The Beast of Gévaudan (French: La bête du Gévaudan) was an allegedly cow-sized, wolf-like creature that terrorized the population of the former province of Gévaudan in the Margeride Mountains in south-central France from about 1764 to 1767. The creature is associated with 198 attacks, including 36 wounded and 88 dead. It preferentially attacked humans, even singling them out from cows in a field. The beast was said to be all black, and travel at very quick speeds, slaying its victims before they had a chance to react. It had a lion-like tuft of fur.
Today the story of the Beast of Gévaudan is a cryptozoological curiosity, bit of historical intrigue, and an essential component of local French folklore.
In 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the following of the beast:
"For this was the land of the ever-memorable BEAST, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and ‘shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty’; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king’s high-road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head."
Never at any other point in recorded history was there a beast which killed so many humans and avoided capture for so long. What is interesting is that the incident occurred in relatively recent history, the 18th century, and was recorded by numerous reputable sources. Although there is uncertainty about what exactly the Beast of Gévaudan was, historians are certain it actually existed, there being numerous sightings of it in broad daylight.
Unlike known predators, which tend to focus on the legs or the jugular, the Beast of Gévaudan targeted the heads of its victims, and preyed on the weak — women and children. Heads were often found crushed or removed, and the beast ignored areas of the body often consumed by predators, such as the thighs or abdomen. It seems as if its main goal was merely to kill.
Numerous hunting parties were assembled to capture the creature, but they were never successful. Hunters set up traps, even dressing themselves as women and standing alone in the field while their comrades lied in wait for an ambush, but these efforts failed. Over a hundred wolves were killed, but the beast was nowhere to be found. Eventually, the King of France sent François Antoine, his personal hunter, to slay the creature. With the aid of eight trained bloodhounds and forty local hunters, Antoine caught an unusually large wolf, had it stuffed, and sent to Versailles. But the wolf did not match the description of the Beast of Gévaudan, and the attacks continued. Dozens more died over the next year.
Allegedly, the beast was not killed until a year and a half later, by the local hunter, Jean Chastel, using a gun with silver bullets. By this point the legend surrounding the creature had convinced people it had supernatural status. A very large wolf was killed, and when it was gutted, the body of a small girl was supposedly found inside. The beast was put on display, but as the embalming techniques of the time were poor, it began to rot after a couple weeks and was buried.
Numerous theories have been put forth to explain the nature of the Beast of Gévaudan. These include a dog-wolf hybrid, a hyena, a large dog trained to kill, a lionness-tiger hybrid, even a monster sent by God. Without any extant physical evidence, the truth will probably never be known.