Taming the Wild Boy

On July 27, 1724, a German farmer named Jurgen Meyer made  a bizarre discovery.    While working in the fields on a farm just outside the German town of Hamelin, he came across what he first took to be a "naked, brownish, black-haired creature."   This turned out to be a boy, apparently twelve years of age, who was walking on all fours and who ran up a nearby tree whenever anyone approached him.   Though the boy seemed unable to communicate in any way, Meyer was able to entice him to enter the town by offering a pair of apples.   Frightened by a mob of street boys, the strange child was eventually locked up in the local jail, more for his own protection than any real concern about public safety.

220px-Peter_the_Wild_Boy[1]The boy, who was quickly christened Peter, was later transferred to a local hospital where doctors could study his odd behaviour.  Peter continued to behave like a four-footed animal who preferred to sleep in his straw pallet instead of the bed that was offered him.   He also seemed unused to standing erect and preferred to rest on his haunches or crouching on all fours as if he were a dog or cat.  Frightened by where he was staying, Peter made frequent attempts at escaping,   He also refused to eat the cooked food that had been prepared for him and preferred to catch and eat birds which he tore apart with his bare hands.  When not eating meat, he preferred raw vegetables and grass.   While naked when originally caught, he eventually became used to wearing clothes though getting him to accept shoes was quite a trial.  

After a brief stay in Hamelin where he lived with a clothmaker who agreed to take care of him, Peter eventually came to the attention of George, the Duke of Hanover (who had recently been crowned King George I of Great Britain).   By order of the king, Peter was taken to the Herrenhausen Palace near Hanover as a ward of the royal family.   Treated as a curiosity, the "Wild Boy of Hamelin", as he came to be known, was dressed in a suit of fine clothes and seated at the king's table for his meals.  Unfortunately, his hosts soon discovered that the boy had no social skills whatsoever.  Gorging himself on whatever food he could shove into his mouth, he grabbed at every dish he could reach and the noisy sounds of his eating offended everyone at the the table.  The disgusted king finally ordered him to be removed from the dining area.  

After a few months of life at the palace, Peter (a.k.a., "Wild Peter") managed to escape back to the forest though he was soon recaptured.  Intrigued by his story, George's daughter-in-law Caroline (who was then Princess of Wales) arranged for him to be brought to England in 1726.   Once Peter arrived in London, he quickly became a sensation.    Not only was Peter a real-life feral child like the kind described in fairy tales and old legends,  his amusing antics also made him extremely popular at court.   Peter also became a particular favourite of Caroline who arranged for him to live in her palace apartments as a virtual pet.   Palace life wasn't easy for a boy who had grown up in a forest however which was why Caroline arranged for Dr. John Arbuthnot to oversee his education.

Along with being a physician, John Arbuthnot was also well-known for his accomplishments in various fields including literature, medicine, and mathematics.   He was also one of the early pioneers in the use of vaccination to prevent smallpox and was a familiar sight at court.   Even though Arbuthnot's efforts at teaching Peter to speak seemed doomed to failure, he did manage to make him a bit more socialized.  Not only did Peter become used to wearing his tailor-made clothes, but he also learned to bow and to kiss the hand of any woman presented to him.    But that was as far as he was able to go in terms of education.   Aside from saying his own name and "King George" (albeit in a rather garbled form),  Peter never learned how to speak and, by 1728, Arbuthnot had given up after declaring Peter untrainable.

By that time, the public clamor over Peter hard largely died down as people got tired of him.   And so had Caroline.   She then made arrangements for her pet to be retired to a farm in Hertfordshire.   A generous crown pension was assigned for his upkeep but, from that point on, Peter was basically expected to remain on the farm and not make any trouble.   Which, considering he was still incapable of understanding language, seemed a bit much to expect of him.    Though he was still an adolescent (as far as anyone could tell given that nobody knew his true age), Peter developed quite a taste for gin and also enjoyed swaying to music until he became exhausted.

In the years that followed, Peter seemed to show a knack for getting caught up in  the political upheavals that gripped the United Kingdom, mainly because he tended to wander off the farm where he was living.   In 1745, during the Jacobite Rebellion, Peter was caught by soldiers and held for his own safety (mainly because he was unable to answer any questions that were posed to him).    While in prison, a fire broke out and, while the other inmates were being evacuated, Peter simply sat and enjoyed the heat.  

Though he was released soon enough, Peter continued wandering and, six years later, was arrested near Norwich as a suspected Spanish agent.   Finally, the farmer who had been taking care of him arranged for Peter 200px-Peter_the_Wild_Boy_gravestone[1]to be fitted with a heavy leather collar with the inscription:  "Peter, the wild man of Hanover.  Whoever will bring him to Mister Fenn at Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire will be paid for his trouble."   Peter became used to the collar which prevented any further problems with his wandering.

Peter, the Wild Man of Hanover, finally died on February 22, 1785 having lived to the ripe age of 72.  He was buried in Northchurch and his grave can still be seen on the St. Mary's Church grounds directly outside the main doors of the building.   The grave has since been declared a heritage site and is considered one of the more unique tourist sights in the area.   Also, the leather collar he had worn is still preserved at Berkhamsted School.   Despite these tangible artifacts of his life,  Peter's legacy seems harder to determine though. Despite the endless philosophical speculations raised about him, including writings by Daniel Defoe and Lord Monboddo over whether Peter was a feral child who had been raised by animals in the wild, modern researchers have come up with a more plausible explanation.  

Though there is no way to tell when he had really been abandoned,  one researcher has argued that Peter suffered from Pitt–Hopkins syndrome,  a condition that was only identified centuries after his death.  Rather than being abandoned as a child, he might well have been left to fend for himself only a short time before he was actually found.   Who may have abandoned him and what kind of life he might have had beforehand will likely never be known however.

The most lasting legacy Peter left behind was likely due to Jonathan Swift who based the yahoos featured in his classic novel, Gulliver's Travels, on him.   In all, an ironic form of literary immortality for someone who had never learned to speak or read English.  


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