Perhaps one of the oldest and best documented cases of suspected wide spread werewolf attacks occurred exactly 250 years ago. Between 1764 and 1767, the province of Gevaudan in the Haute-Loire, France, was terrorized by a mysterious creature simply known today as the Beast of Gevaudan. Although the identity of this mysterious creature remains a mystery, at least 60 known deaths were attributed to the Beast’s ferocity over the four-year period. Conflicting eyewitness accounts of the creature’s physical description has only added to mystery and has lead some cryptozoologists to suspect perhaps two (or more) cryptids were responsible for killings.
1764: The Beginning
The first recorded incident involving the Beast of Gevaudan took place in the early summer of 1764. A young woman was in the Mercoire Forest, on the eastern part of Gevaudan, tending to her cattle when she caught sight of an unexpected large animal headed straight toward her. Fortunately, the bulls in her herd acted quickly and instinctively drove off the animal twice after it made two attempts to attack the girl.
Sadly, this did not dissuade the Beast from continuing to seek out a human victim. Just a few days after the first sighting, the Beast made its first successful known attack near the village of Les Hubacs. A 14-year-old child named Janne Boulet was the victim of this deadly assault. The villagers, shocked by massacred corpse, knew immediately something was terribly wrong and became weary of their travels outdoors. Little did they realize how right they were to be scared; true evil would soon befall them.
The next few months were filled with reports of attacks on women, men and children who were unlucky enough to venture outside alone. Most of these attacks occurred in and around the forests of Gevaudan while the victims were tending to herds of animals. Curiously, reports from witnesses who observed the bodies indicated the Beast repeatedly focused each of its attacks on the neck and head of its prey and seemed to specifically target humans.
In December 1764, new reports began circulating throughout the area discussing the possibility two of these creatures existed due to the significant numbers of victims and the high frequency of attacks. In particular, some of the attacks occurred within hours of each other but were separated by great distances so it seemed plausible to suspect more than one Beast. There were even reports of attacks occurring at virtually the same time in two completely different locations.
The idea two beasts were responsible for the mayhem during these four years is much more consistent with the varying descriptions within the many eyewitness accounts. However, normally such large predators would not ‘share’ a territory. A more reasonable explanation would be a mated pair of creatures roamed Gevaudan, together, explaining some of the physical variations reported by eyewitnesses.
1765: The Insatiable Hunger
The first reported attack targeting more than one person at a time took place on January 12, 1765. Jacques Portefaix and seven of his friends were attacked repeatedly by the Beast of Gevaudan but were able to keep driving it off because of the large size of their group. The sensation of their story reached the attention of King Louis XV who rewarded the group’s bravery by sending Portefaix 300 livres and his companions 350 livres to split. Also recognizing the stories of the Beast’s murderous rampage had become a national issue, the King declared that the French state would take steps to find and eliminate the Beast.
By February 17, the King had employed two professional wolf hunters and dispatched them to investigate the killings in Gevaudan. The father and son team were equipped with eight bloodhounds specifically trained in wolf hunting and dedicated the next four months to locating whatever was behind the carnage. Unfortunately, although not unexpectedly, the duo was unable to successfully track the Beast. Making matters worse, despite their efforts to locate the creature, the attacks and killings continued. For those familiar with suspected werewolf attacks, it should come as no surprise they were unable to find the Beast (or Beasts). Similar to a series of suspected werewolf attacks and killings recently in Croatia; all efforts to find the shapeshifter turned up empty. On one hand, they were hunting for an ‘animal’ when they should have been looking for a person. On the other, shapeshifters are immensely talented at hiding amongst the animals they mimic and using them as both a diversion and cover for their evil acts (which you’ll read about shortly). The Beast of Bray Road is a perfect example of a similarly described creature, suspected to be a shapeshifter, able to elude capture for the better part of a century.
In June, the king lost patience with the initial group, and replaced them by Francis Antoine. Antoine was employed by the king as his harquebus bearer and given the title Lieutenant of the Hunt. In just three months, Antoine was able to kill three large gray wolves and, quite happy with himself, declared the Beast of Gevaudan dead. While maybe a bit premature, Antoine largely based his conclusion on statements from a few survivors who identifying the corpse of a wolf as their attacker. Who could blame them? This beasty was a monster over 31 inches high, weighing 130 pounds and standing 67 inches on its hind legs. Having his prize, the creature was stuffed and Antoine presented it to the King; claiming his reward.
1767: What If It Was a Werewolf?
Suspecting that perhaps things were getting a little too risky by capturing the attention of the King, the werewolf retreated to the shadows and there were no reported attacks in 1766. The year reprieve gave people hope that the Beast had truly been vanquished. This illusion was shattered in 1767 when two men were injured and at least 12 deaths were blamed on the return of the Beast of Gevaudan.
This is a good point to stop and take a pause to contemplate whether or not you believe in werewolves. What’s true for one person may not be true for another and at some point everyone reaches a moment when they are confronted with the reality of ‘what if’ and stop asking ‘why’. Specifically, questions like ‘why would a werewolf be real’ or ‘why do people believe in superstitious creatures like werewolves’ turn into the simple question ‘what if werewolves are real’. It’s at this moment of epiphany an individual realizes what must be done.
One such individual, a local hunter named Jean Chastel, did ask that question and decided to take matters into his own hands by manufacturing a blessed silver bullet. Chastel fearlessly hunted for the shapeshifter until one day, the two of them crossed paths. The details are not well known about what happened next (perhaps Chastel knew where the shapeshifter lived and laid waiting) but Chastel took aim and brought the Beast down with his silver bullet. An impromptu autopsy of the Beast’s corpse verified there were human remains within the Beast’s stomach.
Although it couldn’t conclusively be proven that Chastel’s trophy had actually been the Beast or had killed and eaten its human meal (having simply eaten the body of a person already dead), the fact remains – the attacks did stop forever.
While Chastel embraced the ‘what if’ and saved countless lives, there are still some who point to Chastel’s and Antoine’s successful hunts as strong evidence supporting the argument two beasts hunted together. If true, Antoine’s belief he had killed the creature responsible for the killings was not entirely wrong.
What Did the Beast Look Like?
Descriptions of the Beast of Gevaudan varied wildly ranging from a large gray wolf to a monstrous hulk said to be four times larger than a horse. The description itself seemed to talk on a life of its own with seemingly conflicting witness accounts that the Beast had wolf, hyena, panther, and pig or bear characteristics. It was described as having a mouth filled with large teeth, a strong and long neck, small and round ears, a big and strong tail that was long like a panther’s, but used as a weapon, and feet that were either cloven hooves or contained extremely thick and formidable claws. The description of the beast’s fur ranged from having primarily red hues to black and white patches.
However disparate and seemingly incomprehensible the descriptions were, we do know what the two creatures Chastel and Antoine killed looked like. If these were in fact the culprits, then most of the witness accounts are false and should be dismissed. With that said, if they were not behind the killings and possibly something else was hiding amongst them then perhaps there remains two unidentified creatures. Were these two creatures a pair of shapeshifters; a mated pair of werewolves?
Pop Culture Depictions of the Beast
In 2001, a movie entitled Le Pacte des Loups was released in France that took a fictionalized look at the well-known local legend. The film was also released under the name Brotherhood of the Wolf for English-speaking audiences. Although the movie was not a financial or critical success, it has earned better than average user ratings on IMDb, and was also responsible for stirring up a lot of modern interest in figuring out exactly what the Beast of Gevaudan was.
According to the movie, this creature was part of the lion family, but this is not consistent with eyewitness accounts from the 1700s. Artists from that time period typically depicted it as being either part wolf or hyena, and a book entitled Monsters of the Gevaudan published in 2011 comes to the conclusion the Beast was never believed to be just one creature by local residents. Instead, author Jay M. Smith believes this name was used to describe an entire group of wolves (or werewolves) that terrorized the area. Smith has researched the Beast of Gevaudan in his capacity as a Professor of History working for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so it is possible his conclusion may be right.
There’s nothing better than a conspiracy theory, even an old one. Some people believe Jean Chastel was actually responsible for the creation of the beast. It’s intriguing to consider the idea a mastiff/wolf hybrid or a hyena was specifically bred and trained with the intention of terrorizing the entire area. Some reports indicate Chastel was often seen with an extremely large mastiff with a reddish coat, lending to suspicion this could have been one of the parents of the creature. While this may be an interesting theory, if Chastel was really behind the murders in some capacity then perhaps he was either a werewolf himself or knew someone inflected by the disease. Was putting down the Beast an act of mercy or a clever way to cover up his own evil acts?
Records also indicate the animal declared to be the Beast of Gevaudan had 42 teeth, more consistent with some type of wolf or dog than a hyena. It might seem odd to think Chastel could have been behind the monster he tasked himself with finding and killing but it actually makes logical sense. After all, even if he wasn’t a werewolf, emerging as a hero is one of the best ways to gain praise, respect and money.
Another idea casts a critical eye on the church and theorizes it could have been training hyenas or wolf hybrids with the specific intention of scaring people. There are many reasons a local church could become convinced to participate in such activities, including the desire to increase attendance and bolster their position as a significantly important part of the local community. People throughout history have been more drawn to religion during times of trouble; the deaths and injuries blamed on the mysterious beast likely filled extra spaces in the church.
Yet another theory speculates the beast was neither wolf or hyena. Instead, it could have been a descendant of an extinct cryptid known as a mesonychid. These creatures existed during the Palaeocene, and are believed to have been the first carnivorous mammals to walk the earth after dinosaurs went extinct. Paleontologists have proven that Dissacus, which is one of the descendants of this species, lived in Europe. Intriguingly, the Dissacus was jackal sized, but the next genus in the evolutionary line, the Ankalagon, grew to be approximately the size of a bear. Is it possible some version of the mesonychid species line remained alive and undetected in France until the 1700s?
The Obsession with Killing Monsters
In the modern world, there is a large emphasis placed on preventing creatures such as tigers and rhinos from becoming extinct due to the actions of human beings. In reality, these animals were definitely looked at as savage beasts by our ancestors and their fear once drove them to hunt in such large quantities that extensive conservation efforts are now needed to keep them from dying out completely.
This knowledge makes it easy to assume mankind has continuously hunted monsters of all types since the beginning of history which may explain all of the so-called mythological beings no longer in existence. Instead of looking at them as merely legends which never actually lived, we need to consider the possibility mankind’s powerful fear of the unknown has led to the complete obliteration of several magnificent creatures that probably would have been revered in the same way as tigers are today.
For example, there could have been large numbers of animals fitting the description of the Beast of Gevaudan in the 1700s, and before, that were hunted until extinct. Although we might never know how many species were destroyed by man before recorded history, we should stop dismissing stories from the past about creatures like the Beast.
Either way, with so many deaths, injuries and eyewitness accounts, it’s easy to conclude the Beast of Gevaudan definitely existed. While unlikely the full truth will ever be discovered, answering whether these creatures were shapeshifters, a now extinct species or a breeding experiment gone wrong; we at least have affirmation through the deaths of over 60 people that it’s always better to prepare for the ‘what if’ in life than ‘ask why’ and ignore danger.