The people of Gevaudan, France claimed a deadly, giant, fearsome beast was stalking them, but was it really a supernatural beast, or just a local legend?
The town of Gévaudan was a quiet, secluded, mountainous region in Southern France, but from 1764 to 1767, Gévaudan was tormented by a wolf-like beast that mauled over three hundred people, mostly women, and children. The first recorded sighting was in 1764 when a young woman tending cattle near the town of Langogne was approached by the Beast of Gevaudan. Luckily for her, the bulls she was tending to were able to drive off the beast twice, and she remained unharmed. The victim of the next sighting was not so lucky. Shortly later that same year, a teenager named Janne Boulet was reportedly attacked and killed by the beast.
Over a hundred deaths were attributed to the beast’s attacks, most with their throats or chests ripped out by something with sharp teeth and claws. News of a murderous monster grabbed the public’s attention. The press reported extensively on the attacks, describing the beast as a wolf-like creature with russet and black fur, a wide chest, a huge mouth and very sharp teeth.
At first, local officials, led by infantry leader Jean Baptiste Duhame, organized a group of 30,000 volunteers to hunt and kill the beast. They even offered a reward equal to a year’s salary for most of the population of the town to whoever was able to successfully kill it. But despite the town’s best efforts, the attacks did not stop.
The problem got so bad that it attracted the attention of the king. Louis XV sent two professional wolf hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François, to Gévaudan to kill the beast. They spent four months hunting wolves, but the mountainous terrain was difficult to navigate and their attempt was unsuccessful.
The king removed them from the town, and instead sent his own bodyguard, François Antoine, to hunt the beast. Antoine and his team of men were able to successfully shoot and kill a wolf that was 31 inches tall and 5 feet and 7 inches long. They received their reward from the Louis XV, and for a short time, the terror seemed to have ceased. However, the relief didn’t last. Just a few months later, the attacks started up again, and each description of the beast became more and more fantastical than the last.
Some sightings claimed that the Beast of Gevaudan had supernatural abilities, could walk on its hind legs, or was actually a part-wolf, part-man hybrid. With mass hysteria growing and no more help coming from the Louis XV, the locals banded together to try to solve the problem once a for all. A local farmer named Jean Chaste was serving time in prison, but was released to help begin the hunt for the beast. He shot and killed a huge wolf, and is credited with finally ending the killings once and for all. By some accounts, the stomach of the beast was opened up and human remains were found inside, thus proving that Chaste had finally killed the real monster.
Although the attacks reportedly stopped, no consensus was ever reached on what the beast actually was. The debate continues even today, with scholars and historians debating if the beast was indeed a rabid wolf, a young lion escaped from a menagerie, or simply a case of a pack of wild wolves combined with mass hysteria and rumor taken too far.
Whatever its real identity, the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan has not been forgotten. Robert Louis Stevenson reported on the incident in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes in 1879. More recently, a version of the story has been adapted by popular TV show Teen Wolf, and the movie The Wolfman. It remains a popular story, and many books, film, and television continue to draw inspiration from the legend of the beast.