Monsters: The Beast of Gevaudan
Attack of the Wolf Creature
Between 1764 and 1767, in the former province of Gevaudan in south central France, 113 people we killed by a large animal of unknown origin.
Estimates of the total number of attacks differ according to who is doing the reporting, but the total number appears to be around 200. Forty-nine of the victims survived with injuries. Ninety-eight of the victims who died were partially eaten.
All of the deaths were caused by tearing out the victim's throats, often completely severing their heads.
The Beast of Gevaudan was always seen alone, killing outside a pack. In a few instances witnesses reported that smaller female accompanied the Beast but hung back. The witnesses said that the female did not participate in the attacks.
Survivors and witnesses provided consistent reports of appearance the beast. It looked somewhat like a very large wolf or wolf-like creature with reddish fur, a very long tail, huge teeth, and a horrible odor.
The Beast, known by the French to this day as la bete , seemed to attack only humans, mostly women and children who were traveling alone. Several times the attacks occurred while farm animals were present in and within sight, yet the animals were never harmed.
Hunters, local nobleman, and even the French army quickly went on a nonstop hunt for la bete and killed many large wolves over the three year period, but the attacks continued.
The King Intervenes
King Louis XV soon took an interest in the attacks and commissioned professional wolf-hunters Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d'Enneval and his son Jean-François to go to Gevaudan province to find and kill the wolf.
Taking along a squad of bloodhounds and hunting assistants, D'Enneval and son spent months in the Gevaudan region killing wolves. Finally, on September 21, 1765 the pair returned with a grey wolf weighing over 130 pounds, a very large size for a wolf of any kind.
Several survivors purportedly confirmed the identity of the animal, even pointing out scars on its body that they claimed to recognize from their attack. The wolf was stuffed and presented to the King amid great fanfare and celebration, the hunters were handsomely rewarded, and the crisis was declared over.
Then, on December 2, 1765 another attack occurred, this time on two small children.
Dozens more followed.
At this point, King Louis XV, disgusted with the failure of so many to find one troublesome animal and angered by what the Beast had done to his credibility with the peasants, washed his hands of the matter
Jean Chastel, the Original Wolfman
On June 16,1765, a local hunter named Jean Chastel, killed what he claimed to be the Beast of Gevaudan. Chastel's beast was described as a large wolf, and its stomach was said to contain human remains.
Unfortunately, the body of the animal disappeared and no sketches of its actual appearance remain. Most of the information about this beast came from Chastel himself.
After Chastel presented his dead wolf, the attacks stopped.
But the controversy had only just begun.
Chastel was an unpopular loner who lived outside the village limits with a large reddish Mastiff that he used for hunting. His account of the way he killed la bete were exotic. He claimed that he prayed that he would find and kill la bete, and on one morning during prayer in the woods, the beast suddenly appeared in a clearing and looked right at him.
According to Chastel's family, who still live in the region where the attacks occurred, Chastel then shot the beast with a single silver bullet. According the account preserved and retold by the family, Chastel finished his prayer before killing the beast with a single shot at a great distance.
Many writers have questioned Chastel's account of the killing.
First, for the wolf to wait for Chastel to finish praying would have been highly unusual behavior. Second, silver is too hard a material for a bullet. Because of the way bullets rotate as they exit a gun, very hard metal creates a bullet with very poor accuracy that causes minimal damage when the shot lands, if it ever does.
Last but not least, Chastel is said to have received payment ahead of the killing from the Catholic Church, which had been losing parishioners at a rapid rate.
Some people believe that the Church was in league with Chastel, who committed the killings on purpose to scare the populace, then stopped them claiming Divine intervention, thus driving people back to a religion that was rapidly losing credibility at the dawn of the Enlightenment.
Whatever the situation with Chastel, his version of the killing provided the base upon which the Hollywood version of the werewolf was built. Many writers believe that the entire silver bullet business came about as an embellishment when novelists began to retell the story in the 1930s.
In folklore, no mention of silver bullets is made with reference to werewolves until the 19th century, a good hundred years after the Gevaudan attacks had stopped.
Theories and Questions
To this day, controversy surround the Beast of Gevaudan and the attacks.
We know for certain that the attacks occurred, and much forensic evidence in the form of eyewitness descriptions of both the Beast itself and the bodies of the dead and wounded is still available in a special library in southern France.
What no one knows is who or what the Beast was.
Some of the most popular theories include:
- The Beast was actually a pack or wolves, not a single wolf. This rational explanation would seem much more likely if the eyewitness accounts of the Beast were not so different from eyewitness accounts of wolves. The Gevaudan peasants knew what wolves looked like, and although the Beast was reported to be wolf-like, it differed in significant details: it had reddish fur (wolves do not), it had a very long tail (unlike a wolf), and it was capable of completely severing a human head with its jaws (wolves cannot do this). Moreover, wolves rarely attack humans and when they do, it is usually because they are starving. Gevaudan had plentiful game, and farm animals were never touched.
- The Beast was a cross between a wolf and Chastel's mastiff. Many people feel that Chastel implicated himself in the killings when he killed the Beast, conveniently lost the carcass, and then turned out to have been paid by the Church to do it. The family tale about how the killing occurred is not credible and Chastel was a miscreant and a loner who survived by hunting. Some people think he trained his wolf-dog hybrid to kill, others think Chastel himself was a shapeshifter who harbored resentment towards women and children because of past rejections. No known cross of a Mastiff and a wolf has ever been accomplished, although it would account for the reddish color. Wolf-dog hybrids are not as common as is popularly believed. They are outlawed in 40 states and most of Canada, not because they are especially vicious, but because giving the public an incentive to breed wild animals with tame ones and then sell them is a public health hazard and danger to wildlife.
- The Beast was a hyena. A stuffed hyena sits in the Paris museum of Natural History, with a plaque claiming it to be the Beast of Gevaudan. However, a recent History Channel special on la bete reveals that the original hyena has been lost, and the one on display is an admitted copy. The fact that here we have yet another body that isn't the real body is frustrating on its own, but in addition to that, several authors have pointed out that bite marks on the victims showed the Beast to have 42 teeth. Hyenas only have 34. Hyenas are able to bite off a human head however, and the manner of the attacks is consistent with a hyena attack. Hyenas, like dogs, are highly trainable, although it is difficult to understand how an exotic animal like a trained hyena could have been kept secretly in the French countryside. Hyenas are not native to Europe.
- The Beast was a cryptid mesonychid. The mesonychid was a prehistoric mammal related to whales and other modern cetacean creatures. They were very large predators with triangular shaped teeth for tearing at prey, huge heads (up to 17 inches for the skull alone), long tails, and split hooves instead of feet. This animal does fit the description of most of the peasants who saw la bete, and a few of the reports did mention hooves instead of feet. The detail about the hooves wouldn't necessarily be that persuasive though, as many cryptid predators (i.e. the Jersey Devil in the US) are described as having hooves to better fit in with the notion of a savage beast being demonic in nature. On the other hand, the detail is at least intriguing, especially since you wouldn't expect an eyewitness to notice the feet of an oncoming ferocious predator unless something was very unusual about them. How a huge mammal from the Pleocene era could survive undetected into 18th century France is another matter all together.
In reading about the Beast of Gevaudan and watching movies and documentaries about it, what strikes me as most interesting (and there is a LOT here that is very interesting) is the consistent eyewitness claim that the Beast had a very strong objectionable odor.
Most contemporary sightings of Bigfoot and other man-beasts around the world also report a strong objectionable odor. Bigfoot sightings have lately even been correlated with UFO activity, and there is an emerging consensus that UFOs, cryptids, and other paranormal phenomena may be all of one piece.
Although a wolf-beast and a man-beast may seem on the surface to be very different creatures, the presence of a strong sulfurous or decomposing odor about these creatures is a common feature of encounters with demons or demonic possession or demonic magic.
The early 18th century was a strange time on the European continent. At the same time that the power of the Church was in decline and the influence of science and reason were on the ascendant, the proliferation of secret societies practicing dark magic was also well known and has been historically documented.
Some of these secret societies were just jockeying for political position and gain, others were dabbling in a bit of upper class debauchery and illicit activity.
Was Jean Chastel schooled in the ways of shapeshifting and the Dark Arts? Was he in league with the Church or some nefarious secret society?
We may never know.
But for those who love a good unsolved mystery, it doesn't get much better than the mystery of the Beast of Gevaudan.
If you figure it out, please give me a ring!