What Was The Beast Of Gévaudan?
The Beast of Gévaudan was a mysterious creature which was responsible for the slayings of over 100 people living in a region of Southern France in the mid 18th century. In this post, we discuss the Legend of the beast of Gévaudan .
The First Attack of the Beast
The small detachment of Dragoons had ridden hard through the night, until they had finally reached the outskirts of the settlement where the latest attack was purported to have taken place. Eagerly dismounting from his horse, their Lieutenant had immediately hurried off into the depths of the village, leaving the rest of his men behind. As the inevitable murmurs of discontent began to spread throughout the assembled riders, the Sergeant moved swiftly to them. These men were hardened soldiers, invaluable on the field of battle, but in peacetime, they proved difficult to keep motivated and engaged particularly when their new commanding officer was barely an adult, and from some rich Parisian family.
Ordering two of the men to stand watch with the horses, he led the rest through the narrow streets towards the main square, where a small crowd of villagers had assembled. In the middle of this throng knelt their Lieutenant, a gloved hand clasped across his mouth, and fresh vomits on his boots. Sighing to himself, the sergeant deduced that the two corpses laid out on the ground before them were probably the first that the young officer had ever seen.
He moved forward, holding out the canteen for his superior, before kneeling down himself to inspect the bodies. Having drawn back the first blood-soaked sheet, he found himself recoiling, before quickly replacing it. Despite having fought against the British and their allies in India during the recent war, he had never seen such savage brutality inflicted upon a human body. Looking around, he noted the mixture of fear and hatred in the eyes of the villagers, as they quietly surveyed their new arrivals.
It seemed the distance between the city and countryside grew wider with each passing year. Although these people now depended on the likes of him and his fellow soldiers for protection, the contempt they felt for their new guests was palpable. Prior to their departure, the Battalion Commander had read the men a personal message from the King, promising the fortune in gold to whomever amongst them ended the reign of terror this supposed creature had imbued. With the disturbing visions of the bodies he had just seen still racing through his mind, the Sergeant considered riding straight back to Paris and telling The Sovereign where to shove his reward.
Emerging from his thoughts, he began to bark familiar orders to the rest of the dragoons. They were to check their weapons were in working order and then form a perimeter around the village until the arrival of the bloodhounds the following morning. If the beast was sighted, the men were not to fire upon it, for fear of driving it away. Instead, attempts would be made to entice it inside the perimeter, where it could be cornered and dispatched by volley fire.
As the Cavalrymen reluctantly filed out towards their positions, he scanned the assembled villages for a priest. Whoever the poor souls were that now lay dead at the center of the village, the manner of their passing dictated that they should receive benediction before moving on to the afterlife. As much as the sergeant did not want to admit it, he knew deep down that he and his men would not be leaving this place anytime soon.
The legend of the Beast of Gévaudan began towards the end of the summer in 1764. A 14 year old girl named Jeanne Boulet had been left by her family tending to a flock of sheep on the outskirts of the village of Les Hubacs, when she was later found killed. Her throat had been torn out, but bizarrely the animal she had been tending to, had been left unmolested by the perpetrator. Further savage killings followed, with witnesses claiming that the assailant was a gigantic canine creature.
It was described as being longer and broader than a wolf, russet in color, and possessing an oversized head with a mouth full of sharp and wicked looking teeth. The creature only targeted the faces and throats of its victims, seemingly materializing out of nowhere and giving no warning of its approach. As the number of fatalities steadily increased, all attempts to capture and kill the monster met with dismal failure. It seems capable of detecting and avoiding poisoned bait and traps, and possessed the ability to sense large groups of people lying in ambush.
Survivors who had injured and driven the creature away claimed that the wounds they inflicted had mysteriously healed and the bullets which hunters had fired at the beast seemed to bounce off its thick hide, causing no visible damage. In Paris, newspaper editors keen to report on something other than the country's dismal foreign affairs enthusiastically seized upon the story. The colorful descriptions of bravery and tragedy which they published soon found their way to the court of Louis the 15th himself. And it was the tale of a young farm boy named Jacques Portefaix that finally prompted the king to send help to his citizens.
Jacques' Confrontation of the Beast
Ten-year-old Jacques and several other boys were herding cattle across a field near to some woods when the monster appeared from the tree line. Ignoring the large group of cows, it instead made straight for the youngsters, who instinctively banded together and fended it off using their pikes. Several of them including Jacques sustained severe injuries, prompting the king to reward their bravery by pledging to fund their future education, and dispatching several parties of cavalrymen to the region to kill the creature. These Dragoons were led by Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel, a veteran of the Seven Years' war who saw the posting as a possible means to atone for the army's recent string of military defeats. Duhamel made efforts to conscript the rather reluctant local populace, ordering them to deploy across the countryside in large groups with the intention of herbing the Beast towards his limited resources.
He also attempted to dress male villagers up as women, to act as decoys and lures, given the monster's propensity for attacking females. Unsurprisingly, the region's inhabitants reacted to these demands with varying degrees of disinterest, further frustrating the already exasperated officer. It was whilst Duhamel was attempting to coordinate these efforts that one of the most famous incidents involving the monster took place.
The 'Maid of Gévaudan'
19-year old Marie Jeanne Valet was crossing the River Desges with her younger sister when the beast attacked. Using a knife affixed to the end of a wooden stave, she spared the creature through its chest and drove it away, earning her the nickname of the 'Maid of Gévaudan'. When Captain Duhamel's methods failed to prevent the rising death count, the Royal Court dispatched two professional hunters, a father and a son by the name of d'Enneval to kill the creature.
Believing their quarry to be a wolf of some kind, they took a very different approach to that of the army, using bloodhounds to scour the countryside and then setting concealed hides near to any trail they detected. Four months later, yet more innocent citizens had been slain, and the hunters had little to show for their efforts. Enraged with their failure, the king ordered his personal gun-bearer to resolve the situation once and for all. Francois Antoine, the most famous marksman in the land, subsequently arrived at Le Malzieu in June of 1765. Three months later, he would write to the king declaring that the horror was finally over.
On the morning of September the 20th, Antoine and his entourage cornered a pair of wolves and their offspring near to the Abbaye Des Chazes. The animals were considered large for their species, with the male particularly oversized. Without hesitation, Antoine dispatched the male, ordering that its remains be stuffed and sent back to the king. He then set off in pursuit of the rest of the pack.
When the body of the wolf arrived in Paris, it was discovered that it possessed a double set of dewclaws, suggesting that it could be the descendant of some form of wolf and dog hybrid. Antoine returned shortly afterwards to a hero's welcome, having gone on to kill the wolf's mate and one of its cubs. The king rewarded him handsomely, publicly declaring that the beast's reign of terror was finally at an end. But back in the south of the country, the deaths continued.
The Continuation of the deaths
Over the next eighteen months, the bodies of a further 30 men, women and children were found with their heads and throats torn to pieces. The authorities desperately pleaded with the court to again send assistance, only to be told that the beast was considered dead, and whatever was taking place now was their problem to solve.
Accepting that no help would be forthcoming, the people of Gévaudan finally took matters into their own hands. The coordination of their defense fell to a local nobleman named Marquis d' Apchier, who organized small groups of men with extensive local knowledge or suitable skill sets and backgrounds. Many of these men were hunters or military veterans and some were local criminals, and it was just such an offender who had been set free that ultimately vanquished the Beast of Gévaudan.
The Confrontation of the Monster with a Silver Bullet
On the 19th of June 1767, one of the hunting parties was attacked by a huge canine on the slopes of Mont Mouchet. Amongst their number was a farmer by the name of Jean Chantel, who had been thrown in prison two years previously by Captain Duhamel for refusing to assist in the hunt for the beast. Chantel secretly believed that the monster, which was now charging towards him, was some form of werewolf or similar mythical creature. Standing his ground, he fired upon the beast using a large caliber bullet, which had been tipped with silver.
With a deafening roar, the rampaging creature stumbled and went crashing to the ground, where it then laid still. The body of the beast was taken directly to Chateau D' Apcher, where it was cut open and human remains were recovered from inside its stomach. It was then stuffed and held on display at the castle for doctors and surgeons from across the land to inspect. While those who viewed it could not agree on exactly what the creature was, what they did agree upon, was that it was not simply a large wolf.
Over the centuries that have passed since the Beast of Gévaudan was finally slain, there have been many theories as to what kind of creature it may have been. Amongst the most colorful of these was that it was some form of lycanthrope, possessing extreme strength and the power to heal itself, as well as being able to call upon its inherent human cunning in order to evade capture. This was certainly what the newly freed Jean Chantal believed, as he incorporated silver into the manufacture of his ammunition.
And whilst many of his compatriots may not have shared his views on lycanthropy, some did believe that the beast was the instrument of a powerful and evil force. To the God-fearing Catholic citizens of 18th century France, it was clear that the devil or one of his worshipers must have ultimately been responsible for the creature's actions. Whether the Beast was an agent of the Devil himself or under the influence of some malevolent mage or warlock, the savagery with which it killed its victims was clear evidence of satanic influence.
Other more rational, but equally conspiratorial theories were also proposed. One suggested that a serial killer was at work, either using the beast as a means of dispatching their victims or as cover for their own activities. Allegations abounded that the killer may have recently returned from the Americas, adopting the traditions of their native populations and hunting victims wearing animal skins in order to hide their true identity. This would surely have accounted for the beast's alleged supernatural qualities, its surviving victims mistaking its very human behavior for what would be considered mysterious and incomprehensible in an animal. Others alleged that the monster was some form of hunting dog, protected by an armor of animal hide that had been fastened to it, which might account for the ineffectiveness of the guns fired upon it.
Whilst it was known for some hunting dogs to wear armor in pursuit of dangerous quarry, such as wild boars or stags, the practice was far from common and was restricted largely to the upper classes. Did this murderous creature once belonged to the nobility? Had it then escaped and run amok, well beyond their control? If not an armored hunting dog, was it some form of exotic pet imported from abroad which had escaped from a private collection? It is along this line of thinking that the majority of commentators have settled, seeing in the various colorful descriptions of the monster- the characteristics of a striped hyena or potentially even a subadult lion.
Unfortunately, the carcass of the animal killed by Chantal has long been lost in the mists of time, so it is unlikely we will ever know its true identity. Over the three years in which it was active, the Beast of Gévaudan is alleged to have killed more than a hundred people, injuring a further fifty. It is clear that both the manner in which the slayings were recorded and the mechanics of the attempts to capture it were both colored by the politics of the day.
The fact that no further attacks took place after 1767 and no similar incidents have ever been reported since suggests that whatever the creature was, it was most likely the only one of its kind. Whether a now-extinct form of primeval predator, a hunting animal that had been trained or adapted or something more paranormal, it would appear that the Beast and its Legend both perished on that fateful day, on the slopes of Mont Mouchet.