The Mysterious Case of The Beast of Gévaudan

Between 1764 and 1767, rural regions of central France became the hunting grounds of a ferocious beast. Claiming lives of children and sheep alike, the Beast of Gévaudan escaped beats and steel-jaw traps for three years, terrorizing the whole country.

The terror began on June 30, 1764. On that very day, a 14-year-old girl from the village of Les Hubacs (Ardèche) was torn apart by ‘a ferocious beast’. This wasn’t the first time wolf attacks had been reported across the Gévaudan, a vast region of rolling hills and green plains home to 20,000 Canis lupus, no less. However, from that day on, attacks became commonplace, targeting young cowherds or shepherds’ daughters. Terrified murmurs started to spread, blaming a monstrous creature, far bigger than any other wolf, that had lion paws, horns, giant teeth. ‘You would laugh about what is reported [about the Beast]: it chews on tobacco, speaks, becomes invisible,’ said Tardieu de la Barthe.

RUMOURS. In 18th-century France, it was somewhat believed that the Beast of Gévaudan was a werewolf! At the time, people thought that a man could turn into a wolf if he wore a wolfskin belt around his waist or drank from a puddle of water stagnating into the footprint of a wolf.

Some witnesses didn’t believe it was a wolf; rather a hyena, a bear, a panther–perhaps even a supernatural creature. At the time, people still believed in ghosts, vampires and werewolves. Consumed by panic, parishioners found shelter in local churches where priests begged for Lord’s forgiveness and enjoined people to think on their sins. All the while, the number of victims grew steadily, taking its toll among poor kids from the deserted valleys. The region had recently been plagued by starvation and epidemics, as well as the havoc of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), so urban legends and myths about the Beast were quick to sprout: the Gévaudan, it was believed, was probably cursed…

How did peasants respond to such an evil threat? First, by locking their boys and girls inside until further notice. It wasn’t safe anymore for children to wander on their own with the Beast on the loose. Their parents roamed the countryside in groups, brandishing pitchforks, pikes and sticks. Others knelt down and prayed for hours on end. But the most efficient answer probably came from the local authorities, who ordered traps and beats to be set up in late-1764.

The King steps in

Called for by the Intendant of Languedoc, the first King-appointed soldiers–a section of mounted infantrymen called dragoons–arrived in the region by the winter of 1764. Unfortunately, thick layers of snow prevented them from working properly. They resumed their hunts in early 1765, but were ultimately unsuccessful: somehow, the Beast always managed to find a way out of their traps and nets. This didn’t seem to restrain the wolf’s appetite, which grew bolder. On January 12, it attacked seven children from Villaret, with ages ranging from 8 to 12. But against all odds, the kids managed to make the Beast flee when the grownups couldn’t. (One of the boys involved in that heroic feat eventually benefited from a royal scholarship and went on to become lieutenant of the Royal Artillery Corps).

CUBS. While his friends were about to run away, 12-year-old Jacques Portefaix fought the Beast which was already devouring a child. The kids’ sticks and pikes forced the wolf to release its catch, before adults came to their rescue and drove the monster away… (Credit: BnF/Gallica)

King Louis XV himself was pissed. He promised a 6,000-pound reward to whoever could bring him the head of the creature. The country’s best wolfcatchers took up their rifles, knives, and silver bullets and made their way towards the monster-plagued woods of Gévaudan: here again, they were unsuccessful. And while the bad news spread discomfort and terror across the region, British newspapers published fake reports to mock French inefficiency. (One of them claimed that a 120,000-men brigade had been defeated by the Beast of Gévaudan… before it was scared away by a cat.) Only one man seemed capable to bring the creature’s reign of terror to an end: the famous hunter François Antoine, the official Gun-Bearer to the King.

In the wolf’s lair

Antoine had a fierce reputation. Upon his arrival in Gévaudan in June 1765, he immediately looked up maps and examined footprints. On September 21, following weeks of tenacious beats, his team shot and killed a massive animal, later to be known as the Loup des Chazes. The creature was six feet long, three feet tall and weighed 140 pounds (65 kilos). Delighted, Antoine sent the embalmed body to Versailles for Louis XV to see, certain that he had brought down the infamous monster of Gévaudan. But he remained careful: ‘I don’t claim that there weren’t any other wolves that helped him devour humans,’ he said. Unfortunately, the following days proved him right: attacks resumed with greater intensity three weeks later…

THE BEAST IS DOWN. Proud of having slayed the Beast of Gévaudan, François Antoine added ‘a dying wolf’ to his coat of arms. He certainly did not expect that the attacks would resume a mere three weeks after his departure… (Credit: BnF/Gallica)

While the year 1766 featured less attacks, these proved as deadly as they used to be. Believing that the creature had been slayed by Antoine, Louis XV did not listen to the Gévaudan’s woes anymore. The papers also stopped reporting the attacks: in 1767, three years into the Beast’s reign of terror, most of the kingdom was indifferent to the day-to-day fear the locals experienced. ‘The peace of Gévaudan was only a short truce,’ regretted the subdelegate Étienne Lafont. The latter secured an advance to resume the beats. The locals attempted to attract the wolf with poisonous baits, but it didn’t work, so the hunts kept on for months.

Epilogue

On June 19, 1967, during yet-another-wolf-hunt, Jean Chastel killed a massive creature with red fur in the woods of Ténazeyre. The victim: a male wolf that weighed 109 pounds (50 kilos). Had the Beast of Gévaudan finally been slain? Exhibited at the castle of Besque, the animal’s carcass -and proportions- stunned the villagers, who in turn sent it to Paris for the King to see (although Louis XV never acknowledged he had made a mistake turning a blind eye on the case). The rotting animal was eventually buried in the capital city, and the ‘monster’ was never seen again.

Slowly, life in Gévaudan began to resume at its usual, pre-trauma pace. Boys and girls were released in the countryside to make the most of the summer of 1767. Farmers and shepherds stored their rifles and pitchforks away, not bothering to cast frightening glances at the horizon. Parishioners kept on praying, though–if only for the peace of the fifty known victims of the monster…


References

COVER PICTURE: Scratched Wolf via BnF/Gallica (c) Montage by The Storyteller’s Hat.

Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 30% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Rédacteur en chef adjoint chez Histoire & Conséquences, auteur du livre Les hasards qui ont fait l'Histoire (2020).

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