One day in June 1764, in a forest in the Gévaudan, a mountainous region of south-central France, a young woman tending cows looked up to see a hideous beast bearing down on her. The creature resembled an enormous wolf. Her dogs fled, but the cattle drove the beast off with their horns. The woman would prove considerably more fortunate than most witnesses of what became known as the “Beast of Gévaudan.” The beasts were consistently described by eyewitnesses as having formidable teeth and immense tails. Their fur had a reddish tinge, and was said to have emitted an unbearable odour. An enormous amount of manpower and resources was used in the hunting of the beast, including the army, conscripted civilians, several nobles, and a number of royal huntsmen.
The Beast of Gévaudan (French: La Bête du Gévaudan) is a name given to man-eating wolf-like animals alleged to have terrorized the former province of Gévaudan (modern day département of Lozère and part of Haute-Loire), in the Margeride Mountains in south-central France from 1764 to 1767 over an area stretching 90 by 80 kilometres (56 by 50 mi).
On 30 June 1764, the first official victim of the beast was Jeanne Boulet, 14, killed near the village of Les Hubacs, not far from Langogne. The beast also seemed to target people over farm animals; many times it would attack someone while cattle were in the same field. The killings resumed in late August or early September, and soon the creature was fearlessly attacking groups of men. The terrified peasantry were certain that a loup-garou (a werewolf) was abroad in the land. These rumors gained credence when individuals who had shot or stabbed the creature reported that it seemed almost impervious to human weapons.
On October 8, after two hunters pumped several rifle balls into it from a distance of ten paces, the creature limped off.When word of the incident spread, it was believed, briefly, that the beast had gone off to die. But within a day or two it was killing again. The Paris Gazette summarized witnesses’ descriptions of the beast: It was “much higher than a wolf, low before, and his feet are armed with talons.His hair is reddish, his head large, and the muzzle of it is shaped like that of a greyhound; his ears are small and straight; his breast is wide and gray; his back streaked with black; his large mouth is provided with sharp teeth.”
On June 6, 1765, the St. James’s Chronicle, an English periodical, remarked, “it appears that he is neither a Wolf, Tiger, nor Hyena, but probably a Mongrel, generated between the two last, and forming, as it were, a new Species.” After a frightening public attack on two children, who were bitten and torn even as older youths slashed at the creature with pitchforks and knives, an appeal was sent to the Royal Court at Versailles.
King Louis XV dispatched a troop of light cavalry, under the direction of Capt. Duhamel, to the region. Duhamel ordered several of his men to dress as women, on the theory that the creature was especially attracted to females. The hunters spotted the beast a number of times and shot at it, but it always managed to escape. Finally,when the slaughter seemed to have ceased, Duhamel thought the beast had died of its wounds. After he and his dragoons departed, however, the killings resumed. A large reward for the slaying of the beast then brought professional hunters and soldiers to the area. More than 100 wolves were killed, but the creature’s rampage continued. Some hunters, including a professional wolf-tracker who had been sent personally by the king, reported that they had badly wounded the beast. But nothing seemed to stop it.
During the summer of 1765 the massacre of children was especially fierce. As the months dragged on, whole villages were abandoned after residents claimed they had seen the beast staring through their windows. Those who ventured out into the streets were attacked.Many peasants were too frightened to fire on the creature even when it presented an open target.
On 21 September 1765, Antoine killed a large grey wolf measuring 80 centimetres (31 in) high, 1.7 metres (5.6 ft) long, and weighing 60 kilograms (130 lb). It was agreed locally that this was quite large for a wolf. Antoine officially stated: “We declare by the present report signed from our hand, we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Which is why we estimate this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.” The animal was further identified as the culprit by attack survivors, who recognized the scars on the creature’s body, inflicted by victims defending themselves. The beast was stuffed and sent to Versailles where Antoine was received as a hero, receiving a large sum of money as well as titles and awards. However, on 2 December 1765, another beast emerged in la Besseyre Saint Mary, severely injuring two children. Dozens more deaths are reported to have followed.
On June 1767, when the Marquis d’Apcher, who lived in the western part of Gévaudan, brought together several hundred hunters and trackers who fanned out in smaller bands over the countryside. On the evening of June 19, the beast charged members of one band. Jean Chastel, who had taken the precaution of loading his weapon with silver bullets on the assumption that the beast was a loup-garou, fired on it twice. The second shot hit it squarely in the heart and killed it. When the creature was gutted, the collar bone of a young girl was recovered from its stomach. By the time of its death, it had killed some sixty persons. The state had expended over 29,000 livres — a fortune for the period — in its effort to stop the beast.
After the monstrous carcass was paraded through the region for the next two weeks, it was packed up to be sent to Versailles. By that time the body had begun to putrefy, and when it got to the royal court, its stench was unbearable. The king ordered Chastel to dispose of the remains, and they were buried somewhere in the French countryside.
The Gévaudan attacks were not considered isolated events. A century earlier, similar killings occurred in 1693 at Benais, in which over 100 victims, almost all of them women and children, were claimed by a creature described as exactly resembling the Gévaudan Beasts. During the events in Gévaudan, another beast was sighted at Sarlat, a prehistoric cavernous region just outside Gevaudan, on 4 August 1767.
Four decades after the Gévaudan attacks, more attacks occurred between 1809 and 1813 in Vivarais, when at least 21 children and adolescents were killed by another beast. From 1875 to 1879, more attacks occurred in L’Indre. All these killings, including the Gévaudan attacks, seem to have occurred mostly in four year periods. Attacks by wolf-like creatures continued to be reported in France up until 1954.
Many wildlife authorities believe that reported attacks on human beings by wolves (if the beast was indeed a wolf — albeit larger and more aggressive than most — as modern chroniclers assume) are sufficiently suspect that, as Roger A. Caras observes, “most can probably be discounted out of hand.” Yet mythology and exaggeration notwithstanding, there are widespread and seemingly credible reports of rapacious wolves, especially in the days before firearms.
Certain cryptozoologists suggest that the Beast might be a surviving remnants of a Mesonychid seeing how some witnesses described it as a huge wolf having hooves rather than paws and it was bigger then any normal sized wolf.
Another explanation is that the beasts were some type of domestic dog or crosses between wild wolves and domestic dogs, on account of their large size and unusual coloration. This speculation has found support from naturalist Michel Louis, author of the book La bête du Gévaudan: L’innocence des loups (English: The Beast of Gévaudan: The innocence of wolves) and an episode of Animal X. Louis wrote that Jean Chastel was frequently seen with a large red coloured mastiff, which he believes sired the beast. He explains that the beast’s resistance to bullets may have been due to it wearing the armoured hide of a young boar, thus also accounting for the unusual colour. He dismisses hyenas as culprits, as the beast itself had 42 teeth, while hyenas have 34.
In a study of the relationship of human-attacking wolf reports to werewolf legends, W. M. S. and Claire Russell write that “modern wolves have had many generations’ experience of fire-arms, and are likely to be more cautious than their ancestors.” Few peasants in mid-eighteenth-century France possessed guns. Much folklore and printed speculation aside — the beast has been “identified” variously as a werewolf, a hyena, a man in wolf skins, or a hybrid bred by a madman specifically to kill people — no real doubt about the animal’s identity remains.
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