The Beast of Gévaudan
Max Von Sydow in The Wolfman, 2010, Copyright Universal Pictures
I first came across the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan in The Wolfman, Joe Johnson’s 2010 version of the 1941 film. Despite the criticism the film garnered I thought it was a very atmospheric take on the ‘classic’ horror film oeuvre and had some beautifully crafted scenes and wonderful settings.
One of my favourite scenes (which was cut from the theatrical edit but is in the extended version) finds the hero Lawrence Talbot travelling by train to his ancestral home Blackmoor on the wild Yorkshire moors. He awakes to find a mysterious old gentleman in his compartment (played by the patrician and always slightly menacing Max Von Sydow).
Engaging in conversation Von Sydow offers Talbot his walking cane, a fine stick with an ornate Wolf’s Head handle. He explains that he obtained the stick in Gévaudan, many years ago. His character has few words, but what he says holds much significance. Although Talbot refuses the offer, he wakes later to find the old man gone, and the stick remaining.
Even if you refuse your destiny it has a way of claiming you anyway the scene seems to say.
The History of the Beast
But what was behind this casual but loaded reference to the Beast of Gévaudan – what was the beast? Was the big bad wolf simply a fairy tale or was it based on real events? As it turns out, the beast was real, and even came to the attention of a King.
Woman fighting off the Beast of Gevaudan, Public Domain, via Wikimedia
The Beast’s reign of tooth and claw lasted from the early Summer of 1764 to midsummer 1767, it ranged over an area 50miles Sq in the Gévaudan province, in the mountainous South Central region of France. The beast is said to have attacked over 200 people over 100 of whom died, many of those were partially eaten. Others were injured, and the lucky few escaped unscathed but with one hell of a tale to tell.
Descriptions from survivors had common features – the creature was large and wolf-like, it had sharp fangs, shaggy red fur, a hugely long tail and a foul stink. It was also noticed that the beast had a marked preference for human prey. The first sighting was by a woman walking with her cattle, she spotted a fanged beast hurtling out of the treeline towards her and was only saved when the bull of the herd chased the creature away. That was at the beginning of June 1764.
Later that month teenager Jan Boulet was not so lucky. She was savaged and killed by the beast. It had made its first kill and from then on had a taste for blood, human blood.
Another documented attack occurred in January the following year. A group of friends, both male and female, were attacked en masse by the beast. They only survived because of the particular bravery of one of their number, Jacques Portefaix, and through sticking together.
By now the gruesome events in the South of France had come to the attention of non other than King Louis XV himself. Louis made a special award to Jacques, and to his friends for their bravery. As a keen huntsman himself the beast piqued his interest and he despatched a crack father/son team of huntsmen. Jean Charles Mare Antoine and Jean-Francoise Vaumesle D’Enneval packed up their guns and their specially trained hounds and set off for Gévaudan. Despite spending months tracking the beast through forest and field their search was fruitless and the beast’s predation continued.
Undaunted by the failure of his first team of hunters, the King then despatched his own personal harquebus bearer and Lieutenant of the Hunt, Francois Antoine to bring down the Beast of Gévaudan. He arrived on 22 June 1765 perhaps with as much trepidation as exhilaration; after all his rivals had failed spectacularly so he may have had a general fear of losing the king’s favour and of damaging his reputation as a hunter should the beast elude him as well.
Louis XV meets the king of the Wolves, 1765. Public domain via Wikipedia
Within three months Antoine was proclaiming his triumph over the terrible beast. On 21 September 1765 he killed a huge grey wolf, which became know as Le Loup de Chazes after the area is was found in. Despite the fact previous reports had said the wolf-like creature had red fur, a number of survivors identified the lupine corpse as their attacker by various scars on its body.
The carcass of the huge wolf was swiftly transported to Versailles for the edification and entertainment of the King and court. Antoine was loaded with money and honours for his success.
There was only one small fly in the ointment….the attacks did not end with the death of Le Loup de Chazes. In December 1765 two children were badly injured in another attack at La Besseyre Saint Mary. Bringing Antoine’s success into question.
Typical French village viewed from woodland.
Eventually, on 19 June 1767, a pious local hunter called Jean Chastel finally ended the beast of Gévaudan’s reign of blood – some say with a silver bullet.
Local legend has it that Jean had been hunting the beast but paused to read a prayer from his Bible when the beast appeared. Instead of following its usual pattern of immediate and devastating attack, the beast patiently waited until Jean finished his prayer and meekly took the bullet when he fired. This can only have added to the supernatural interpretation of the beast as either a punishment from God or a Loup Garou/werewolf.
Theories about the Beast….
There are many theories about the nature of the beast. Was it, as some villagers believed, a punishment from God? Was it just an unusually large wolf or a pack of wolves? Or some sort of wolf-domestic dog cross-breed? Or was it a were-wolf?
The Beast of Gevaudan – was it a cross-breed? Public Domain via Wikipedia
When I first read about the wolf, particularly the colour, the savagery of its attacks and the smell, I thought perhaps it had been a Hyena or some other exotic animal collected and released by some local grandee. But this theory has been dispelled by Michel Louis who referred to the fact that the beast had 42 teeth a lupine characteristic, whereas Hyenas have only 34. He favored the idea of a cross-breed which he felt could account for the strange colouring of the wolf.
In fact the colouring of the wolf killed by Antoine struck me as problematic. Many witnesses commented on its distinctive red colouring, yet he killed a grey wolf. Did the King’s huntsman, drop a few coins into the hands of the locals to get them to confirm his kill and enhance his reputation? Human remains were found in the stomach of the second beast killed – were they also found in Antoine’s kill? Or was there simply more than one beast?
Jean Chastel also comes out as an ambiguous figure. He is said to have been known for having a large red hound, which made some people think perhaps he had more connection with the beast than he admitted too. The fact that the beast did not attack him while he was reading also made people suspicious of his part in the tragedy. But would someone really intentionally release such a beast – after all it killed upwards of 200 people many of whom Chastel would have known. Was it an accidental breeding from his dog? Or was he a genuine accidental hero?
The truth is we will probably never know for sure. It could have been a Wolf, but perhaps a cross-breed might be a more likely explanation. Except in very harsh winters, or when sick, I have not heard of wolves targeting people over say, cattle or other prey. A cross-breed might have less fear of humans and be more inclined to attack them.
Oh, and as for the silver bullets, I was devastated to find out they were added into the tale as late as the 1930’s by the novelist Chevalley and are not part of the contemporary tale.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that the huge bounty placed on the beast by the King encouraged masses of hunters to descend on the region and engage in a killing spree. Hundreds of innocent wolves were killed, all of which helped to reinforce the deep rooted mistrust of humans for their lupine neigbours and to ultimately to lead to the point where wolves were nearly wiped out in much of Europe.
Contemporary Wanted Poster for the Beast, Public domain, via Wikipedia.
*Stevenson, Robert Louis, Travels with a Donkey (Quote: “the Napoleon Bonaparte of Wolves.”)