How The Beast Of Gévaudan Terrorized 18th-Century France

May 1, 2023 0 comments

For three years in the mid-1760s, inhabitants of Gévaudan in Southern France were terrorized by a mysterious beast. The creature preyed mostly on women and defenseless children as they wandered through the countryside or tended cattle in the surrounding forests. Victims were found with their throats ripped and their bodies lacerated. Judging from the ferocity of the attacks, the killer was thought to be a huge animal. Those who survived also described the beast to be as large as a donkey with long gaping jaw, pointy upright ears and supple furry tail. Some thought it was a wolf or a hyena. Others believed it was something more sinister and supernatural.

The Beast of Gévaudan. Image: Gallica Digital Library/Wikimedia

The first recorded attack of the beast occurred in the summer of 1764, when a young woman named Marie Jeanne Valet was charged at by a creature that looked “like a wolf, yet not a wolf”. However, the bulls she was herding, protected her by charging at the beast and driving it off. A few weeks later, the beast had its first kill—a 14-year-old shepherdess named Jeanne Boulet.

As the number of attacks mounted, terror gripped the populace and local officials decided to take action. Étienne Lafont, a government delegate for the region, and Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel, a leader of the local infantry, gathered men to hunt and kill the beast. Some speculated that there could be more than one beast because of the large number of attacks that took place within a short span of time. Some even alleged that they saw two beast hunting together, while others claimed that the beast was accompanied by its young.

Thousands of men volunteered. Duhamel organized the group according to military standards, left poisoned bait, and even had some soldiers disguise themselves as peasant women to lure the creature. The reward for killing the beast eventually reached a year's salary for working men.

Image: Gallica Digital Library/Wikimedia

On January 12, 1765, Jacques Portefaix, a young boy, and some of his friends were attacked by the beast when they were out in the meadow with a herd of cattle. The news of the attack reached King Louis XV. Portefaix and the boys had managed to stay out of harm by staying grouped together and managing to scare the beast off with their pikes. Portefaix’s courage was so admired that Louis XV paid a reward to all the children and had the boy educated at the king’s personal expense. He also decreed that the French state would help find and kill the beast.

In February 1765, two professional wolf hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d'Enneval and his son Jean-François, arrived in Clermont-Ferrand with eight bloodhounds that had been trained in wolf hunting. Over the next four months the pair hunted for Eurasian wolves, believing that one or more of these animals was the beast. However, when the attacks continued, the D'Ennevals were replaced by François Antoine, the king's gun-bearer.

Also read: The Wolf of Ansbach

In September, Antoine killed a large grey wolf with enormous proportions: it was 30 inches high, 5 feet 7 inches long and weighed 60 kg. Some of the survivors were called to identify the carcass, who immediately recognized the scars on its body inflicted by victims defending themselves. It appeared that the Beast of Gévaudan was finally conquered. The wolf’s corpse was stuffed and sent to the royal court in Versailles. Antoine stayed behind to continue the hunt for the beast’s female partner and her two grown pups. It did not take Antoine much long to track down the other members of the family, which he shot and killed. Antoine returned to Paris a hero and was awarded with money and titles.

The slain beast displayed at the court of Louis XV. Image: Gallica Digital Library/Wikimedia

After a brief pause of two months, the attacks started again in December. This time, the beast seemed behaviorally different. Earlier, the creature appeared to be afraid of cattle, but this time it showed no fear. These attacks continued for the next 18 months, during which some 30 to 35 kills were reported. The king was not interested in these fresh rounds of attacks. For him, the beast was already slain.

With no assistance coming from the king, locals took matters into their own hands and organized a hunt. Finally, on June 19, 1767, a local hunter named Jean Chastel killed a second large wolf. The stomach of the wolf was cut open, and inside they found remains of its last victim. The killing of this creature eventually marked the end of the attacks. Both the wolves, believed to be responsible for the attacks, were exceptionally large and had unusual coat coloration, leading several authors to speculate that they were hybrids between wolves and some of the large shepherd dogs found in the region.

18th century print depicting François Antoine slaying the Beast of Gévaudan. Image: Gallica Digital Library/Wikimedia

The necropsy of the animal killed by Jean Chastel was conducted by a local surgeon, but before the surgeon could get his hands on the corpse, the remains had been butchered by the locals, perhaps out of rage or curiosity, or both. As a result, the surgeon was unable to conclusively identify the animal. His report stated:

This animal which seemed to us to be a wolf; But extraordinary and very different by its figure and its proportions of the wolves that we see in this country. This is what we have certified by more than three hundred people from all around who came to see him.

The identity of the beast of Gévaudan continues to be debated. Description of the beast on contemporary prints fitted that of a lion, a stripped hyena, and even an extinct prehistoric predator known as Hyaenodon. However, the general consensus is that the attacks were perpetuated by a wolf, or a pack of wolves. Attack by wolves were not uncommon during the era, not only in France but throughout Europe. Statistics shows that wolves attack may have caused as many as 9,000 deaths in France alone between the 17th and 19th centuries. In the midst of the Gévaudan paranoia itself, in the spring of 1765, an unconnected series of attacks happened near the Soissons commune in the northeast of Paris. In this incident, a lone wolf killed at least four people in two days before being hunted down and killed by a man wielding a pitchfork. Similar occurrences were common in rural areas of western and central Europe.

Despite historical evidences, some scholars refuse to believe that the beast was a wolf. According to one of the more bizarre tales that draws parallel to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, the beast was kept and trained by Jean Chastel, the man who is said to have killed the second beast, and was let loose on the region to draw attention away from his other crimes, that Chastel was a seral killer. Even today, many believe they were the work of a werewolf.

# The fear of wolves, NINA
# What Was the Beast of Gévaudan?,
# When the Beast of Gévaudan Terrorized France, Smithsonian


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