Jean-Pierre Pourcher can barely hold his gun, he is so afraid. He waits at the window in the stable ready to shoot. Out there in the snow something is stirring, coming, it is so close now,the Beast, because that’s what it is, that’s what everyone calls it. An animal the like Jean-Pierre and the other inhabitants of Gevaudan don’t recognize. His hands still trembling he makes the sign of the cross and he shoots. The Beast falls, but gets back up immediately, shakes itself off and looks around, undaunted. So, Jean-Pierre shoots again, the Beast falls for a second time, yells and gets back up, yet again apparently unharmed. What kind of creature can this be, Jean-Pierre thinks? What kind of creature is so large, so cruel and so invulnerable?
Those were the questions asked by the people of Gevaudan between 1764 and 1767. Officially there were 230 attacks, 121 of them resulting in death (Louis, 1992). There were probably more. Gevaudan lies in central France and in the 1700’s a scarcely populated area with dense mountainous forests. The winter is cold, life is hard, and the majority of the population, scattered in small villages. Most cannot read or write. By necessity the people of Gevaudan are very knowledgeable about the local wildlife, especially the wolves, and they have always maintained that the Beast is not a wolf.
The attacks began in June of 1764, mostly directed at children and women who were out tending to the sheep and cattle. The attacks were brutal and the Beast showed tremendous strength, heads, arms, legs were ripped off and the bodies were often found half devoured. Over the course of that summer, panic and a sense of helplessness would take hold of the people of Gevaudan as organized hunts for the Beast became exercises in futility. By September of that year captain Duhamel and the Dragons (French soldiers) join the locals in the hunt,inspiring cautious hope.
In February of 1765 Duhamel organizes a hunt made up of 40,000 people. It fails, it is as if the Beast knows how to avoid the Dragons. By March, Duhamel and the Dragons have still not killed the Beast and talk of werewolves and the Devil begin to surface.
Enter Martin Denneval, a man whom is said to have killed 1200 wolves.Some are hopeful that this man can finally bring deliverance, many are not. They keep repeating, the Beast is not a wolf. By April, Denneval is not so sure either, as the body of Gabrielle Pelissier is found mutilated with her head severed. Strange thing though, her clothes have been put back on, and her head back on her neck. By June of 1765 Denneval is frustrated and King Louis XV is not pleased. The news of the killings have spread across Europe, and the King does not want to be laughed at, just because he cannot kill a simple wolf.
As a definitive measure the King sends Antoine de Beauterne, his own personal master of the hunt. Beauterne meets up with Denneval on Saturday, June 22. The prior two days have been busy ones for the Beast, six attacks, four deaths. Curiously, after that, coinciding with the arrival of Beauterne, the Beast lies quiet until July 4 where it kills again. On August 11 the Beast attacks Marie Jeanne Valet who stabs it in the chest. It is wounded now and some think the Beast dead, but Beauterne is skeptical. He is right, in September it kills again.
On September 20 the people of Gevaudan have cause to smile, rumors have it that Beauterne has killed this unholy beast. However, doubts set in when it is found that the animal was killed in a forest 22 kilometers away, an area where the Beast had never been seen. Beauterne has indeed killed an unusually large wolf, but the autopsy found no human remains in the wolf’s stomach, and the Beast had been busy of late. Marie Jeanne Valet and other eyewitnesses are brought in. The wolf has a scar on its shoulder. Everyone agrees that this is where Marie Jeanne had stabbed the Beast even though she had said that she stabbed it in the chest. Quickly, the wolf is shipped out of Gevaudan and on its way to Versailles. Beauterne continues to hunt wolves in the region, just in case, and leaves Gevaudan on the third of November.
But the killings start again in December.The king now, purposely disinterested, politically the Beast is dead. But the king did not tell the Beast, and from December 1765 to May 1767 the Beast continues its rampage.
Rumors of lycanthropy associated with an Antoine Chastel surfaces and the people are beginning to wonder whether there isn’t more to this story than just this Beast. After all, some of the bodies were found naked, or with the head cleanly cut off. I cannot imagine that the Beast took the time to undress its victim before tearing them apart. A hairy dirty man had been seen in the woods often near where the Beast was active. The man is identified as Antoine Chastel, a mean man it is said. Some think him a sorcerer. He wasn’t, but he was a trainer of dogs, large reddish dogs that were said to be much meaner than wolves.
On the 16 of May 1767 Marie Denty, a twelve year old girl is killed by the Beast. Jean Chastel, Antoine’s father, had befriended this girl and her death upsets him deeply. On Friday the 19 of June he loads his gun with silver bullets and sets out to kill the Beast. On a break while reading a religious text he sees the Beast approaching. Uncharacteristically, the Beast calmly sits down and looks up at him. Calmer still, Jean Chastel takes off his glasses, puts them and the book away, raises his gun and in one shot kills the Beast.
Jean Chastel is not hailed as a hero in Gevaudan. Yes, the people are glad the Beast is dead, but they suspect the Chastels. Why is it that for years the best hunters in France had been unable to kill the Beast and Jean Chastel in one shot kills it, and the Beast waited patiently for it? Too many times had Antoine Chastel been seen near places where the Beast had killed. Something is not right here, the people think, and it’s not.
NATURE OF THE BEAST
When the killings began, Antoine Chastel was around twenty years of age. He lived alone in the forest with his dogs. He had run away from home at an early age and found himself living among the Huguenots, whom are Protestants, often at odds with the Catholics of Gevaudan. The turning point in his life was the time he spent as a prisoner in North Africa where he became a wild animal trainer. That is, until a mysterious unidentified man brought Antoine back to Gevaudan in 1763, but by then he was a different man.
On January 28, 1765 a man on horseback encounters the Beast near a small village. The Beast remains calm simply looking up at the man. The man decides to try to conduct the Beast to the nearby village where he could obtain help in capturing it. Strangely, the Beast seemingly docile lets itself be guided all the way to the village. Once at the village things change,it attacks a child and escapes.
In 1766 another bizarre story emerges. The Beast attacks two young men whom are tending cattle. These two, being rather robust, manage to fight it off. The next few days it keeps coming back and play fighting without trying to injure the two young men, as if it was a game. One of the two boys Pierre Blanc, affirmed that the it had buttons on its under belly. Could this explain how the Beast had been shot on numerous occasions, but remained unhurt?
Often in the history of warfare dogs were used to attack the enemy. In order to protect the animals, their trainers would dress them with a cuirass that usually covered the sides and was attached underneath the belly of the animal. This could explain why the Beast seemed impervious to shots and pitchforks. But then, someone must have put it there.
In May of 1767 a man by the name of Pailleyre wakes up at what he thinks is dawn, it is actually the middle of the night. He notices outside that a tall hairy man is bathing in the stream across from his house. This man upon noticing that he is being watched, jumps out of the stream and the next thing Pailleyre sees is the Beast running towards him. Luckily Pailleyre was able to run back inside and lock his door before he became a midnight snack. Pailleyre assumed that the man was a werewolf, that the man became the Beast. He was asked if he recognized this man. He said yes, it was Antoine Chastel.
Antoine Chastel already had a reputation for sorcery and was hated and feared, so it is possible that Pailleyre said that he saw him because in his mind Chastel was the most likely candidate. Still, Antoine Chastel was known to frequents the forest, was a hairy man, was seen near the Beast and was a trainer of wild animals in Africa. As we have seen, the Beast at times acted as a trained animal and may have worn a cuirass, which it obviously didn’t put on by itself. It had been known to attack up to five people in one day, a little much if motivated solely by hunger. And why was it so passive in front of Jean Chastel? Could it be that the Beast recognized him?
Furthermore, it always seemed that the Beast was able to avoid hunters, even 40,000 of them. A fact much more easily accomplished with aid, and a hidden shelter. And what about the naked bodies and the cleanly cut heads of some of the victims? I believe someone was working along side the Beast. As we have seen the evidence points towards Antoine Chastel, but was he alone, or was he guided by that mysterious man whom brought him back from Africa just a year before the killings began? If not Chastel, then who served the Beast?
Historians generally feel that the Beast of Gevaudan represents numerous large wolves with exaggerated dimensions due to local fear and superstition. That’s great, but, it becomes somewhat obvious from the preceding evidence that the Beast was not only trained to kill, but was also accompanied by an all too human ally. Survivors of the attacks and other eyewitnesses were adamant about the fact that this animal was not a wolf. Wolves were abundant in France in the 1700’s and people were accustomed to seeing them. A singular wolf very rarely attack men, and wolves were never this hard to kill. The latter exemplified by the fact that wolves have almost been hunted to extinction in Western Europe.
The red hair of the creature also argues against the wolf hypothesis. Red hair is not typically associated with European wolves. We could deduce that the Beast was simply one of Antoine Chastel’s unidentified dogs. But the size of the Beast as determined by both eyewitnesses and footprints suggests an enormous animal, much bigger than a German shepherd for example. Yet, the Beast’s long muzzle and hairy tail are traits belonging to either wolves or middle sized dogs, such as the German shepherd. Dogs whose sizes are comparable to the beast tend to have short or medium sized muzzles and thin tails (Louis, 92). Reports mention that the Beast growled, maybe howled but never barked. While dogs can be trained not to bark, it would be unusual in all witnessed killings and attacks that a dog wouldn’t even bark once.
The Beast is described as hairy, which includes the tail and feet. Large in front and thinner towards the back with a large jaw. The ears were straight like a wolf but shorter. The hair was mostly red with white on the underbelly and a black stripe on its back, perhaps due to the cuirass. The claws were non retractable thus eliminating any wild cat from consideration.
A popular theory is that the Beast was a hyena. Hyenas do reach this size, and certainly have the bite power attributed to the beast. One of the problem with the Hyena hypothesis is vocalization. The Beast was very quiet. Hyenas have a very distinct and loud vocalization which has never been reported in any of the attacks. Otherwise, the hyena makes a relatively good suspect, it doesn’t bark, it is larger in the front and thinner in the back and it has an extremely strong jaw. Chastel may have been familiar with training hyenas from his stint in Africa. A stuffed striped hyena was kept at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris between 1766 and 1819 which has led some researcher to believe that this may have been the Beast. Unfortunately, the actual Beast wasn’t shot until 1767, and never made it to Paris, having been buried on the way.
Both the hyena and Chastel’s red dogs make decent candidates, but not perfect ones. We do not know what specie of dogs Chastel had. The only descriptions we have is that they were large and red.The Beast seems to represent an amalgam of wolf and dog traits, leading to the possibility that it was a hybrid between the two. We know that such a coupling is a biological possibility, common even. Chastel had the skills to train such an animal, and as we have already seen, wolves weren’t hard to procure in France at that time. The forest was teeming with them.
The Beast had a long muzzle and did not bark perhaps because it was part wolf and wagged its tail in excitement and was trainable perhaps because it was part dog. In terms of what we know about the behavior and morphology of the Beast, the wolf-dog hybrid hypothesis may be the best match.
In reality, this is a serial killer case. I believe the key lies with that mysterious man that brought Antoine Chastel back to Gevaudan. Did he employ Chastel to conduct the killings via the Beast? Did he employ others, yet unidentified individuals? Did he take part in the killings himself? If so, the motives remain elusive. I suspect that whatever the real reason behind the attacks, a religion motivation was involved, directly targeting Gevaudan because of they were Catholics, which would make that mysterious man a Huguenot, and probably a rich man. Now, we have a profile.
Huguenot and Catholics had a long and violent history in France, most notably in 1572 when some 20,000 to 30,000 Huguenots were killed in France. In the next 200 years, violent conflicts were common place and practicing a non Catholic religion deemed illegal. That changed in 1787 with the Edict of Versailles. But, before all that Gevaudan happened. So I suspect the killings were payback, perhaps for a former wrong against a Huguenot family? Or was there even a more complex plot involved, perhaps organized by a foreigner, that mysterious man? Was there a more political agenda at work here?