Hunting the Beast of Gevaudan
From 1764 to 1767, a ferocious beast is said to have killed over 100 people in the south of France. At first, the monster targeted solitary people out tending flocks in the forests; but later it grew bolder and would charge in to attack groups of people. Sometimes villagers would fight it off; sometimes it would claim a victim and run off with an unfortunate person in its formidable jaws. Hunters and soldiers were engaged to kill the beast but the attacks continued. Only when two large wolves were killed did the nightmare finally stop, and then the controversy began. Was the beast one (or more) of these wolves, or had it been something far more sinister?
The Gévaudan is a historical region of rural France known for its harsh volcanic cliffs, steep slopes, and dense forests. Though small villages and their fields dotted the valley floors, the Gévaudan was just the kind of place a predatory monster might hope to escape capture, and it turns out that the whole region had built-in monsters to fit that very role, in the form of wolves. It is no coincidence that European fairy tales often depict wolves in the role of the antagonist. Until firearms became more common and more advanced, wolf attacks were well known not just in this part of France, but throughout rural Europe. Many died in wolf attacks in France every year. Everyone who lived in the Gévaudan knew what they looked like.
And so it was extraordinary indeed when the attacks began in 1764, with all the eyewitness accounts declaring in unison that it was not a wolf but some beast. The attacks were indeed real, and modern analyses conclude the number was indeed as high as 100. Every book or article about the beast gives an account of a few of the best known specific attacks: the first little girl to die, cases where villagers fought back and shot at it and even wounded it, finding it impossible to bring down. What sort of creature was it? Well, that's where things get murky.
First of all, there is little consistency to the reports. The beast was said to be red and covered with scales, or it had long fur and a mane and black stripes. It had a long thin head like a greyhound, or it had an enormous head with a huge mouth. It had great talons instead of a wolf's claws. It could run at supernatural speed. Sometimes it hunted alone, sometimes with a mate, sometimes with its young. In contrast to the written descriptions, all the many contemporary illustrations of the beast generally look like dogs or wolves. Among those villagers who tended toward belief in the supernatural, the beast was considered a loup-garou, or werewolf. In summary, the most common candidate identifications for the beast were a large wolf, a lion, a tiger, or a hyena.
All of these potential identifications were, in fact, plausible. By the mid-1700s, menageries had animals of all descriptions from all over the world. Ships came and went and brought curious creatures everywhere. It was not at all uncommon for the wealthy to have their own exotic animals, any one of which could have escaped or been turned loose. Animals like hyenas and lions were well known to everyone, with the important proviso that very few people had actually seen one — especially the untraveled peasants. People knew what lions and hyenas looked like only by description and illustration, both of which were fanciful and unreliable as often as not.
Ultimately, two animals were killed that finally brought an end to the attacks. King Louis XV had sent a good-sized military contingent to the Gévaudan plus organized hunting parties, but when they failed to produce results he sent his personal Lieutenant of the Hunt to replace all of them. François Antoine arrived June 1765, and in late September he finally got his quarry. Using a monopod-mounted matchlock musket, he shot a wolf so big that he wrote:
Sources report that villagers recognized certain scars on the carcass from times it had been wounded by hunters, but no details survive. Antoine sent the carcass back to Versailles as proof, where it was stuffed and displayed. Antoine also shot a female he believed to be its mate, and also a young male pup which he reported was larger than the mother. Antoine did note that the pup had the congenital defect of double dewclaws — the vestigial digits on a canine's forepaws that correspond to a human's thumbs. He was handsomely rewarded and the attacks stopped — for two months.
Some dozen or so people were killed by the beast over a six month period, until a local nobleman organized a mass hunt in June 1767 consisting of virtually every able-bodied person who could be armed. Jean Chastel was a hunter who believed the beast to be a loup-garou, and accordingly loaded his double-barreled flintlock rifle with buckshot in one barrel and a large-caliber ball in the other (Chastel's rifle became famous and still exists today in the private collection of a descendant of François Antoine). With Chastel's kill, the attacks stopped for good. The Beast of Gévaudan was no more.
Chastel's kill led to the closest thing we have to empirical evidence of the creature's identity, and that's a written report of the necropsy done on this animal at the nobleman's castle, and known as the Marin Report. It is a detailed objective description of the creature, plus a long list of precise measurements — and it even includes a list of the stomach contents. The animal was no longer complete, as when the surgeon arrived he found a "great crowd of people" already having examined it "with knives which served them as scalpels", and he "saw with the greatest regret that their zeal was superior to their knowledge, and that the most curious parts of the animal no longer existed." Regardless, the notarized necropsy report records all that we know today.
There's a point we've mentioned many times on Skeptoid, and it's a hint that helps you determine which sources are valid and which are not. Lazy authors often copy and paste from each other without going back to the original sources to actually check anything. Virtually any book or article you'll find on the Beast of Gévaudan written by a cryptozoologist says that inside the stomach of the animal, the collarbone of a young girl was found. Dismiss anything that says this, because it's wrong, and it shows that the author did not check their source (and you also can't determine gender from a collarbone). The two existing documents that discuss the necropsy on the animal — the Marin Report and another document known as the Letter from Auvergne — both clearly state that the stomach contained the head of a femur from a child. There is no mention of a collarbone. The French word for femur is fémur — kind of hard to get wrong. Any author who says the animal described in the necropsy report was not a wolf, and also mentions a collarbone, should be dismissed. (Wolves do not typically eat bones, however they'll often crush them for the marrow and ingest fragments.)
As with Antoine's wolf, scars said to be consistent with two injuries inflicted upon the beast by locals during attacks were found on the animal. These were a bayonet injury above its left eye and a bullet wound on its left thigh. Besides this, all the measurements and descriptions of the animal are consistent with a large gray wolf — and not even an especially large one. No irreconcilable traits were noted, with the exception of its teeth. The report lists 22 teeth, and a wolf has 42; those that were specified match what a wolf has, but no mention is made of whether other teeth were missing. The notary who prepared the report, Etienne Marin, wrote:
But this hyperbole contradicts the actual measurements, which were right in line with those of gray wolves there at the time. We might conclude that the excitement of the moment led Marin and the 300 lookyloos to come away with an exaggerated idea of what they saw. In fact this remains the prevailing scientific view on what the Beast of Gévaudan was: one or more large wolves, compounded with a hysterical widely-held belief that it was much larger and fiercer than any ordinary wolf.
But this is not the final word. Chastel's wolf is not recorded to have had the same double dewclaws that Antoine's had, but the fact that double dewclaws were in the local population is noteworthy. One popular sheep herding breed of dog used in the Gévaudan was the Beauceron, a breed in which in the double dewclaws are endemic. The local gray wolves (Canis lupus) and the local Beaucerons (Canis lupus familiaris) are perfectly able to interbreed, and such hybrids are notoriously unpredictable in their behavior. According to the International Wolf Center, wolves and various dog breeds mature at different rates. This leads to unpredictable hormonal changes in a hybrid, which can produce behavioral changes that may include overt aggression. A wolf-Beauceron hybrid could well go through a uniquely aggressive phase as it matures; and once it learns humans are a viable food source, the hunting of humans can become part of their learned behavior. There is no evidence this is what happened, but hormonally induced aggression among hybrids is well known and the hybridization of wolves and Beaucerons does appear likely to have taken place.
This appears more probable than one competing explanation for the beast's aggression, which is rabies. Rabid wolves are absolutely more aggressive and are more likely to attack humans. However, rabies is almost always fatal in humans and is easily transmitted by a bite. There were many survivors of the Gévaudan attacks; but all such survivors would have died of rabies if the attacking animal had been infected, and none did. So the rabies explanation is a poor fit.
There is one more popular explanation that ought to be put to rest. Many modern sources report that in 1997, a taxidermist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris found a record indicating that the museum had had a stuffed hyena in its collection from 1766 to 1819. It has also been reported that the son of Jean Chastel had such a hyena in his private menagerie. We might speculate that perhaps young Chastel's hyena escaped, was responsible for some or all of the beast's attacks, then was shot by Antoine, sent to Versailles, and ended up stuffed in the Paris museum. There are two serious problems with this hypothesis. According to the museum, the stuffed hyena was positively identified as a striped hyena, and the largest of these are smaller than an adult wolf. Their features — especially the stripes — are quite distinctive, and would not have escaped mention in the written reports that described Antoine's kill as a large wolf, and would not have escaped depiction in a famous illustration of Antoine's stuffed kill in the court of Louis XV where it appears as a very conventional large black wolf. It seems improbable that the King's Lieutenant of the Hunt shot a hyena then a wolf believing them to be mates, and yet was unable to distinguish between the two species. The second reason to doubt it is that the beast's attacks continued well into 1767, the year after the museum taxidermist said it entered the collection. There is no reason at all to connect the two taxidermy pieces, especially given that all indications are that they were two very different species of animal.
And so, with that, we put to rest the Beast of Gévaudan, and pause to remember the 100 people it killed. Whether a wolf, a wolf hybrid, or something else unsuspected, it did indeed carve itself a gory niche in the history of legendary monsters.
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