The 18th Century Beast of Gévaudan

In 1765, newspaper headlines screamed of a monstrous creature that became known as la bête de Gevaudan (The Beast of Gévaudan). The beast made its first appearance 20 December 1764, when it devoured a little girl herding cattle at St. Flour in Provence. The second attack occurred a week later on the 27th of December. This time a woman (19 or 20 years old) was “torn to pieces … at Bounesal, near Mende. The next day [the beast] appeared in the woods of St. Martin de Born, and was about to spring upon a girl of twelve years.”[1] It would have eaten her too, if not for her father. He was nearby and kept the animal at bay until some horned cattle came along and scared the beast away.

Beast of Gévaudan

Artist’s conception of “The Beast of Gévaudan.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As news about the attacks spread, the countryside became quite deserted. Despite the beast’s “preference for the fairer sex … no men would work in the fields, herd the flocks, or go abroad, saved in armed bands.”[2] In the Gévaudan area, the terror was palpable. The beast terrified peasants, particularly those in Provence and Languedoc where the area was “mountainous, woody, and cold [and] … where communication was rendered difficult by the want of good roads and navigable rivers.”[3]

"The Beast of Gévaudan" Attacking a Man

Illustration showing “The Beast of Gévaudan” attacking a man. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Because of the attacks and hysteria, a detachment of dragoons were sent to search for the beast. They searched vigorously for six weeks but found nothing. In general, at the time, wolves in the Gévaudan area were numerous because “between May 1761 and February 1770 the number killed was 679.”[4] Whenever the ravenous creature appeared, terror and despair gripped the public. This resulted in a thousand crowns “offered by the province of Mende to any person who would slay it, and public prayers were put up in the all the churches for deliverance from this singular scourge.”[5]

Woman Fighting off "The Beast of Gévaudan"

Woman fighting off “The Beast of Gévaudan.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

People who saw the creature claimed it was unlike anything they had seen before. Witness reports ranged from it being some mythical creature to something like a lynx, bear, hyena, wolf, or something else. Many witnesses also reported that it was large. A drawing of the beast showed the creature to have “a huge head, large eyes, a long tongue, a double row of sharp fangs, small and erect ears like those of a cat, the paws and body of a lion, with the tail of a cow, which trail[ed] on the ground with a bushy tuft at the end.”[6]

Stories of people seeing the beast were plentiful. The Hereford Times reported:

“[A] party of eighty dragoons, en route to join their regiment, fell in with the beast, and rode at full speed towards it. When first discovered it was one hundred and fifty yards distant, and fled into a hollow place, which was environed by marshes and water.”[7]

The regiment tried to use their dogs and even opened fire on it, but it was raining torrents and that “not only hindered [aid but] … the explosion of the carbine and their incessant cries of ‘the beast! the beast!’ … alarmed the whole neighbourhood.”[8] Moreover, because the rain was so heavy it filled up the hollows and turned the whole area into a muddy mess making impossible for the men to stay.

Shortly after this event, the beast was witnessed in a field by two men near a hermitage dedicated to St. Privat at the base of Mont Minot. An old recluse and an officer of artillery claimed the following:

“From the window they could plainly see the beast gambolling playfully on the grass, and climbing up the trees like a squirrel; but being without arms, they shut and made fast the door of the grotto … watching for nearly half an hour. This time the officer employed in making a sketch of it, which next day he sent to the Bishop of Mende … [who] forwarded this sketch to the Duc de Praslin, to whose office the people flocked in multitudes to behold it; but public opinion was divided as whether the animals was a lynx or a bear.”[9]

"The Beast of Gévaudan" Attacking a Woman

Illustration of “The Beast of Gévaudan” attacking a woman. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Attacks by the beast of Gévaudan continued. In March, a man on horseback came upon the creature and boldly charged it, but he was thrown off his horse and left his horse to the creature’s mercy. The man then sought refuge in a mill, “where it besieged him for some time, till a lad of seventeen appeared, whom it lacerated with teeth and claws and left expiring outside the door.”[10] Next the beast attacked a woman as she tried to save a girl. This resulted in four armed men keeping watch all night near the mangled body of the woman, in the hopes that the beast would return. It didn’t. Instead it was busy a few miles away attacking sheep and a herd of cows. It also wounded an old solider who attacked it with a pitchfork, thrusting it into the beast’s throat before it disappeared.

Because the hysteria was so great, several wild schemes were instituted to capture the beast. One scheme was “to poison the beast by offering him poisoned victims.”[11] The poisoned victims were mannequins of women that people believed would “entice the accursed animal.”[12] Of course, that failed, as did another plan that was just as crazy. In this case three children were placed inside a sentry box that was placed inside a forty foot octagonal box. Apparently, King Louis XV heard about the children being used as bait and sent his Lieutenant of the Hunt to stop the plan before someone got hurt.

Louis XV by Louis Michel van Loo, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Louis XV by Louis Michel van Loo. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Many attempts were also undertaken to capture the beast. One failed attempt occurred on the evening of the 1st of May. The Sieur Martel de la Chaumette saw what he claimed “could be no other than the wild beast of Gévaudan.”[13] It was sitting in a grassy meadow intently watching a lad of 15 who was herding some cattle. Chaumette summoned his two brothers.

“[A]rmed with guns they issued forth in pursuit of the animal, which fled at their approach. The youngest overtook it in the forest, and put a ball into it at sixty-seven paces; it rolled over three times, which enabled the elder Chaumette to put in another ball … on which it fled and escaped, losing blood in great quantities.”[14]

Because Chaumette had slain a great number of wolves, he was familiar with them and declared the animal he saw in the grassy meadow “was not one; but his description of its appearance coincided exactly with that given by the Sieur Duhamel of the 10th Light Horse, and with the sketch made by the military hermit of St. Privat.”[15] The next day the Chaumettes and others tracked the beast using the bloody trail, but they found nothing. The hoped they had killed it. However, later that same evening, they learned a 14-year-old girl had been devoured by the beast “and the terror of the people increased, as the beast seemed to have a charmed life and to be almost bullet-proof.”[16] With the beast still on the loose and as dangerous as ever, others now joined the hunt.

“Two remarkably fine dogs of the Sieur d’Ennival were so eager in the pursuit, that they left the hunt far behind, and, as they were never seen again, were supposed to have been killed and eaten [by the beast].”[17]

Also, forty men from the society of the Knights of St. Hubert, hunted the beast; “but it was not until the end of September, 1765, that it was ultimately vanquished.”[18] At that time, after a vigorous and lengthy chase, it was shot in the eye by François Antoine (wrongly called Antoine de Beauterne), the king’s Lieutenant of the Hunt. Supposedly, after the beast was wounded, it was set to spring at Antoine, when a gamekeeper shot it with a single bullet in a vital spot, and it fell dead.

The Beast of Gévaudan was immediately measured and weighed. It was “found to be five feet seven inches long, thirty-two inches high, and only one hundred and thirty pounds in weight.”[18] The Derby Mercury reported:

“Surgeons, who dissected the Wild Beast of the Gévaudan … say, that it is more of a Hyena than Wolf. As soon as it was killed, it sent forth a very disagreeable Stench. In his Body several Bones of Sheep were found. This Animal hath 40 Teeth, and Wolves have but 26. The Muscles of the Neck are very strong: His Sides are so formed, that he could bend his Head to his Tail; his Eyes sparkled so with Fire, that it was hardly possible to bear his Look; his Tail is very large, broad, thick, and bristled with Black Hair; the Feet are armed with Claws extremely strong and singular.”[19]

After it was stuffed, the future husband of Marie Antoinette, 11-year-old Louis-Auguste, would have been able to see the stuffed beast as it was put on display at Versailles. Horace Walpole, an English art historian, man of letters, and Whig politician saw it on display. He reported that it was exhibited in the queen’s anti-chamber at Versailles and “parade[d] as if it was Mr. Pitt.”[20] Walpole also gave this description:

“It is an exceedingly large wolf, and connoisseurs say, has twelve teeth more than any wolf. … The critics deny it to be the true beast; and I find most people think the beast’s name is legion, for there are many.“[21]

The wolf shot by François Antoine on 21 September 1765, displayed at the court of Louis XV. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Not everyone was impressed by the beast. The Elgin Courier noted that when people at last looked up the monstrous beast of legend, great was “the astonishment and the disappointment of all … — the terrible wild beast of Gévaudan, whose sanguinary career had for so many months excited such dismay there and wonder elsewhere — and found that it was only a wolf after all, and not a very large one!”[22]

Although Louis XV and Frenchmen everywhere credited Antoine with killing “The Beast of Gévaudan,” the attacks continued. Reports indicate there were more than a dozen deaths after September 1765, and the attacks on humans did not end until about a year and a half later when a nobleman in the province of Gévaudan, named marquis d’Apcher, organized a hunt. The hunt took place on 19 June 1767. Attending the hunt was a local farmer and inn-keeper from the province of Gévaudan by the name of Jean Chastel. He is the person who shot and killed the beast that had been attacking people and causing the trouble.

Jean Chastel, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Jean Chastel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Writers later turned Chastel into a legend. They claimed he used a silver bullet to kill the beast and that when the animal’s stomach was opened, human remains were discovered undigested inside. From this was developed the idea that werewolves of folklore could only be killed with a silver bullet.

References:

  • [1] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Elgin Courier, 14 June 1867, p. 7.
  • [2] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Hereford Times, 8 June 1867, p. 11.
  • [3] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Elgin Courier, p. 7.
  • [4] Baring-Gould, Sabine, The Deserts of Southern France, Volume 1, 1894, p. 120.
  • [5] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Elgin Courier, p. 7.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Hereford Times, p. 11.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Elgin Courier, p. 7.
  • [11] Parisian Illustrated Review, Volume 5, 1898, p. 377.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Hereford Times, p. 11.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Every Saturday, Volume 3, 1867, p. 823.
  • [16] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Elgin Courier, p. 7.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] “Extract of a Letter from Paris, Oct. 4,” in Derby Mercury, 26 October 1765, p. 2.
  • [20] Walpole, Horace, Private Correspondence, Volume 3, 1820, p. 83.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] “The Wild Beast of Gevaudan,” in Elgin Courier, p. 7.

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