In 1764, France was a tumultuous place. On the eve of Revolution, the peasant farmers of the remote region of Gévaudan were suffering from decades of difficulties, brought about by war, poverty, poor agricultural conditions and plague. As the Summer brought about favourable weather and life for the population of the barren and sparse region should have begun an upswing in fortune, a series of attacks marked the beginning of a reign of terror that would last almost three years, headed by a monster known simply as “The Beast”. Bodies were found half eaten, the remains left on the ground spreading a fear throughout the region that would eclipse all of the previous problems and would escalate the situation as high as the court of the King.
Smith, J.M (2011) Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast. Harvard University Press, 2011.
This day arrived, the mail from France & Flanders (1764, November 30), The Derby Mercury, p.2.
Tuesday’s Post, Utrecht Nov. 29. (1764, December 8), The Oxford Journal, p.1.
Thursday’s Post, Foreign Affairs (1765, January 26), The Oxford Journal, p.2.
Foreign News (1765, March 9), The Ipswich Journal, p.2.
Affairs in Italy, Spain, Portugal etc. (1765, October 7), The Scots Magazine, p.43.
Extract of a letter from Paris, Oct 4 (1765, October 25), Derby Mercury, p.2.
Soulier, Bernard (2012) D’où était Agnès Giral? (2012, December 12), Gazette de la Bête, p.3
Sée, Henri (2004) Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century. Batoche Books, 2004.
Bonet, Alain (2019) La Bête du Gévaudan: Chronologie et Documentation Raisonnées. Bonet, 2019.
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Terror in Gévaudan: The Beast
In 1764, France was a tumultuous place. On the eve of Revolution, the peasant farmers of the remote region of Gévaudan were suffering from decades of difficulties, brought about by war, poverty, poor agricultural conditions and plague. As the Summer brought about favourable weather and life for the population of the barren and sparse region should have begun an upswing in fortune, a series of attacks marked the beginning of a reign of terror that would last almost three years, headed by a monster known simply as “The Beast”. Bodies were found half eaten, the remains left on the ground spreading a fear throughout the region that would eclipse all of the previous problems and would escalate the situation as high as the court of the King. This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
France in 1764 was a country of severe economic fracture. On one end of the scale, the clergy and court nobility lived in Parisian mansions, full of clockworks, telescopes, globes, extravagant soirées with guests dressed in the latest fashions. Gastronomic excess surrounded a dining tables still life centrepiece, and was eaten with fine silverware. Yet in the rural communities, the peasant classes toiled on farms for a daily wage that was barely enough to cover the outgoings, families with young children would send them to work outdoors, often in dangerous climates. In the middle was an emergent cluster of differing social classes, riding on the wave of a capitalist society that grew throughout the 18th Century, however the wealth gap was still extreme and those at the top were not shy to enjoy all that they had, often at the expense of those that watched from below with a disdainful eye. The seven Years war had ended one year earlier, in 1763, after a strenuous and costly series of campaigns that ultimately ended in failure for the French nation. It was a war that had seen every major European power slug out a conflict that had been looming on the horizon for years before it’s outbreak, fought across the face of the entire globe, from the Americas to South-East Asia. By the conclusion of fighting, France alone had suffered over 200,000 casualties and had lost much of its colonial, territorial claims in North America. Back at home, King Louis XV had reigned for close to 60 years and whilst he was nicknamed ‘The Well-Beloved” he was far from popular, a series of unsuccessful military and geopolitical decisions had skewed the public well against him and the heavy loss in the seven years war only cemented this opinion for many. The expenses of the court and of the decades long military campaigns had severely weakened France and King Louis’ rule in the second half of the century can be seen as a direct influence and major factor behind the brewing mistrust and anger towards the monarchy which led to the French Revolution in 1789.
Prior to the Revolution, France was divided into historical regions that differ from today. Gévaudan, now modern day Lozère, lay 340 miles south of Paris, and whilst Paris was full of citizens enrolled in new, modern education systems where the ideas of the enlightenment prevailed, in rural districts such as the Gévaudan, old thought still reigned supreme. The geographically isolated Gévaudan was a land that certainly leant itself to old thought, travel from Paris took almost 15 days and was not easy going. The landscape was that of classic superstition and folk tales, sparsely populated, covered in thick patches of woodland, dark forest and barren, rolling hills that were sharply torn by eruptions of granite mountains with peaks of up to 1500 metres. It was a challenging and harsh environment to live in, with poor agricultural prospects that made it the least populated region of France, with a mere 76,000 citizens at less than 15 people per square kilometre. If France was hit hard by the seven years war, it was merely the tip of the iceberg for the Gévaudan region, in previous decades the area had suffered from plague, foot and mouth disease finally topped by an infestation of parasites that had destroyed crops. The largest town in the region, Mende had a population of just 12,000 and the Bishop was akin to a king amongst the people. In the rural areas of France, the local clergy were the tip of the local hierarchy. The population was almost entirely Catholic and their lives revolved heavily around the clock and calendar of the church, the abbot of each town and village personally knowing and recording every birth, death and baptism as well as hearing confession, a process that could easily lead to a formal interrogation with everything reported up to the Bishop of Mende.
Due to the harsh landscape, rearing sheep and cattle took precedent over crop farming and one was expected to contribute to the families farm from a young age. Wolf infestations were a common problem, the animals were yet to be driven to extinction in the area and wolf attacks in France, though difficult to estimate with perfect accuracy are thought to have ranged into the thousands. Official reports from Early Modern France recorded 1,857 deaths by wolf attack alone, but with so many holes in the official records and the growing distrust throughout the period of bureaucracy, this number has been estimated as high as 9,000. As if the population didn’t have enough with the struggles against the environment and having to routinely contend with sustained wolf attacks on their precious cattle, gangs of bandits were another common problem, as highwaymen and criminals took both Gévaudan and the areas to the east as their home, a place they could ply their trade with relative safety from the hands of the law. In 1764, however, a new threat hit the Gévaudan region, when in early June an attack on a young woman from Langogne, a small town lying in the Allier Valley on the North-Eastern border between Gévaudan and Occitanie, signalled the beginning of a series of attacks by an animal that became known simply as “La Bête”, or “The Beast”.
The story of the beast begins with a young woman from Langogne, who in early June was out tending to her grazing cattle when she was rushed upon by a large animal. Her life was spared only by the grace of the Oxen that drew back into a huddle, surrounding her in the middle and driving the attacker away. She returned home in tact, though her clothing was torn in the escape and she appeared in a state of some shock, she gave a description of the animal as a “Monstrous animal” that “made her dogs run away in fright”. Whilst her description rocked some, it was written off by many others. Most took her to be hysterical from the fright of the sudden attack and disregarded her account. Stories of these events were not uncommon and though her statement seemed alarming, most were convinced that it was nothing but a wolf, at the worst, the animal had been rabid. The wolves in the area were bold, but those that had grown rabid were bolder than most, their behaviour was erratic and the animals sickness was easily confused with an advanced degree of savagery and grim appearance. Interestingly, this attack was either a single attack that gave itself to two different stories, or was in fact the second of two attacks which took place in the same village on two different young girls as there are differing stories of another attack on an 8 year old girl that took place a few days prior. Either way, the story might have ended there, if not for a further attack several weeks later. This time the attack was fatal, elevating the attacks in the minds of the locals and stamping its mark in the official records. The victim was Jeanne Boulet, a 14 year old girl from the village of Hubacs, in Saint-Etienne-de-Ludgares, and though it was the first recorded attack, the actual record is only a single entry into the Parish record at Hubacs which reads,
“On 1st July 1764, Jeanne Boulet was buried without the final sacrements, having been killed by the beast. Those present, Joseph Vigier and Jean Reboul.”
Within a week, a second attack followed, when at around 5pm, three lumberjacks outside the village of Masmejan de Allier were surprised to see a flock of sheep tearing down a hilltop, opposite from the site they were working. Curious, the men walked over the hill in the direction the sheep had come from and discovered the body of 15 year old girl, the scene was grisly and the statements later given by the men spoke of large fang marks all over her body that were clearly visible. The records of her death in the local Parish however, noted her body as simply disappeared and it was only through oral history that the story survived until much later, when her death was officially chalked up to a savage animal attack. By now the locals were getting edgy, though a relative quiet period helped to quell the fears of many. The next attack would not occur for over two weeks, until the silence was broken by a further fatal attack on the 25th August when a fifteen year old boy was killed, followed one week later by a second fifteen year old boy was attacked and killed on the 1st September. Both were registered only by their age and gender and were nameless in the death records of their respective parishes. September was to prove to be a prolific month for the animal which by now was being spoken of as causing havoc in the region. On the 6th September, a 36 year old woman named Marianne Hebrard, was killed at 7pm by the entrance to her village of Les Estrets, just 40km North of Mende. She was buried on the 7th and the Parish record for her death wrote of her as “strangulated and devoured”. The close vicinity of the attack to Mende facilitated the spread of the news of the attacks and soon it became the most talked about subject in the area, forcing local authorities to take action. Etienne Lafont, a regional government delegate met with Monsieur de la Coste, a local gamekeeper and arranged for a hunt of the animal to take part as soon as possible. At the same time, he offered a reward of 200 livres (around six months pay on a peasants wage), for any person who could bring the dead body to Mende. Further, in what could be seen as an extreme change in policy, Lafont suggested that all peasants should be allowed to carry firearms in order to down what he was calling a “monster”. In normal times, the policy surrounding firearms was quite simple, none were permitted to carry them unless they were nobility. Peasants were unable to own them no matter their situation. This u-turn in policy is a clear example of the terror that the attacks had brought down upon the area and the issues it was causing the local government. Lafont co-ordinated with the local authorities of the various regions and towns throughout Gévaudan to organise permanent hunts consisting of a dozen or so local peasants of each parish, paid 20 sous a day, less than the daily rate of a peasant farmer, to go out and attempt to stalk and kill the beast. These men, though they knew the land well, were not experienced hunters and many had little to no experience of using a firearm. For many, it was simply not a high enough level of pay to stray far from their homes and several others refused to go out at all without being lead by an experienced hunter. Lafont saw that more would be needed and begun communicating with authorities to enlist the drafting in of professional soldiers.
By the end of September there had been a further three attacks officially recorded, though a priest based in Luc wrote of how he had been told stories of “continuous daily attacks” throughout September. The attack on the 16th was upon a young boy named Claude Maurines and was recorded by the priest as,
“an unnatural death, strangled by a ferocious beast without receiving any of the sacraments and having not yet made his first communion, aged about 12 years old, and was buried in the cemetery of our church, and were present Étienne Sapet and Jean Mounier from St. Flour”
On the 21st September, a local shepherd killed a wolf and presented it to the Parish, receiving 18 Livres for his troubles, though the Parish were unsure if the body was of the animal that had been causing the carnage across the region,
“We the undersigned, Parish Priest of Saint-Pierre de Luc, certify that the wolf whose head is presented, was killed yesterday at about 5pm in the Parish of Saint-Luc. I am assured that the dogs helped by the shepherds in the village of Pradels in the parish, stifled the animal. Although there were many marks that identify it as the beast that has killed many, we can not know for certain if it is the one. We will know soon, if we see an end to the attacks.”
It clearly appeared, however, that the wolf killed by the shepherds, was just an ordinary wolf, as an attack on the 28th September on a 12 year old girl named Magdeleine Mauras, just fifty paces from her front door, was attacked so savagely that her body was described as “unidentifiable” and the burial that took place the following day, saw only the girls arm placed in the ground, the rest of her body having been “devoured” and carried away by the animal that in all records and local stories was now being called simply “The Beast”. The attack was witnessed by the girls mother and young brother who were standing in the doorway, waiting to welcome her home. A further 5 official reports of attacks came in October, though three were non-fatal, the first, which was an attack on a 15 year old boy, tore the boys scalp clean off and left deep gashes on his chest. Though it was assumed in the records he would survive, it was stated he would be left an “idiot” for a sustained period. The second was a 12 year old boy who managed to escape with just deep cuts to his cheek, he cowered behind his Oxen who chased the beast off, cutting the attack short. The third was a 10 year old girl who had the good luck to have been shadowed by a group of men hunting the beast who spotted it crawling on its stomach ready to attack. They chased it into the woods and though it circled back and still attempted to take the girl, the men were able to drag her away in time to rescue her. One of the most triumphant stories from survivors of attacks of the beast came on the 12th October, when the animal sprung out onto a group of 3 young children, a young girl aged 10 years old and her two brothers aged 13 and just 6 years old, who had been out tending to their grazing cattle. The two brothers carried sticks crudely tied with knives at the end, creating a makeshift spear, which they used to stab at the animal which fled as soon as they began stabbing them at its hind legs, leaving the trio with nothing but a scratch on the arm of the girl.
As the stories of the beast travelled, people became more and more wary to leave their houses without escorts and the economy, which so relied on outdoor work, took a hard hit, as prices rose. This only exacerbated an already rocketing rise in grain that had hit the area in the months prior due to poor harvests that would lead to a violent spring and summer of riots in 1765. One small ray of sunshine for the authorities saw the regular hunts, now underway by a large group of the local peasants in many organised beats had at least the effect of moving the beast northwards, as it moved further away from Mende and out of the territory of Langogne, though it still continued it’s attacks as it moved. A tale, recorded many years later by Abbott Pierre Pourcher, who heavily documented the case in 1889, consolidating all the official records along with many of the stories that still survived in oral tradition spoke of an event that took place that October,
“Jean-Pierre, the father of my grandfather, born at the Baraque-de-la-Croix-de-Trives, and married to Julianges, had been working, bundling sheaves of hay all day in the barn just beyond the village. At the end of the day, after the workers returned home for supper, Jean-Pierre arranged his straw at the end of the barn; it was not yet night and the snow was covering all the ground ; as he approached the little window, he saw something following the path to the water fountain. A sort of
fright seizes him and he dove to the ground quickly. Taking his rifle, he shuffled to the window of the stable that faced opposite the fountain. As he looked out of the window, he spotted a beast that he does not know; “it’s the Beast, it’s the Beast!”, he called. Although he was a very strong and steadfast man, fear had seized him to the point that he could scarcely hold his rifle. he made the sign of the cross across his chest and shot at the animal. The Beast fell, only to get up, shake and continue to move. She looks furiously around her. My grandfather’s father fired a second shot and once again, she fell, shrieking wildly. Once again, she gets up, shakes herself, and leaves, making a noise like that of a person screaming as they walk away from an argument. He told my grandfather the following: “If we do not take the means of obtaining from God and the Blessed Virgin our deliverance, it will devour us all, and all that we will be, will be continually useless.”
This account marked an interesting point in the description of the beast, in that it was the first time that firearms are mentioned as useless in the fight against it. This would come to be a feature of the animal as it morphed and changed in local gossip. Another record from October of the attacks spoke of how the beast decapitated it’s foe, though it was only one entry, this would come to be another feature of the attacks in the minds of the population. In total, the beast would decapitate 16 of its victims, a little over 10%, even so, this manner of killing quickly became canon in the story of the Beast.
By mid-October, Lafonts pleas to the authorities paid off and local enforcements were ordered to assist the hunts and for First-Captain Duhamel of the Dragoon corps. To ready his men to hunt the beast on the word of Lafonts sightings. A line of communication between Lafont and Duhamel was initiated and any sighting that Lafont was to become privy to was to be passed to Duhamel to allow him to dispatch troops and chase the beast. On November 5th, Duhamel arrived in Saint-Chely with 56 light troops, 17 of which were on horseback. The presence of the troops, which should have had a calming influence on the locals, lead instead to greater tensions in the area, as the distrust of authority had by now reached a record low.
As the story grew, and with the intervention of Duhamels Dragoon corps. it became inevitable that the newspapers would get a hold of the story and give it a wider, national airing. On the 16th November, a brief story of the beast was printed, alongside an illustration based on eyewitness testimony, in the paper “Courrier d’Avignon”,
“Figure of the fierce and extraordinary beast, which devours girls in the province of Gevaudan, which escapes with so much speed, that in a very short time it is seen two or three leagues distant, and that it can not be caught or killed.”
“A wild beast has appeared for these past two months past in this province, in the neighbourhood of Langogne and the forest of Mercoire, which occasions a great consternation. It has already devoured 20 persons, chiefly children, and particularly young girls; and scarce a day passes without some accident. The terror it occasions prevents the wood-cutters from going to work in the forests, so that wood is become very scarce and dear. ’Tis only within this week past that any body could get a good view of this formidable animal. He is much higher than a wolf, low before, and his feet are armed with talons. His hair is reddish, his head large, long made, and the muzzle of it shaped like that of a greyhound, his ears small and straight, his breast is wide and of a grey colour, his back streaked with black, and his mouth, which is large, is provided with a set of teeth so sharp that they have taken off several heads as clean as a razor could have done. He is of amazing swiftness, but when he aims his prey he crouches so close to the ground that he hardly appears to be bigger than a large fox, and at the distance of one or two toises [2 – 4 metres] he rises upon his hind legs and springs upon his prey, which he always seizes by the neck or throat. He is afraid of Oxen, which he runs away from. The consternation is universal throughout the district, and public prayers are offered up upon this occasion. The Marquis de Marangis has sent out 400 peasants to hunt this ferocious beast, but they have so far been unsuccessful.”
The sketch is crude, and shows an animal which could be viewed as either a quadruped, or biped as it’s hind legs are a fair bit taller than it’s from tlegs, which it appears to be holding out inferno of it. It’s ears are drawn like horns and it boasts a jaw the length of it’s head, stuffed with large, sharp teeth. The same piece appeared translated to English in the British press on November 30th, though it lacked the sketch of the animal.
This early description of the beast tallies with many later descriptions, though testimonies that included descriptions were often vague and had subtle differences that built a shifting, hazy watercolour of how the animal actually looked. The differences were often attributed to shock colouring the witnesses memory of what they had seen.
“The Dragoons who pursued it, say it is of the size of a very large dog, extremely hairy, of a brown colour, with the belly of a lightish yellow; The head is very large, and two long teeth stand out from its mouth; the ears are short, and stand up; and the tail bushy, which it erects in running; its legs are very long, and its talons large. ’Tis said that this description is not dictated by fear, and the officers of the regiment of Clermont maintain that the two Dragoons are the bravest men in the whole corps. However the description they have given of this animal gives us no assistance in discovering its species. In some respects it resembles a bear, in others a boar, and in others neither.”
Often the reports that contained witness testimony of the beast followed a shifting pattern, leading the overall description to evolve over time until, at least in the oral traditions, it had several unique powers, some that could be seen as supernatural and many that stemmed from traditional folklore, from razor sharp retractable claws, cloven feet, horns, glowing eyes with he ability to freeze men in their place and un-natural strength and constitution. Many descriptions compared the beast with wolves, panthers, lions, hyenas, lynx, bears, boars and numerous other species, as well as hybrids of all of the above. Interest in hybrids was rampant at the time as the enlightenment taught people about genetics and ideas ran wild in the imagination, whilst menageries were common, containing exotic animals from around the world and with the bad feeling towards the owners of such a menagerie, it became easy to point fingers towards the careless upper classes. The beast now saw itself as hot copy for the Courrier d’Avignon, who continued to print stories and descriptions of the beast,
“Monsieur Duhamel, captain of the dragoons of the volunteers of Clermont, at the head of the four companies of this regiment and of several groups of peasants drawn from the surrounding villages who have been armed, have made several attempts to hunt and kill this pernicious animal; however, their only success has been to drive it from the region of Mende. It is now, or at least it was, at the time of writing, in the forest of St. Chély and Malzieu, where it has since devoured 8 people. Of all the corpses that have been found, the beast had eaten only the liver, the heart, the intestines, and part of the head leaving behind the remainder of the body. The Vivarais and Gevaudan trustees have each issued a 400 livre reward to anyone who kills the animal. Descriptions of the figure and species of the beast vary considerably. One survivor from Langogne who has suffered a great illness leading from the fright he felt from laying eyes on the animal, depicted it as long, low, with a tawny color and a
black stripe running down its back. The beasts tail is long and the claws very big. A priest, who chased him at the head of his parishioners, and who says he has seen him three times, represented him as big as a year-old calf, of the same color, and muzzle like that of a pig. Various peasants have described it in the same way, with the only difference that they speak of its head resembling that of a cat, which certainly does not have anything in common with that of a pig. Ultimately, it does not matter which species the beast is, the only importance is that if it is evil; the important thing is that we kill it. Once dead, he will be unable to flee, and fear will no longer prevent one from approaching it, allowing for a proper inspection; on the illustration that could be made, it will be easy, especially to those who have frequented the menageries, to to discern his species.”
In January, there was a brief respite in the press, when a report was made that the beast had been attacked and killed, however, on Saturday26th January, the animal killed was only another simple wolf, and the beasts survival was reported in English newspapers,
“To our great regret, we have reason to contradict the report which was propagated concerning the death of the wild beast, which has made such carnage in these Cantons. It is but too much alive, of which we have very lately a proof as convincing as it is melancholy. A Dragoon of the volunteers of Prince Clermont, and one of the company which had been detached in pursuit of it, came here on the 22nd, in order to inform us that a young girl of 12 years of age has been devoured by it on the evening before, in the Parish of Fean de Papa in this Diocese. On the information the company of Dragoons repaired immediately to the place, in hopes of seeing the ferocious animal, and of killing it, grounding their expectations on a saying, that he never failed to return to the place where he had struck the blow, within twenty four hours after, in order to lick the blood of those he had devoured. But the animal appeared not, whether it was that his appetite for human blood is not so periodical as was thought, or that he repressed it on decking from afar the martial troop which lay in wait for him. The agility of this mischievous beast is equal to his ferocity. He performs about eight leagues an hour, as has been found out by tracing the courses he as made in a day at different places. As he has killed no body since the 25th of last month, when he devoured a young woman on the parish of Aumont, also in this Diocese, we thought he had been driven from the Gévaudan, and began to be easy. But this fresh stroke has renewed our consternation, and even augmented it, in as much as after so many trials, we dare not hope to get rid of this dreadful and crafty beast, which knows as well how to escape his pursuers, as to devour those who fall in his way.”
The winter in Gévaudan had been tough, snowfall had made the hunts which were already challenging due to the environment doubly so, as the cold winds of the Atlantic blew up through the valleys and between the peaks, freezing the swamplands as it whipped it’s way East. By the new year, the beast had attacked 27 people, killing 18. As the winter continued the number would rise dramatically. 1765 was the Beasts most prolific and by the time of Spring, as the snow and ice thawed, official reports numbered the fatalities at 56. In December, the situation between the locals and the lack of success in the hunts saw Duhamel dismissed from the job, though in January Lafont wrote to the French court and managed to convince the authorities to reinstate his presence in the hunts.
The stories had also evolved. As news of the beast travelled and continued, sightings became more and more extreme. By 1765, it was common to hear testimony that the beast walked on its hind legs, could cast spells and very possibly had befriended local enchantresses. The many child victims were attributed to old folklore beliefs in werewolves, who had preyed on the fat of young Christians. Whilst many of these stories would have been dismissed in Paris and the Northern cities, in the rural region of Gévaudan, they would have still held a certain level of sway within the majority peasant population.
In one story, reported in the Caledonian Mercury, the beast attacked a full party of adults, riding in a carriage drawn by two horses. The beast first attacked the horses, jumping up from the roadside before turning on the driver, who attempted to shoot the beast, but misfired. Apparently, upon seeing an approaching corps of soldiers armed with firearms, the beast then jumped into the carriage and out the other side, by jumping clean through the glass window. The stench left behind was so bad that the carriage was burnt and ordered to be buried outside of the city walls. How much truth to this story there is will never be known, but it’s perhaps a testament to the level of ability the press were by now elevating the beast to possess. Not only was it so bold to attack horses and a group of adults in carriage, but it seemed to be aware of the meaning of approaching soldiers. The stench left behind was a side of the beast which allowed the press to hint at supernatural origins without saying as much outright.
An International Joke & Enter Antoine
The authorities were by now incredibly keen on catching the beast and putting an end to the stories which King Louis XV was now painfully aware were reaching international press. An English newspaper wrote a satirical report on the Beast, which according to the paper, had defeated an entire army of 125,000 men, devouring 25,000 whole, all of which did nothing but cower in fear before it. This was not an isolated report and King Louis was aware that all the neighbouring countries press were printing reports ridiculing his inability to gain control of the situation. Concerned for the image of France and of his own reputation, he ordered the peasants to join the hunts alongside Duhamel, and any who disobeyed, would be punished by the court. At the same time, the peasants were reminded that they were not allowed to kill any other animal other than wolves and the beast, hunting game was a perk that existed only for the nobility and even in the tough times of the beasts reign that saw peasants legally armed with firearms, this was a rule that would not be bent. On the flip side, any who captured or killed the beast were to be given a reward of 6,000 Livres, a vast sum at the time, almost a lifetimes wage for a peasant farmer. He also accepted the help of a renowned wolf hunter named Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François, from Normandy. d’Enneval had reported to the king that in his life he had killed over 1,200 wolves and assured the King he could travel to Gévaudan and slay the beast in short time. He was poorly mistaken. After a gruelling battle with Duhamel, who he saw as competition, d’Enneval succeeded in having him removed from the picture and ordered to leave the region. This was not d’Ennevals greatest idea, as the beast evaded his capture for a further three months in which time he stalked it slowly with his 6 bloodhounds, explaining to the locals that carful hunting of the animal would take time. It didn’t take long for d’Ennevals approach to the situation to lead to his dismissal after the King, tired of hearing no results, employed his own personal gun-bearer, Francois Antoine to head the hunt campaigns and turf out d’Enneval. Employment of Francois Antoine was a further costly operation, and it saw the outlay rise from 2,530 Livres to an eye-watering 16,075 Livres. Poisoning campaigns were ran, whereby the carcasses of 310 dogs, poisoned were left as bait for the beast, in five distinct bursts over a period of 82 days. All of these campaigns, alongside the by now, continual hunts, ended in failure. Still the attacks continued and as the Spring turned to Summer, marking an entire year of attacks, the official records totalled 71 fatalities. Descriptions of the attacks in the newspapers grew more gruesome and wild, reporting the beasts propensity to,
“seize its unfortunate victims by the nape of the neck, choke the life out of them and drink their blood, before separating the head from the trunk of the body.”
The cost of the hunts lead by Antoine were not lost on the peasants and their fury grew as the campaigns continued to grow in size and scope, whilst the failures repeatedly came to light in the form of dozens of further attacks, the half eaten carcasses of the victims shining a harsh light on the failures of the Kings best man. The locals, far more accustomed the harsh landscape of Gévaudan than Antoine, mocked him openly for struggling to hunt effectively. Eventually, after several months and with the looming winter of 1765 rolling over the horizon, Antoine departed the known area of attacks with all of his men, horses and hunting dogs, for an area which had not commonly been reported as an area effected by the Beast, though it was well known for it’s wolf infestation. Not long after, Antoine reportedly discovered the Beast, shooting it through the eye. The wolf was far larger than any other wolf they had tracked in the region and it rose from the ground, lunging forward in a desperat frenzy. Antoine second shot brought it down to the ground for a second time killing it outright. The reign of the beast was officially over.. or was it?
The Fall & Rise & Fall of The Beast
The killing of the Beast by Antoine on 21st September of 1765 was lauded by the French Court, Antoine was awarded the Grand-Croix of the Order of Saint-Louis for his efforts and paid off handsomely, whilst the stuffed animal was paraded within Paris to paying public who came to see “The Beast of Gévaudan”. The reports of the beasts death quickly found it’s way to the national and more importantly, international press.
“The sieur Antoine de Beauterme, who accompanied the Sieur Antoine his father to the Gévaudan, is arrived here post with the body of the wild beast that made such ravages in that country, and has had the honour to present it to the King last Tuesday. Several of the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns, who had been attacked by the beast went to view it before it was brought away, and all declared it to be the same animal which had one caused great terror amongst them. He is thirty-two inches high, and five feet seven inches and a half long, and weighs 130 lb. The most experienced huntsmen are of opinion, that it was a real wolf, and has nothing extraordinary either in its size or form. It was first shot in the eye by the Sieur Antoine at the distance of fifty yards, and fell; but soon recovered itself, and was making up to M. Antoine with great fury, when it was shot dead by the Duke of Orlean’s game keepe, named Rheinchard. According to later advices from Paris, they have an account from the Gévaudan, that M. d’Antoine had killed there a second wolf, of an extraordinary size, and that the intendant of Auvergne, after getting it embalmed, had sent it to the King.”
Of course, this description of the dead, perfectly normal sounding wolf soon morphed into something else entirely,
“The surgeons who dissected the Wild Beast of the Gévaudan, killed by M. Antoine, on the 20th ult. say that it is more of a Hyena than a Wolf. As soon as it was killed, it sent forth a very disagreeable stench. In his body several bones of sheep were found. This animal hath 40 teeth, and wolves have but 26. The muscles of his neck are very strong; his sides are so formed that he could bend his head to his tail; his eyes sparkled so with fire, that it was hardly possible to bear his look; his tail is very large, broad, thick, and bristled with black hair; the feet are armed with claws extremely strong and singular.”
Whilst Antoines Beast seemed to appease the international press and the peasant folk on wider scale, the locals of the Gévaudan were deeply sceptical of the success of Antoine. In the first, the descriptions of the beasts were not tallying with the locals own experiences, but even more damning, is that despite the quiet press, the attacks hadn’t stopped at all. Throughout the winter of 1765, new attacks continued in Gévaudan and all appeared to continue the same patterns as the attacks of the previous 18 months. The bodies of young children were continued to be found, with limbs torn off, heads decapitated and many half eaten. Throughout the entire year of 1766, there were a further 20 fatalities attributed to the beast officially, with a further 18 attacks which were survived. The people of Gévaudan now had a new problem, as talk of the beast was to go against the King himself or insinuate that he had been cheated by his own personal hunter, neither was an attractive proposition to any in a position to request help for the region and as such, whilst the attacks continued, pleas to authorities fell on deaf ears.
As the snow once again fell and then thawed and the summer of 1767 heralded in the second year of the reign of the beast, a local Gévaudan lord organised a hunt with a local hunter named Jean Chastel. Chastel stalked the Beast with bullets loaded into his firearm that had been blessed by the local clergy and were, as legend tells it, made of silver. In a story which seems to veer into the world of folklore, Chastel awaited the beast at Saugues, 71km North of Mende and when he spotted it approach, he calmly said his prayers, placed the prayerbook into his pocket, took of his glasses, aimed his gun and shot,
“The Beast does not move; it waits. I shoulder my weapon, shoot; the Beast stands still. At the sound of the shot, the dogs run up, knock it down and rip it up. It is dead.”
Chastel loaded the Beasts body onto a horse and cart and took it immediately to be examined. The locals who saw the dead body described it as such,
“It was an animal the size of a calf or a donkey. It had reddish fur, with, on its back, a black bar from its shoulders to its tail; the head enormous and similar to that of a pig; the mouth always open; the eyes sparkling; the ears short and straight, like horns; the breast white and very big; the hind legs very big and very long; the front legs shorter and covered with long fur; six claws on each paw. Some said that the back legs had hooves, like those of a horse.”
Inside it’s stomach, the shoulder of a young girl was found, which, as far as Chastel and many locals were concerned, confirmed that this was indeed the body of the Beast of Gévaudan. In total, the animal had officially sprung 240 attacks throughout the region, killing 112, leaving 53 wounded, whilst a further 75 had escaped with little or no wounds, though the true number including attacks which were not reported or discovered, is thought to be considerably higher. The body was paraded around the region before being sent to Versailles, this might have done wonders for local morale, but in the high heat of August, a fifteen day journey did nothing for the state of the animals body. But he time it arrived it was in such a state of putrefaction it was buried immediately before any official could examine it and further, before any burial could be officially recorded, leading to the body being completely lost to time. The King made short work of denying Chastel any reward, and the hunter returned to the Gévaudan with nothing to show for his trip except the sting of the mockery he had received by the court. The authorities back in Gévaudan were slightly more grateful for his endeavours however and he was awarded a nominal reward, whilst the peasants were grateful still, Chastel found himself a local folk hero, wrapping up a story which started in reality and ends in a bizarre twist towards the realm of the folktale, perhaps a fitting ending point for an ordeal that took place in a land as isolated and challenging as the Gévaudan.
Theories on what the beast of Gévaudan actually was run rampant, from the rational, such as a standard pack of wolves, to the thoroughly out there, the supernatural descriptions taken as precise accounts and everything in between. Was it a normal wolf of an extreme size, or as contemporary theories postulated, some kind of hybrid? Are we to entertain the folk tales that introduced several concepts to the legends of the werewolf? In particular, Chastels silver bullets became a repeated part of werewolf lore, but does his story hold any truth at all or was the King right to laugh him out of court? If that is the case, why did the attacks stop after his reported killing of the beast, or did they stop at all? Were the locals simply more accommodating to a conclusion that lauded one of their own, rather than a noble buffoon who had stomped through their forests and farmlands, inept and costly and from a class that was much unpopular. On the flip side of this theory, there are some that believe Chastel himself may have had a role in the killings, he had owned many exotic animals, apparently bred in his home as hunting animals and some point to the calm way in which the Beast allowed itself to be shot by a man who said prayers and placed his possessions into his pockets before firing as a highly suspicious story. Furthermore, Antoine had had Chastel imprisoned for a short stint during his own hunts and at that time, the attacks stopped. This conspiracy bubbles along still today. One last theory is that the Beast was not an animal at all, rather that many of the attacks could be attributed to a serial killer, attacking, raping and mutilating women and children before killing them.
One important point is that no eyewitnesses ever called the beast a wolf. In a region so accustomed to wolf attacks, one might think it would have been simple to end a great deal of the worries and speculation to simply call the animal a wolf, if that was what it was. One explanation given for this is that the fright of an attack would have coloured the testimony and lead to inaccurate descriptions, but the opposing view of this leads to obvious connotations, that the animal was simply not a wolf. If not a wolf though, we are caught in a circular chain of reasoning that ends back at the original question, what then was it that was attacking so many people in the Gévaudan region?
Whatever the truth, it is without doubt lost into a web of a story that despite its extensive documentation, including hundreds of pages of official communications and records, still manages to find itself concluding in a tale that would be entirely at home in a book of folklore, the lines between fact and fiction blurring as the years march on, yellowing the pages and twisting the oral traditions into something that lives on as a tale unto itself.