The Beast of Gévaudan is the historical name associated with the man-eating wolf, dog or wolf-dog hybrid which terrorised the former province of Gévaudan (modern-day département of Lozère and part of Haute-Loire), in the Margeride Mountains in south-central France between 1764 and 1767. The attacks, which covered an area stretching 90 by 80 kilometres (56 by 50 mi), were said to have been committed by a beast or beasts that had formidable teeth and immense tails according to contemporary eyewitnesses.
Victims were often killed by having their throats torn out. The French government used a considerable amount of manpower and money to hunt the animals; including the resources of several nobles, the army, civilians, and a number of royal huntsmen.
The number of victims differs according to sources. In 1987, one study estimated there had been 210 attacks; resulting in 113 deaths and 49 injuries; 98 of the victims killed were partly eaten. However, other sources claim it killed between 60 to 100 adults and children, as well as injuring more than 30.
Descriptions of the time vary, but generally the beast was said to look like a wolf but about as big as a calf. It had a large dog-like head with small straight ears, a wide chest, and a large mouth which exposed very large teeth. The beast’s fur was said to be red in colour but its back was streaked with black.
The Beast of Gévaudan carried out its first recorded attack in the early summer of 1764. A young woman, who was tending cattle in the Mercoire forest near Langogne in the eastern part of Gévaudan, saw the beast come at her. However the bulls in the herd charged the beast keeping it at bay, they then drove it off after it attacked a second time. Shortly afterwards the first official victim of the beast was recorded; 14-year-old Janne Boulet was killed near the village of Les Hubacs near the town of Langogne.
Over the later months of 1764, more attacks were reported throughout the region. Very soon terror had gripped the populace because the beast was repeatedly preying on lone men, women and children as they tended livestock in the forests around Gévaudan. Reports note that the beast seemed to only target the victim’s head or neck regions.
By late December 1764 rumours had begun circulating that there may be a pair of beasts behind the killings. This was because there had been such a high number of attacks in such a short space of time, many had appeared to have been recorded and reported at the same time. Some contemporary accounts suggest the creature had been seen with another such animal, while others thought the beast was with its young.
On January 12, 1765, Jacques Portefaix and seven friends were attacked by the Beast. After several attacks, they drove it away by staying grouped together. The encounter eventually came to the attention of Louis XV who awarded 300 livres to Portefaix and another 350 livres to be shared among his companions. The king also directed that Portefaix be educated at the state’s expense. He then decreed that the French state would help find and kill the beast.
Three weeks later Louis XV sent two professional wolf-hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François, to Gévaudan. They arrived in Clermont-Ferrand on February 17, 1765, bringing with them eight bloodhounds which had been trained in wolf-hunting. Over the next four months the pair hunted for Eurasian wolves believing them to be the beast. However, as the attacks continued, they were replaced in June 1765 by François Antoine (also wrongly named Antoine de Beauterne), the king’s harquebus bearer and Lieutenant of the Hunt who arrived in Le Malzieu on June 22.
On September 20, 1765, Antoine had killed his third large grey wolf measuring 80 cm (31 in) high, 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) long, and weighing 60 kilograms (130 lb). The wolf, which was named Le Loup de Chazes after the nearby Abbaye des Chazes, was said to have been quite large for a wolf. Antoine officially stated: “We declare by the present report signed from our hand, we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Which is why we estimate this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.” The animal was further identified as the culprit by attack survivors who recognised the scars on its body inflicted by victims defending themselves. The wolf was stuffed and sent to Versailles where Antoine was received as a hero, receiving a large sum of money as well as titles and awards.
However on December 2, 1765, another beast severely injured two men. A dozen more deaths are reported to have followed attacks by la Besseyre Saint Mary.
The killing of the creature that eventually marked the end of the attacks is credited to a local hunter named Jean Chastel, who shot it during a hunt organized by a local nobleman, the Marquis d’Apcher, on June 19th, 1767. Writers later introduced the idea that Chastel shot the creature with a blessed silver bullet of his own manufacture and upon being opened, the animal’s stomach was shown to contain human remains.
According to modern scholars, public hysteria at the time of the attacks contributed to widespread myths that supernatural beasts roamed Gévaudan, but deaths attributed to a beast were more likely the work of a number of wolves or packs of wolves. In 2001 the French naturalist Michel Louis proposed that the red-colored mastiff belonging to Jean Chastel sired the beast and its resistance to bullets may have been due to it wearing the armoured hide of a young boar thus also accounting for the unusual colour.