Peter the Wild Boy - Feral Child Taken in by King George I
In the evening of 7 April 1726, George I’s courtiers crammed themselves into the drawing room at St James’s Palace. But a sensational event would make this particular palace party the most memorable in years. The doors opened to reveal a brace of footmen, bearing between them a grinning, bushy-haired boy. He was perhaps twelve years old.
There was something decidedly odd about this youth. For a start, he seemed not the least ‘embarrassed at finding himself in the midst of such a fashionable assembly’. Once lowered to the floor, he scuttled about using his arms, like a chimp, and scampered right up to the king. The courtiers were scandalized by his audacious lack of ceremony.
This was their first encounter with Peter, the curious ‘Wild Boy’. Green-eyed, with strong teeth, he had ‘a roving look’ in his eyes. He often giggled, and lacked the solemn and stately demeanor of the other courtiers. Strangest of all, he could not speak.
Peter’s unlikely journey to court began in the German forest of Hertswold. In 1725, local forest folk had come across a feral child, ‘naked and wild’. He’d been living all alone in the woods, eating nuts and acorns.
There was a general assumption that the Wild Boy was ‘rescued’ from the wilderness, but the more detailed accounts of his capture reveal that he was actually hunted down. He took refuge up a tree, which had to be felled before he could be caught. His captors didn’t know quite what to do with him, so they thrust him into the local ‘House of Correction’.
But news of Peter and his bizarre, speechless condition reached the nearby palace of Herrenhausen, the summer home of the German-born George I. The king ordered Peter to be brought from the prison to the palace, made him a member of his household, and took him back to London.
The courtiers were entranced by Peter, and a mania for the Wild Boy took off outside the palace gates as well. Londoners crowded to see the waxwork of Peter which appeared in Mrs Salmon’s celebrated gallery in the Strand. Writers hailed him as ‘the most wonderful wonder’, and ‘one of the greatest curiosities of the world since the time of Adam’.
Back at the palace, the Wild Boy soon began to show signs of distress. The first time he saw someone removing stockings, he was ‘in great pain’, thinking the man was peeling the very skin from his leg. The courtiers had enormous trouble in getting Peter into a new green suit. As well as the daily struggle over his clothes, Peter could not be made ‘to lie down on a bed, but sits and sleeps in a corner of the room’.
Eventually the courtiers grew bored with him, and Peter was sent to live in retirement on Broadway Farm near Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. There he lived a long and quiet life, remaining ‘exceedingly timid and gentle in his nature’, fond of gin, and of onions.
He was in some measure loved by the farming families who looked after him. After the sudden death of his last caretaker, Farmer Brill, Peter ‘refused food, pined away, and died in a few days’. It was 22 February 1785.
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