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The mysterious French Beast of Gévaudan

Print showing the presentation of a stuffed wolf at the court of French King Louis XV

History is full of horrible monsters. The Cyclops terrified the ancient Greeks, the Abominable Snowman haunts the Himalayas, and Godzilla stomps on Tokyo from time to time.

The French have their own terrible creature and—unlike the others—this one was real. The mysterious Beast of Gévaudan ravaged the French countryside in the 18th century, killing so many people that King Louis XV had to send troops to destroy it.

What was the Beast—a vicious wolf, an escaped lion, or something else? It’s a fascinating tale.

The Carnage Begins

Beginning 1764, shepherds began suffering attacks from a mysterious animal, like a large wolf but strangely different—it attacked people rather than livestock and was especially aggressive, seemingly motivated by something other than hunger. As you can imagine, the people of Gévaudan, a rural region in southern France, were terrified.

The Beast was described as “the size of a very large wolf, the color of burnt coffee, with a black bar on its back, a dirty white belly, and a very large and plump head.” It could leap over high walls and was relentless in its attacks.

The Seven Years War had recently ended and newspapers needed stories to sell papers, so when the news of the Beast reached Paris it became a sensation. Article after article was written about the strange animal, which no man could stop.

As the months passed, dozens of people were killed and others mauled, and local troops were called in to halt the bloodshed. Captain Duhamel and 50 mounted infantry combed the countryside for months, but to no avail.

The King Responds

By now the Beast was famous across Europe, and France was mocked as a country that couldn’t even kill a single animal. The King decided to take action and in 1765 he sent Martin d’Enneval, the greatest wolf hunter in the kingdom, to find and kill the Beast. But despite months of tracking, the Beast was too clever for d’Enneval, so the King sent Master of the Hunt François Antoine, plus a large group of soldiers, hunters and wolfhounds.

After many more months of searching, they met with success. The hunters tracked a large wolf to the village of Chazes, where they killed it and where witnesses identified the body as the Beast. King Louis showered Antoine with honors and officially the Beast was dead. Except…

The attacks continued. Dozens more people were killed throughout 1766 and 1767. But the King had lost interest, so it was up to the locals to find the Beast. Hunting parties were organized and finally, in mid-1767, Jean Chastel killed an animal that seemed to be the dreaded creature. Witnesses examined it and agreed that yes, indeed, the Beast had met its end.

More than 100 people had been savagely killed over a three-year period but finally—mercifully—the attacks ended. It seems that the Beast was no more.

An autopsy was performed and detailed measurements were taken. The animal was large, weighing 125 pounds, with enormous paws and a long tongue. And its teeth seemed to indicate…a dog? The creature’s remains have disappeared into the mists of history, so we will never know for sure what it was, but that hasn’t stopped people from guessing.

What Was the Beast?

Most historians think the Beast was a wolf or a pack of wolves. Master of the Hunt Antoine claimed to have killed not only a male wolf but also an accompanying female and several cubs. Maybe one of the youngsters escaped and grew up to continue its parent’s work? The argument against this theory is that wolves were well-known to French people at the time and yet the Beast was never described as one—it had different coloring, a rounder head, and attacked people in a way that wolves never did.

A second theory is that the Beast was a cross between a dog and a wolf, something uncommon at the time but not unknown. Mastiffs had been used as war dogs in France for centuries, and with the Seven Year War just ended, could one have slipped away into the wildness and mated?

A third theory is that the Beast was some kind of exotic animal, like a hyena or even a young lion, that had escaped from the annual trade fair at Beaucaire, just 100 miles away.

Whatever it was, the Beast continues to fascinate the French. It has been the subject of hundreds of articles, books, graphic novels, movies, TV shows—even a video game! One man obsessed with the Beast has gone so far as to have a statue made of it, based on the autopsy and witness reports, that recreates as exactly as possible its dimensions and coloring.

So, what do you think: was the terrible Beast of Gévaudan a wolf, a dog, a lion…or something even stranger?…

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence.  He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in ProvenceRead more at Life in Provence.

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