feral child, French

Feral Children 

Memmie Le Blanc, Feral Child  of Champagne

Feral Child - Memmie Le Blanc - Champagne region, France The following feral child case is unusual in several aspects. Though the child had obviously lived most of her life relatively isolated from human contact, she was allegedly seen with a young companion from time to time. Another strange characteristic of her case are the stories she told of her origins, and the fact that she survived into adulthood, although by then she was extremely poor, being forced to sell her memoirs in the street.

Memmie was first sighted around the village of Songi, near Chalns, in the French district of Champagne, one September evening in 1731. She appeared from the woods armed with a club and in search of water. When one of the frightened villagers set a guard dog on her, she gave it a heavy blow on the head with her club, killing it instantly. Then, after jumping over the dead animal several times in ecstatic celebration, she climbed to the top of a tree and fell asleep. The villagers brought the news to Viscount d'Epinoy at his chateau in Songi who, curious about the child, ordered them to try and catch her. Knowing she was thirsty they left a pitcher of water beneath the tree in which she was sleeping. As they thought, she came down and drank from the water, but, before anyone could act, she had darted back to the treetop.  A woman with a child then approached the tree and stood at the bottom, hoping to make the strange girl feel less afraid. The woman smiled, acted in a friendly manner, and offered the girl vegetables and fish. 

But despite her obvious hunger, she only descended a part of the way, before becoming scared and scampering back to the top of the tree. The woman continued to try and coax the girl down and, eventually, the plan was successful and she slid down from her place of safety to get the food. As the girl approached the woman moved slowly away, and a group of men who'd been waiting behind some bushes seized her and took her away. She was brought to the kitchen of the chateau of Viscount d'Epinoy, where the cook was preparing some fowls for the viscount's dinner. Suddenly, the girl rushed at the dead birds, grabbed one and began to devour it. When d'Epinoy arrived and saw the savage child, he told the cook to give her an unskinned rabbit, which the little girl immediately skinned and ate greedily. The villagers questioned the girl, but she couldn't understand any French; the only way she knew how to communicate was by shrieks and squeaks.

At first they thought she was black, but after several hot baths which washed away the dirt - and possibly paint - they found her skin to be white. She had blue eyes and was thought to be about nine or ten years old. On further examination she was found to have unusually shaped hands, with enlarged fingers and thumbs. This feature was later attributed to her swinging from one tree to another, grabbing at the branches with her strong hands, and her using her thumbs to dig up roots. Her feet were bare, but she wore a tattered dress of rags and animal skins, and a gourd leaf on her hair in place of a hat. The strange girl also wore a necklace, pendants, and a pouch attached to a large animal skin wrapped around her body. Inside the pouch she carried a club, and a knife inscribed with strange characters, which nobody could decipher. There was much conjecture about her origin, Norway was mentioned, but at the time somewhere in the West Indies was thought more likely.

The Viscount put the wild girl in the care of a shepherd, but she frequently tried to escape, once being found in the top of a winter tree during a severe snow storm. The girl refused to sleep on a bed, preferring the floor instead, and would only eat bread and drink only water, cooked meat making her vomit (as with Kaspar Hauser). Memmie ran and swam exceptionally well, had incredibly sharp eyesight, and caught and ate small animals and fish from the bottoms of rivers.  On 30 October, 1731, she was put in the charge of the hospital general at St. Maur in nearby Chalns, though she still seems to have spent time with the shepherd at Songi or with Viscount d'Epinoy at his chateau. At first she was terrified at even being touched, and she would shriek and become wild-eyed when it happened. 

But gradually she became tamer and more 'civilised', and also began to progress well at learning French, indicating not only that she was fairly intelligent, but that she had been able to speak before her abandonment. Her mother tongue, however, was completely lost.

'Memmie Le Blanc'

On 16 June, 1732, the girl was baptized with the name Marie-Anglique Memmie Le Blanc. Unfortunately, despite the novel appeal of her case, captivity was detrimental to Memmie's health and spirits. The Viscount d'Epinoy had been careful to give her the raw meat and root vegetables she was used to, but the increasing amount of time she spent at the hospital at St. Maur changed this. The cooked meats, food preserved with salt, and wine provided for her at St. Maur made her teeth and nails drop out, and she was frequently in poor health. The bleedings directed by the doctors to try and lessen her savageness only made her more ill, and in combination with the new diet brought her close to death. Indeed her health was permanently ruined by this treatment.

Within a year of Memmie's capture, Viscount d'Epinoy died, and she was put in the care of the Convent des rgentes at Chalns, where she learned how to make artificial flowers and was forced to stop climbing trees and swimming. Consequently her wildness soon began to fade, though not completely.

In 1737, the Queen of Poland, mother to the French queen, heard about this strange girl when she was travelling through Champagne to take possession of the Duchy of Lorraine. The queen decided to take her hunting, where Memmie still retained enough of her wild nature that she ran fast enough to catch and kill rabbits.

Very little is known about the next ten years of Memmie's life. In September 1747, now a young woman and fluent in French, she left Chalns for the convent at St. Menehold, in Paris, perhaps hoping to avoid attention. Here she met a Msr. La Condamine, a middle-aged aristocrat and renowned scientist. He had her moved to another Parisian convent where she prepared to become a nun. But while there one of the windows collapsed on her head and left her life in danger once again. She was taken to the house of the Hospitalires, where she obtained the best possible medical help, paid for by a rich patron, the Duke of Orlans. But circumstances were against her once more, when the Duke died and she was left alone, sick and without financial support of any kind. In this way she spent the next few years of her life.

Then, in November 1752, she met another patron, her biographer Madame Hecquet. Her biography of Memmie was  published in 1755. Madame Hecquet had much difficulty getting Memmie to remember her life before the capture. The girl told her that she hadn't began to reflect on her life until after being taken (as Hauser). She could remember no home or family, the only particular memory was of seeing a large sea animal with a round head and big eyes, that swum with two feet like a dog. Madame Hecquet thought it might be a seal and wondered if Memmie was in fact an Eskimo. But Memmie did not look at all like an Eskimo, she was fair-skinned and had softer European features.

In March 1765, still in Paris, Memmie met yet another patron, James Burnett, the future Lord Monboddo. She was unwell at the time and had tried to make a living, unsuccessfully  as a public curiosity. When she met Burnett she was scraping an existence by making artificial flowers and selling her memoirs. 

Memmie Relates Her History

As told to Burnett, Memmie's story of her life previous to her capture at Songi is, if true, an incredible one. She thought she must have been seven or eight years old when she was carried off from her native land, the name or location of which she couldn't remember. She said she was put on board a large ship and taken on a voyage to a warm country, where she was sold into slavery. Unlike today's comfortable Viking Yachts for sale, ships of the Atlantic slave trade were known for their brutality and cramped conditions. Before selling her, however, her captors had painted her entire body black, in order to pass her off as a black slave and not give rise to any suspicions about her origins. 

In the same country she was put on board another ship, where the master made her do needlework, and beat her if she didn't work. Her mistress, on the other hand, was more kind-hearted and would hide her from the master. But disaster followed, the ship was wrecked and the crew took the life boat, leaving Memmie and a black girl to look after themselves. They managed to swim from the sinking ship, with the black girl, a weak swimmer, keeping herself from drowning by clutching Memmie's foot.

Finally the two girls reached shore. They then journeyed a long distance across land, travelling only at night to avoid being seen. Sleeping through the day in the tops of trees, they survived by eating roots dug out from the ground, and when they managed to, catching wild animals which they ate raw, like the beasts of the forest. Apparently Memmie learned to imitate birdsong, as that was the only kind of music known in her country. The main difficulty the two girls had was that they couldn't speak each other's language, so they only communicated by signs and wild shrieks, like those the frightened French villagers had heard when they tried to catch Memmie.

A few days before her capture, Memmie came upon a Rosary lying on the ground. Excited at the find, but also wary that her wild friend would pick it up, she reached down to take it first. But the other girl struck Memmie's hand as hard as she could with her club. Her hand was hurt badly, but she was able to strike her opponent a fierce blow on her brow, at which the girl reeled over bleeding and screaming. At this Memmie became touched with regret and rushed off to find some frogs. Finding one, she cut off its skin and placed it over the girl's forehead to stem the flow of blood from the wound, and tied the dressing in place with thread made from tree bark. After this, Memmie said, the two companions separated. The wounded girl going back towards the river, and Memmie taking the path towards Songi. 

Apparently the young black girl continued to be seen in the area, around the town of Cheppe, after Memmie's capture, but was never caught, and no more was heard of her. Other reports say that Memmie actually killed the other girl accidentally in the disagreement.

There is no record of what finally became of Memmie Le Blanc, but, as with most feral children, she probably died poor and forgotten. Madame Hecquet seems to have disappeared, and what may have been vital clues to Memmie's origin, the possessions she had when captured at Songi (especially the knife with the strange inscriptions) were never found. Perhaps the truth was much more prosaic than her biography, and she was a French peasant child abandoned in the woods at an early age, and her later stories were false memories. But what of her black companion? 

The possibility that Memmie was an unfortunate child caught up in the huge Atlantic slave trade of the time, where slaves were known to be painted black for easier sale, cannot be discounted; but where she came from originally will probably never be known.

Sources and Further Reading

Michell, J. & Rickard, B.  Unexplained Phenomena. London, Rough Guides Ltd, 2000, pp. 303-4. 

Newton, M.  Savage Girls and Wild Boys. London, Faber and Faber, 2002. 

Sieveking, P.  'Wild Things'. Fortean Times 161, August 2002. 

Copyright 2002 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.

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