The Beast of Gévaudan

The Beast of Gévaudan

“The Beast of Gévaudan existed between 1764-1767.  During those three years, it attacked, tore apart, slaughtered and devoured over 120 people, mostly women and children.  Its terror spread across an area that covered over 90×80 kilometers (56×50 miles).  Another estimated 30-50 people were injured but survived the brutal and terrifying attacks.  It was said to have supernatural powers and believed by many to be a werewolf.”

 

While investigating a legal court case held in the High-Court of Bordeaux, France in 1603 concerning an actual suspected werewolf, International Historian George Hruby came across this true and terrifying story of the Beast of Gévaudan.  Years later, coming across the powerful and beautiful photograph of Lucio Rosenkreutz, featuring a little girl and a huge wolf, the 20th century poet became inspired to create his powerful, fairy-tale like composition, “The Beast of Gévaudan.”

 

Here is the backstory on this composition as Hruby now tells us the true story about the beast of Gévaudan.

 

In his own words …..

 

Some where in France, among fields of sunflowers and castle ruins, lakes of glass and forests so deep, …. lies a true story so remarkable and terrifying that even today, it frightens us still.  It is the story of the Beast of Gévaudan.

Working extensively over twenty-five years with Federal, State, and Military law, both criminal and civil, in addition to working with historical archives across the United States; I fell into research while living in Bordeaux, France, into a matter involving a criminal case in 1603.  It involved a man accused of being a werewolf.  It would become a precedent case for France involving werewolves at the time.

While we know today that werewolves are not real, the “The Beast of Gévaudan” was.  And it was during this time that I accidentally discovered this most remarkable true story.

First, I must share with you this fact.  During the middle-ages throughout Europe, including France, wolf attacks were very prevalent among the people.  It was a time of feudalism.  A time of castles and walled-up cities and villages.  There was no middle-class.  Only nobility and the peasantry.

This not only found the peasantry outside the protected village walls in the countryside tending to the fields and herds of the nobility, but also left them as the most vulnerable targets to wolves.  To make it even worse, it was usually women and children that held the menial tasks of scaring away birds from the crops, tending to small herds of cattle and sheep, carrying food to the adults working in the fields, etc.  Thus, it was a spectacular tragedy in any village or town when a child or woman would be found killed by a wolf.  The style and manner of death was horrific as can be imagined.

Being that Man is the ultimate predator upon earth, he is not used to becoming prey to any other species.  Humans do not know what it is to be eaten alive.  To be torn to pieces and devoured.  People do not know what it is like to live in that constant fear and terror unlike all other living species do on earth.  But in 1764, the people in Gévaudan, France did. And it was by a wolf unlike any other in Europe till this time.

Gévaudan is just two hours driving time east of Bordeaux.  Deriving its name from a Gallic tribe, Gévaudan was disestablished in 1790 but was located in what is today the department (county) of Lozére, in the Margeride Mountains of south-central France.  Its government center is located in Javois.  The languages of Occitan (the language of King Richard the Lion Heart) and French were spoken there.

The Beast of Gévaudan existed between 1764-1767.  During those three years, it attacked, tore apart, slaughtered and devoured over 120 people, mostly women and children.  It spread its terror across an area over 90×80 kilometers (56×50 miles).  Another estimated 30-50 people were injured but survived the brutal and horrific attacks.  It was said to have supernatural powers and believed by many to be a werewolf.

At this time, fifty-four-year-old Louis XV rules France as King.  Louis the XVI (husband to Marie Antoinette) is only ten years old.  France has just lost Canada and its power over foreign colonies continues to weaken.  The country lies broke and much of its peasantry population faces starvation.

It is during this time, that in the region of Gévaudan, that the first attack by the beast was historically recorded during the early summer of 1764.  A young girl tending a small herd of cattle in the Mercoire Forest near Langogne, watched in horror as a huge and odd looking creature came towards her.  However, the herd moved around her to protect itself and several bulls thwarted off the attack.  Brazen, the beast would not leave so easily and launched a second attack towards the girl.  This too was stopped by the herd.

This young girl survived but just days later, 14-year-old Janne Boulet was attacked and killed by the beast.  Occurring just outside the village of Les Hubacs (not far from Langogne), all that was found of her was lots of blood, her bonnet and her shoes.

The attacks now continued non-stop, often targeting lone people moving throughout the countryside.  Continued attacks leading to ghastly deaths left the region reeling in now constant fear and terror of being attacked.

The population was more-or-less agreed that they were dealing with a large wolf.  Survivors from attacks and small groups of villagers that had managed to fight it off gave the relatively same descriptions.

Everyone agreed that it was an unusually large wolf, with a snout like a calf, long hair, and a very long tail.  Another described it as a “beast as wide as a horse” and a “body as long as a leopard’s” and whose fur was “red with a black stripe.”

 

 

“La Béte of Gévaudan” – Sketch done of the Beast of Gévaudan in 1765 by A.F. of Alencon

 

Hunters in the area figured it was an unusually large wolf, possibly a Grey Wolf.  Others suspected the beast of being a hybrid dog of some sort, possibly a large breed mated with a wolf.  Some even went as far as speculating it might somehow be a hyena from Africa.

 

Rendering of the Beast of Gévaudan as shown in 1764 resembling more of a hyena.

 

Every village had its church, and this was often where the grieving families of the dead and the terrified peasantry went to seek condolence and answers.  The church, having no way to console or explain such horrific deaths, could only demonize the creature and make it the work of the devil.  This in-turn led the superstitious population to resort to its legends from the middle-ages.  Thus, many began to believe the creature was in fact a werewolf.

The country might not have even known what was happening in Gévaudan at the time had it not been for the growing popularity in France of the press.  One such press ran out of Avignon.  It began printing stories about the beast’s attacks in a segment of its paper featuring everyday incidents in the area.

The attacks had now become so frequent going into winter that locals began to theorize that it was not the work of a lone wolf but rather an entire pack.

Word of the brutal attacks reached the attention of the King of France at Versailles, King Louis XV.  Local government officials pleaded with the King to do something.  He responded by dispatching soldiers to the scene.

Under the command of a Captain Duhamel of the Clermont-Ferrand Dragoons, he and French infantry began a hunt for the mysterious and deadly beast.  Using military tactics and at one point, up to 30,000 soldiers and volunteers, the hunt was on for the monster of Gévaudan.

However, 1765 started off with the attacks not slowing down a bit.

On Saturday, January 12, 1765, a teenage boy named Jacques Portefaix, and his young friends, were tending to a herd of cattle in in a field when the beast appeared before all.  It began a savage attack to get at one of the children.  The children survived only by grouping together and fending it off with sharpened pikes.  The King was so marveled at their bravery before the beast, that he rewarded all of them.  He paid Portefaix 300 livres and dispersed 350 livres among the remaining children.  He also granted Jacques Portefaix an education paid for by the King himself.

Captain Duhamel was doing all that he could to capture and kill the beast.  With thousands of men, they hunted the countryside’s, planted poisoned bait, and promoted the King’s reward of one year’s worth of work-salary to the man that killed the beast.  They even had some men dressing as women in fields in hope of attracting the monster so it could be killed.

Since the attacks were continuing, the King recalled Captain Duhamel back, along with his men, and decided to approach the problem from a different angle.  This time, the King dispatched two professional wolf hunters from Normandy.  They were a father-and-son team who boasted having killed over 1200 wolves in their career.  They arrived in Clermont-Ferrand on Sunday, February 17, 1765 with eight bloodhounds experienced in tracking down Eurasian Gray Wolves.  This of course was what they thought they were dealing with.  However, after killing over a hundred wolves and the beast not slowing down his attacks a bit, the father-son hunting team quit and returned back to Normandy.

While locals continued to be hunted and slaughtered by the beast with no slowing down or deterrent at all, in June of 1765, the King now sent François Antoine, his gun-bearer and top musket-marksman.  He was made the lieutenant of the new hunt.  Antoine and his son, along with a small detachment of men arrived in Le Malzieu and began their hunt for the beast.

 

The Maid of Gévaudan shown defending herself from the Beast from a rendering done in the 18th Century.

 

By August, a notable incident occurred with the beast outside the village of Auvers.  A young woman was walking along a trail through a wooded area that led to a fork in the river.  There she was about to cross when for some reason she turned and looked back.  There to her horror was the beast coming quickly at her.  She saw what she thought was an unusually large dog.  As it charged at her, it reared up on its hind legs lurching forward.

Due to the attacks, the young woman had been carrying a spear which had been handmade.

In the second that the beast lunged forward, she could but point the spear towards it chest which it entered.  The animal pulled itself back off the spear while she held it tightly still.  The animal screamed repeatedly.  She watched as it placed its paw over the wound on its chest.  The beast then plunged into the river as she ran away for help.

The young woman’s name was Marie-Jeanne Vallet and to this day, she remains a hero in her village for standing up to the beast.  She is known as the “Maiden of Gévaudan.”  A statue stands there today in Auvers of her and her gallant fight with the beast.

 

Statue of the Maiden of Gévaudan in the Village of Auvers, France. Photo by Annetta Black

 

It can only be imagined that such eye-witness accounts of the beast, and its unusual actions, could only have given it more folklore as to being a werewolf.  Indeed, the animal was observed tearing out the throats of its victims.  In many cases, the face and heads were mutilated by the creature.  Some saw that it did not even eat the victims but rather just killed them. It was wondered if it was just killing for pure pleasure?  The locals described it as having supernatural powers.  It was said that bullets could not stop it.  That it had fire in its eyes.  That it could walk on its hind feet and possessed unbelievable leaping ability.  It was also said that it could rise from the dead.  Such was the Beast of Gévaudan.

 

18th Century depiction of the Beast of Gévaudan (Courtesy of Musée Fantasique de la Bête du Gévaudan)

 

 

The very next month, on Friday, September 20th, of 1765, Antoine’s team finally killed the beast.  It was a large grey wolf measuring 80 cm (31 in) high, 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) long, and weighing 60 kg (130 lb).  The wolf was named Le Loup de Chazes (The Wolf of Chazes) after the nearby Abbaye des Chazes.  Antoine and his team returned back to Paris.

 

18th-century engraving of François Antoine slaying the Beast of Gévaudan

 

The body of the wolf was stuffed and sent to the King at Versailles for inspection.  Locals identified scars on the beast from wounds inflicted by survivors who had successfully fought it off.

So … the Beast of Gévaudan had finally been killed.  Or so everyone had thought.

Darkness and silence, like mist, slowly swirled throughout the woods of Gévaudan.  And then, the Beast of Gévaudan returned … with a vengeance.

On Monday, December 2, 1765, two young boys, one six-years-old and the other twelve, were attacked by the beast.  The animal took hold of the 6 yr. old and tried to take him but was beaten off by the 12 yr. old.  While they survived the attack, others were quickly not becoming so lucky.  Nearby deaths from the beast were already being reported by local inhabitants in the area of La Besseyre Saint Mary.

As if nothing at all had happened, the people of Gévaudan were left to succumb to the worse fear imaginable.  To be prey for a predator that waited to stalk you, tear you to pieces, and eat you, alive.  The King, with his stuffed trophy at Versailles considered the problem over and solved.  To him, the beast had been killed and he could show this to the people.  But, for the people of Gévaudan, the beast had never left.  It could not be killed.

 

The Beast of Gévaudan (also called the wolf of Chazes) shown stuffed and display before King Louis XV and his court.

 

 

For eighteen more months, fear and terror continued in the adjoining wooded areas of the Margeride Mountains.

Gévaudan sat helplessly as over 35 more of its inhabitants were torn to pieces and eaten by the mythical beast that was no myth at all.  It was as real as it could be.  However, this all soon came to an end.

On Wednesday, June 19, 1765, the Marquis d’Apchier led a hunting party of 300 men through a forest at Sogne d’Auvers or otherwise known as the slopes of Mount Mouchet.  In his party was a local inn keeper and hunter named Jean Chastel.  Chastel had also volunteered to help the previous year in hunting the beast, assisting the King’s gun-bearer, François Antoine.  However, Chastel had accidentally led Antoine’s hunting party into a bog and was imprisoned for the mistake.  He was now released to once again help in the hunt for the beast by assisting the Marquis.

In a field, Jean Chastel spotted the beast.  He aimed his gun and fired, striking and killed it. 

The fear and terror of this beast … whatever it was, was so great to all that hunted it, that Abbé Fabre would later write that Chastel had shot the beast using a silver bullet and buckshot combination.

The body of the beast was then taken back to the Marquis’ castle whereupon a surgeon from Saugues, Dr. Boulanger, performed an necropsy on same.  Human remains from its last victim were found inside of its stomach.

From this day forth, there were no more attacks.  None at all.  The great Beast of Gévaudan had finally been killed.  What was done with its remains has never been known.

The beast had now become part of legend.  The legend persists to this day.

The total number of victims attributed to the Beast of Gévaudan differs according to different sources.  One study conducted in 1987 estimated that there had been 210 attacks done resulting in 113 deaths and 49 injuries.  Ninety-eight of the victims were partially eaten.

In 2016, a mammologist published on the National Geographic website, the historical research of the case done by historians François Fabre and Pierre Pourcher.  Their assessment of the Beast of Gévaudan was ….  “The numerous details about size, appearance, behavior, and strength of the beast, handed down by contemporary witnesses, allow one to identify the beast as a subadult male lion that had escaped from captivity.”

After just researching this story years ago, I came across the strikingly powerful and beautiful photographic work of artist and photographer, Lucio Rosenkreutz.  It was after seeing his photograph that I was compelled to compose my composition – “The Beast of Gévaudan.”

 

 

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