30 June 1764, Gevaudan, southern France. A 14-year-old girl named Jeanne Boulet is found dead in the hills near the village of Les Hubacs where she often tended to her sheep and cattle. Her body was found savagely maimed. Authorities attributed the attack to some wild animal. Given the girl’s youth and vulnerability they thought nothing more of the incident.
Within two months of Boulet’s death however, there were 6 more attacks in the Gevaudan (now modern-day Lozere) area. Those that did not survive the attacks were found to have sustained serious injuries to the face and neck and parts of their body appeared to have been eaten. Those that did survive gave an alarming description of their assailant: possessing the features of a wolf it was bigger than a cow, had giant teeth, an enormous tail and dark-reddish fur. It also had a terrible odour and some eyewitnesses claimed that they saw it walk on its hind legs…
What creature was this that was roaming the French countryside, devouring humans at will? To this day the true identity of the Beast of Gevaudan still remains a mystery…
The hunt begins…
By September 1764, the number of attacks not only escalated but became ever more violent. Some corpses were found decapitated as a result of their necks being torn out completely. These incidents caused such a stir that the reigning King Louis XV felt obligated to get involved.
In June 1765, he dispatched Francois Antoine, his personal Lieutenant of the hunt to hunt and kill the beast after previous searches by professional wolf-hunters proved unsuccessful. On 21 September, Antoine killed a large grey wolf which he believed to be the one guilty of the attacks. Everybody believed so too, and Antoine was hailed as a national hero. The animal was stuffed, preserved as a token of his achievement, and sent to the King’s Court.
Two months later however, the attacks started again and more deaths were reported. The Beast of Gevaudan was still at large…
Antoine shows off the stuffed wolf at the King’s Court in Versaille.
The reign of terror comes to an end
In June 1767, nearly three years after the first attacks, farmer Jean Castel shot and killed a large animal resembling a wolf. When its body was cut open, human flesh was found in its stomach. The attacks ceased completely after that day and Castel has become a legend –now known as the man who killed the Beast of Gevaudan. This heroic feat of Castel’s is shrouded in controversy however. Legend claims that Castel used a gun loaded with silver bullets and waited for the animal which approached him cautiously. The farmer was then able to fire at close range. This is apparently were the idea that silver bullets kill werewolves originated from.
Not surprisingly, thanks to historians, cryptozoologists and animal behaviourists, a range of theories exist as to the nature of the Beast of Gevaudan:
Not just one?
A popular theory was that a pack of wolves were responsible not just one single animal. It could explain how the attacks stretched across a vast distance of 90sq kilometres across the countryside. Although survivor accounts always seem to state the presence of one attacker.
Some experts are adamant that the Beast of Gevaudan was not a wolf but in fact the Asian(now extinct) or Striped Hyena. They argue that no breed of wolf, even a large one would be able to able to bite through human bone but the hyena can (however it should be noted that hyenas tend to have distinct markings (stripes/spots) on their bodies, which the Beast did not).
Some claim that the Beast was a mutation of some sort, a hybrid of a wolf and another animal. Animal behaviourists state that its behaviour was very unusual for a wolf. Wolves generally fear humans and are known for attacking domestic animals and livestock. Why attack people but leave their cattle (which were clearly in plain sight) alone? Its appearance might have been that of a wolf but its behaviour suggests some other DNA in its makeup.
Plaque dedicated to Jean Castel in the village of la Besseyre Saint Mary in Lozere where he shot the ‘Beast’.
A theory that is quite popular is that Jean Castel was somehow responsible for the attacks, the human agent that was controlling the Beast. If Castel’s story of how he killed the Beast holds true, then the animal’s behaviour towards Castel comes into question. Castel managed to get awfully close to it without it attacking which was unusual for the Beast. Theory goes that Castel kept the Beast as a pet or possibly reared a wolf pup to become a killing machine. Although as to what Castel’s motive could have been in setting this monster upon the citizens of Gevaudan has not properly established by theorists.
And what sort of mystery would this be without a possible supernatural explanation? Even if cynics do call out the overactive imaginations of superstitious 18th century peasants, they would still find it hard to explain the exclusive tastes of the Beast. Why did it only attack humans? What also added to this theory were the accounts of bipedalism in the animal from some eyewitnesses.
In three years, there were over 100 deaths attributed to the murderous beast and a hundred more people who were attacked but who escaped with their lives. The events from 1764 to 1767 were well documented yet almost 250 years later it’s still a topic of debate.
So, my perceptive readers, who or what exactly was the Beast of Gevaudan? Was it an ordinary animal with extraordinary strength? Was it a crossbreed, a mutation? Maybe a human agent was involved, controlling the beast. Were a pack of wolves responsible? Or was it in fact a werewolf???
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Breverton, T. Breverton’s Phantasmagoria: A Compendium of Monsters, Myths and Legends, Lyons Press, USA. 2011.
Smith, J. Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast.Havard College, USA. 2011.
Wikipedia-Beast of Gevaudan
Other interesting sites: