30 June 1764: The 14-year-old Jeanne Boulet became the first victim of the Beast of Gévaudan, one or several creatures that went on a killing spree over the next three years in the Auvergne in France, claiming between 80 – 100 victims.
“For this was the land of the ever-memorable Beast, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and "shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty"; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king's high-road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head. And yet, when he was shot and sent to Versailles, behold! a common wolf, and even small for that.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
|Contemporary Illustration of the Beast of Gévaudan|
The killings in the Languedoc-Roussillon region were very real. No one doubted that. And after more children were attacked, earlier case of brutal assaults on children were blamed on the beast. Over the next three years, between 80 and 100 women and children were killed while men were usually evaded, especially armed men. The church was quick to capitalise on the terror that the creature spread in the days when the Age of Enlightenment took more and more of the flock away from the true Catholic faith. The Bishop of Mende, quoting the Deuteronomy: “I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them“ in his in his consolatory pastoral letters and interpreting the tragic occurrences as God’s judgement on those whose faith was weak, while King Louis XV sent the army to tackle the beast, 57 dragoons under Capitaine Duhamel. That groups of die-hard Huguenots hid in the hills who could be rooted out en passant, while Duhamel and his men were on the spot helped, of course. The ban on firearms and pikes in place for the commoners did support Duhamel’s policing actions but left the peasantry either on the wrong side of the law or defenceless against the attacks of the beast.
|A contemporary illustration showing a collage of attacks of the beast.|
Low-quality powder and shot along with the damp of the winter of 1764 probably led to the observation that the beast was somehow bullet-proof and its brazen attacks in broad daylight near human settlements added to the myth of its supernatural origins. The reports of survivors of the beast’s attacks along with sightings of its hunters did nothing to demystify the creature in any way. Big as a cow, at the very least, a red coloured fur with black stripes and a pointy snout, bristles on its back and long teeth and razor-sharp claws did not sound very much like a wolf. However, several large lupines were bagged by various authorities, from Captaine Duhamel to expert wolf hunters, enormous bounties collected and every time the killings continued until a local, Jean Chastel, brought it down on 19 June 1767, allegedly with blessed silver bullets. Survivors confirmed that the creature Chastel had shot was the beast, unfortunately its carcass rotted very fast and only one of its paws could be brought to Paris, but the spook was over and no more killings occurred.
|Is it a hyena? is it a hybrid? Or even a cryptid, believed to have died out long since...|
Since then, theories grew exuberantly about what the Beast of Gévaudan was. The most reasonable idea is that of one or even several large wolf-dog hybrids and conspiracists added the point of the beasts being trained to attack humans and even wearing armour, hence their unnatural toughness when fired upon. The beast definitely killed for sport and the frequency of attacks in places far apart from each other could be explained by the existence of something of a pack. Other beliefs bring in baboons, hyenas, sometimes trained to attack humans, sometimes not, and the legends of werewolves had been told since the 1760s. Various cryptids come into question as well, from a hence unknown giant wolverine-like mustelid, as the authors of the Cryptozoologicon have proposed, tongue-in-cheek, to scions of bear dogs, Amphycion, that have died out 5 million years ago, or even Andrewsarchus, extinct since 30 million years. Both creatures vaguely resemble the descriptions of the beast, but a sudden appearance of a living fossil from a Lost World in the hills of Gévaudan is fabulous, but rather unlikely. Thus, the tale of the Beast of Gévaudan remains a mystery to this day, but that human involvement brought it into existence, at least to a certain extent, judging from the gruesome details, is a strong possibility.
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* Image by midmiocene found on: https://midmiocene.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/the-cast-of-characters/