A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing which could not feel
The touch of Earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
William Wordsworth ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ – 1800.
“The world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and the unwary”
Stephen King ‘Cujo’ – 1981.
Hi folks welcome back, and happy Halloween… Yes I know I have this tale scheduled to drop the day before. All the same put down that pumpkin knife for a while, grab a little Halloween candy and join me in this week’s Tale of History and Imagination.
The scene today, dear readers, is the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, just after the bloody, costly Seven Years War – a Proto World War if ever there was one – which had left deep scars in the psyche of many a European nation – France included- and left many a piggy bank bereft in its’ wake.
Gevaudan itself was an isolated, rugged, rural spot (the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason). The terrain was rough and mountainous. It’s terrain far too rocky to grow much in the way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock – which meant, from a young age, the solitary job of wandering amongst your flock or herd, out in the elements – and keeping an eye out for any predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan was also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place where, if a pack of wolves didn’t get you, a lurking outlaw, footpad or highwayman may just jump out and lighten your pockets somewhat. It was against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, would come roaring into the public consciousness of the French.
Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman, whose name is never mentioned in the dozen texts I am working from, provided us with our first description of La Bete. She had been out in the fields with her cattle when a huge beast, unlike anything had seen before, came out of the forest. Far more interested in her than the cattle, the beast was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a flat head with a wide mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. It had something of a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. It scrambled towards her with a remarkable speed and dexterity. Our nameless young lady was saved by the fact she was standing behind a group of large bulls- who were unwilling to brook any aggression from this strange cryptid – and repeatedly charged La Bete, till he skulked off back into the forest. This incident was discarded as probably an attack by a wolf, until a short time later, 14 year old Jeanne Boulet was killed, her mutilated body found outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares. A month later another victim, a similarly unnamed 15 year old girl killed near Puylaurent. She lived just long enough to give a description of the beast, which matched the first encounter. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found. This was followed by a spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. There was a general trend of horrible disfigurement, of gouging on the body, and of the beast going for the neck or head. Speculation at the sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were, in fact looking at two beasts. If there was a singular beast, then the speed in which it could traverse open land was beyond that of a wolf, in any case.
In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with several friends. He managed to fight La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which would earn him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to fight off the beast successfully – In August 1765 a young girl, Marie Jeanne Valet, out for a walk with her sister, was attacked by the beast. Carrying a spear Marie squared up to the beast, and after an epic battle with the monster, sent it off with a nasty wound to it’s chest. I have not read of any royal plaudits or free education for Ms Valet, but there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle in Auvers, constructed in 1995 in honour of ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.
As mentioned above, in 1765 the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned if he did nothing there could be a mass panic, and perhaps also seeing some chance to redeem some honour for his military in the wake of a series of nasty defeats in the Seven Year War, he sent in the army, professional hunters, even his own Lieutenant of the hunt, Francoise Antoine. As terrified as the locals were of La Bete, they were disdainful of the soldiers and hunters, and did not go out of their way to make them feel welcome.
What followed was a prolonged mass slaughter. A large wolf being the likely suspect for the beast – although retroactively it was determined only around 5% of the attacks in the area from 1764-67 were by wolves – it was open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves were massacred in this time. Some uncommonly large. But the killings continued by Le Bete. One noticeable difference between an ordinary wolf and La Bete was observed in this time too. Wolves generally dropped when you shot them, but on several occasions soldiers and hunters faced off against La Bete, fired, and the beast shook off the shot, scarpering back into the forest. While a number of mad suggestions were put forward, like it was some hybrid mastiff-wolf that one of the unhelpful locals had sent out in an armour of pig’s hide – for….. well…… reasons – you have to keep in mind this was the 1760s, and the first breach loading rifles and the like were a long way off – the legendary Prussian Dreyse Needle gun nearly 80 years off, the French Chassepot a whole century away. Guns had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards. An expert musketeer could maybe get off a shot every 20 seconds. We have to be a little careful when imagining the beast shaking off gunfire, not to imagine it being shot at by a modern hunting rifle.
There were a number of tales around the hunting of the beast. At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals into a mass hunt, to canvass the area. He had no luck. Of course if Louis XV were attempting to avoid a mass panic, such hunts did quite the opposite, generating a great deal of press attention. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long wolf – whose body was sent back to the court. The attacks continued.
Finally a local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The animal was loaded up to be transported to Paris – but it went off on the way – the carcass which arrived at the other end had decomposed too much to identify at the other end. As a piece of random folklore, it was said Chastel killed the beast with a silver bullet – something which entered the werewolf myth thereafter. The attacks ceased after this. All in all 113 people had been killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies had been partially eaten.
So, what was it exactly that Chastel killed?
A number of beasts have been suggested over the years, though there is a general consensus on one suspect I am told all the experts point to. So let’s get through the also-rans first. One suggestion made was the beast had been a hyena – my mind boggled at this a little, I must admit, but one video I found online by Trey The Explainer claims he found documentation of a striped hyena which had escaped a menagerie, and was shot in 1767, elsewhere in France. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.
Other suggestions ran to a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained dog ala Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. One cryptid fan page I came across suggested the long extinct Mesonychid, again highly unlikely – but let’s just put a pin in this, one particular species of Mesonychid, was the massive Andrewsarchus – named after famed explorer Roy Chapman Andrews. Some time in the future I will come back to Mr Andrews, in relation to a certain action hero.. but I don’t have this locked in for any time soon. Now I think this can be dismissed fairly safely. As can talk of a serial killer. To quote Hitchens razor ‘that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.’
Where the experts tend to agree is La Bete was a sub-adult lion. This would fit the description, size, speed. It’s behaviour. It’s imperviousness to 18th century guns. That it had yet to grow a full mane, you would not blame a group of unworldly rural folk, many, many decades away from television shows of any kind let alone Daktari and David Attenborough’s documentaries, a long, long way from photographs in National Geographic magazines – for not knowing what the beast was. Besides, if you hear hooves behind you on a street at night, do you think it will be a zebra? Of course not… You think it will be a horse. How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is up for speculation. My best guess- if I were to take a shot at it – is it is related in some way to the war. You have a war raging for over a decade (yes I know the title Seven Years War is misleading), where Frenchmen are being transported all over the world. Had one of the soldiers picked up a fluffy little cub on the way, only to dump it when it got too big and dangerous to handle anymore? Alternately, had some formerly wealthy member of the gentry, finding they could no longer afford the upkeep on a private menagerie, dumped their animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? There has long been speculation Britain’s ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’ was similarly a panther, dumped after laws changed in the 1970’s, prohibiting private individuals from owning exotic pets. Whatever the case you can now say you have heard of La Bete de Gevaudan. Happy trick or treating folks.