This German Feral Child Became The Darling Of 18th-Century England

In the early 18th century, a child was discovered in the forests of Northern Germany; he was dubbed Peter the Wild Boy. Peter had no family, and he didn't speak. No one knew how long he had been living alone in the woods, but he looked to be about 12 years old.

King George I of England brought the boy back to Britain where the English court and common citizens quickly went crazy for him. The people called Peter a feral child and put him on display, but they seemed to care for him. In fact, Peter left a huge mark on British history. He made people question their understanding of humanity. Historian Lucy Worley noted, "He was a very gentle character and in some ways, more human than the rest of us."

  • A Hunting Party Cut Down A Tree To Capture Peter
    Photo: Butterworth, Hezekiah / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Hunting Party Cut Down A Tree To Capture Peter

    Peter the Wild Boy never had a formal name and his biological parents were unidentified. Most people assumed that his mother and father abandoned him in the woods because they were unable to care for him.

    Peter was found in 1725 by locals in Hertsworld near Hameln in northern Germany. They cornered the boy, driving him up a tree. The men chopped down multiple branches before reaching Peter, but they didn't know how to handle the child. Eventually, he was sent to a correction house. Afterwards, King George I of England took an interest in the boy, letting his daughter-in-law, Princess Caroline, care for him.

  • Researchers Believed Peter May Have Had Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome

    Former British courtiers believed that Peter the Wild Boy behaved abnormally because he spent much of his childhood in the woods. However, there may be more to the story; researchers and historians discovered a lot about the the child's condition.

    At first, 21st-century analysts assumed Peter had autism, which would explain a large portion of his behavior and mannerisms. However, a disease discovered in 1978, called Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, may be a better diagnosis.

    Historian Lucy Worsley studied the royal portrait of Peter and gave a description of him to geneticist Phil Beale. Beale used the traits Peter exhibited to decide on the potential diagnosis. Peter's short stature, coarse hair, hooded eyelids, thick bow-shaped lips, and learning difficulties are all symptoms of Pitt-Hopkins.

  • He Was Treated Like A Pet

    Instead of being treated like a child with potential developmental issues and childhood trauma, Peter the Wild Boy was essentially kept as a pet. It was common, at the time, to treat people who seemed different like oddities. Many assumed Peter was raised by either bears or wolves. And even though the adolescent was removed from the wild, he was treated more like a feral animal than a human being.

  • William Kent Included Peter In A Royal Court Portrait
    Photo: jwyg / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    William Kent Included Peter In A Royal Court Portrait

    Although he shocked and horrified other members of King George I's court, Peter the Wild Boy was a fixture in the palace. Famous artist William Kent even painted a portrait of the king's courtiers in the early 1700s, and young Peter was included. The green suit he wears and the oak leaves he holds represent his wild past.

  • He Hated Walking Upright And Wearing Clothing

    Peter the Wild Boy struggled to adapt to court life. He often curled up on the floor in the corner of his room to sleep instead of using a bed. The child also hated to walk upright; he was more comfortable running around on all fours. 

    Moreover, Peter loathed clothing; he had very little experience with fancy garments before residing in Britain. Certain items, like stockings, were quite disturbing to him. One person noted, "He was terrified when he first saw a man taking off stockings, believing he was peeling off his skin." Peter was forced to wear elaborate clothes, though. His court coat was especially restricting, but it did slightly correct his posture.

  • Peter Was Forced To Wear A Collar
    Photo: Matt Brown / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    Peter Was Forced To Wear A Collar

    After leaving the royal court around Princess Caroline's death in 1737, Peter the Wild Boy was fitted with a collar by the Fenn family. They were responsible for his care. Some argued that wearing a collar made Peter look like an enslaved person or a dog, but allegedly the Fenns wanted to protect their charge. They treated Peter well, but he often wandered away from the farm. The collar helped strangers know where Peter lived.