The mystery of the 18th-century killer “Beast of Gévaudan”

About one hundred children, youths, and women were killed by the Beast of Gévaudan. Victims were found torn apart or decapitated!

In the mid 18th century women and children were found torn apart, dismembered, or decapitated in the quiet French province of Gévaudan. These were the first of nearly a hundred attacks perpetrated by a mysterious animal dubbed as the Beast of Gévaudan.

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The Beast of Gévaudan. Wikimedia Commons

The Beast of Gévaudan

From 1764 to 1767, in the historical region of Gévaudan, located in southern France, and in adjacent areas, about one hundred children, youths, and women were killed by a so-called “Beast”. Numerous other humans survived the attacks, many of them seriously injured. The series of attacks has been confirmed by a great variety of historical documents and is not called into question by scientists.

Historians claim that wolves, or a hybrid of a wolf and a domestic dog, had attacked the victims; the “hybrid-assumption” is based on the description of a canid, shot in June 1767, that was said to have strange morphological characteristics. However, a critical evaluation of historical texts, including the publications of the French abbots François Fabre and Pierre Pourcher, revealed that neither this animal, nor any other wolf killed in Gévaudan, had anything to do with the attacks of the Beast.

Description of the Beast

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Drawings like this one show how residents of Gévaudan tried to depict the Beast as wolves or fabulous creatures.

Descriptions of the time vary, and reports may have been greatly exaggerated due to public hysteria, but the Beast was generally described as a wolf-like canine with a tall, lean frame capable of taking great strides. It had an elongated head similar to that of a greyhound, with a flattened snout, pointed ears, and a wide mouth sitting atop a broad chest. The Beast’s tail was also said to have been notably longer than a wolf’s, with a tuft at the end. The Beast’s fur was described as tawny or russet in colour but its back was streaked with black and a white heart-shaped pattern was noted on its underbelly.

Wolf attacks in Gévaudan

About 95 percent of the carnivore attacks on humans in Gévaudan during the years 1764 to 1767 can be attributed to that single animal that was referred to as la bête: The Beast. There is no doubt that the remaining attacks were executed by rabid and non-rabid wolves. Wolves were a common species at that time and therefore easily recognized by the rural population.

Horrors of the Beast of Gévaudan

The Beast of Gévaudan committed its first recorded attack in the early summer of 1764. A young woman named Marie Jeanne Valet, who was tending cattle in the Mercoire forest near the town of Langogne in the eastern part of Gévaudan, saw the Beast come at her. However, the bulls in the herd charged the Beast, keeping it at bay. They then drove it off after it attacked a second time. Shortly afterwards the first official victim of the Beast was recorded: 14-year-old Janne Boulet was killed near the village of Les Hubacs near Langogne.

Throughout the remainder of 1764, more attacks were reported across the region. Very soon terror gripped the populace because the Beast was repeatedly preying on lone men, women, and children as they tended livestock in the forests around Gévaudan. Reports note that the Beast seemed only to target the victim’s head or neck regions.

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The Beast was repeatedly preying on lone men, women, and children, targeting the victim’s head or neck. Wikimedia Commons

By late December 1764, rumours had begun circulating that there might be a pair of animals behind the killings. This was because there had been such a high number of attacks in such a short space of time, and because many of the attacks appeared to have occurred or were reported nearly simultaneously. Some contemporary accounts suggest the creature was seen with another such animal, while others report that the Beast was accompanied by its young.

On January 12, 1765, Jacques Portefaix and seven friends were attacked by the Beast. After several attacks, they drove it away by staying grouped together. The encounter eventually came to the attention of King Louis XV, who awarded 300 livres to Portefaix and another 350 livres to be shared among his companions. The livre was the currency of Kingdom of France and its predecessor state of West Francia from 781 to 1794. The king also directed that Portefaix be educated at the state’s expense. He then decreed that the French state would help find and kill the Beast.

In search of the Beast

At first, captain Duhamel of the Clermont-Ferrand dragoons and his troops were sent to Le Gévaudan. On several occasions, he almost shot the Beast but was hampered by the incompetence of his guards. After that, King Louis XV sent two professional wolf-hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François to kill the beast.

Father and son d’Enneval arrived in Clermont-Ferrand on February 17, 1765, bringing with them 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 in June 1765 by François Antoine, the king’s sole arquebus-bearer and Lieutenant of the Hunt, who arrived in Le Malzieu on June 22.

On September 21st, Antoine killed a large grey wolf measuring 2.7 feet high, 1.7 metres long and weighing 60 kilograms. The wolf, which was named Le Loup de Chazes after the nearby Abbaye des Chazes, was said to have been quite large for a wolf.

The animal was further identified as the culprit by attack survivors, who recognized the scars on its body inflicted by victims defending themselves. The wolf was stuffed and sent to Versailles, where Antoine’s son Antoine de Beauterne was hailed as a hero. Antoine stayed in the Auvergne woods to chase down the female partner of the Beast and her two grown pups.

Within a few days, Antoine succeeded in killing the female wolf and a pup, which seemed already larger than its mother. At the examination of the pup, it appeared to have a double set of dewclaws, a hereditary malformation found in the Bas-Rouge or Beauceron dog breed. The other pup was shot and hit and was believed to have died while retreating between the rocks.

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“The wolf shot by François Antoine on 21 September 1765, displayed at the court of Louis XV.” Wikimedia Commons

Though Antoine killed all those bizarre wolves, he kept his fear and doubts with one pup that he could not find, he returned to Paris and received a large sum of money – over 9,000 livres – as well as fame, titles, and awards.

It still haunted the land

The villagers now began to spend their days happily again without any fear until December 2nd, when two boys were again attacked, one was 6 and another was 12 years old, suggesting that the Beast was still alive. It tried to capture the youngest one, but it was successfully fought off by the older boy. Soon after, successful attacks followed and some of the shepherds witnessed that this time, or this Beast, showed no fear around cattle at all. A dozen more deaths are reported to have followed attacks near La Besseyre-Saint-Mary.

The final attack

The killing of the creature that eventually marked the end of the attacks is credited to a local hunter named Jean Chastel, who shot it at the slopes of Mont Mouchet, now called la Sogne d’Auvers, during a hunt organized by a local nobleman, the Marquis d’Apchier, on June 19, 1767.

Abbé Fabre reprinted the sworn account which said that Chastel shot the creature with a large-calibre bullet and buckshot combination, self-made with silver. The Beast was then brought to the castle of Marquis d’Apchier, where it was stuffed by Dr. Boulanger, a surgeon at Saugues. Dr. Boulanger’s post-mortem report was transcribed by notary Marin and is known as the “Marin Report” on the Beast. Upon being opened, the animal’s stomach was shown to contain the remains of its last victim.

The Marin Report describes the creature as a wolf of unusually large proportions: “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.”

Despite the widely held interpretation, based on most of the historical research, that the Beast was a wolf or other wild canid, several alternative theories have been proposed, such as a hypothetical lion, or an evil monster.