He was naked, grunting and digging up roots in the forest.
|Wild Child: Victor, from Truffaut's classic film|
As he stuffed raw acorns into his mouth, he was spotted by three sportsmen on horseback. They gave chase, intrigued by such a bizarre creature, only to watch wide-eyed as the wild child before them scrambled into the upper branches of a tree.
It was 1798 and the feral child of Aveyron - a rugged area of southern France - was about to become an unwitting celebrity.
|Victor: the closest likeness|
The sportsmen eventually caught him and named him Victor. Pleased with their captive, who was more like an animal than a person, they took him to a nearby lodgings for further study.
|Taken for further study: Victor, by Truffaut|
But Victor escaped before they could discover his identity.
‘He fled to the mountains,’ they said, disconsolate about losing their prize, ‘where he wandered about during the severity of a most rigorous winter, clad only in a tattered shirt.’
Try as they might, they were unable to recapture him.
Victor's untimely disappearance might have been the end of the story, but in the following year he sought refuge in nearby St Sernin.
Captured for a second time, and taken to the town of Rodez, he was held for some months in various places. In each place he stayed, he was ‘equally wild, impatient of restraint and capricious in his temper, continually endeavouring to get away.’
|Wild landscape for a wild child|
Eventually a clergyman named Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre had the wild child brought to Paris, in order to study him more closely. Bonnaterre planned to introduce him to all the leading experts, to see if they could discover more about him.
One morning, shortly after Victor arrived in Paris, it began to snow. Bonnaterre was amazed by the child’s reaction. ‘He uttered a cry of joy, leaped from his bed, ran to the window… and at length escaped half dressed into the garden.’
Bonnaterre watched in incredulity as Victor ‘rolled himself in the snow and, taking it up by handfuls, devoured it with incredible avidity.’
Victor’s origins remained a mystery - one that fascinated the savants of Paris. This was the period of the Enlightenment, when intellectuals and philosophers were preoccupied with the issues of human nature.
|Itard adopted Victor for further study|
What distinguishes men from animals? And how much difference can education make?
Victor eventually ended up in the care of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young medical student who devoted a great deal of time to studying this apparently feral child.
Itard’s self appointed task was to civilise him: in particular, to teach him to speak and to show human emotion.
|The real Itard: a savant|
Itard was both fascinated and revolted by the child in his care. ‘He was a disgusting, slovenly boy, affected with spasmodic and frequently with convulsive motions… like some of the animals in the menagerie, biting and scratching those who contradicted him.’
Some said Victor would never be educated: others contended that it was achievable in a matter of months.
Itard set to work, making careful notes of every aspect of the wild child’s behaviour. His aims were four-fold: to attach him to social life, to awaken his senses, to teach him ideas and to teach him to speak.
|Victor: insensitive to pain|
Each one of these objectives was to prove problematic, for Victor had spent his formative years in the wild. His eyes were without any expression and he was insensitive to noise. Strangely, he was unable to distinguish between a painting and an object in relief. Nor could he undertake mundane tasks like opening a door.
‘In a word,’ wrote Itard, ‘his whole existence was a life purely animal.’
On one occasion, Victor was handed a dead canary. He showed no sorrow for the bird. Rather, ‘in an instant, he stripped off its feathers [and] tore it open with his hands.’
|Victor: cleaned up for society|
Itard intervened before the lad could eat the bird.
Itard spent years working with Victor and he did eventually make some progress. Victor learned the meaning of actions and developed a primitive form of communication. But he only ever learned two words: ‘lait’ and ‘Dieu’
He never made the progress that Itard had strived for; he concluded that the wild child of Aveyron was ‘the mental and psychological equivalent of a born deaf-mute.’
As for Victor, he must have been bewildered by all the attention. He eventually died in 1828 - after 30 years of examination - at the house of Itard’s kindly housekeeper.
His real name, identity and background remained a mystery to this day.
My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the UK and available here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. USA and foreign editions in 2014
'A gripping history of derring-do... [readers] will find themselves as gripped as they would be by the very best of Fleming or le Carre' - Sunday Times.