Peter the Wild Boy
Amongst William Kent’s depiction of George I’s court, which adorns the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace, is the above image of a smartly-attired but bushy-haired youth: the mysterious Peter the Wild Boy. Peter’s story is as sad as it is curious.
In Germany, in 1725, a ‘naked, brownish, blackhaired creature’ was found living in a woods near Hamelin. He walked on all fours and exhibited uncivilised behaviour. As an honoured guest at a banquet of George I, this feral boy aroused the curiosity of the king by gorging on vegetables and rare meats and eating noisily with his hands – behaviour which had him attributed with his title of Peter the Wild Boy. By royal request he was taken to England where he became an instant sensation, providing a remedy to the tedium of court life and inspiring such satirical works as The Most Wonderful Wonder that ever appeared to the Wonder of the British Nation (attrib. Jonathan Swift).
Peter appealed especially to the Princess of Wales, who essentially kept him as a pet. Though he was inclined to sleep on the floor he was dressed in a fine suit each morning, whilst vein attempts were made to properly educated him – though physically healthy “he could say nothing but his own name and a garbled form of ‘King George’. [Thus], Peter could not to live up to the popular interest invested in him and a fickle public quickly abandoned him in favour of the next unfortunate”1.
Consequently, in 1728 he was taken to live in the country. Here “He developed a taste for gin and loved music, reportedly swaying and clapping with glee and dancing until he was exhausted. But he never learned to speak and his lack of any sense of direction gave cause for concern”2.
He was also prone to wandering. On one occasion, in the midst of the Jacobite Rebellion, he was mistaken as a Highlander and arrested; in 1751, he went missing for such a period of time advertisements were placed appealing for his safe return. When a fire broke out in goal in Norwich, some 100 miles from the farm on which Peter lived, and the inmates were released, one aroused particular curiosity due to his remarkable appearance and the strange sounds he uttered, leading some to describe him as an orangutan. He was identified as Peter the Wild Boy, returned to the farm and fitted with a collar bearing the inscription: ‘Peter, the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble.’
Peter died in 1785 at the age of about 70. A portrait of Peter as an old man was published in Caulfield’s Portraits of Remarkable Persons, and matches the last description of him as having a full beard. He was buried at Northchurch and his grave can still be seen in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Church. A modern assessment of Peter’s condition might be read here.
[I wrote this myself (for a change) however I am heavily indebted to this, this and this. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing Peter’s portrait with my very own eyes and I recommend it very much]