The Beast of Gévaudan - Big Bad Wolf
Most modern humans have had no contact with wolves. The same can't be said for our ancestors. Wolves were once the most widely distributed mammal in the world. Nearly every culture has had to deal with an apex predator from the canine family, if not actual wolves.
During the summer of 1764 a monster arrived in the French province of Gévaudan. Over the course of the next three years, the creature earned the title of the Beast of Gévaudan. It rampaged across the countryside, killing over 100 people during its reign of terror.
The State of France
The Seven Years' War ended just the year before the Beast's attacks began. France had come out worse off after the war thanks to the Treaty of Paris. This treaty greatly reduced their colonial territories, and was essentially a declaration of defeat.
Some historians have referred to the Seven Years' War as World War 0 due to the scale of the conflict. Winston Churchill considered it to be the true First World War. It was waged across five continents and defeat dealt a heavy blow to the morale of the French people.
This most likely affected the aristocracy and military leaders the most, but the common folk felt it too. Trust in the King and his government was at an all-time low.
The Beast Rises From Hell
During the early summer of 1764 a young peasant girl named Marie Jeanne Valet was tending to her flock. Children were often assigned the task of looking after livestock while their parents performed more laborious tasks. Young Marie would be the first person to encounter the Beast.
The sun was setting when Marie noticed her herd was spooked. She looked to the woods and saw a massive creature charging at her. This thing was bigger than a wolf, and much meaner. Marie described it as being:
“like a wolf yet not a wolf”
Marie could feel the monster's breath hot on her neck when one of the bulls slammed into it from the side. Bolstered by its bravery, the herd gathered around their human and fought off the hungry Beast.
The next victim would not be so lucky. Jeanne Boulet was not lucky enough to be herding bulls. Her flock of sheep did nothing to save the 14-year-old girl. Mere days after Marie's attack, Jeanne's headless body was found near her village, Les Hubacs.
Attacks would continue unabated for the next couple of years, despite attempts to hunt the Beast of Gévaudan. The Beast operated in a roughly 90 square kilometer range. It killed lone men, women, and children by stalking them at dusk and attacking the neck. Fear was something it created, but never felt.
Some reports hold that the Beast of Gévaudan's actual victim count is well over 600. More conservative estimates hold that it is closer to 100. Either way, the people of Gévaudan were dealing with the most prolific killer since the Black Plague.
Like modern Serial Killers, the press named the murderous beast. They weren't pulling huge numbers reporting on the failings of the monarchy. La bête féroce (The Ferocious Beast) was a hit. The common folk of Paris glutted themselves on reports of La bête féroce's attacks.
The Beast of Gévaudan hunted oddly, for a wolf. Wolves are pack hunters, relying on teamwork to exhaust their prey before tearing it apart when it stops running. The Beast had no problem hunting alone. Furthermore, the Beast was an ambush predator, where wolves are pursuit predators.
Witnesses described the Beast as bigger than a wolf, red-gray in color, with a strip of raised black fur running along its spine, and a long thin tail with a tuft of fur on the end. It was also said to have “talons” on its feet. People back then could tell that it may not have been a wolf after all. The press and various experts, were more than happy to speculate.
That Wolf Looks Weird
At the time it was suggested that the Beast could be a Striped Hyena.
While a Striped Hyena could kill an adult human, they are predominantly scavengers. Striped Hyenas are also substantially smaller than wolves. They also lack the thin tail and talons that the Beast reportedly had. Instead of the single dark strip of raised fur, a Striped Hyena has several dark vertical stripes and a thick mane along its back.
How did a Striped Hyena end up in France? Well, at the time it was common for rich people to act like they were the Tiger King. Wealthy people would keep an assortment of exotic animals in what they called a menagerie. Simply put, a rich nitwit lost a hyena and hundreds died.
So if it wasn't the cutest Hyena, could it be a living fossil? Theorists have proposed it could be a Bear-Dog, Hyaenodon, or Dire Wolf. All of these could be excellent murder machines.
Hyaenodon roamed Eurasia, Africa, and North America around 20-40 million years ago. Fossil evidence indicates that the Hyaenodon attacked by snapping the necks of its victims. The biggest species of Hyaenodon grew to the size of a modern wolf. So, it couldn't be the Beast, because the last one died around 20 million years before the Beast of Gévaudan got started.
Bear-Dogs were neither dog nor bear. They were massive omnivorous eating machines that lived between 55-28 million years ago. Bear-Dogs had the bulky bodies of bears, and long legs and snouts of canines. Like the Hyaenodon, Bear-Dogs are only vaguely related to modern animals, and came in various sizes. Also, they were too busy being dead to terrorize Gévaudan.
Dire Wolves! Yet another prehistoric creature named after a modern animal that it wasn't closely related. Dire Wolves were at least in the same family as wolves. They went extinct 11 thousand years ago, which brings them much closer to Gévaudan's existence. Dire Wolves were built like bigger wolves, and there have been sightings of them as recently as 2018. Insert obligatory Game of Thrones reference here.
So if it wasn't one of several extinct monsters, could there be a more supernatural explanation for The Beast of Gévaudan? That's right! Werewolves!
I love werewolves. There, I said it. Unfortunately the modern concept of a bipedal Wolfman wasn't quite what our ancestors had in mind.
Their werewolves were people who made a pact with the Devil, just like witches. It would give them a belt or other item of clothing made of wolf skin which they could use to transform into a wolf.
Yes, disappointingly they just turned into a regular wolf. Sad for us, but it makes a werewolf a more likely suspect for The Beast.
There's only one tiny snag, werewolves don't exist. Or do they?
Similar to the Striped Hyena enacting a prison break theory, we have the subadult male lion hypothesis. First proposed by Karl-Hans Taake, a biologist, in his book The Gévaudan Tragedy: The Disastrous Campaign of a Deported ‘Beast’. Taake points out that a solitary lion often employs ambush predation and lions strike the neck first.
Lions have been known to prey on humans throughout history. There are even accounts, like The Lions of Tsavo, where young lions do not fear firearms and exclusively hunt humans.
Lions usually claim a territory the same size as the Beast of Gévaudan was said to cover. They also have massive retractable claws which they use to take down large prey. Younger lions can also have darker spots or stripes on their fur. The lion hypothesis perfectly covers the description of The Beast, except the gray coloration.
Your average European peasant wouldn't know exactly what a lion looked like either. Artistic depictions of lions were pretty goofy at the time.
So it was probably a lion, but we will never know for sure.
The Beast Must Die
The locals of Gévaudan hadn't been sitting around getting eaten, though. Bounties were placed on The Beast's head and several hunting parties went out to search for the monster. None of the hunters could so much as scratch The Beast. One story tells of a group of hunters cornering it and unleashing a volley of musket-fire at it. The Beast fell, got up, and walked away.
Tales of individual bravery sprang up and soon became legendary. One group of young boys, 8-12, led by Jacques Portefaix, 10, fought off The Beast with nothing but sticks and teamwork. King Louis XV rewarded them by sponsoring their education. There is also the tale of The Maid of Gévaudan, Jeanne-Marie Valet (Not to be confused with Marie Jeanne Valet). She fought off the beast using a makeshift spear she built from a stick and a knife. Jeanne-Marie Valet was honored by the people of Gévaudan in the form of a statue.
King Louis XV was looking for a win. People had lost their faith in his rulership. He saw the Beast of Gévaudan as an easy target, so he sent Captain Duhamel of the Clermont Prince Dragoons along with his troops to crush The Beast.
Duhamel was an out-of-the-box thinker. He immediately bought into tales of the Beast's supernatural intellect and abilities. Since the Beast of Gévaudan loved attacking women, he dressed his soldiers up as women. They patrolled the countryside, but never found a monster.
The locals didn't take to Captain Duhamel's arrogance. He found that being an asshole was a terrible way to get people to help you. Several times Duhamel managed to flush an animal out, only for the villagers and guards he put in place to be absent.
Duhamel's failure and the incompetence of the French dragoons under his command looked bad. King Louis XV ordered Duhamel to return to his barracks in Clermont, and replaced him with two famous wolf hunters.
The father-son team of Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d'Enneval and Jean-François swooped into Gévaudan and Duhamel was swept away. Soon the wolf hunters were killing wolves by the hundreds. Their strategy was to use stealth and traps to simply eradicate the entire population of wolves.
Fame isn't everything, and despite their campaign of genocide, the attacks continued. King Louis XV was in a tighter spot than ever. The media was ripping his inability to put an end to the attacks. If you can't kill a monster, it's no wonder you can't win a war. He had given the wolf hunters only four months before they were also replaced.
The king sent his royal gunbearer, François Antoine, to put an end to things once and for all. François was 71 years old when he shot and killed a massive wolf on 20 September, 1765. His kill was quickly stuffed and sent to Paris. There it was touted as the Beast of Gévaudan. Problem solved.
François was awarded with riches and titles. He was busy enjoying them when the attacks started up again in December 1765. More than a dozen people would die before a true hero arose in 1767.
Silver Bullets and Prayers
Like most heroic deeds, Jean Chastel's slaying of the Beast of Gévaudan has been mythologized. Truth is often too mundane to keep an audience enthralled for long, so people naturally feed into the story.
According to the legend, Jean Chastel crafted silver slugs for his musket. He was a pious man who had communed with his god before setting out.
The royal court dismissed the further attacks. Newspapers had moved on too, and the task of defending the people fell to the local lord, Marquis d'Apcher. He quickly armed a host of peasants and organized one last hunt.
Jean Chastel was the one who found the massive murder machine. He lined up his gun and fired a blast that hit the Beast of Gévaudan in the eye. The Beast fell.
The man approached to see if he had truly killed the monster. Suddenly it sprang up, blood pouring from its eye-socket, and leaped at him with a mighty battle-roar. Jean fired another shot, hitting The Beast in its side, ending the age of terror.
Afterwards, the corpse was shown to the Marquis. He waited to send it to King Louis XV until the winter passed. By then it was so decomposed that the King ordered it destroyed. Jean Chastel wasn't rewarded.
Several fictionalized accounts sprang up over the centuries. The first was written by Henri Pourrat. He invented the iconic silver-bullet trope that would become a staple of werewolf fiction. Another detail he added was that Jean Chastel said a prayer before firing his first shot.