Beast of Gévaudan: The True Story Behind the Legendary Werewolf
[Image via]

Legends of werewolves have haunted the wilderness of Europe since the Middle Ages and the origins of such stories go even farther back in our shared mythos across the world. But no story comes as close to the terrifying reality of an animal (or animals) that became known as the Beast of Gévaudan.

The creature, which to this day has not been fully identified, began a campaign of terror on the people of Gévaudan, a small province in southern France during the 18th century. The mysterious and gruesome killings became the most fatal series of wolf attacks in the history of the country. Creating mass hysteria and eventually catching the attention of the highest levels of the government, and even the king himself.

Beast of Gévaudan: The True Story Behind the Legendary Werewolf
[Image via] 18th-century engraving. Artist’s conception of one of the Beasts of Gévaudan.
The first reported attack by the Beast took place in 1764. A young woman was tending to her livestock when the creature attacked. It made several attempts before being driven away by the cattle she watched over. She testified the creature looked like a large, wolf-like creature with reddish fur, small ears, a dog-like head, and a long tail. The attack seemed like a one-time event, that was until a few days later 14-year-old Janne Boulet was killed by the beast not far from the site of the first attack.

All that was found at the scene was her bonnet and clogs. Boulet’s body had vanished, devoured by the Beast. Throughout the summer, reported attacks continued, more often than not targeting lone men, women and children as they worked in surrounding countryside. Villagers began to feel an overwhelming sense of dread when it came to what lurked in the wilderness around their homes. They began to arm themselves, waging war on the local wolf population in hopes of ending the carnage.

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The brutal nature of the attacks was terrifying. Several reports indicated the head and neck of the victims were often the most damaged parts of the body, suggesting that the Beast was purposely targeting this region of the body with an unsettling intelligence and purpose. People began to wonder if the Beast hunted for pleasure rather than hunger.

The frequency of the attacks increased throughout the winter of 1764. As the public hysteria grew some believed it was a werewolf, a half man half beast, that preyed upon them. Others who were less supernaturally inclined believed the creature to be an oversized wolf or instead, the work of not one wolf but a pack of wolves.

Beast of Gévaudan: The True Story Behind the Legendary Werewolf
[Image via] An 18th-century engraving of Antoine de Beauterne slaying the wolf of Chazes.
King Louis XV became aware of the attacks after Jacques Portefaix and a group of armed men survived an attack from the Beast and reported it to the government. The King, appalled by the stories, awarded the survivors with several hundred livres and offered Portefaix (a fully funded, state education) as recompense before announcing that the government would personally see to it that the Beast was hunted down and killed.

The King, true to his word, sent two professional wolf hunters to the region in February 1765 to track down and kill the Beast. They believed the animal to be a Eurasian grey wolf and set out to capture it as such. After several months of hunting and hundreds of wolves killed, reports of attacks still continued to flow in. In June of that year the professional hunters were replaced by François Antoine, the King’s own Lieutenant of the Hunt.

Antoine killed several wolves during his hunt, culminating in the capture and killing of three large grey wolves in fall of 1765.  The largest, it was decreed, must be the Beast as it weighed 130 pounds, measured 31 inches in height, and over five and a half feet in length. Antoine returned to the King and received several titles and monetary awards for his services. The wolf was stuffed and displayed in the royal court for all to see and life for the people of Gévaudan returned to normal.

However, just three months later the attacks began once more. The Beast it seemed had returned to continue its bloody rampage. The creature continued killing well into 1767, until local inn keeper Jean Chastel and a party of over 300 hunters finally tracked the beast down. Later, rumors would spread that Chastel had used a silver bullet to finally put an end to the Beast’s reign of terror, giving rise to the famous legend.

Beast of Gévaudan: The True Story Behind the Legendary Werewolf
[Image via] The wolf shot by François Antoine on 21 September 1765, displayed at the court of Louis XV.
Most eyewitness accounts are in agreement that the creature was some type of wolf, though they all claim it is far larger than any normal adult wolf. Some even claimed it to be as large as a small horse. It was also said the animal’s skin was so tough it was resistant to bullets giving rise to some of the modern day beliefs about werewolves and the use of silver bullets as their bane.

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During the course of the three years over 100 attacks were attributed to the Beast—with other estimates claiming close to 200 victims. Several victims were reported to have been partially eaten, and upon examining the contents of the stomach of the creature bagged by Chastel, human remains were found partially digested.

Now almost 250 years later, the Beast has become a famous figure in werewolf lore. It made its literary debut with gothic novels like La Bête du Gévaudan and Wolves: An Old Story Retold. Since then, he has been handed down into contemporary media, such as the feature film Brotherhood of the Wolf and the TV drama Teen Wolf. There is even a local museum in Sagues, France, dedicated to the story of the Beast of Gévaudan, retelling the legend for future generations.

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