For three years, the peasants of south-central France were petrified. A huge beast was killing women and children in a region then known as Gevaudan (now Lozere), in the Margeride Mountains. From 1764 to 1767, sixty to one hundred-plus people were slaughtered by “The Beast Who is Eating Everyone.” To this day, the case remains a mystery.
The meager clews – embroidered, no doubt, by superstition and exaggeration -- were these:
• The beast ignored the typical prey of a wolf, preferring small human victims. "It was said La Bête would plough straight through a flock of sheep, scattering them like leaves to get at the shepherdess."
• Many witnesses reported seeing the Beast, wounding the Beast, and/or surviving attacks of the animal.
• One victim attributed to the Beast was a boy who disappeared forever, yet his shoes and clothes were found intact.
• Victims had their heads crushed – not typical of an animal attack.
At the time, a tongue-in-cheek WANTED poster appeared.
Reward 12,000 livres if dead. Known as 'La Bête' but kills under three aliases. Reddish brown with dark ridged stripe down the back. Resembles wolf/hyena but big as a donkey. Long gaping jaw, 6 claws, pointy upright ears and supple furry tail - mobile like a cat's and can knock you over. Cry: more like horse neighing than wolf howling. Last seen by people mostly now dead. If she approaches you please leave behind a signed copy of this poster.
Some of the theories are these:
- A loup-garou, a chimera, or even a demon.
- A punishment sent by God.
- An unusually large wolverine, wolf, bear, lion, hyena, baboon, or dog – an aberration of Mother Nature or an escaped exotic.
- An animal trained to kill.
- A religious cult that sacrificed women and children.
- Jean Chastel, the man who was credited with killing the animal and ending the attacks. Chastel was part of a large hunting party that was after the beast; during the hunt, he claimed, he sat reading the Bible and praying when the Beast happened upon him. Chastel’s account is that the Beast stared at him as he finished his prayer, and then he raised his weapon and killed La Bete. Whatever really happened that day, Jean Chastel paraded the canine corpse at Versailles, and the killings stopped. Many also suspect Jean Chastel’s son, Antoine Chastel.
- A cannibalistic serial killer that disguised his murders as the work of La Bete. (This theory makes sense to me. I am reminded of a serial killer from Germany who unsuccessfully attempted to stage his murders of children as the work of a loup-garou.)
A recent incident in Maine may shed new light on this very old mystery. Look at this photo:
This carcass bears an amazing resemblance to some of the drawings of La Bete, particularly the ears and snout.
It is believed to be a very rare wolf-dog hybrid, and "the mysterious creature that has mauled dogs, frightened residents and been the subject of local legend for half a generation." MSNBC
This is not the first time New England has been visited by a strange beast. Nearly 150 years after La Bete du Gavaudan was supposedly slaughtered, echoes of its legendary ferocity were heard in Connecticut.
From the Lincoln (Nebraska) Evening News, Dec. 7, 1905:
COURAGE OF ISRAEL PUTNAM
In 1743 there flourished in the wilderness of Eastern Connecticut, where now smile the trim, stone-fenced fields of Windhom [sic] county, a she wolf fierce as the Beast of Gevaudan, writes Lynn Tew Sprague in the Outing magazine for December.
If tradition say true [sic] this monster pursued travelers and on occasion ate children as children eat sweets. But one night in early winter she killed certain sheep belonging to a hardy young farmer named Israel Putnam.
In the new fallen snow Israel and his neighbors traced the beast to her den, a cavern deep long and narrow under the rocky hills. Dogs were given the scent, but declined to combat; even a savage bloodhound belonging to Putnam turned tail.
But Israel was a man of flexible purpose, with nerves of steel. With a rope around his waist, a torch in one hand and an old flintlock in the other, he entered the cave himself. In the further end of the dark winding passage flamed a pair of savage eyes. There was a report of the old flintlock, a savage growl, a last spring, a hand-to-claw struggle with the expiring brute. Then Israel’s neighbors drew out the wounded hero, holding the dead beast by the throat.
For more on the Beast, see:
Beast of Gevauland (in French)