Index to This Site

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Wolf Children of Midnapore

     Kipling didn't invent the idea of wolf children. His character, Mowgli was inspired by rumours prevalent in his native land, for India - and in particular, the north central state of Awadh (Oudh) - is the home of wolf children legends. From the middle of the nineteenth century right up to the present day, children could be pointed out who had been raised by wolves. It says a lot about the social milieu of India that all these children happen to be boys. The one big exception is the most famous and best documented case of all: Amala and Kamala, the wolf girls of Midnapur.

Feral Children
     Let's start from the beginning. We are talking about a subset of feral children: lost, abandoned, or runaway children who have fended for themselves for an extended period of time without any care or companionship of fellow humans. Despite the chicanery and shonky research which has sullied the field, they definitely exist. Considering the billions of children who have been born, it would be incredible if it had never happened. The most famous are Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron, and Memmie LeBlanc, the Savage Girl of Songi.
     Typically, they experience severe difficulty (re)integrating into human society. Whether this is wholly the result of their feral status is an open question. It may well be that they were abandoned because they were mentally retarded or autistic. The suspicion is particularly strong for those who, like Victor, never learned to speak. On first principles, it would appear unlikely that any child so young as to have never learned to speak would be able to survive by himself, or that, having learned the skill, he would be unable to remember, or relearn it.
     It is also certain - again, despite various hoaxes and poor scholarship - that some of these children have lived in association with animals (which is not, of course, the same as having been raised by them). The most prominent recent case was that of John Ssebunya, who was rescued while living with a band of vervet monkeys. Some feral children have definitely lived with packs of stray dogs. Have any of them lived with wolf packs?
     Quite a few, if the Indian stories are anything to go by. But before we accept them uncritically, there are a few things to consider. In India, wolves tend to live on the fringe of rural settlements. Women also tend to take their babies with them into the fields, laying them down in a basket or wrapper on the ground while they attend their work. Some of these babies do get taken by wolves. At the same time, mentally retarded, even handicapped, orphans or abandoned children are not uncommon. Even boys such as these are capable of helping around the farm and this, combined with the parents' natural grief, can cause adults to "recognize" such boys - always boys - as the son taken by a wolf.
     But a she-wolf actually adopting a human child is another matter. Animal mothers of a dead baby have been known to adopt all sorts of strange substitutes. In 2002 a lioness was observed to twice adopt baby oryxes. Indeed, in 2005 a new baby, abandoned by the roadside in Kenya, was apparently rescued by a bitch and brought home to join her own puppies. A she-wolf could easily act the same way.
     Whether she could raise the child successfully is another matter. Wolf cubs are suckled for less than two months, after which they are fed regurgitated meat for a similar short period. Then they are required to run with the pack. No human baby could survive such treatment. Also, it tends to be forgotten that wolves live in packs, and even with the smaller group sizes common in India, this would include, as a bare minimum, the she-wolf's male consort, and usually the adult or half-grown offspring of the previous litter. The other pack members might not understand that the human baby was intended as an addition to the family rather than an addition to the menu.
     For these reasons, I was rather surprised to discover that Michael Newton took the wolf girls of Midnapore seriously in his 2002 book, Savage Girls and Wild Boys. It was time to have a look at the authority he quoted: The Wolf Children by Charles Maclean (1977).

Rev. Joseph Singh (1873 - 1941)
     A high caste Rajput living in Bengal, the Rev. Joseph Singh was tall, dark, and handsome. Literally. In his youth he was regarded as good looking. At 6 foot 2, and correspondingly broad, he towered above the native Bengalis. And his dark skin was somewhat off-putting to his future in-laws, for colour prejudice is rampart in the subcontinent as it is common elsewhere.
     His grandfather, a Rajput soldier, moved to Bengal in the wake of the Mutiny, and there he became, first a Christian, and then an Anglican priest, apparently taking the baptism name of Joseph. Much of his substantial inheritance was used in setting up a high school and an orphanage. Although his son, Timothy became a Government clerk, his grandson, Joseph Jr. followed his grandfather's footsteps into holy orders, having received the call to act as missionary to the aboriginal (ie pre-Hindu) Santals. Being appointed residence clergyman at Midnapore in 1915, responsible for the oversight of Christians in the district, both white and brown, he set up his headquarters a short distance out of town at a site unimaginatively named "The Home", for he also took after his grandfather in establishing an orphanage - quite independently of the church, I might add. At the same time he made many circuits through the jungle to the villages of the Santals and other aboriginal tribes, stripped down to only a loin cloth, so are not to intimidate the inhabitants.
     Like many educated Indians, he identified strongly with the British Raj, and was a very active opponent of Gandhi's campaign for independence. He mixed in official circles such that, when the controversy broke, as will be described later, the district judge affirmed that his truthfulness was absolutely to be relied upon. His habits, too, were British. To quote Maclean, his
idea of heaven on earth was a good day's shooting followed by a quiet time in his favourite armchair with his dogs at his feet and perhaps a glass of port wine at his elbow, smoking a pipe and listening to the songs of Harry Lauder on the phonograph.
     Another similarity to the British in India was his passion for shooting. He would venture out behind The Home to bag snipe or hares for dinner, or join British officials and rajahs in going for deer. He was also known to have shot a tiger. Under these circumstances, his missionary circuits through the jungle must have taken on the aspect of a working holiday. He admitted that many of his Santal guides, often thirty or forty strong, accompanied him "for the love of wild game". Indeed, I am reminded of my own father-in-law, the Rev. Leon Philippi who, though never much of a recreational hunter, could always get porters for his circuits in New Guinea because they knew he would bag something for the pot. But, as Maclean pointed out, even if his claimed 700 aboriginal converts were an exaggeration, he was obviously bagging more than just game.
     There was an interesting account of his run-in with Fr. Arthur Balcombe, the Secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. An fervent advocate of the necessity of the church adopting Indian culture, he donned the robes of a sadhu, or Hindu holy man, wore his hair and beard long, and kept his feet bare, his only concession to modernity being a pith helmet and a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. So here we have an Englishman trying to be an Indian coming up against an Indian trying to be an Englishman. He sought to have Singh removed, but it took him three years, as Singh pulled strings with leaders of both races and both religions, for he was highly regarded in the community.
     Overall, he presents as a complex character with various eccentricities and the usual quota of human failings, but nevertheless someone utterly devoted to God, his calling, and his orphanage. This is important because, although nobody's truthfulness can be taken to be beyond question, it is useful to establish that the primary witness is of known good character.

Amala and Kamala
     The account of the discovery of the wold children is complicated. In September 1920 Singh had been urged to begin his missionary circuit early. It was not until he arrived at the small village of Godamuri that he discovered the real reason. The convert with whom he was staying, Chunarem explained that he was needed to exorcise some "ghosts" frequenting the forest about seven miles away. He himself had seen them; they were man-beasts, in the form of humans bearing the head of diabolic animals. Neither heathen rituals nor Christian prayers could remove them, and the inhabitants had been left in abject terror.
     All this sounded rather fanciful to the good priest, but he nevertheless allowed himself to be escorted to the site: a termite mound ten or twelve feet high in the shape of a Hindu temple. Alas, no ghosts! No, he wasn't prepared to return the next day. Instead, his party withdrew to the village of Denganalia. Please remember the names of these two villages. While they were setting up camp, the village headman came out and provided further information: for the previous four months the ghosts had been living inside the termite mound, and were typically seen in the company of wolf spirits.
     He did return the next day, but the visit was equally fruitless, so he ordered a machan, or hunting platform to be constructed nearby. Unfortunately, he then had to depart on church business, including marrying the son of Peter Rose, an Anglo-Indian rail worker. It was thus that he, and another Anglo-Indian, Henry Richards, both of who had previously accompanied him on missionary circuits, now accompanied him back to Godamuri and Denganalia. They could tell that the termite mound had been long abandoned by its makers, and the holes in the base indicated that it was now the den of wild beasts. Guns at the ready, they waited on the machan until, just before dark, out came three adult wolves, one at a time, followed by two cubs. Then, to their utter amazement, there emerged
the ghost - a hideous looking being, hand, foot, and body like a human being; but the head was a big ball of something covering the shoulders and the upper portion of the bust, leaving only a sharp contour of the face visible.
     Placing its elbows on the edge of the hole, it looked all around with its bright, piercing eyes, then jumped out and scurried after the cubs on all fours. If that were not enough, a second, smaller creature of the same nature appeared and behaved likewise.
     Rev. Singh acted only just in time to prevent his two companions from shooting, for he was convinced the "ghosts" were human beings. When thye returned the following day, the same scene was re-enacted, and by now there could be no question but that they were human children. Only the Santals of Godamuri and Denganalia were not convinced, nor could they be persuaded to assist in digging out the mound to rescue the children. The curse of the ghosts would rest upon the villages.
     The story now becomes even more complicated. He spoke to the local landowner, Mr Pattanaik, who suggested they seek the assistance of Dibakar Bhanj Deo, the hunting officer of the local Maharaja, with both of which of whom Singh was acquainted. Rev. Singh then left the area for six days, visited a distant village inhabited mostly by a criminal caste called the Lodha, and engaged them to dig up a termite mound, without explaining exactly why. When they returned, they discovered that Dibakar had arrived, with the Maharaja's permission, and accompanied by another well-known hunter. Dibakar had also persuaded some of the men from Denganalia and a few other villages to come along, on the promise that they would not have to go near the haunted mound, but would only serve as beaters in a radius of about a mile from the mound. There were thus quite a few people involved in the final act of the rescue.
     Lasa Marandi, who took part in the beat when he was sixteen years old, told how many of the older beaters claimed they would rather stand unarmed against a charging tiger than face the ghosts. Nevertheless, the line of beaters moved to about a hundred yards from the mound. Nothing would persuade them to come closer. Singh wanted to capture the wolves, as well as the children, alive, and gave orders for no shooting unless human life was at stake. But as soon as the Lodhas started to dig, two adult wolves broke cover and fled through the line of beaters. The third wolf stood its ground, snarling and growling, and baring its teeth. In terror, the Lodhas killed it with arrows. Singh seems to have assumed that this was the mother wolf, although no attempt appears to have been made to ascertain its sex.
     After that it was easy. The termite mound fell over, leaving the wolf den, with its seven entrances, open to the sky. And inside, the two wolf children and the two wolf cubs  lay wrapped together in a tight ball, the children showing their teeth and behaving more savagely than the cubs. Rev. Singh managed to get all four wrapped up in four sheets, with only their heads showing. Having managed to acquire two bamboo cages, his party moved to a government staging house in a nearby village in order to spend the night there.
     After [the onlookers] had gone an attempt was made under Singh's supervision to bathe the children. Their bodies were encrusted with dirt and mud, smelt strongly of the wolves' den and appeared from their scratching to be full of fleas and other parasites. But the operation was not a success. The children reacted violently to being touched or to any contact with water. What dirt could be removed revealed a large number of small scars and scratches all over their bodies, and on their elbows, knees and the heels of their hands, heavy callouses - presumably from going on all fours. Although thin, they were otherwise in good condition and apart from their matted hair, long nails which curled over like blunted talons and an inability or unwillingness to stand, they appeared at first physically no different from other human children.
     Rev. Singh and his companions were as perplexed by the situation as you no doubt are. How did they get into the wolves' den, how did they survive, and why were there two of them? They did not appear to be sisters. They were not even the same age. The younger was estimated to three years old, the elder five or six.
      Leaving them with food and water in the care of Chunarem, he now took Rose and Richards back home. Five days later he returned to discover that Godamuri had been almost deserted, the population being so terrified of the "ghosts", and the children almost dead from hunger, thirst, and fright. Frantic with anxiety, he found they would accept food if he turned his handkerchief into a wick by soaking it in water, putting one end into a teacup, and the other into one of their mouths. They were so feeble, emaciated, and unresponsive that he was able to carry them in his arms in turns to his bullock cart and leave them resting on a pile of rice straw for the eight day journey to the orphanage at Midnapore. He named the elder Kamala, or lotus, and the younger, Amala, a bright yellow flower.

In the Orphanage
     The discovery of the wolf children has been described in detail (but still abridged) because it has bearing on the credibility of the whole story. It would be possible to now continue in great detail with an account of their social and psychological aberrations. You can read the whole sad story in Rev. Singh's diary here. Sufficient it is to affirm that their complete inability to talk, or to have any significant human interactions, is typical of children who have suffered severe social isolation during their earliest years. In addition, their predilection for prowling around at night, their quadrupedal locomotion, their desire for raw meat, and their habit of eating like a dog, without the use of the hands, lapping water like wild animals, and growling at their rescuers, while not proving that they were raised by wolves, are certainly consistent with it. The rest of their sad lives consisting of more-or-less unsuccessful attempts to pierce the emptiness of their private world and humanise them.
     One thing the Rev. Singh was determined on: he was running an orphanage, not a freak show. As far as the rest of world was concerned, they were the neglected offspring of some Indian fakir. On arriving back at The Home, he took his wife into his confidence and swore her to secrecy. But, of course, the true story could not remain secret for long with the rest of the family and staff, and word was bound to leak out eventually. When he came back from a conference in Calcutta, he was met by a crowd of children outside the orphanage wanting to see the wolf children. Wolf children? he chaffed them, treating it as a joke. Fancy taking such servants' gossip seriously! But once inside, he laid down the law that there should be no talking about the subject, lest it damage the lives of the unfortunate children involved. When adult visitors queried him about the children who regularly clamoured outside the gate, he would explain that they had superstitiously imagined two abandoned, mentally retarded children of a fakir had somehow been raised by wolves.
     Alas! After less than a year after their rescue, they became seriously ill, and the padre was forced to call in their physician, Dr. Sarbadicari. It was with great reluctance of his part, for the doctor was a notorious gossip, who apparently was not aware of the Hippocratic demand for patient confidentiality. Singh had to explain the true origin of the girls. Unfortunately, Amala died. The week after the funeral, the orphanage was besieged by townsfolk. Sarbadacari had blabbed! There was nothing to do but come clean and allow them to see Kamala in some sort of orderly fashion. Soon afterwards, the local newspaper, written in the vernacular, printed a garbled story of their origins. Fortunately, the news wasn't taken up by other outlets.
     Kamala never became really human, but she did gradually become more like a tame wild animal. She learned to walk on two legs, and to use a few words. Then, in August 1926, Rev. Singh received a visit from an old friend, Herbert Pakenham-Walsh, the former Bishop of Assam, along with sixty-odd Christian college students. Eventually, he gave in to their entreaties to see Kamala, but only on condition that they tell no-one about it. Sixteen years later, the bishop was to describe his encounter with Kamala, as well as being shown the photos Singh had taken of the two girls at various stages of their lives. He also recalls something which, as we shall see, would be of significance later:
He [Singh] let me examine the diary he had kept with almost daily entries from the day he rescued her up to that day.
     On 22 October the story broke on the front page of a British newspaper, the Westminster Gazette. Bishop Pakenham-Walsh was quoted. On 13 November 1926, the story broke in English language media in India, in the Calcutta Statesman.  Rev. Singh was incensed, and felt betrayed, but the morning before he himself was visited by a Statesman reporter, he received an apologetic letter from the bishop. It turned out the bishop had written a private letter to a close family member at home, which had then fallen into the hands of an indiscreet relative who worked for the Westminster Gazette.
     Just the same, the story was out, and the orphanage's peace was permanently lost, as more and more people wanted to see Kamala. As Maclean put it, Singh did not actually charge admission, but he was more likely to present her to the sort of person who might donate to the orphanage. Poor Kamala herself died of typhoid in November 1929. She would have been in her mid-teens.

The Controversy
     That might have been the end of the story, except that Bishop Pakenham-Walsh now suggested that his friend prepare his diary for publication. It might gain money for the orphanage, provide useful scientific information, and would no longer offer any harm to the girls themselves. Thus began a long and complicated search for a publisher. As it turned out, although the project met with initial sympathy, the Rev. Singh had two strikes against him. The first was that he was not a scientist, but instead of providing "just the facts, ma'am", he rambled on about aspects of philosophy and the social sciences where he was out of his depth. The second was that the account was written poorly. It was the same old story: people with experiences worth recording all to often lack literary skill, and in this case, although the Rev. Singh was fluent in spoken English, it was not his native language.
     Eventually, the matter fell into the hands of Robert Zingg, an anthropologist who had already produced a number of papers on feral children. (I remember reading them in my postgraduate years.) It was he who suggested they collaborate on a book, and split the royalties. The result was Wolf-Children and Feral Man, but by the time it came out in 1942, the Rev. Singh had already passed away.
     In 1952 two anthropologists, William Ogburn and Nirmal Bose investigated the claims, and had the results published in 1959. They had been unable to find any witnesses to the capture of the two children, or anybody other than members of Singh's family who had seen them acting in a wolf-like manner. Not even the village of Godamuri could be discovered.
     Nevertheless, things were not that simple, as Maclean was to discover in 1975. Two-thirds of the forty elderly witnesses he interviewed had, in fact, witnessed wolf-like behaviour. Not even those who were hostile to Singh suggested that they were fakes. He also added:
Because of a recognized tendency among Indians to confuse assumptions with evidence [a degect not restricted to Indians, I might add], to tell you what they imagine you want to hear rather than what they know, we were scrupulously careful in vetting witnesses, in cross-examining them and checking their statements by every possible means.
     None of them, however, could remember Ogburn and Bose. On the other hand, a former student of Ogburn's explained that he had been an old man who had come to India on another project, had been railroaded into the wolf children investigation, but had been unable to give it proper attention. Just before returning to the U.S., he had persuaded Prof Bose to take over the work, but it seems likely most of it was performed by his students.
     Just the same, since the Wikipedia, in one of its periodic rewritings, has now concentrated on a recent study by a French surgeon, who insists the story was an "outrageous hoax", it would be a good idea to examine a couple of those claims.

  • Singh concocted the story to obtain money for his orphanage. From what you have previously read, you will know that this was incorrect. He made only desultory attempts to profit from the wolf children. Most of the time was spent trying to avoid publicity. Apart from that, his account is not what you would expect from a hoax. It is complicated, with too many back and forth movements by the padre himself than is necessary for the story, and it contains too many individuals who could conceivably falsify the story. The first rule of hoaxing is to keep it straightforward and cover your tracks.
  • His diary was actually written several years after the death of Kamala. Partly true. The diary as published was edited by Bishop Pakenham-Walsh beforehand. You may remember the references to Singh's lack of literary skill. Also, anyone familiar with Hinglish knows that it really needs to be edited by a native speaker before it is let loose on the Anglosphere. One of Rev. Singh's daughters showed Maclean a portion of a manuscript - the remainder had been destroyed by termites - which contained additional information to that published. It would have been interesting to know what that was. The implication was that it was written in English. I would have assumed that the very original diary would have been in Bengali. In any case, an original definitely existed, because the bishop had read it in 1926.
     Apart from that, if you read the published diary - and I hope you do, by following the link I provided - you will note that it contains a lot more information on the gradual development of the girls' behaviour than was absolutely necessary for a hoax. It would have required a very clever mind to produce such a day by day account from scratch.
     There remains a third possibility: perhaps the padre himself was misled. In the Calcutta Diocesan Register of 1921, Singh presented his report on the year's activities. Published after the death of Amala, but apparently written beforehand, it referred to "two wolf girls ... secured by villagers in the jungle". A story promulgated by him shortly afterwards went into more details about how the girls had already been rescued when he first met them. Several people put it to Maclean that perhaps the padre did not wish his missionary superiors to think he was busy gallivanting around the jungle on shooting expeditions. However, it might have been the truth, and that only later did he personalise the story by making himself the chief discoverer. Of course, that would still mean that he had made his initial story unnecessarily complex.
     As a matter of fact, this discrepancy was raised by an Indian journalist as early as his interview with Singh in later 1926. In reply, the padre pointed out that the bishop had already read the official story in his diary.
     There was only one thing to do. Singh had originally written a letter to the bishop giving directions and a sketch map to the site of the discovery. Armed with a copy, Maclean and his Indian support team actually managed to find the lost village of Godamuri. It had changed its name. The inhabitants remembered Chunarem, but could otherwise provide no further information. It was a different matter, however, with the nearby village of Denganalia,
where the older people well remembered how the wolf children were captured in the forest near by a long time ago. One old man, Lasa Marandi, had actually taken part in the hunt as a boy of sixteen and testified that the Reverend Singh, whom he was able to describe fairly clearly, along with two Europeans (possibly Rose and Richards) and Dibakar Deo had been present on the machan at the time of the rescue.
     (You will remember I referred to Marandi's testimony in the early part of this article.) He added:
The Santals in that area are known even today for their truthfulness; they appeared uninterested in the information they passed on; there was no question of their having read about the wolf children; and the story was far from being a widespread folk tale in the jungle areas we visited.
     There is something missing in all of this, but I don't know what it is. It is physically impossible for a wolf to raise a human child, let alone two. But the trail of the wolf children of Midnapore is now cold, and we will probably never know the truth.
     When faced with an apparently authentic story which defies conventional logic, there are two pitfalls to avoid. The first is to accept it uncritically. The second is to uncritically accept whatever glib theory is raised which promises to explain it away. Sometimes there are no easy answers.

1 comment:

  1. " When faced with an apparently authentic story which defies conventional logic,
    there are two pitfalls to avoid.

    The first is to accept it uncritically.

    The second is to uncritically accept whatever glib theory is raised which promises to explain it away.

    Sometimes there are no easy answers."

    The story was good,
    the conclusion was even better.