“One day in 1798, woodsmen in southern France returned from the forest having captured a naked boy. He had been running wild, digging for food, and was covered with scars. In the village square, people gathered around, gaping and jabbering in words the boy didn’t understand. And so began the curious public life of the boy known as the Savage of Aveyron, whose journey took him all the way to Paris. Though the wild boy’s world was forever changed, some things stayed the same: sometimes, when the mountain winds blew, “he looked up at the sky, made sounds deep in his throat, and gave great bursts of laughter.” In a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads like a novel, Mary Losure invests another compelling story from history with vivid and arresting new life.”
This often-seen image of the wild boy was published in a report written by a priest and naturalist, P. J. Bonnaterre, who studied the boy after he was brought to the city of Rodez, in the department of Aveyron, in
1800. The drawing portrays him as a scientific specimen, the way Bonnaterre (who dismissed him as little more than an ”imbecile”) viewed him.
But Dr. Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, the man who later became the wild boy’s teacher and worked with him for five years, believed the boy he named Victor was an ”extraordinary being.”
To research Wild Boy, I went to France with the help of a Travel and Study Grant from the Jerome
Foundation. I was happy to find that many of scenes of the wild boy’s life are remarkably unchanged today.
Above is the square in the village of Lacaune where the wild boy was exhibited after his first capture in 1798. He escaped and, after another year living wild in the forest, was captured again. Brought back to the same
village, he escaped again, this time crossing a range of mountains. In the year 1800, he was captured in this valley (right), near the village of Saint- Sernin. He appeared at that time to be about 12 years old.
A village official in Saint- Sernin took him home, but he bolted out the door. He was chased through these narrow streets (left), recaptured, and sent to an orphanage. It was then that the scientist P.J. Bonnaterre got word of the discovery of a real, wild human being. Bonnaterre had the boy sent to Rodez so that he, Bonnaterre, could study him there.
This is the former Central School in Rodez, where the wild boy lived until scientists in Paris demanded their chance to study him.
To the left is the Paris school for the deaf where the wild boy found a new home, a foster mother, and his
teacher and friend Dr. Itard.
Dr. Itard’s scientific reports about the wild boy’s life in Paris were later published as a book, The Wild Boy of Aveyron. My book draws on Itard’s writings as well as a wealth of other eyewitness reports, letters, and documents.
When people in France asked me what I was doing in their archives, I would tell them (in my atrocious French), “I’m writing a book about the wild boy.”
“Ah,” they’d say, looking pleased. “L’enfant sauvage!”
photos by Don Losure
** I was given permission from the author to use material from her website for this post.
A true story about a wild boy found in southern France, 1798.