Peter the Wild Boy (DNB00)

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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.]

T. S.