09 July 2020

How a Lost Boy Met a “Kindly Badger”

Yesterday I quoted two period sources about a Manitoba boy who was missing for over a week on the prairie before being discovered in a badger’s hole.

One of those items was a newspaper article from 1873, days after the boy’s return, the other a longer account from a local journalist about the search and discovery published in 1881. Those sources establish the basic veracity of the story of the missing boy.

Those sources also leave a lot of mystery. They have little to say about what the boy experienced. They say nothing about the badger that dug the hole where the child hid. It’s not even clear that there was a badger present—that hole might have been abandoned.

Decades later, in 1909, the nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) included a version of the same story in his two-volume Life-Histories of Northern Animals. This account was independent of the sources published in the nineteenth century, which Seton probably never saw.

Instead, in 1909 Seton stated: “This was related to me by George Fraser, a native of Manitoba, and corroborated by his mother, Mrs. Fraser, of Kildonan, and Archbishop Matheson.” In publishing a longer version of the tale in 1913, Seton said skeptics could speak to “Archbishop Matheson, Dr. R. M. Simpson, or Mrs. George A. Frazer of Kildonan.” As I noted yesterday, people heard Archbishop Samuel Matheson retelling the story of the boy in the badger hole (including a detail contradicting the earliest accounts) as late as 1936.

Seton presented his version as based on what the little boy told his family after his return, which neighbors then passed down to him. Some of that information might have been garbled, smoothed, or augmented in transmission over the decades. Seton’s date for the event was off by two years, for instance. He called the boy “Harry” while the 1881 account used the name “Willie,” though I haven’t found confirmation of either. Most important, while the earliest sources were about the search for the boy, Seton wrote in confident detail about how the little boy survived outdoors for more than a week.

The 1909 version from Seton stated:
In 1871, a little seven-year-old boy, named Harry Service, wandering from his father’s house at Bird’s Hill, near Winnipeg, was lost for two weeks. When found, he was living in a den with a Badger. His clothes were torn so that he was nearly naked, and his face was all scratched. He told his parents that he had taken shelter in the hole during a rain-storm, and that the Badger came later and scratched his face. At first they fought, but the child was plucky and would not give up the hole. Later the Badger brought some food and, after another quarrel, allowed the child to eat some of it. In the days that followed the Badger brought him food several times. The beast always entered the den by one of the entrances not used by the child.

When found they were on terms of friendship, and the child cried bitterly when taken from his savage friend. The boy’s story, however, was not clear. He said at one time that he lived on mud. His face, mouth, and tongue were black with mud and much swollen. Nevertheless, his description of the Badger was beyond question. He even said it had five toes on one foot and four on the other.
Four years later, Seton published a longer version of the same story in his book Wild Animals at Home and in Boys’ Life. (In 1932 that version reappeared in Seton’s Famous Animal Stories.) In the book the tale was titled “The Story of the Kindly Badger.” In the magazine it became “The Badger Who Was Brother to a Boy,” though Seton was clear that the badger was acting as a mother.

This longer version left little room for what “was not clear” about the incident. It even explained why the number of toes on the animal’s feet mattered.

“The Story of the Kindly Badger” stated at the outset that Harry Service “was a strange child, very small for his age, and shy without being cowardly.” He followed animals, imitating their noises and behavior. Indeed, following a prairie chicken was how Harry got lost.

Another addition to the established tale was a neighbor Seton named as Grogan and labeled “The Evil One” and “The Human Brute.” A week before Harry wandered off, Grogan had killed a father badger and trapped a mother badger until she “chewed off one of her toes” to escape, but by the time she returned to her burrow her children were dead.

Lost on the prairie, Seton said, young Harry took shelter from a thunder storm in a badger hole. Then that mother badger with the missing toe came back. The two refugees fought over the space. Seton quoted Harry as saying, “I scratched the badger’s face and she scratched mine.” But then they accepted one another.

The badger brought in a prairie chicken, an egg, and other food for her dinner, and Harry was able to take some. Seton explained, “The child could not know, but the parents discovered later that this was a mother badger which had lost her brood and her heart was yearning for something to love.” Harry could only drink from mud, and “Possibly the mother badger wondered why he did not accept her motherly offerings,” which is as explicit as Boys’ Life could get about breast-feeding in 1913.

In this telling, Harry saw Grogan ride by and hid from him, as well as from other men. He developed the habit of running on all fours. Finally Harry’s “Cousin Jack” spotted him and dug him out of the hole, bringing him home by force with the mother badger following for a while.

At home, Harry behaved like a wild animal for a while until his mother’s “magic touch on his brow” calmed him and he began to speak. Then the badger appeared in the doorway. “My Badgie, my Badgie,” Harry cried while hugging her. The boy made a pet of the badger for a while, feeding her, sleeping with her, and playing with her on a dirt pile outdoors.

According to Seton, Harry Service said he hated his father because “he passed me every day and would not look at me.” That might be a remnant of the detail from the very first newspaper account, which reported that the little boy had once seen his father ride by and couldn’t get his attention.

But the real villain of this tale was Grogan, who reentered for the final act. Playing off the stereotypes of his time, Seton labeled Grogan a “hulking half-breed.” In fact, according to the nineteenth-century accounts, a “Half breed,” possibly Peter Fidler, Jr., was the hero who found the little boy and brought him back to his parents. Seton’s telling erased that figure from the story and credited one of the boy’s cousins with rescuing him instead.

As Seton recounted it, Grogan spotted the badger in the Services’ yard, assumed it was a wild pest, and shot it. Harry’s father ordered the man away. It took three weeks for Harry to recover from the loss. This tale concluded:
He grew up to be a fine young man, but he took no pleasure in the killing that was such sport to his neighbors’ sons, and to his dying day he could not look on the skin of a badger without feelings of love, tenderness and regret.
The 1913 version of the story was thus invested with much more meaning than all the earlier accounts. It’s impossible to know how much of that meaning came from what the boy actually told people, how much from the intervening informants, and how much from Seton’s recounting. The published tale certainly fit in with his approach to nature writing, which imbued animals with moral motivations. Seton got into debates with other naturalists about this attitude. He even wrote a book called The Natural History of the Ten Commandments (1907), later retitled The Ten Commandments in the Animal World (1925).

Fitting into that pattern, Seton’s 1913 tale had a moral about the importance of kindness to animals, and animals’ capacity to be kind to little humans in return. The Service boy’s survival was an utter mystery in the nineteenth-century stories, but Seton offered answers. The boy was unusually attuned to animals. The badger, missing her young, was “kindly” and “maternal.” Therefore, they got along fine (after a little scratching). Seton’s telling also provided a clear villain, a man who trapped and killed animals cruelly instead of recognizing their worth, and was non-white besides.

In sum, regardless of how much Seton deliberately fictionalized the mysterious 1873 incident of the boy in the badger hole, he assembled an intellectually and emotionally meaningful narrative, which is what we seek in fiction.

TOMORROW: The fully fictionalized version.

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