Peter the Wild Boy
Peter the Wild Boy (fl.
Floruit , abbreviated fl. , is a Latin verb meaning "flourished", denoting the period of time during which something was active...

 1725 to February 1785) was a mentally handicapped boy from Hannover in northern Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 who was found in 1725 living wild in the woods near Hamelin
Hamelin is a town on the river Weser in Lower Saxony, Germany. It is the capital of the district of Hamelin-Pyrmont and has a population of 58,696 ....

 (Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg), the town of Pied Piper legend. The boy, of unknown parentage, had been living an entirely feral existence
Feral child
A feral child is a human child who has lived isolated from human contact from a very young age, and has no experience of human care, loving or social behavior, and, crucially, of human language...

, surviving by eating forest flora; he walked on all fours, exhibited uncivilized behaviour, and could not be taught to speak a language.

Once found, he was brought to Great Britain
Kingdom of Great Britain
The former Kingdom of Great Britain, sometimes described as the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain', That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, shall upon the 1st May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN. was a sovereign...

 by order of George I
George I of Great Britain
George I was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1 August 1714 until his death, and ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg in the Holy Roman Empire from 1698....

, whose interest in the unfortunate youth had been aroused during a visit to his Hanover homeland.

Life in London

After Peter's transportation to Britain, an extraordinary amount of curiosity and speculation concerning Peter was excited in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

. The craze was the subject of a biting satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

 by Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift was an Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer , poet and cleric who became Dean of St...

, 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 John Arbuthnot
John Arbuthnot
John Arbuthnot, often known simply as Dr. Arbuthnot, , was a physician, satirist and polymath in London...

. Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe , born Daniel Foe, was an English trader, writer, journalist, and pamphleteer, who gained fame for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe is notable for being one of the earliest proponents of the novel, as he helped to popularise the form in Britain and along with others such as Richardson,...

 also wrote on the subject, and James Burnett, Lord Monboddo
James Burnett, Lord Monboddo
James Burnett, Lord Monboddo was a Scottish judge, scholar of linguistic evolution, philosopher and deist. He is most famous today as a founder of modern comparative historical linguistics . In 1767 he became a judge in the Court of Session. As such, Burnett adopted an honorary title based on his...

 in his Origin and Progress of Language presents the "Idiot Peter" as an illustration of his theory of the evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

 of the human species.

The Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach
Caroline of Ansbach
Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach was the queen consort of King George II of Great Britain.Her father, John Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, was the ruler of a small German state...

, took an interest in Peter's welfare, and in 1726, after the initial public curiosity began to subside, she arranged for Dr Arbuthnot to oversee his education. All efforts to teach him to speak, read or write failed.

The interior designer and painter William Kent
William Kent
William Kent , born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, was an eminent English architect, landscape architect and furniture designer of the early 18th century.He was baptised as William Cant.-Education:...

 included a depiction of Peter in a large painting of King George I’s court which can be seen today on the east wall of the King’s Staircase at Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace is a royal residence set in Kensington Gardens in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London, England. It has been a residence of the British Royal Family since the 17th century and is the official London residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Duke and...

 in London. Peter is shown wearing a green coat and holding oak leaves and acorns in his right hand.


After he was discharged from the supervision of Dr Arbuthnot, he was 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 spent a few weeks every summer at the house of Mr. James Fenn, a yeoman farmer, at Axter's End, in the parish of Northchurch, Peter was left to the care of Mr. Fenn, who was allowed £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 farmhouse, called Broadway, where he lived with the several successive tenants of that farm, and with the same government pension, to the time of his death.

In the late summer of 1751 Peter went missing from Broadway Farm and could not be traced. Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering a reward for his safe return. On 22 October 1751 a fire broke out in the parish of St Andrew's in Norwich
Norwich is a city in England. It is the regional administrative centre and county town of Norfolk. During the 11th century, Norwich was the largest city in England after London, and one of the most important places in the kingdom...

. As the fire spread, the local bridewell
Bridewell Palace
Bridewell Palace in London, originally a residence of King Henry VIII, later became a poorhouse and prison. The name "Bridewell" subsequently became synonymous with police stations and detention facilities in England and in Ireland...

 (a house of correction or gaol) became engulfed in smoke and flame. The frightened inmates were hastily released and one aroused considerable curiosity on account of his remarkable appearance, excessively hirsute and strong, and the barely human sounds he uttered, which led some to describe him as an orang-utan. Some days later he was identified as Peter the Wild Boy, possibly through a description of him in the London Evening Post. He was returned to Thomas Fenn's farm, and had a special leather collar with his name and address made for him to wear in future should he ever stray again.

Death and burial

Peter lived to an estimated 70 years of age. He was visited in 1782 by the Scottish philosopher and judge James Burnett, Lord Monboddo
James Burnett, Lord Monboddo
James Burnett, Lord Monboddo was a Scottish judge, scholar of linguistic evolution, philosopher and deist. He is most famous today as a founder of modern comparative historical linguistics . In 1767 he became a judge in the Court of Session. As such, Burnett adopted an honorary title based on his...

, who provided the last description of Peter, who was said to have a healthy complexion with a full beard, and apparently understood what was said to him but was himself only capable of saying the words "Peter" and "King George" and singing a few songs. There is a portrait of the "Wild Boy", depicting a handsome old man with a white beard, in Caulfield's Portraits of Remarkable Persons.

Peter died 22 February 1785 and was buried in Northchurch. His grave can still be seen in the churchyard of St Mary's Church, Northchurch, directly outside the main door to the church.

Modern assessment

In 2011, the condition that afflicted Peter the Wild Boy was suspected to be the chromosomal disorder Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome
Pitt-Hopkins syndrome
Pitt-Hopkins syndrome is a genetic disorder characterized by mental retardation, wide mouth and distinctive facial features, and intermittent hyperventilation followed by apnea...

, a condition only identified in 1978, nearly 200 years after Peter's death. Various physical attributes of Peter's which are evident in the Kensington Palace portrait have been matched to the condition, such as his curvy "Cupid's bow
Cupid's bow
Cupid's bow is a facial feature where the double curve of a human upper lip is said to resemble the bow of Cupid, the Roman god of erotic love...

" lips, his short stature, his coarse, curly hair, drooping eyelids and thick lips. It was also said that Peter had two fingers fused together, another Pitt-Hopkins symptom.

An item on the BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4 is a British domestic radio station, operated and owned by the BBC, that broadcasts a wide variety of spoken-word programmes, including news, drama, comedy, science and history. It replaced the BBC Home Service in 1967. The station controller is currently Gwyneth Williams, and the...

 programme Making History broadcast in March 2011 examined the history of Peter the Wild Boy, tracing his life in Northchurch and later in Berkhamsted
-Climate:Berkhamsted experiences an oceanic climate similar to almost all of the United Kingdom.-Castle:...

, where an iron collar once used to restrain Peter is preserved at Berkhamsted School, and describing his probable Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome.

Further reading

  • Paul Collins
    Paul Collins (writer)
    Paul Collins is an American writer, editor and associate professor of English at Portland State University. He is best known for his work with McSweeney's and The Believer, as editor of the Collins Library imprint for McSweeney's Books, and for his appearances on National Public Radio's Weekend...

    , Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism
    Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. These signs all begin before a child is three years old. Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their...

    , Bloomsbury, 2004, ISBN 1-58234-367-5
  • Netwon, Michael (2002) Savage Girls and Wild Boys. A History of Feral Children
  • Courtiers Lucy Worsley, Faber & Faber

External links

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