Thanks to an unknown beast seemingly roaming the countryside and tearing innocent people limb from limb, the years 1764-1767 were not a great time to be a citizen of rural France. The Beast of Gévaudan, named after the southern province of France it dominated, terrorized small farming villages and, eventually, the entirety of France, even capturing the attention of King Louis XV.
The mystery surrounding this murderous, bloodthirsty monster has made way for many hypotheses, ranging from an escaped zoo animal to one of the world's first and most prolific serial killers. Read on for a breakdown of the events from those three horrific years, and draw your own conclusion as to what - or even who - could have been responsible for this massacre of gigantic proportions.
The Beast Attacked Over 200 People Between 1764-1767
In the centuries since the Beast of Gévaudan terrorized the people of rural France, researchers have given the death toll various estimates. In 1987, historians took a deeper look at the records from that time, including church records, personal letters, death certificates, and publications. This was the most in-depth research ever conducted into the attacks.
The historians discovered that over 200 people claimed to have been attacked by the beast. Of those victims, 113 were killed, and 98 had been partially eaten by the beast. Strangely, none of the people who survived a visit from the creature developed rabies, instantly putting to rest any theories of a rabid wolf gone mad.
Sightings And Speculations Spread Quickly, Causing Panic
Rumors and fear spread like wildfire in the small farming villages of Gévaudan. In 18th-century rural France, news spread by word of mouth, and soon enough, people were sharpening their spears and pitchforks, ready to protect themselves and their families from a murderous beast.
The first murder of a young girl, 14-year-old Jeanne Boulet, took place in June 1764. Soon after, the attacks and murders were happening so frequently, the growing panic became impossible to ignore. Rumors began to fly: Some claimed that the culprit was not just one bête féroce (ferocious beast) but an entire herd of them; others claimed to have seen the beast and have chased it off or killed it.
These stories were likely embellished by the people telling them to get the attention of the townsfolk. Tales of the beast attacking in the middle of the day and flying down from above even spread around. This brought the fear and panic to a boiling point that captured the attention of lawmakers.
Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel Organized A Hunt With Over 30,000 Soldiers
The beast's death toll was rising, and local infantry captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel decided to take action. He organized a troop of 30,000 to track, hunt down, and kill the ferocious beast. After an entire year of pursuing the monster, the death toll continued to rise. The army only caught what they thought was the beast once, but it escaped with a gunshot wound, seemingly unharmed.
The people grew desperate as they began to lose hope. How could it be that an army of 30,000 men could not stop the beast? In Jay M. Smith's 2011 book, Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, he quotes a newspaper from the time:
…a ferocious beast of unknown type, coming from who knows where, attacks the human species, killing individuals, drinking their blood, feasting on their flesh, and multiplying its carnage from day to day…hunters who are in pursuit have neither been able to stop it, because it is more agile than they, nor lure it into their traps, because it surpasses them in cunning, nor engage in combat when it presents itself to them, because its terrifying appearance weakens their courage, disturbs their vision, sets their hands shaking, and neutralizes their skill.
Children Fought Off The Beast With Sticks, Catching The Attention Of King Louis XV, Who Offered A Reward For The Slain Beast
After a year of fruitless effort from Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel's infantry, King Louis XV was finally made aware of what was happening in the small, rural province of Gévaudan. The beast was brought to the King's attention through a group of youngsters who had heroically saved their friends from death by driving the beast away with sticks. After rewarding the young boys for their bravery, he learned that the victims were being murdered, mutilated, and eaten. He knew he had to take further action.
The King offered a 6,000-livre reward for anyone who could kill the beast and bring the body to him to prove it. To put this reward into perspective, 6000 livres in late 18th-century France is the equivalent of over $200,000 USD today.
France's Best Wolf Hunter, Jean-Charles d’Ennevals, Stepped Up To Lead The Hunt
After the Beast of Gévaudan became front-page news for the entirety of France, one of King Louis XV's advisors sent a famed Norman wolf-hunter to rural France to get the job done.
Allegedly, Jean-Charles d’Ennevals had killed over 1,200 wolves and was the best wolf-hunter around. According to correspondences from the time, the citizens of Gévaudan found d’Ennevals slow to start his hunt and useless when it came to capturing any wolves, let alone giant, bloodthirsty ones.
The King Sent His Personal Gunbearer, 71-Year-Old François Antoine, To Organize A Hunt After d'Ennevals Failed
As the death toll rose, King Louis XV grew more and more desperate to put an end to the beast. He sent his own gunman, François Antoine, to the small town of Gévaudan to hunt down the monster.
Antoine may have been 71, but he had years of experience protecting the most important man in France. Despite difficulties with the area's rough terrain, Antoine shot a massive wolf in September 1765.
The people of Gévaudan thought the killing spree was finally over, but they were wrong. A few months later, the beast picked up where it left off and went on another spree.