The Beast of Gévaudan
The Beast of Gévaudan was a man-eater that preyed on people in the former south-central French Province of Gévaudan during the mid-1700s.
The territory of the former Province of Gévaudan coincides with the modern-day Départements of Lozère, Dordogne, Haute-Loire, and the region of Auvergne.
Gévaudan was an impoverished backwater of France, a remote, mostly rural, heavily forested area with rugged mountainous terrain.
Accounts suggested that carnivorous animals, most likely wolves, roamed a wide area of the province, attacking people.
The attacks stopped after hunters tracked and killed several wolves believed responsible for the killings. Estimates of the number of deaths vary from about 100 to as high as 300-600.
Separate alleged eyewitness accounts described the Beast of Gévaudan as a large canine, such as a wolf, hyena, wolf-dog, or lion-dog chimera.
The Beast of Gévaudan was allegedly the size of a horse
Printed illustrations from 1764 described it as a ferocious, big, deep-chested, powerful canine about the size of a horse, cow, or donkey. It stood tall on long legs and had a long stride that enabled it to move swiftly.
It has a large-sized head, protruding snout, and powerful jaws equipped with sharp teeth. The beast cried more like a horse neighing than a wolf howling. It had pointy ears, a long furry tail, or one with a tufted distal end.
The fur had a tawny orange-brown, yellowish-brown, or reddish-brown color with black stripes. Some accounts claimed it had a whitish underbelly.
Popular descriptions in circulation during the killings suggested a striped hyena to some.
One printed illustration claimed it was the size of a young bull, preferred attacking women and children, cutting off heads, drinking their blood, and carrying them off.
Étienne Lafont, a regional official, described it as much bigger than a wolf, with a snout like a calf, and long hair that suggested it might be a hyena.
The Beast of Gévaudan: Supernatural creatures in the wild?
Descriptions of the beast assumed increasingly florid and fantastical quality as panic spread.
The mass hysteria the attacks generated was due to the failure of the authorities to stop the widely reported grisly killings. The delay encouraged the spread of superstitious rumors about supernatural creatures in the forests of Gévaudan.
Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel, a military officer who participated in the hunt, envisioned a fantastical creature with a broad chest like a horse, a body like a leopard, and red fur with black stripes.
Duhamel concluded that the beast was a hybrid between a lion and an unknown beast.
Some accounts suggested the beast had supernatural powers. It could walk on its hind legs like a human. The hide was so strong that bullets bounced off it. The eyes glowed like hot coals, and on multiple occasions, it rose from the dead after being shot and killed.
Sightings and Tales
Based on documented reports, the Beast of Gévaudan attacks occurred mainly between 1764 and 1767. The attacks accounted for about 300 deaths, although some conservative estimates claimed 100 and others as high as 600.
The first reported attack occurred early in 1764 and involved a woman who accompanied a herd of cattle to graze in a wooded area on the outskirts of Langogne in east Gévaudan.
The group encountered a wolf-like creature that charged at them. The bulls among the herd reportedly fended off the beast the first time. It retreated before approaching a second time, but the bulls stood their ground, forcing it to withdraw again.
The woman later described the creature as being “like a wolf, yet not a wolf.”
The Beast of Gévaudan victim: Jeanne Boulet
On June 30, 1764, Jeanne Boulet, 14, was watching a flock of sheep outside Le Hubacs, a village near Langogne, when a wolf-like creature attacked and killed her.
Multiple reported attacks also came from across the region, with most victims being women and children.
The Beast of Gévaudan: Jacques Portefaix and friends
In January 1765, a group of boys, including 10-year-old Jacques Portefaix, reported encountering the beast. The boys, aged 8-12 years, had led a herd of cattle to graze on a meadow when a wolf-like animal attacked them.
They bunched together for mutual protection and managed to keep it at bay with sharpened pikes. It eventually gave up and withdrew.
The Beast of Gévaudan: Marie-Jeanne Vallet
Another widely reported attack in August 1765 involved a young woman, Marie-Jeanne Vallet, aged 19. She and her sister were reportedly preparing to cross the River Desges (La Desges) when they came under attack.
Armed with a bayonet affixed to a pole, Marie-Jeanne courageously defended herself and her sister, inflicting a deep wound on the chest.
The media celebrated her courage, christening her the Maiden of Gévaudan. A statue honoring her still stands in the southern French village of Auvers.
The Beast of Gévaudan attacked women and children
The pattern of the attacks indicated that the beast (or beasts) preferred attacking women and children accompanying flocks to graze in wooded areas and meadows surrounding villages and towns across the Gévaudan province.
The accounts also indicated that it typically lunged at the victims, targeting their necks. It ripped out throats and gnawed at victims’ heads.
Mass panic and hysteria spread in the rural and countryside districts amid reports of people being mauled to death by a mystery carnivore.
A lone beast or a roving pack?
Accounts claiming more than one beast was involved in the attacks seemed credible due to the number of reported victims. Some stories claimed it was a pair, while some claimed it was a female animal and grown pups.
Louis XV intervened
Reports about a ferocious carnivore killing people in the province of Gévaudan soon reached Louis XV in Versailles. The king was impressed by the bravery of Portefaix and his companions and gave them generous monetary rewards. He also awarded them education paid for by the crown.
He then personally organized a hunt for the beast that involved troops, regional vigilantes, and wealthy citizens.
Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel
In response to the king’s call, Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel, an infantry officer, led troops to Gévaudan to track and kill the beast.
Despite coming close to success, his mission failed. He abandoned the effort, alleging that the locals did not cooperate with his troops.
Jean-Charles Marc-Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval
The king then sent professonal hunters Jean-Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and son Jean-François to Gevaudan.
In February 1765, the father and son pair from Normandy took over the hunt. They believed wolves were responsible for the killings. They tracked wolves in the area with the help of trained bloodhounds.
Despite killing several animals, the attacks continued, forcing the pair to conclude it might be another beast responsible for the killings.
Le Loup de Chaze
In June 1765, the king’s huntmaster, François Antoine, replaced d’Enneval and his son.
In September, Antoine, assisted by his son, reported killing a large-sized male wolf. The beast measured about 31 inches to the withers. It was 67 inches long and weighed 60kg.
Antoine arranged to have the wolf stuffed for display. He believed the specimen was responsible for the killings.
His statement added that the creature–christened Le Loup de Chazes after a nearby historic chapel–was the largest specimen of a wolf he had ever seen.
Antoine’s view that the animal was responsible for the killings appeared corroborated by eyewitnesses. Witnesses said they recognized wound marks on the body allegedly caused when a survivor defended themselves.
However, due to frequent claims that the killer beast had a partner, Antoine believed another wolf was on the loose.
He quickly organized a search for the partner, presumed to be a female with two pups. He soon found and killed a female wolf and a grown pup.
Believing he had killed the entire clan of wolves responsible for the killings, Antoine returned to Versailles to receive his reward for service to the crown.
Jean Chastel ended the killings
However, in December 1765, evidence of another man-eater on the prowl emerged when two boys became the latest victims of an attack.
The beast attacked a 6-year-old, but his older companion, aged 12, came to the rescue. Other attacks on cattle and people followed, resulting in multiple deaths.
This time the king paid scant attention to the new troubling reports. Local nobles organized people to hunt the killers.
In June 1767, Jean Chastel, a local hunter sponsored by the nobleman Marquis d’Apcher, shot and killed yet another beast.
Chastel, accompanied by two sons, killed the creature in the forest of Mount Mouchet.
He returned with the corpse. A postmorterm report, known as the Marin Report, acknowledged that the animal had the remains of a victim in its stomach.
Why the Beast of Gévaudan attracted attention
Historians have noted that despite the public attention and hysteria generated by the killings, deaths due to wolf attacks were common across Europe at 18th century.
Wolf attacks continued in France and other parts of Europe amid the hysteria over the incidents in Gévaudan.
Gevaudan was a heavily forested region with a relatively large population of wolves. Thus, it had a higher incidence of wolf attacks.
The situation where fatal attacks continued after hunters had killed several beasts suggested an infestation of the forests around Gevaudan with man-eating wolves.
It also suggested an ongoing significant survival pressure on the wolf population due to human encroachment and degradation of their natural habitats.
The province of Gévaudan was an isolated backwater, and thus, the deaths might have gone unnoticed.
However, multiple factors acting in concert drew attention to the events.
Many researchers believe that the attacks likely involved multiple wolves or wolf pack attacks. The attacks drew public attention partly because they occurred over a short time.
The mass media popularized the Beast of Gévaudan
The incidents also coincided with the inception of mass media.
Due to heavy censorship of political news reporting, local and regional newspapers–such as Courrier d’Avignon–focused on tabloid-style reports about local events, crimes, small gossip, and other minor social issuess.
Newspaper reports about the Beast of Gévaudan tended to be sensationalistic, and the narratives grossly exaggerated.
Historians also believe the Beast of Gevaudan attracted disproportionate historical interest only because it came to the attention of King Louis XV.
The king invested considerable state resources to stop the killings.
Some sociologists suggested that the hysteria generated by the deaths might also be due to the political and economic pressures following the Seven Years’ War.
France lost much of its overseas possessions due to defeats by the Prussians and the British.
Some scholars have speculated that the enthusiastic response to the king’s call reflected a desire by French soldiers to redeem their honor after the humiliating defeats France suffered in the Seven Years’ War.
What was the Beast of Gévaudan?
Following postmortem reports that ascribed unusual size to the killed wolves, some accounts attempted to claim they were mysterious cryptozoological or extinct species, such as werewolves or dire wolves.
Although popular descriptions suggested otherwise, many scholars believe the animal responsible was the Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus), also known as the Apennine wolf.
However, a few researchers suggested the beasts were striped hyenas artificially introduced to France, while others proposed lions.
The rural French populace wass not familiar with these tropical species, so they were likely to offer descriptions that conflated them with fantastical monsters.
Cryptozoologists suggest it might have been a surviving prehistoric beast, such as the Hyaenodon (genus Hyaenodon), believed to be extinct.
A few researchers proposed that a human serial killer might explain those killings involving decapitation. They argued that a serial killer might have exploited the ongoing hysteria over the Beast of Gévaudan.
|Other Name/s||La Bête du Gévaudan, Bête du Gévaudan|
|Habitat||Countryside, Farmland, Forest|
Where to find
https://www.academia.edu/11563586/The_Beast_of_G%C3%A9vaudan_1764_1767, “The Beast of Gévaudan (1764-1767) – La Bête du Gévaudan (1764-1767),” Jean-Marc Moriceau 2008, accessed on February 24, 2023.
Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, George M. Eberhart, 2002.
Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, Jay M. Smith, 2011.
https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/the-beast-of-gevaudan-1764-1767, “The Public Domain Review: The Beast of Gévaudan (1764–1767),” accessed on February 24, 2023.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/beast-gevaudan-terrorized-france-countryside-180963820/, “When the Beast of Gévaudan Terrorized France,” accessed on February 24, 2023.
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/marie-jeanne-valet-vs-the-beast-of-gevaudan, “Marie-Jeanne Valet vs. the Beast of Gevaudan,” accessed on February 24, 2023.
https://web.archive.org/web/20210204112653/https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2016/09/27/solving-the-mystery-of-the-18th-century-killer-beast-of-gevaudan/, “Solving the Mystery of the 18th-Century Killer “Beast of Gévaudan,” accessed on February 24, 2023.
https://books.google.ca/books?, “Parisian Illustrated Review, Volume 5,” Published, 1898, accessed on February 24, 2023
The Beast of Gevaudan was a fierce carnivorous beast that killed people in France in the 1700s. Pic credit: Wikimedia/Public Domain