|“||Drawing of the monster which is laying waste on Gévaudan. This beast has the size of a young bull and prefers to attack women and children. It drinks their blood, severs their head and drags it away.||„|
|~ Translation of the beast's description from the picture.|
The Beast of Gévaudan was an enigmatic feral animal of undetermined species that plagued the land of Gévaudan during the 18th century, attacking more than 200 people and causing about 100 casualties and many serious injuries. Countless theories were made about the nature of the beast, which to this day remains an enigma for both scientists and historians. Its mystery and its gruesome tale inspired many fictions.
The Beast terrorized Gévaudan, a former province of central France which corresponds to the present-day Lauzère and Haute-Loire departments. It is infamous for its size, its ferocity, its daring, and for having escaped considerable manpower (ranging from peasants' mobs to expert hunters) for years, even resurfacing a short while after being reportedly killed. The Beast was apparently able to travel large distances in a matter of hours, and covered a very large area of action stretching 90 by 80 kilometers.
It was depicted by eyewitnesses as a bull-sized, reddish canine-like animal with strong jaws, long tail and awful smell. In some testimonies the Beast is described with hooves instead of paws. Some even mention a smaller female individual which accompanied the monster without taking part to the attacks.
Yet, the exactness of the testimonies can be debated due to oral tradition, with attacks being retold and probably magnified (and sometimes likely downright made up) from one person to another, not to mention outright mass hysteria. The most reliable information being found in investigation reports written by the local clerics, and later by the king’s soldiers and huntsmen.
It has been established that the Beast specifically targeted humans, sometimes even in villages by daytime, even when they were cattle and animals around, though it sometimes attacked domestic animals. It was described as an exceptionally powerful animal able to jump over walls, and a relentless and intelligent hunter.
It used to retreat for a while after having been driven away, and wait for an opportunity to strike again until too many backup forced it to flee, or to avoid the places where too many people were tracking it down. It was even said to have gotten back up after being shot in more than one occasion, which started a rumor pretending that it was impervious to bullets.
The first attack reported happened in 1764, when the Beast tried to kill a woman guarding cattle, though the oxen managed to drive it away. A short while later it killed a 14-year-old girl, its first official victim. However, her death was attributed to "the ferocious beast" implying that it was already well known and could have made more victims before. As the number of attacks increased in spite of the local hunters' and townspeople's best efforts, the newspapers began to relay its story all over the kingdom, perking King Louis the XVth's interest.
The king personally rewarded a group of young men who managed to drive the Beast away, and later a woman who saved her child from it ordered every soldier in Gévaudan to take part in the hunts.
However, the soldiers' hunts proved no more successful than the population's, mostly due to the very long, harsh winters and the very few practicable roads in this land of mountains and forests. All these hindrances gave the Beast a notable field advantage over its pursuers. Thinking that the Beast was a divine punishment the country's clerics ordered much prayers and penitence, but to no avail.
In 1765, the king sent his best hunters one after the other to deal with the monster, while the Beast's story spread all over Europe. Yet, even them failed to kill it. On September 1765 François Antoine, the king's harquebus bearer and the third hunter dispatched by the court, killed a huge wolf which would later be known as the "Wolf of Chazes" and was recognized as the beast by some of its surviving victims.
François Antoine ordered an autopsy to identify the beast, before having it stuffed and brought to the royal court of Versailles. But after a few months of calm new attacks happened, and the Beast's return was established on January 1766. However, the king refused to believe it and the newspapers lost all interest in the case. As for the Beast, it appears to have grown wary of humans, being much more cautious in its attacks and operating in a smaller area.
The Beast's legend would ultimately end for good on June 19, 1767 during another hunt led by the Marquis of Apcher, in which the local hunter Jean Chastel managed to wound the monster, which was finished off by the marquis' hounds.
The legend states that Chastel was reading the Bible and praying before shooting the monster, which is said to have waited until his prayers was finished. It also states that the bullets that killed the monster were made from silver medals representing the Virgin Mary. Yet, this was an exaggeration made to glorify Chastel's feat. In fact, the Beast was famous for attacking on sight, or at least wait for its prey to drop their guard. What is sure is that since that day, no other attack was reported.
It is said that the beast was hastily stuffed and brought to Versailles to be examined by the renowned naturalist George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, before being quickly buried due to the carcass' unbearable stench. Yet, no official documents were left and the story is a bit dubious.
Many theories were made from the time of the Beast's killing spree to modern days, but as of today none of them can fully explain the case. Some suggest that they were not one beast but several ones of the same specy, which could explain how the Beast reappeared after being reportedly shot by François Antoine and how it could attack people a short while after having been seen in far away villages.
- During the Beast's killing spree, many people spoke of a werewolf, a monster or another supernatural being.
- In a similar fashion, the local clergy spoke of a divine plague sent by God to punish the lack of faith of the French population. Some clerics allegedly blamed the Enlightenment and its increasing success among the elite. The latter being popular in fictional works based on these events.
- There is a theory about a demented serial killer clad in animal furs and using weapons designed to look like a beast's claws and jaws. It might have been someone victim of a mental illness that made him act like a wolf. However, this is very unlikely given all of the testimonies mentioning a great animal, far bigger than a human.
- There is another theory about a human implication, stating that it could have been a huge beast bred in captivity and trained to kill, which was then disguised as a monster. The Beast's resistance to bullets could be explained by the fact that it was covered with boar skins or another type of animal-made armor. Popular theories mostly used in fictions speak of a conspiracy, often devised to create a seemingly divine plague and get rid of the aforementioned Enlightenment.
- Some scientists think of a survivor of the Mesonychid, a long-extinct kind of huge, hooved wolf.
- Other scientist think of an exotic beast, like a rare kind of Asian hyena, which could have escaped from a circus or have been brought back by a noble who travelled to foreign countries and escaped.
- Given that the official description state that the beast had characteristics of both a wolf and a dog, a kind of cross-breed is quite likely, the question being which one.
- And so on and so forth…