Gévaudan was exactly the type of place where you’d expect the supernatural to occur. Nestled in the south of France, it had a reputation for being isolated and remote. It was a region where people kept to themselves, surrounded by forests and hillsides that may still have been enchanted. At least, that was the general sentiment in the 1700s.
The setting was a fitting one, then, when a mysterious beast began ripping out the throats of hapless victims. What followed was three years of carnage, runaway speculation, ridiculous representations, and one of the first sensationalist international news stories.
A Beastly Backwater
Gévaudan no longer exists, having been absorbed by the Department of Lozère after the French Revolution of 1789. This ancient province was named for the Gallic Gabali tribe, and was, by all accounts, to be avoided by those hailing from the more civilized parts of France.
After the killings had begun to attract hunting expeditions from all over, Gévaudan was laid bare for all to see. One pikeman from Normandy wrote to his patron in April of 1765, “Snow, hail, thunderstorms, wind, wet feet … I beg you, sir, if you have not already left for the Gévaudan yourself, forget about it. This is an abominable country, with terrible food.”
The humble descendants of the Gabalitains mainly ate bread, and while meat was hard to come by, they did devour salt pork when they could spare some. They lived like many did in the Old World, suffering from disease, malnutrition, and famine in between yearly harvests. Travelers described the villages there as ugly and unkempt; tourists ignored the area completely. These malnourished peasants were the ideal victims for the beast that would soon consume them by the dozens.
Like many rural areas in France and elsewhere in Europe, wolves posed a constant threat. To this day there are hundreds of place names in France and dozens in Lozère that come from their word for wolf, “loup”. The infestations grew to be such a nuisance that near the end of the 18th century the government was willing to pay a solid bounty for pregnant wolves. You received even more if you bagged one that had already murdered someone.
So at first, when peasants in this remote backwater in France started succumbing to what looked like wolf attacks, it didn’t create much of a stir elsewhere in the country.
Please, Think of the Children
The first victim died on June 30, 1764. Jeanne Boulet was a 14-year-old shepherdess tending livestock in the lush hills just beyond the eastern edge of Gévaudan. Her death attracted little attention at the time, accepted by the community as a tragic side effect of a perilous time. The only documentation of the incident was a burial notice made by the parish priest. But then, on August 8th, a teenage girl in nearby Puylaurens died, followed shortly by a 16-year-old boy working the fields near Langogne.
September saw four more attacks, including the first adult victim, who had perished at sunset just a few steps away from her front door. Rumors began to spread, and people in the region decided to mobilize. Armed locals would roam the forests and try to draw predators out, but still the beast evaded capture. By October it had moved to the Margeride mountains. There it decapitated a woman, and this is when the authorities started taking note.
It became apparent that apprehending the culprit would take resources. Ideally, trained patrols would roam the countryside, but this proved difficult to enforce with timid and inexperienced villagers. Peasants willing to leave their fields could expect a payment of 20 sous per day, but it became evident by November that professional soldiers would be necessary.
A Monster of Mythical Proportions
As word of the monster spread throughout Gévaudan, speculation ran wild. Fear and anxiety fueled descriptions of a monster that acted more like a demon. Popular folklore of the day was already rife with stories of witches and werewolves, adding supernatural elements to the story. Newspapers pounced on any salacious detail they could find, fictional or otherwise. They spoke of an intelligent beast that moved with ferocity and acted like an exceedingly cruel wolf. It bore strange characteristics that resembled a hyena, a young bull, a large donkey, and a lion. It was as agile as a cat, yet shrieked like a horse.
France was in a demoralized state, having just suffered disastrously after the Seven Years’ War. People craved distraction, and since the king had all but banned political news, the press got creative. The story of a cruel and cunning beast slaying innocent working folk was just the kind of story the country could rally around. The Courrier d’Avignon was particularly enraptured, publishing 98 articles in just over a year and reporting each killing with the type of literary aplomb you’d expect from a novelist. The publication spoke of boys who became feverish after looking the beast in the eyes and beautiful maidens losing their heads in astonishing fashion. The creator and editor, François Morénas, was one of the driving forces behind the creature turning from rural monster to national calamity.
As the bodies and fantastical tales piled on top of each other, aristocrats and officials began to get involved. Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel, a local infantry leader, and Étienne Lafont, a government delegate, combined forces to organize a concerted attack. Men were clamoring to help, and volunteers swelled into the tens of thousands at one point. They were trained as soldiers, left poisoned bait, and even dressed up like unassuming peasant women, all to no avail. The body count and the stakes rose higher, with the equivalent of a year’s salary on the line for anyone who could kill the monster.
You could imagine the type of notoriety and redemption that awaited the lucky hunter who could bag the Beast of Gévaudan. More unexpected was the fame that followed everyday people who survived attacks. One child, Jacques Portefaix, received an education at the king’s expense after successfully scaring off the beast with a group of children in January of 1765. Marie-Jeanne Vallet had a statue erected in her honor and earned the title “Maiden of Gévaudan” for wounding it.
Kill the Beast
Still, scores of trained and deadly hunters had little success. Notables poured in from all over the country, only to fail and slink back home. Frustrated, the king sent his bodyguard to finish the job. When François Antoine shot and killed a large wolf in September of 1765, Louis XV rewarded him lavishly and villagers rejoiced. They displayed the carcass in Versailles and many noted that although it didn’t seem overly supernatural, the beast was quite large. This denouement threw cold water on the fervor that had captured the attention of so many. In death, the beast was simply a big animal.
But then, two months later, the attacks continued. At this point, Louis considered the case closed. He offered little help despite thirty more people dying over the next year and a half. The rest of the country had lost interest in whatever was now plaguing the backwater of Gévaudan. This galvanized the locals once more. Finally, a farmer called Jean Chastel managed to bring the creature down on June 19, 1767.
Even centuries later, people are unsure what the beast was. While experts like Jay Smith, who wrote a book on the subject, thinks the region was dealing with a particularly nasty wolf infestation, other suggestions have cropped up over the years. A few scientists have put forth that it might have been a hyena hybrid or escaped lion. Some accuse Chastel of having trained an animal to murder people so that hunters would get rid of the wolves that decimated his livestock.
Smith is most likely correct. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the Beast of Gévaudan took on a life of its own, and now exists in history as a monster worthy of the grimmest of fairy tales.