink it: But he is very fond of all kinds of spirits, particularly gin; as he is also of onions, which he will eat like apples. He does not often go out without his master; but he will sometimes go to Berkhemstead, and call at the gin-shop. They always know his errand, and will treat him. It is one of the most powerful means to persuade him to do anything with alacrity, to sing with spirit, &c.: Hold up a glass of gin, at the time you tell him to sing better and louder, and he will undoubtedly smile and raise his voice. He cannot bear the taste of physic, nor the sight of an apothecary who once attended him. He will not take physic, but under some great disguise, such as gin.


If he hears any music, he will clap his hands, and throw his head about in a wild frantic manner. He has a very quick sense of music, and will often repeat a tune after once hearing. When he has heard a tune, which is difficult, he continues humming it for a long time, and he is very uneasy till he is master of it. He can sing a great many tunes; and will always change the tune when [p. 369/p. 370] the name only of another tune, with which he is acquainted, is mentioned to him. He does not always hit upon the tune at once which is asked, but he corrects himself easily with the least assistance.

 

He understands everything that is said to him by his master and mistress; and shows, by his countenance, that he knows when you are talking of him; but, in general, he takes very little notice of any thing, which does not attract his notice by its finery, smoothness, &c. While I was with him, the farmer asked several questions, which he answered rapidly, and not very distinctly, but sufficiently so as to be understood even by a stranger to his manner. Some of the questions were, Who is your father? — King George. What is your name? — Pe-ter; (he always pronounces the two syllables of his name with a short interval between them). What is that? — Bow-wow, (for the dog). What horse will you ride upon? — Cuckow; (This is not the name of any of their horses, but it is a name with which he always answers that question; perhaps it was the name of one of his former master’s horses). What will you do with this? (tea, gin, &c.) — He will put his hand to his mouth. If you point to his beard, nose, or mouth, and ask what is that, he will tell you plainly. His answers, I think, never exceed two words; and he never says any thing of his own accord. I forgot to mention, that he has been taught also to say, when he is asked, What are you? — Wild man. Where were you found? — Hannover. Who found you? — King George. If he is told to tell twenty, he will count the number exactly on his fingers, with an indistinct sound at each number; but, after another person, he will say, one, two, three, &c. pretty distinctly.


Till last spring, (1782), which was soon after his illness, he always shewed himself remarkably animated by the influence of the [p. 370/p. 371] spring, and would sing all day long, and, if it was clear, half the night. He is very much pleased with the appearance of the moon and the stars. He will sometimes stand out in the warmth of the sun, with his face thrown up to it, in a very difficult and strained attitude; and likes to be out in a starry night, if it be not cold. Upon hearing this, a person would naturally inquire, whether he has, or appears to have, any idea of the great Author of all these wonders? Indeed, I thought it a question of so much curiosity, that, when I had left Broadway for several miles, I rode back to inquire whether he had at any time betrayed the least sense of a Superior Being. They told me that, when he came into that part of the country first of all, he was sent to school for some time, and different methods were employed to teach him to read, and with it the principles of religion; but all in vain: He learnt nothing; nor did he ever show any consciousness of a God from his own feelings.

 

He is very fond of fire and is often bringing in fewel, which he would heap us as high as the fire-place would contain it, if he were not prevented by his master. He will sit in the chimney corner, even in the midst of summer, while they are brewing with a very large fire, which is sufficient to make another person faint who sits there long. He will often amuse himself, by setting five or six chairs before the fire, and placing himself in every one of them in their turns, as his love of variety prompts him to change his place.

 

He is extremely good tempered, except in cold and gloomy weather; for he is very sensible of the change of the atmosphere. He is not easily provoked; but, when he has been made very angry by any one, he would run after them, making a strange noise, with his teeth fixed into the back of his hand. I could not find that he had every done any violence in the house, except that when he first [p. 371/p. 372] came over, he would sometimes tear his clothes to pieces, which it was long before he was reconciled to. He has never, (at least since his present master has known him), shown any attention to women; and I am told he never did, except when he was purposely and jocosely forced into an amour.


He has run away several times since he has been at Broadway, but not since he has been with his present master. He was taken up for a spy in Scotland, in 1745, or 1746: As he was unable to speak, they supposed him obstinate, and he was going to be confined, and was threatened with punishment for contumacy; but a Lady, who had seen him in England, told them who it was, and directed them where to send him. Some say he was found at Norfolk. When he ran away from his masters, he used to live on raw herbage, berries, and young tender roots of trees. The old people at the Two Waters told me a circumstance, which, as they could not, I think, have collected from his information, may have only the authority of conjectural tradition, that, when he ran away, he always followed the course of the clouds.

 

Of the people who are about him, he is particularly attached to his master. He will often go out with him and his men into the field, and seems pleased in being employed in any thing which can assist them. But he must always have some person to direct his actions, as you may judge from the following circumstance. Peter was employed one day with his master in filling a dung-cart. His master had occasion to go into the house for something, and left Peter to finish the work. The work was soon done. But Peter must have something to employ himself; and he saw no reason why he should not be as usefully employed in emptying the dung out as he was in putting it into the cart. When his master came out, he found the [p. 372/p. 373] cart nearly emptied again; and learned a lesson by it, which he never afterwards neglected.

 

These were all the circumstances which I was able to collect; and I shall be happy if they afford you any satisfaction.


(James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, Antient Metaphysics (6 volumes, London and Edinburgh, 1779–1795), volume 3 (1784), pp. 368–373)

THIS is an extract from the parish register of St Mary’s Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire.

 

Peter, commonly known by the name of Peter the Wild Boy, lies buried in this church-yard, opposite to the porch. — In the year 1725, he was found in the woods near Hamelen, a fortified town in the electorate of Hanover, when his Majesty George I with his attendants, was hunting in the forest of Hertswold. He was supposed to be then about twelve years of age, and had subsisted in those woods upon the bark of trees, leaves, berries, &c. for some considerable length of time. How long he had continued in that wild state is altogether uncertain; but that he had formerly been under the care of some person was evident from the remains of a shirt-collar about his neck at the time when he was found. As Hamelen was a town were criminals were confined to work upon the fortifications, it was then conjectured at Hanover, that Peter might be the issue of one of one of those criminals who had either wandered into the woods, and could not find his way back again, or, being discovered to be an idiot, was inhumanly turned out by his parent, and left to perish, or shift for himself. — In the following year, 1726, he was brought over to England, by the order of Queen Caroline, then Princess of Wales, and put under the care of Dr. Arbuthnot, with proper masters to attend him. But, notwithstanding there appeared to be no natural defect in his organs of speech, after all the pains that had been taken with him he could never be brought distinctly to articulate a single syllable, and proved totally incapable of receiving any instruction. He was afterwards entrusted to the care of Mrs. Titchbourn, one of the Queen’s bedchamber women, with a handsome pension annexed to the charge. Mrs. Titchbourn usually spending a few weeks every summer at the house of Mr. James Fenn, a yeoman farmer, at Axter’s End, in this parish, Peter was left to the care of the said Mr. Fenn, who was allowed 35l. [£35] a year for his support and maintenance. After the death of James Fenn he was transferred to the care of his brother, Thomas Fenn, at another farm-house in this parish, called Broadway, where he lived with the several successive tenants of that farm, and with the same provision allowed by the Government, to the time of his death, Feb. 22, 1785, when he was supposed to be about seventy-two years of age.

 

Peter was well made, and of the 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. He had a natural ear for music, and was so delighted with it, that, if he heard any musical instrument played upon, he would immediately dance and caper about till almost quite exhausted with fatigue: and though he could never be taught the distinct utterance of any word, yet he could easily learn to hum a tune. — All those idle tales which have been published to the world about his climbing up trees like a squirrel, running upon all fours like a wild beast, &c. are entirely without foundation; for he was so exceedingly timid and gentle in his nature, that he would suffer himself to be governed by a child.


There have been also many false stories propagated of his incontinence; but, from the minutest inquiries among those who constantly lived with him, it does not appear that he discovered any natural passion for women, though he was subject to the other passions of human nature, such as anger, joy, &c. Upon the approach of bad weather he always appeared sullen and uneasy. At particular seasons of the year, he shewed a strange fondness for stealing away into the woods, where he would feed eagerly upon leaves, beech-mast, acorns and the green bark of trees, which proves evidently that he had subsisted in that manner for a considerable length of time before he was first taken. His keeper therefore at such seasons generally kept a strict eye over him, and sometimes even confined him, because, if he ever rambled to any distance from his home, he could not find his way back again: and once in particular, having gone beyond his knowledge, he wandered as far as Norfolk, where he was taken up, and, being carried before a magistrate, was committed to the house of correction in Norwich, and punished as a sturdy and obstinate vagrant, who would not, (for indeed he could not) give any account of himself: but Mr. Fenn having advertised him in the public papers, he was released from his confinement, and brought back to his usual place of abode.

 

Notwithstanding the extraordinary and savage state in which Peter was first found greatly excited the attention and curiosity of the public; yet, after all that has been said of him, he was certainly nothing more than a common idiot without the appearance of one. But as men of some eminence in the literary world  have in their works published strange opinions and ill-founded conjectures about him, which may seem to stamp a credit upon what they have advanced; that posterity may not though their authority be hereafter misled upon the subject, this short and true account of Peter is recorded in the parish register by one who constantly resided above thirty years in his neighbourhood, and had daily opportunities of seeing and observing him.


(A Selection of Curious Articles from the Gentleman's Magazine (4 volumes, London, 1811), volume 4, Appendix, pp. 584–586)


THIS is the inscription on a brass plate inside St Mary's Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire, dated 1785.


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 of receiving any 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.


(A Selection of Curious Articles from the Gentleman's Magazine (4 volumes, London, 1811), volume 4, Appendix, p. 587)


THIS is the text of an article from the Gentleman's Magazine for November 1751.


October 27, was a terrible fire in Norwich, which consumed part of the city bridewell, and several other houses. Peter the wild youth, who had strayed from his keeper in Hertfordshire, and was committed to this bridewell as a sturdy vagrant, was with difficulty got away, seeming more to wonder at the fire, than to apprehend any danger, and would probably have perished like a horse in the flames. By his behaviour, and want of speech, he seems to be more of the Ouran Outan species than of the human. Soon after, the keeper coming to the knowledge of the advertisement where his elopement was mentioned, restored him back to the person to whose care he had been committed by the late Queen.


(A Selection of Curious Articles from the Gentleman's Magazine (4 volumes, London, 1811), volume 4, Appendix, p. 587)

THIS is the description of Peter from Biographica Curiosa, or Memoirs of Remarkable Characters of the Reign of George the Third (1822).


PETER was found in the woods of Hamelin, 1723, twenty-eight miles from Hanover, walking upon his hands and feet, climbing up trees like a squirrel, and feeding upon grass and moss of trees. Being presented to the king, while at dinner, his majesty made him taste of all the dishes that were served up at table; and, in order to bring him by degrees to human diet, commanded that he should have such provisions as he might like best. He was at that time judged to be about twelve or thirteen years old. Afterwards, he made his escape into the same wood, but was again caught on a tree. He was brought to England in 1726, and again introduced into the presence of his majesty and of many of the nobility. He could not speak, and scarce seemed to have any idea of things However, it was observed, he took much 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, as also with a gold watch which was held to his ear. At one time, he was dressed in blue clothes; at another time, in green lined with red, with scarlet stockings. At first, he appeared uneasy to be obliged to wear any: and he could not be brought to lie on a bed, but sat and slept in a corner of the room; whence it is conjectured; that he used to sleep on a tree for a security against wild beasts. However, be walked upright, and even sat for his picture. He was committed to the care of Dr. Arbuthnot, at whose house near Burlington Gardens, he either was, or was to have been, baptized; but notwithstanding all the pains he took, it does not appear the Doctor was able to bring this wild youth to the use of speech, or to the pronunciation of any words.


Mr. Burgess gives the following account of this singular creature. [The author goes on to quote the full text of Thomas Burgess's letter to Lord Monboddo that is given above.]


Peter died on the 22d day of February, 1785, at the supposed age of 72.


(George Smeeton, Biographica Curiosa, or Memoirs of Remarkable Characters of the Reign of George the Third (London, Albion Press, 1822), p. 000)

THIS is Peter's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (1896).


PETER the Wild Boy (1712–1785), a protégé of George I, was found in 1725 in the woods near Hamelin, about twenty-five miles from Hanover. In the words of contemporary pamphleteers, he was observed 'walking on his hands and feet, climbing trees like a squirrel, and feeding on grass and moss.' In November 1725 he was deposited in the house of correction at Zell, and in the same month he was presented to George I, who happened to be on a visit to Hanover. The king's interest and curiosity were excited; but the wild boy was not favourably impressed, and escaped to his wood and took refuge in a lofty tree, which had to be cut down before he was recaptured. In the spring of 1726, by the king's command, he was brought to England and 'exhibited to the nobility.' The boy, who appeared to be about fourteen years old, was baptised and committed to the care of Dr. Arbuthnot; but he soon proved to be an imbecile, and could not be taught to articulate more than a few monosyllables. In the meantime the credulity of the town had been put to a severe test. In April there appeared, among various chapbooks on the subject, a pamphlet (now rare) entitled 'An Enquiry how the Wild Youth lately taken in the woods near Hanover, and now brought over to England, could be there left, and by what creature he could be suckled, nursed, and brought up.' This work, after demonstrating that the phenomenon had been predicted by William Lilly a hundred years before, discussed the question of the wild boy's nurture, and rejected the claims of the sow and the she-wolf in favour of those of a she-bear. Dean Swift arrived in London from Ireland about the same time that the wild boy came from Hanover, and on 16 April 1726 he wrote to Tickell that little else was talked about. He proceeded to satirise the popular craze in one of the most sardonic of his minor pieces, 'It cannot rain but it pours; or London strewed with Rarities, being an account of ... the wonderful wild man that was nursed in the woods of Germany by a wild beast, hunted and taken in toils; how he behaveth himself like a dumb creature, and is a Christian like one of us, being called Peter; and how he was brought to the court all in green to the great astonishment of the quality and gentry.' This was followed at a short interval by a squib written in a similar vein, and probably the joint production of Swift and Arbuthnot, entitled 'The Most Wonderful Wonder that ever appeared to the Wonder of the British Nation' (1726, 4to). The topic was further exploited by Defoe in 'Mere Nature delineated, or a Body without a Soul, being Observations upon the Young Forester lately brought to town with suitable applications' (1726, 8vo). When, in 1773, James Burnett, lord Monboddo [q. v.], was preparing his 'Origin and Progress of Language,' he seized on some of the most grotesque features of Swift's description of the wild boy, such as that he neighed like a horse to express his joy, and pressed them into the service of his theory of the lowly origin of the human race. Monboddo's comparison of the wild boy with an ourang outang is extremely ludicrous (Origin and Progress of Language, i. 173). As soon as the first excitement about Peter had subsided, and it was established that he was an idiot, he was boarded out with a farmer at the king's expense. He grew up strong and muscular and was able to do manual labour under careful supervision; his intelligence remained dormant, but he developed a strong liking for gin. In 1782 Monboddo visited him at Broadway Farm, near Berkhampstead, where he died in August 1785. A portrait of the 'Wild Boy,' depicting a handsome old man with a white beard, was engraved for Caulfield's 'Portraits of Remarkable Persons.' A manuscript poem on the 'Wild Boy,' called 'The Savage', is among the manuscripts of the Earl of Portsmouth at Hurstbourne (Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep., App. p. 63).


[Wilson's Wonderful Characters contains a long account of the 'Wild Boy,' with various contemporary descriptions and a portrait. See also Timperley's Encyclopaedia of Printing; Swift's Works, ed. Scott; Granger's Wonderful Museum; Monboddo's Origin and Progress of Language; Arbuthnot's Works, ed. Aitken, pp. 107, 108, 475; William Lee's Defoe, i. li.]


(Thomas Seccombe, 'Peter the Wild Boy' in The Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900), volume 45 (1896), p. 000)

THIS is Peter's entry in The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition 1911).


PETER THE WILD BOY (fl. 1725–1785), a Hanoverian imbecile of unknown parentage, who, having been found living wild in the woods near Hanover in 1725 was brought to England by order of George I, whose interest had been aroused in the unfortunate youth. An extraordinary amount of curiosity and speculation concerning Peter was excited in London, and the craze was the subject of a biting satire by Swift, and of another entitled The Most Wonderful Wonder that ever appeared to the Wonder of the British Nation, which has been attributed to Swift and Arbuthnot; Defoe also wrote on the subject, and Lord Monboddo in his Origin and Progress of Language presents the idiot as an illustration of his theory of the evolution of the human species. He lived to an advanced age, was seen by Lord Monboddo in 1782, and died in 1785.


See Henry Wilson, The Book of Wonderful Characters (London, 1869)


(The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition 1911), volume 21, p. 295)

About the author:

Roger Bourke (born 1954) is a freelance journalist and non-fiction writer based in the city of Perth in Western Australia. His first book, Prisoners of the Japanese: Literary imagination and the prisoner-of-war experience, was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2006. He is now writing a second, Wild Girl: The true story of the feral child Marie-Angélique.

Pitt–Hopkins Syndrome
  • Genetic condition identified only in 1978
  • Just 150 documented cases to date
  • Occurs in males and females equally
  • Many have no speech and slow motor development
  • Signs include Cupid's bow lips, flared nostrils and curly hair
  • Behaviour is usually busy and moving
  • Generally of a happy demeanour

Megan Lane, "Who was Peter the Wild Boy?" BBC News Magazine, 8 August 2011 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14215171)


From feral child to "human pet" at court in Georgian England, Peter the Wild Boy caused a sensation. And new analysis of his portraits may have solved the mystery of his unusual characteristics.


No one knows if his name was really Peter – he couldn't talk. Nor did he walk, preferring to scamper on all fours, picking the pockets of courtiers and stealing kisses.


Peter had been found living alone and naked in a German forest in 1725, presumably abandoned by parents who struggled to cope.


The following year – aged about 12 – he was brought to London by George I where he became a "human pet" at Kensington Palace.


There was much fanciful speculation that he had been raised by wolves – or perhaps bears – and this was why he ate with his hands, disliked wearing clothes and could not be taught to speak, says Lucy Worsley, curator of Historic Royal Palaces.


"At the time, people assumed Peter acted the way he did because he was a wild child. They didn't suspect that something else could have been afflicting him."

She initially assumed autism, but found more clues in this portrait of Peter, by court painter William Kent, that hangs in Kensington Palace.


New analysis of this portrait suggests Peter had a rare genetic condition known as Pitt–Hopkins Syndrome, indicated by:


  1. His short stature
  2. Lustrous mop of thick curly hair
  3. Hooded eyelids
  4. Cupid's bow mouth, with a pronounced curve to the upper lip
  5. He disliked clothes, but was wrestled daily into a green suit
  6. Pictured holding acorns and oak leaves – symbolic of living wild in the woods – and some fingers on his left hand (not seen) were fused


At Worsley's request, Professor Phillip Beales, of the Institute of Child Health, plugged these characteristics into his database of conditions caused by chromosome abnormalities.


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."


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," says Worsley.


"If he has no speech, does that mean he has no soul? Do human beings really have souls? He raised lots of philosophical questions."


A waxwork figure was exhibited in the Strand, and noted authors – Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe among them – penned pamphlets about the wild boy.

But attempts to civilise him came to naught.

Peter's collar, so he could be returned home if lost

The king invited him to dine, but was horrified by his lack of table manners. The court doctor tried and failed to teach him to speak. Each day courtiers would wrestle him into a green velvet suit and each evening would try to persuade him into bed. Peter preferred to curl up on the floor in a corner of his room.


His novelty eventually waned, and the court paid for him to retire to a Hertfordshire farm.


"Many people like him in Georgian England would have been freaks in a circus, but he ended up in good hands. The farmers were fond of him, and had a collar made for him," says Worsley.


"It looks like the collar of a dog or a slave. But it was made with a kind thought, as when the wind blew in a certain direction, he would wander off. The inscription read: 'Peter the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted shall be paid for their trouble.'"

When he died, the locals paid for a headstone. Even today, flowers are laid on his grave.


"He was a very gentle character and in some ways, more human than the rest of us," says Worsley. "His very existence exposed the shallow artifice of Georgian society as a bit of a sham."


To learn more about Pitt–Hopkins Syndrome – or to donate towards research into it – go to the website of the Pitt Hopkins Research Foundation.