Written by Matt Granda
From the French Revolution to the countless wars with its neighboring countries, France certainly has had its ups and downs.
However back in the 1760’s, the biggest terror that swept over the French countryside came in the form of a monster on four legs.
The Beast of Gevaudan struck terror into the hearts of the former French providence of Gevaudan between the years of 1764 and 1767.
Multiple sources over the years have stated different statistics for the attacks.
A 1987 study claimed that the number of attacks was as high as 610, with an estimated 500 dead and 49 injured, with 98 of the deceased victims being partially devoured by the monster.
This contradicts other sources which claim the victim count is significantly lower, having killed between 60 and 100 people of all ages with more than 30 being injured.
Regardless of the differing numbers, one thing is agreed upon: something was terrorizing the people of Gevaudan, killing and maiming anyone in its path.
Was the creature actually killed? Or had it simply moved on into myth and legend, never to be heard from again?
Blood in the Fields
The first recorded attack occurred in the early summer of 1974.
In the Mercoire forest near the town of Langogne in the eastern part of Gevaudan, a young woman named Marie Jeanne Valet was out in the field tending to her flock of cattle when she was set upon by a large creature.
Described as “like a wolf, yet not a wolf,” the beast charged her, but was driven away twice by the bulls of her herd, saving her life.
It wasn’t until June 30, 1764, that the first life was lost.
Jeanne Boulet, a 14-year-old shepherdess, was out in the fields with her flock of sheep when she was attacked and killed by the Beast.
This savage attack was just the first of many, and as the months and years went by, the people of Gevaudan in the Margeride Mountains of south-central France were petrified of the horror in the fields and forests.
The Beast didn’t discriminate; it targeted mostly women and children, all while they tended to their flocks of livestock, but the creature also was known to target lone men while out in the open.
The Beast also didn’t seem to attack in a way that indicated it did so in a search for food.
Animals are usually easy to understand, predators hunt and kill as a means to eat and survive.
The Beast didn’t do that; it ravaged the bodies, tore them apart and did so deliberately, methodically, viciously. It targeted the heads and necks of the victims first and then made its way down the rest of the body in a way that seemed designed to cause as much pain as possible.
Most often when the victims were found, not only were their bodies ripped apart and disemboweled, but missing parts of the bodies, particularly their heads and limbs, would be found several yards away, flesh torn away and devoured.
A theory at the time was that there were in fact more than one beast responsible for the attacks with some accounts reporting that a pair of creatures of the same species were sighted, at times accompanied by their young.
Given the fact that such a mass of attacks was reported in such a short timeframe, some even occurring at the same time as each other, it certainly lends credence to the argument that the Beast of Gevaudan was in fact The “Beasts” of Gevaudan.
The Hunt Commences
King Louis XV, known by historians as Louis the Beloved, was King of France from September 1715 until his death in May 1774.
His attention was drawn to Gevaudan after 10-year-old Jacques Portefaix and a group of friends, all aged between 8 to 12, were attacked by the Beast.
They survived by driving it away and Jacques sent a letter that managed to reach the king.
Upon rewarding the boys handsomely, including giving Jacques a full education paid by the crown, Louis vowed that the whole of France would help hunt and kill the vicious monster.
The King sent a battalion of dragoons to Gevaudan to track down the Beast, led by First Captain Duhamel.
He hunted the beast, repeatedly sighted and fired upon it, but between the incompetence of his guards and the unwillingness of the locals to help, it stifled his efforts and the Beast managed to escape each time.
Every time the troops fumbled, every time they failed in finishing off their quarry, more people ended up either dead or injured.
After the repeated failure of his troops, Louis agreed to have professional hunters come in and attempt to end the threat.
Their names were Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François.
Immediately upon arriving, d’Enneval began butting heads with Captain Duhamel.
They had very different styles when it came to tracking the monster, Duhamel being one for numbers and brute force, while d’Enneval and his son preferred to be stealthy and track the beast as carefully as possible.
Taking bloodhounds into the fields and forests, they hunted the Beast for the next four months, and yet the attacks continued, so they too were eventually taken off the assignment in June of 1795.
Killed and Stuffed?
After so many failures, the King sent in an old and reliable hand to head the hunt.
This was Francois Antonie, the king’s sole arquebus bearer and lieutenant of The Hunt.
A truly experienced hunter at 71 years of age, he arrived on June 22, his trusty long gun in hand, and he got to work.
The rainy summer months proved to be rather fruitless, and during all their attempts, the beast continued to attack the poor people of Gevaudan.
It wasn’t until September 20th of that year that it seemed they finally had their prize.
Hunting in the forests near the Abbaye de Chazes, Antonie and his men tracked, hunted, and killed an enormous gray wolf that measured 80 cm or 31 inches high, 1.7 m or 5 ft 7 inches long, and weighed 60 kg or 130 pounds.
Antonie was quoted as saying: “We declare by the present report signed from our hand, we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Hence, we believe this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.”
The corpse of the animal was shown to several survivors of the attacks, all of them positively identifying it to be the same monster that almost claimed their lives.
It seemed that the Beast of Gevaudan, also known now as Le Loup de Chazes, was finally dead.
The creature was stuffed and sent to Versailles to be presented to the king, Antonie being hailed as a hero the whole way through, receiving riches, titles, and much fame.
But Antonie was far from convinced.
No human remains were found in the stomach of the animal, and it was found in a region far from where the initial attacks occurred.
Antonie stayed in the woods close by to make sure the attacks were over, continuing to track the female partner of the creature along with their two pups.
Eventually finding them, Antonie put an end to the remaining creatures, and it seemed the terror of the Beast finally had come to an end.
The Final Attacks
The celebrations were sadly premature though.
Come December 1765, the attacks resumed with renowned viciousness.
On the 2nd, two boys were attacked by a creature that they suggested was the Beast, though the older of the two managed to drive it off.
Soon after, the body of an 11-year-old shepherdess was found in the fields, ripped to shreds.
Terror had once more gripped the whole of Gevaudan, but this time it appeared they were on their own.
At the time, King Louis XV had recently lost his son, and so his attention was elsewhere, the continued attacks and killings far from his mind, the case closed as far as he was concerned.
The attacks increased in frequency and ferocity as the months crawled by, the people trying their best to hunt down the monster once and for all.
It all came down to June 19th, 1767, and a young farmer by the name of Jean Chastel to end the Beast’s reign of terror once and for all.
On that day, after another attack by the creature, Jean and a hunting party took chase after the Beast as it fled.
Cornering the creature, Jean took aim and shot the beast, killing it, ending the bloodshed once and for all.
The corpse was examined, and its stomach cut open, the remnants of its final victims found inside.
Reports conflict about what happened to the body of the animal, some saying it was buried in an undisclosed location while others say it was stuffed much like the first creature.
Regardless, no attacks were reported from then on.
What was The Beast of Gevaudan?
For centuries, the identity of the Beast of Gevaudan has been the topic of constant discussion.
Described as reddish gray or brown in color, as large as a calf, a long panther-like tail, talon-like claws on its feet, and a long black stripe on its back, it’s quite the conundrum indeed.
The prevailing theory that is the most widely accepted is that it was either one enormous, bloodthirsty wolf that was roaming the countryside, or a pack of wolves that were responsible for the carnage.
Given the descriptions and the fact that several animals were slain before the attacks fully stopped definitely supports this idea.
Some people have other theories though.
One is that instead of a wolf or wolves, it was another large canine like a mastiff, or perhaps a large wolf hybrid that was to blame.
Others have suggested a striped hyena was responsible.
The idea of a hyena isn’t an impossible one, and some descriptions of the monster certainly match that of a striped hyena.
Perhaps it was an exotic pet that had gotten loose and went on a rampage.
However, many experts dismiss this theory as it would be nearly impossible for a hyena of any kind to survive in the cold climate of the region, along with the fact that striped hyenas are not known to attack humans.
Another idea is that a lion was loose in the area of Gevaudan, wreaking havoc on the population.
It isn’t the craziest suggestion, and a lion or lioness would match the reported size of the monstrous creature.
The hunting range of the Beast lines up with the usual hunting range of a lion, they are ambush predators just like the Beast, the description could very well be attributed to an adolescent lion, and lions have been known to attack and prey on humans on occasion.
This theory is even the basis for the 2001 film, Brotherhood of the Wolf, where the attacks are depicted as a large lion under the control of a secret society and decked out in armor to protect the identity of the beast as it killed whoever its masters ordered it to.
But as things go, there are those who give into more fantastic and ridiculous ideas.
One of the strangest is that the Beast was a Hyaenodon, a massive extinct predator whose physical description certainly matches many of the images associated with the monster.
Other large extinct predators that have been credited to the attacks are Dire Wolves and Bear-dogs.
However, the idea that creatures of that size and believed to have been long extinct could go undetected for thousands of years only to reappear out of nowhere to cause carnage and death is rather ludacris.
Perhaps the most insane idea is that the Beast was actually a werewolf, a monster who could change from a man into the form of a large wolf-like creature under the light of the full moon, roaming the forests and fields, savagely attacking anyone in its path.
Supernatural monsters will always attract the attention and imagination of the populace, but this doesn’t make it any less wrong.
In the same vein, a theory has cropped up that the Beast is actually just a man, an insane individual that had gone on a serial killing spree across Gevaudan in the company of a large canine, hence the sightings and reports of a vicious animal being responsible.
It’s most likely that we’ll never know the real identity of The Beast of Gevaudan, that monstrous killer that roamed the fields and forests of that southern region of France.
Whether it was a single wolf, a renegade pack, a lion, a hyena, or a murderous man seeking to spill blood, the terror was real, and the legend will live on for as long as the tale continues to be told.