His headstone simply reads “Peter the Wild Boy, 1785.” For his entire odd life, that was his moniker. Was Peter a feral child or was he afflicted with a rare genetic condition that had not yet been discovered?
Peter was about 11 years old when he was found, naked and disheveled, living alone in a forest in Hanover, Germany. He could not speak, walked on all fours, ate with his hands and disliked wearing clothes. The boy immediately caught the attention of King George I of Great Britain, himself of Hanoverian stock. Peter was brought to London and became a “human pet” at Kensington Palace.
Nature Versus Nurture
It was speculated that Peter had been raised by wolves or bears, and his wild appearance and erratic behavior caused quite a sensation in England. It was 1725 and, at that time, Peter’s presence brought up questions of nature versus nurture and the delicate line between humans and wild animals. Is it our genetics or our environment and upbringing that determines our behavior? Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, even created a new category of human in his Systema Naturae just for Peter called Juvenis hanoveranus.
Upon arriving in England, Peter became the ward of Princess (later Queen) Caroline who saw to it that he got an education. Despite all efforts, Peter never learned to speak and was only able to repeat a few words, although he seemed to understand what was being said to him. Peter also had a propensity to wander off and get into trouble. One summer in 1751, Peter went missing. Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering a reward for his safe return. When he was found and returned home a few weeks later, his caretaker fitted Peter with a special leather collar inscribed with his name and address.
Later studies of the case theorize that rather than being feral, Peter was severely mentally disabled and had been abandoned by his parents. In more recent years, Peter’s case was reexamined and he was diagnosed with Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome (PHS). A vital clue to its discovery was Peter’s smile in a portrait that hangs on the grand staircase at Kensington Palace. It was his features such as his Cupid’s bow lips, short stature, drooping eyelids, and coarse hair, along with details of his odd habits and behaviors, that led professors of genetics to diagnose him with PHS.
It is sad to think that centuries ago, people with this and other not yet known genetic conditions, were misunderstood and often mistreated. However, Peter the Wild Boy was well cared for and long outlived his royal patrons. After Caroline’s death, Peter was sent to live on a farm, where he lived into his 70s.
Peter is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s at Northchurch in Hertfordshire, England, where people—still today—lay flowers on his grave.
By Kara Killen, contributor for Ripleys.com