Did a 'werewolf' really terrorise France in the 1700s?

The savage 'Beast of Gévaudan' rampaged across the French countryside between 1764 and 1767 and killed as many as a hundred people. The true nature of the attacks and the creature itself remains a mystery.

Published 25 Oct 2021, 10:24 BST
The beast lead

In this 18th-century engraving, royal huntsman François Antoine kills the wolf believed to be the beast in 1765. Two months later, the beast returned to terrorise France again.

Photograph by AKG/Album

Jeanne Boulet, a fourteen-year-old shepherd girl, was tending livestock in the wooded valleys near the Allier River in the Gévaudan region of central southern France one day in June 1764. Her badly injured body was later discovered, the victim of an apparent wolf attack. Her death did not seem unusual at the time. Children often shepherded sheep or cattle by themselves, and wolves were part of the hazards of rural life.

More fatalities like Boulet’s followed with severe injuries, dismemberments, and even decapitations. Whatever this deadly creature was, it was far more ferocious than a regular wolf. As whispers of a werewolf began to circulate, the deadly creature became known as la bête, the beast. 

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It would terrorise Gévaudan for three years, killing as many as 100 people (although some sources claim the total could be as high as 300). Between 1764 and 1767 more than a hundred wolves were killed in Gévaudan, but scholars are still trying to determine if any of them was the deadly beast responsible for the attacks.          

The historical region of Gévaudan, with its capital in the cathedral city of Mende, can be found on old documents (such as the 19th-century map, above). Named for the Celtic Gabali tribe, it now largely corresponds to the modern French département of Lozère. In reality, the beast attacked beyond the boundaries of Gévaudan: By early 1765 deaths attributed to it were spread across an area of 700 square miles, which may indicate that there was more than one beast at work—perhaps even a pack.
Photograph by Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya

Savage attacks

The historic Gévaudan county, situated in the rugged highlands of the Massif Central, straddles France’s Auvergne and Languedoc regions. It is a dramatic, forbidding land of dense forests and rain-drenched plateaus. Gévaudan had once been prosperous, but the wars of the 16th century had battered the rural economy. Many locals were extremely poor and subsisted by herding livestock.

After Boulet’s death and the following half dozen cases, young shepherds banded together in groups, but the beast was not deterred by their numbers. The savage attacks continued, taking the lives of mostly women and children. By the fall of 1764, word of the terrifying monster had spread far beyond Gévaudan to the rest of France.

The beast became a national obsession thanks to the editor of the Courrier d’Avignon, François Morénas. The end of the Seven Years’ War with Britain in 1763 had caused a news drought for Morénas. Successful in peddling sensationalist stories, Morénas printed stories of the Beast of Gévaudan to boost the newspaper’s sales and spread word of the creature around the nation.

The wooded slopes of Mont Mouchet, where Jean Chastel is reputed to have slain the beast on June 19, 1767. At the foot of the mountain is his hometown, La Besseyre-Saint-Mary.
Photograph by Alamy/ACI

These attacks generated dread, which was stoked further by the dramatic reporting of Morénas’s correspondents. One such report attributed astonishing swiftness to the beast. Another said that it had the gaze of a devil. Others reported that it possessed the intelligence of a “wily, robust and skilled gladiator.” In late 1764 Morénas’s publication was comparing the beast to the mythical Nemean lion and other terrifying monsters.

(Discover 24 spooky places to visit around the world.)

In addition to horrific accounts of the beast itself, the newspapers also printed alleged survivors’ accounts of their encounters. In January 1765 a group of preteens held the creature at bay with sticks. In another incident in March, Jeanne Jouve fought to protect her three children; one of them, age six, died from his injuries. One of the most famous was Marie-Jeanne Vallet, the “Maiden of Gévaudan” who fought the beast off, wounding it in the chest with a bayonet.

On the hunt

For some, the challenge to catch the beast represented a good career move, and a shot at redemption. A local military captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel recruited thousands of local people to help him hunt down the beast in fall 1764. Based on reports of the long black stripe down its back, Duhamel speculated that the beast was not a wolf, but a big cat: “This animal is a monster whose father is a lion; it remains open what the mother is.” Despite his best efforts, Duhamel failed to capture the monster.

France’s national obsession with the beast prompted King Louis XV, shown here in a bust, to intervene.
Photograph by DEA/Album

By early 1765 the continuing Gévaudan drama had attracted the attention of King Louis XV. He rewarded the group of boys who had fought off the beast with sticks and gave their leader a free education. In March the king sent his own hunters to trap the beast. A renowned Normandy wolf hunter, Jean-Charles Vaumesle d’Enneval, was appointed to head the mission, but he, too, was unsuccessful.

Rattled by his appointee’s lack of progress, Louis XV sent his bodyguard, the veteran soldier François Antoine. On September 21, 1765, Antoine’s men killed a large wolf that they believed to be the beast. The body was sent to Paris, and Antoine was rewarded.

Two months later, however, the attacks resumed. Between December 1765 and June 1767, as many as 30 more fatalities were reported. Fear stalked the Gévaudan once again, except this time, the locals were on their own. Embarrassed by their failure, the authorities paid little attention, and even the newspapers, had lost interest.

According to local lore, Jean Chastel, hailed as the killer of the beast in 1767, took his trophy to Paris but was snubbed by the king, who had lost interest in the Gévaudan case. It is not certain that such an encounter took place, but it became part of a narrative that pitted brave local heroes against outsiders. This monument to Chastel stands in La Besseyre-Saint-Mary, France.
Photograph by Album

On June 19, 1767, local hunter Jean Chastel shot and killed a large animal. From then on, the attacks stopped. Witnesses described the fallen creature as a wolf, but a strange one: It had a “monstrous” head, and a coat of red, white, and grey that hunters had not seen on wolves before.

Mystery monsters

 In the following centuries, different explanations were investigated as to the cause of these horrific deaths in the Gévaudan region. One of the most popular was supernatural in origin: the werewolf. Science has ruled that one out, but the legend lingered for many years, perhaps because of the rumour that Chastel shot the Beast of Gévaudan with a silver bullet.

Recent theorists have speculated that a serial killer could have been at work in Gévaudan who employed some sort of animal to help them kill their victims; however, most experts think this idea is too far-fetched.

The answers with the most support come from the animal world. Others suggested the beast could have been an escaped creature that was not native to France, like a hyena. Biologist Karl-Hans Taake has recently argued that the beast was an escaped juvenile male lion, whose immature mane would have looked strange to inhabitants of the French countryside. According to Taake, the lion eventually died after eating poisoned bait, which had been placed throughout the Gévaudan region.

The beast's various attacks are depicted in an 18th- century engraving.
Photograph by Alamy/ACI

Historian Jay M. Smith has proposed a less exotic theory: The“Beast” of Gévaudan was rather likely to be several large wolves. The distorting lens of the press and subsequent national hysteria created the Beast of Gévaudan and the hype that went with it.

Writing more than a century after the last attack, Robert Louis Stevenson (future author of Treasure Island) was traveling through Gévaudan and described his dismay at how the world was changing: “This was the land of the ever-memorable Beast, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves.” Now that the railroad was arriving, “you may not meet with an adventure worth the name.”

The modern world may have crept into Gévaudan, but the true identity of the beast will most likely never be solved to anyone’s satisfaction, lending a permanent air of mystery to this wild region of the Massif Central. 

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