EPISODE XVIII: THE BEAST OF GEVAUDAN

The narrow escape took place on August 11 1765. It was mid-morning, and the dew had not yet dried from the meadow grasses lining the banks of the River Desges where Marie Jeanne, a 19 year old young servant and her younger sister Teresa were walking on there way to the community tithe farm.

Wisely, Marie carried with her a spear of significant length, one end coming to a point with a sharp 6 inch by 1 inch blade according to chronicler Abbe Pierre Poucher.As Marie Jeanne and Teresa strolled along the familiar river trail, their guards were both up. Both had heard of the deadly attacks ravaging the countryside, a terrifying unknown beast responsible for the brutal slayings primarily of young girls and women. Needless to say Marie kept a tight grip on her spear as the girls proceeded along the banks on their route, the path and surrounding forest shrouded in a heavy mist making visibility difficult.

Suddenly, Marie Jeanne heard a rustling in the bush beside her, before she could properly think the beast jumped out of its hiding place, mauling the two young women. The beast leaped for Teresa’s throat, but Marie, thinking fast, thrust her spear up into the chest of the monster, throwing it off of her sister and causing it to howl in agony.

According to official court documents, the beast placed a paw over its wound, yelping continuously. It rolled several times into the river, and disappeared from the girls’ sight.

 Memorial Statue of Marie Jeanne in Auvre, France.

Memorial Statue of Marie Jeanne in Auvre, France.

La Bete, or the Beast has become one of the most illustrious and horrifying series of slayings in all of French history. The reign of terror lasted three years, and the identity of the beast has never been conclusively proven. Indeed, in the summer of 1764, a scourge settled upon the people of Geuvedan, a French province known for its rugged highland landscapes framed by the awe-inspiring Massif Central. The Massif Central is some of the most rugged and unforgiving, deep forests and swamp lands mixed with steep volcanic rock outcrops and jagged mountainscapes. Some referred to it as the backwater of France because of its accessibility to most and the lack of development (until the mid 20th century with the opening of the first highway), as it was primarily used for grazing animals and agriculture. Needless to say, was an ideal hunting ground for the large unknown predator known as The Beast.

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The peasants believed it to be a loup-garou, another term for werewolf; something with supernatural properties, at least in its insatiable appetite for human flesh. Much larger than a wolf, the beast had feet armed with talons and reddish hair with a white fluffy chest. Witnesses most commonly described a creature with small ears with a back was streaked black, ending in a long skinny tail. Most frightening was its wide jaw which would expose razor sharp teeth, four in total. There were other varying descriptions, such as grey coloration, more hair around the face and neck area, but for the most part people were so terrified that they had little time to take a complete stock of what was clearly not a wolf. And the French were very familiar with wolves and wolf attacks.

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The beast’s reign of terror began in the summer of 1764, with the attack of a young woman tending cattle near the Mercoire forest, a young woman who was tending cattle near the forest survived her brush with death. She got a clear look at the beast, before several bulls from her herd charged at it and drove it away. She testified that it was a large, wolf-like creature, with small ears, a dog-like head, a long tail, and reddish fur—and, of course, very large teeth. The first fatality was young Jean Boulet, resident of the village of Saint-Étienne-de-Lugdarès. The girl was slaughtered just shy of her 14th Birthday on June 30th 1764. The parish priest of Les Hubacs, recording her burial the following day, attributed her death to ‘la Bête féroce.’ This atrocity was shortly followed by the slaying of a 15 year old girl a mere one month later, slashed to bits she managed to choke out her last words, that a horrible beast had done this to her.

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In a neighbouring province a young shepherd boy went missing while tending a flock of sheep. Only a shreds of clothing and a few remains, partially eaten, were left of the boy when he was discovered. It was becoming increasingly obvious to authorities that a great many unsolved killings were going on in the interior of France. September was an especially bloody month, claiming four victims, the last of them a 36 year old woman - the first adult victim… the attack took place at dusk in the parish of Arzenc, only a few steps removed from the safety of her door.

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The beast seemed to deliberating aim for the neck, ripping apart its victim in order to satiate its thirst for human blood before feasting on the remains of its victim. Many of the bodies were found fully decapitated. In one instance the skull was found a fair distance from the body, several hundred meters, cracked open like a nutshell, its brains licked clean from the cranial cavity. In others, the skull was deliberately placed back with the torso, the body covered up with the victim’s clothes…

As the headcount rose in 1764 and wanting to avoid a widespread panic, the local authorities and aristocrats took action. Étienne Lafont, a regional government delegate, and Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel, a leader of the local infantry, organize the first concerted attack. At one point, the number of volunteers rose to 30,000 men. Duhamel organized these men along using military tactics left poisoned bait, and even had some soldiers dress up as peasant women in hopes of attracting the beast. A reward for killing the beast eventually equaled a year’s salary for working men, according to the historian Jean-Marc Moriceau.

Duhamel was eventually replaced by Louus XV’s own gunbearer, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d'Enneval and his son Jean-François in 1765. The two pursued the beast for months, many times losing the creature in heavy mists or wooded areas checkered with dangerous bogs. Eventually, the two tracked and killed a Eurasian grey wolf of considerable size, the body of which was stuffed paraded back to Paris for the King to bear witness. however, despite some repreive from the public panic, the killings resumed less than two months later.

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Apparently many French nationals appealed through letters to the official efforts to track the beast down, many were pretty hilarious:

“Monsieur, I have read recently the information your Grace has given out on La Bête Féroce which is committing so many outrages in the districts of Gévaudan and Vivarais. Sensitive to the example of our good King in the loss of his subjects and desirous of containing the destruction of this cannibal beast, I feel myself obliged to let your Grace know of a way of destroying her. This is to make with straw or some other material a model of a woman, which is then dressed up with the clothes and other ornaments of women. You then insert calf or sheep livers into the model. Into each liver or other flesh La Bête is known to like are tit-bits all poisoned in advance with nux vomica.

It is known that vomica should be as big as a denier, plus some more broken into small pieces, assuming La Bête has four feet The dose is proportional to the size and the strength of the animal and if it does not have four feet you lower the dose.

Then you expose a number of these fake women, dressed in their usual things , in different parts of the forest. The sight of these women will not fail to attract La Bête, who, without risk to anybody, will cause her own richly deserved death.

If God should wish to bless the secret with which I have been inspired, I hope that I will be sent part of the reward which his Majesty has promised to those who succeed in destroying this destructor of men. I am a poor curate as are most of my parishioners.

With the greatest respects,

Mgr your Grace, etc,

Noucel, curate.

(taken from Cryptid-Wendigo; excerpt from Poucher’s The History of La Bete du Gevaudan)

Eventually, a local hunter by the name of Jean Chastel, had a final encounter with La Bete. Chastel came face to face with an incredibly large grey wolf while dangerously isolated in the steep forest of Teynazére. Chastel shot and killed the creature, putting an official end to the terror of the beast. In all the beast is said to have slayen 116 people. Men included but mostly women and children, injuring many more…

 Memorial for Jean Chastel

Memorial for Jean Chastel

John D. C. Linnell et al., who published in 2002 a review of wolf attacks on humans, present the age distribution of human victims of wolves from the 18th to the 20th century. The first section of the analysis included attacks by the proclaimed ‘beast’ as wolf attacks. Wolf attacks did happen on occasion and the people of the area were very familiar with wolves. Linnel et al. then narrowed their scope, and compared the general attack results to attacks attributed solely to the Beast. This is what came out. Between 1764-1767, the Beast’s data show a drastic shift towards higher age. Grown-up victims of the Beast are proportionally six times more frequent than grown-up victims of wolves. Children under the age of ten, in contrast, are only represented by a third compared to the data for wolves.

The victims of the Beast were older on average and therefore able to defend themselves more powerfully, they were heavier and energetically more “lucrative”. Since the average prey size normally increases with the body size of predators, the data present indirect, but, nevertheless, clear evidence that the witnesses of that time had not exaggerated: they had encountered an animal that was much bigger than a wolf. What does this say about the nature of the beast? One could argue that the beast was looking for a challenge…

Interestingly, La Bête would avoid cattle as much as she could and was reported to have spat blood at non-human animals when they got too close. Most herders that La Bête attacked got away with their lives as long as their animals have been nearby. Indeed, the first report of the Beast came from a girl who was stalked but saved by her herd of cattle that formed a protective circle around her, even charging the predator if it got too close. The aversion to cattle in favour of human flesh is bizarre as it appears to be more sport hunting than hunting for survival.

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There are many theories about what the beast could have been. Skeptics tend to argue that La Bete was simply a large pack of wolves that had become accustomed to hunting vulnerable humans as prey. The style of attack (i.e. aiming for the neck primarily, resulting in multiple decapitations) are conducive to a wolf attack, which is generally characterized by a lunging for the throat in order to break the neck of its prey.

Jay M. Smith, author of Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, is of the mind that the beast was a wolf/bunch of wolves hunting together. Smith points to precedents in recent French history:

“In the century before the crisis in the Gévaudan many other regions had experienced panic-inducing assaults from ravenous wolves. [...] the terrifying habits and profile of that later killer [the beast], including its alarming preference for women and children, its propensity to decapitate, and its alleged supernatural abilities and malevolent designs, all had ample precedent in French rural experience.

(Smith, Jay M. Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, 12)

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Some argue that an escape lion from a private collector’s menagerie could have been responsible. Karl Hans Taake, a biologist and a former academic assistant of the University of Osnabrück (Northwest Germany), believes the beast to be a lion. Taake wrote his doctoral thesis on behavioural ecology and has published zoological research papers as well as contributed to manuals about mammals, edited and translated books on biology.

Taake states, “There can be no reasonable doubt that the Beast was a lion, namely a subadult male. The description of size, appearance, behaviour, strength – it all fits together: the comparison of size with a bovine animal; flat head; reddish fur; a dark line along the spine occasionally occurring in lions; spots on the sides of the body that appear especially in younger lions; a body that becomes conspicuously sturdier from the rear towards the front; a tail which appears to be strangely thin (since shorthaired); a tassel on the tail; enormous strength that allowed the animal to carry off adult humans and to split human skulls as well as to jump nine meters or 30 feet” (National Geographic)

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Another factor that adds legitimacy to the Big Cat argument is the mountainous terrain of Massif Central that La Bete was known to hunt in. As well, the people living in the area knew what wolves looked like, and, by this point, most would have known what other animals from around the world looked like,one could argue is was becoming increasingly common knowledge to know a lion or panther by description. Even though exotic animals would not enter circus rings until 1812 with the debut of Kioumi, a performing elephant with the Franconi Family Cirque Olympique.

Interestingly Jean-Baptiste Boulanger Duhamel, one of the hunters of the Beast wrote in January, 1765: “This animal is a monster whose father is a lion; it remains open what the mother is.”

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Another popular idea at the time was that La Bete was actually a Loup Garou - or, a werewolf! Indeed, the exist accounts were witnesses describe being stalked by a half man, half beast. Since the middle ages the stories and legends of werewolves were prevalent in France, and the terror of La Bete fit the werewolf description in the minds of many french peasants. La Bete and the mystical Loup Garou became inextricably intertwined as many reports of the beast bled into the mythology of the werewolf:

“One of the reputed accounts came from a woman who, on her way to Mass, saw a beast man in the form of a wolf with brass buttons around the throat, as if the wolfskin were an overcoat that had been buttoned up over a human form. In another reported case, a woodsman saw a large shaggy shape running along the ground on all fours; he said that it had the shape of a man. In yet another account, a woman, also on her way to Mass, was accosted by a large furry man, who walked alongside her, but who instantly vanished as soon as she screamed the name of Christ. This was a sign, she declared, that the creature had either been the Devil or one of his agents. She was sure that it was a werewolf she saw.” (werewolves.com)

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However, another idea exists that La Bete was actually a deadly wolf/dog hybrid - in some accounts actually trained by Chastel and his son to attack humans and deliberately set upon the French countryside. In an Animal X documentary, the hosts describe this conspiracy plot in great detail. The mastermind of the plan: sadistic Count Jean Francois Charles de Morangies, a deranged aristocrat who had it out for King Louis XV. The fiendish Count contracted the Chastels to breed and train this ferocious man killers in an attempt to destabilize the country and perhaps even overthrow the king himself in a devilishly treasonous plot.

What are you thoughts on La Bete? Reach out to us at Intotheportalmailbox@gmail.com or comment below with your ideas on what THE BEAST could have been, we’d love to hear from you!

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Written by Amber Rae Bouchard

Information on Kioumi, the first performing elephant of France and the development of the Circus in France.