Tag Archives: 18th Century

On the Trail of La Bete du Gevaudan

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
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Today’s tale is set in the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, following the bloody, and 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 monarch broke in its’ wake.

Gevaudan is an isolated, rugged, rural spot – the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason. The terrain is rough and mountainous – far too rocky to grow much by way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock. From a young age, they worked alone, out in the elements – constantly on the lookout for wild predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan is also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place full of packs of wolves, lurking outlaws, footpads and highwayman. It really is the kind of place you could imagine in the most vicious Grimm Brothers tales. It’s against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, came roaring into the consciousness of the French.

Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman provides us with our first description of La Bete. While caring for her cattle, a huge beast came bolting out of the forest. It was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a huge mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. The beast had a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. Far more interested in the cowherd than the cattle, the beast rushed at her with remarkable speed and dexterity. Our witness would have been done for but for the fact several large bulls were between her and the beast. The gang of bulls repeatedly charged La Bete, till it turned tail, back into the forest.

The cowherd reported the incident, but was turned away, everyone else believing the animal to be a large wolf. Soon after 14 year old Jeanne Boulet would be eviscerated, her mutilated body found dumped outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares.

A month later another victim was badly mauled, a 15 year old girl near Puylaurent. She barely lived long enough to give a description of the beast very like the animal in the first encounter. It was around this point people started to entertain the possibility a monster walked among them. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found in the hills. This was followed by a sustained spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. The horrible disfigurement of the victims suggested both an extremely powerful beast, and a propensity to play with it’s meal. Bodies were left heavily gouged The beast, when going in for the kill, went for the neck or head. Speculation at this sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were in fact looking for two beasts. No wolf could traverse the rocky hills with anything like the speed the beast moved at, in any case.

In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with friends. He fought La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which won him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to get the better of the beast. In August 1765 Marie Jeanne Valet was walking with her sister when the beast leapt out. Armed with a spear, Marie squared up to the beast – and after an epic battle with the monster – sent it scarpering with a chest wound. She won no royal plaudits or free education – at least there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle, in Auvers, constructed in 1995 to honour ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.

By 1765, the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned that to do nothing would lead to mass panic, and perhaps seeing some chance at redemption for his military – who lost 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 now of La Bete, they also gave the small army soldiers and hunters the cold shoulder on their arrival.

A large wolf the likely suspect for the killer beast, Antoine’s army called open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves would be massacred. Some wolves were uncommonly large, but the killings continued unabated. Hunters noticed a big difference between a wolf and La Bete around this time too. Wolves generally drop when you shoot them, but the beast was hit several times – and shook off the shot. A rumour began to circulate some hybrid mastiff-wolf had been bred by these ungrateful locals, then sent out in pig’s hide armour. How else could one explain this creature? Keep in mind guns in the 1760s had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards, and expert musketeers could maybe get a shot off every 20 seconds. Hunters were hardly out there with modern hunting rifles.

At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals on a mass hunt, to canvass the area. They had no luck, and generated a great deal of press attention to boot. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long lone wolf – and sent the  body back to the court. The attacks continued.

Finally local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The carcass was loaded on a wagon and taken to the king in Paris. With a long, arduous journey, and an unusually hot summer, the carcass went off, and was too decomposed to identify at the capital. Lore grew around the kill claiming Chastel shot the beast with a silver bullet – something afterwards associated with werewolves. The attacks ceased after Chastel’s kill. All in all 113 people were killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies were partially eaten.

So, what was the beast?

There are a number of suggestions.

First I think we can dismiss the claim the killer was, in fact, a serial killer. There is no evidence of a human killer. The attack marks sound like something a large animal is capable of. The hunters sited, and on occasion did shoot a mystery cryptid. That stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.

Though a little small, a stray hyena is possible. A striped hyena did escape a menagerie, in 1767, having to be put down. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.

Other suggestions run the gamut from a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained hound – probably owned by Jean Chastel. Fans of crypto-zoology have suggested long extinct beasts such as the Mesonychid, the Bear Dog or the Dire Wolf. All seem highly unlikely.

Experts generally agree the beast was a sub-adult lion. A young adult is the right size. It would move and behave like the beast. It could also shake off 18th century musket shot. A sub-adult has yet to grow a full mane. That people living in an isolated region, in a time before photographs mistook a lion without a mane for some other monster is completely understandable.

How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is another question entirely. It’s a question which invites guesswork. Had one of the soldiers, stationed abroad in the Seven Years War picked up a fluffy little cub going through Africa, only to dump it when it became too big and dangerous to handle? Alternately, had a formerly wealthy aristocrat found they couldn’t afford to keep a private menagerie, anymore – and chosen to dump the animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? It has been long speculated Britain had a similar moment in the 1970s, after legislation made it all but impossible to keep a private zoo. The Beast of Bodmin Moor, seen by many in the years since, believed by some to be a puma deposited there by its former owner.

The macabre death of Antoine Lavoisier

Hi folks this week I am sharing a rather macabre tale. I should state up front, while this tale features a real, historical figure and his death, it could very well be a tall tale. Please proceed with caution dear reader. Take this with a grain of salt. Today’s tale revolves around the final moments of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794), aristocrat, philanthropist, and father of modern chemistry.

Among his achievements, Lavoisier defined the properties of a number of elements and set the stage for the periodic table. He was partially responsible for the metric system of measurement. Lavoisier was a campaigner for social change, advocating for better street lights in Paris, an aqueduct to bring Parisians clean water, and for cleaner air – Lavoisier believed gun powder particularly was a pollutant and dangerous to people in ways beyond the obvious. He was a man who understood the importance of science in his, and future societies – founding two schools – the Lycee Lavoisier, and the Musée des Arts et Metiers.

Antoine Lavoisier

Unfortunately Antoine Lavoisier also lived in the time of the French Revolution. His scientific and humanitarian work should have granted him immunity from mob justice, but he owned shares in The Ferme Générale – the company who collected taxes for the crown. With poverty and taxation driving forces behind the revolution, the last thing you wanted to be come the reign of terror was a tax collector, or profiteer from public taxes.

On 24th November 1793 Lavoisier was among a group of 28 citizens arrested for tax fraud. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be executed on 8th May 1794. Lavoisier allegedly begged for clemency due to his scientific accomplishments and public works, but the judge was alleged to have said “La revolution ńà pas besoin de savants” – the revolution does not need scholars. The revolution didn’t need stenographers either apparently, so we have to trust the eyewitness accounts …. but there is something of the spirit of the reign of terror in the judge’s comment is there not?

The method of execution would be the guillotine – a newfangled decapitation device proposed as a more humane alternative to the axe, by the physician and politician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. It was designed by another French physician, Antoine Louis. It should be noted there were earlier machines of a similar type, the 16th century Halifax Gibbet the notable example. Under the shadow of the blade, legend has it, Antoine Lavoisier had one final experiment to carry out. The following, if true, seems absolutely horrific to me – just imagine all those thousands of victims of the guillotine, in the wake of their apparent demise.

Lavoisier’s final experiment sought to answer the question what happens to a human being after their head is separated from their body? The ultimate answer is clear, but does the shock of the blade instantly end them, or does a head look up in silent horror at it’s decapitated body for a time? History is full of urban legends on the subject, all easily dismissable. Mary Queen of Scots’ lips allegedly kept moving for fifteen minutes after her beheading. Today we might put that down to the last bursts of nerves and synapses, in her time people wondered what she was trying to tell them. Similarly it was claimed Sir Everard Digby, conspirator in the Gunpowder plot to kill Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James I, loudly proclaimed his innocence for some time after his noggin was cleft from his body. Antoine Lavoisier proposed to answer this question by blinking once a second for as long as he could.

On 8th May 1794, an assistant nearby to conduct his final experiment, Lavoisier kneeled down under the blade and steeled himself for the deadly impact. The blade fell. The assistant knelt down and began to count
“Un- duex – trois – quatre… still blinking…. Sinq – six – sept – huit -nuef – dix. I have no idea if the assistant counted ‘Mississippi’s’ or not in between – onze Mississippi- douze Mississippi – treize Mississippi … but it is believed Lavoisier blinked up to 20 times before he expired. Whether there is any truth in this is anyone’s guess- though it seems far more likely than the account of Charlotte Corday, the assassin who stabbed the pro revolution polemicist Jean-Paul Marat while he took a bath. In the wake of her execution her cheeks allegedly flushed red with indignation. Cardiologists state a brain can survive four seconds without blood flow if decapitated from a standing position, and up to twelve seconds if reclined when the blade fell.

France would use the guillotine as a form of execution from 25th April 1792 to September 10 1977 – the final execution one Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian national who tortured and murdered his ex-girlfriend, Elisabeth Bousquet. They would officially abolish execution by guillotine in September 1981.

Hamida Djandoubi, the last person guilotined by the French.

Originally published 21st February 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Coffee! – The Swedes battle for a good cup of Joe.

I really feel I should declare upfront, I am very much a fan of coffee. This no doubt sways my opinion of Sweden’s former monarch, Gustav III. I may have quietly raised a mug of Ethiopian coffee in quiet defiance to the mad king while writing this tale.


Coffee has been an elixir of life for many since the late 15th century – when a Sufi Imam from Yemen noticed how chipper a group of birds were, pecking away at coffee beans, on a trip to Ethiopia. He promptly brought the elixir back to Yemen, where it quickly became a tradition to pour a cup of hot Joe on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday – so one story goes. Another tale has it the power of coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, by an Ethiopian herdsman called Kaldi. He noticed the goats who ate coffee beans had boundless energy, so he started eating them himself.


In the recent past, when Cracked.com’s YouTube channel ruled large swathes of the internet, their roving reporter Robert Evans (now of Behind the Bastards, Worst Year Ever and the It Could Happen Here series) explained how the Ethiopians used to ferment coffee beans throughout the day while out riding through their own body heat, for a cheap high at days’ end. It is must see viewing – Evans has several of Cracked’s staff tripping balls on various natural highs and having quite the party in the piece. One TED talk I watched a long time ago and now cannot find to properly reference the author (I particularly closely checked all of Malcolm Gladwell’s talks and, Gladwellian as it sounds I don’t think it was him) claimed – at a time when English water was too polluted to drink – the emergence of coffee houses saved the British Empire. Prior to coffee the everyday Briton sustained themselves on beer throughout the day. Coffee houses gave them both a clearer head and a place to mingle, where the ideas which powered the Industrial Revolution percolated as much as the Arabica beans themselves. I have no idea how true this is – it is an enticing thought though.


On what may well be my favorite episode of the podcast The Constant, ‘Shipwreckless’, Mark Chrisler points to how coffee houses like Lloyds of London morphed into insurance brokers for the marine trade, which, through lack of proper oversight coupled with an ability to make a killing -even when underwriting old death traps – led to the rise of the ‘coffin ships’ – overloaded, decrepit vessels sent out with no regard for the lives of those onboard. Another tale around coffee is how it apparently reached Europe. One tale states in the wake of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, Austria, as the Ottoman Turks retreated they left behind bags and bags of coffee beans. Not only did the siege of Vienna save Christendom apparently, it continues to save our mornings. The first Austrian coffee house did appear two years after the battle, but it is known coffee had been coming into Europe for quite some time before via Malta and Venice. Sebastian Major dissects numerous food myths which arose around the siege in an episode of Our Fake History.

We still have a week to fill in this schedule. I love coffee. Though the following tale is light on detail – Dates? Names? Pffft, who needs that stuff, History nerds? (Yes please!) – Let’s talk about King Gustav III anyway, and his hatred for the Jitter Juice.


Though Sweden is now the 6th biggest drinkers of coffee in the world, per capita – consuming the equivalent of 18 pounds weight of coffee a year – this was a hard won passion. Between 1756 and 1817 the Swedish Royal family would ban the drink on five occasions. Coffee was first imported to the country in 1674 (that’s right, almost a decade before the siege of Vienna apparently brought the bean to Europe) but remained very much a niche drink until the turn of the century. Coffee then suddenly reached a tipping point, and became extremely popular with all levels of Swedish society just after 1700. One might think an elixir of life such as coffee taking off, and in a lot of cases becoming a substitute for day drinking, would be a great boon for the ruling classes. It was a great socializer of people without the occasional ‘nose painting’ drunkenness can bring. It gave your people greater energy to get through the day and work hard. It warms you up in the cold, Northern climes. What’s not to love right?

Well, if you are to believe the King of Sweden, coffee made people jittery, rude, an altogether all too ‘French’. Such foreign-ness was not to be tolerated. It is far more likely the introduction of the foreign drink was hurting the domestic Swedish market for ale and mead, as day drinking gave way to the coffee houses. Though Sweden did not start brewing alcohol at industrial levels till the industrial revolution reorganized society into several large cities – necessitating larger scale production – they did have many local micro-breweries dotted all over the map. These small businesses suffered. In 1746, in an effort to relieve their suffering, the crown enacted a high import tax on coffee and tea. Did this harm coffee sales? Hardly.
The next stage was to convince the populace that to drink a hot cup of Java was to take your very life in your hands. Enter Physician to the Admiralty Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus was a brilliant mind who did much for the proper classification of plants and animals – formalizing what we now call binomial nomenclature (a classification system giving all living things a double barreled, Latin name ie. Homo Sapiens for humans, Felis Domesticus for the common house cat). He identified a great many plants in Sweden and Lapland. He worked out wormwood could be used as anti-malarial medication to help fight malaria. He made a raft of small discoveries over the years, such as recommending the best wood to use for the butts of guns, and suggesting to Anders Celsius his newfangled temperature scale should have the freezing point at 0 and boiling point at 100, and not vice versa – and he was well rewarded for his efforts with titles. When the king wanted scientific proof that coffee was bad for you Linnaeus was happy to oblige. Having first tried and failed to find a way of growing coffee locally, then to substitute the Arabica bean with a local alternative, Linnaeus dutifully proclaimed coffee was dangerous, and possibly to blame for hemorrhoids, constipation, senility, even strokes and heart attacks. In spite of this Carl Linnaeus himself was a big coffee drinker.

Carl Linnaeus.


King Adolf Frederick would ascend to the throne in 1751, and would enact a number of bans on coffee in his lifetime – all largely ignored by the public at large, even though at first they risked the seizure of all their cups and saucers, then later, imprisonment. During one ban, in 1794 the first wave feminist, writer, academic, and mother of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of her travels through Sweden, and how even the coffee made in one’s home there outclassed the coffee in Britain’s finest coffee houses. Perhaps ironically Adolf Frederick would become known for his strange death. He died of indigestion in 1771 after a meal of kippers, lobster, caviar, sauerkraut – the not at all ‘French’ champagne – and FOURTEEN SERVINGS of a local dessert called Hetvagg. Not a single coffee was consumed.

King Adolf Frederick.

Which leads us to our, poorly researched and perhaps dubious tale. In 1771 Gustav III would rule Sweden, till his assassination in 1792. Somewhere in this timeframe he was alleged to have carried out the following experiment. Like his gluttonous father, Gustav hated coffee. He was determined, once and for all to prove it was nothing more than a slow-acting poison. The tale has it he took two prisoners who were on death row for murder – some texts claim they were identical twins, and while I won’t say this was bullshit I will say I think it statistically unlikely – and commuted their sentences to life terms on the proviso one would drink three pots of coffee every day till he died. The second prisoner had to drink the equivalent in tea. The sources all point out not only did the prisoners outlive Gustav – who was very unpopular with the nobles because, as their first absolutist ruler in some time following a run of figureheads, he was determined to mess with a lot of their civil liberties. He had also started a constitutionally illegal war with Russia while they were tied up in another war with the Ottoman Empire. He was shot in the hip at a masked ball on 13th March 1792, later dying of infection. The unnamed doctors supervising the experiment all died off before the, also unnamed subjects. At some unnamed point the tea drinker, now 83, passed on leaving the coffee drinker to enjoy his daily cups of mud in peace. Is this a true story? Who the hell knows. A number of publications, including the Smithsonian have all reported on it though.

Gustav III of Sweden, the man did not like his coffee.

The next time you happen to be sitting out in your courtyard, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo up on your Kindle, Kobo, or even real book – it mentions coffee 92 times by the way – remember the right to drink coffee was hard won by the Swedes, that part of the tale at least is true.