Wild Peter

What is it that fascinates people about feral children? As far back as the 1700s men and women went crazy over the idea of an individual who was raised in the wild and then drops in to civilization only later in life.

A mute, naked adolescent was discovered by a party of hunters in the German forest in 1726 – near Hamelin, of Pied Piper legend —  and Wild Peter soon became the talk of Europe. His background was unknown. King George I brought him from Hanover to his court in London, where the child liked to play with acorns and grew excited over hearing a clock strike. King George himself hailed from Germany and spoke little English; perhaps that explains his sense of kinship with the boy.

NPG D3895; Peter the Wild Boy by John Simon, after  William Kent

Anthropology had lately come in vogue, with people bringing back accounts from foreign lands about monsters, Hottentots, unfamiliar animals. Was Peter truly human or was he more along the lines of an orangutang? He walked on all fours, after all. The press went wild, commenting on his primitive demeanor, wondering at his forest upbringing, marveling that he had become a kind of court pet.

This mysterious creature inspired satiric commentary by Swift and a pamphlet by Daniel Defoe, who proclaimed him the only truly sensible person alive. The painter William Kent included Peter in a mural of the royal court that even today hangs beside a staircase at Kensington Palace, with the wild child modeling a civilized green coat, grasping a bunch of oak leaves and acorns. His likeness also graced a celebrated wax museum. Wild Peter never spoke, but he became an expert pick-pocket.

4 Comments

Filed under Art, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Savage Girl

4 responses to “Wild Peter

  1. Yes, he’s become kind of an odd fairy tale, but he always had something of the Brothers Grimm about him.

  2. Anonymous

    Yes, Wild Peter is right there in Kensington Palace, at the very top landing of the King’s Grand Staircase… one figure in William Kent’s brilliant murals, portraying dozens of courtiers in a gallery, overlooking the grand space… where I’m sure little Prince George will be told the story of Wild Peter, over and over. (Google Detail of the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace, designed and painted by William Kent in the 1720s.)

  3. Hack Attack

    Supposedly child abandonment was not uncommon back in those bad old days (not like it’s unheard of now). That’s the reality behind Hansel and Gretel. In the original they were abandoned in the forest by their father. When a household had too many mouths to feed, parents saw a way out in jettisoning a few of them to eat witch’s candy in the woods.

  4. I understand that at that time it was not uncommon for a deranged or otherwise incapacitated person to ‘disappear into the forest’, and that those persons were seldom heard from again. I wonder if this could possibly have happened to Peter? Could he have run off because something frightened him, and then he never came back, and then was later found by that hunting party?
    Or perhaps the parents took him into the forest and just … left him?
    That is an interesting story, to say the least.

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