The body of a girl had been found by the edge of the forest near Langogne. Something had torn her to pieces…
The word spread like wildfire. Throughout the whole of the Haute Loire region of southern France, people walked in fear and barred their doors against the sinister evil that stalked the land during the hours of darkness. The body of a young girl had been found on the edge of the Mercoire Forest. a few miles southwest of the town of Langogne. She had been literally torn to pieces. The wolf had struck again…
It was said that the creature responsible was a devil, that it was not of this earth. It was as big as a bull, with great steel-like claws and pointed ears that resembled Satan’s horns. It was reddish in color, with a black stripe down its spine – or so people said, of course, no one had actually seen the creature and lived to talk about it – but everyone knew somebody who had.
The wolf’s first victim was a 14-year-old girl, whose throat was torn out by the creature on 3 July, 1764. A week later, a second girl was killed. In
August, the creature almost completely devoured a l5-year-old boy – and in September, its victims included two girls, a woman and another boy. The killings all took place in a heavily wooded area known as Le Gévaudan – and in each case the victim’s heart was eaten.
By the end of September, the inhabitants of Le Gévaudan were in the grip of terror. They had never known anything like it. Wolves attacked sheep and other livestock, but rarely did they molest humans – and then only in the depths of winter, when hunger made them ferocious.
In response to a frantic plea by the town’s mayor, 40 dragoons arrived in Langogne. For several days they combed the woods of Le Gévaudan, without sighting the wolf. People began to breathe more easily; perhaps the creature had been driven out of the area.
Then, on the first day of October, a 12-year-old girl was attacked and savagely mutilated near her home in the neighboring region of Saint-Chely dApchier. On 7 October, two more girls were killed, followed by a 20-year-old woman a week later.
The Governor of Languedoc issued orders forbidding women and children to work alone in the fields, and organized a large- scale hunt for the creature. During the weeks that followed, soldiers and armed peasants killed several wolves – but the beast was not among them. The despairing people of Le Gévaudan were becoming more and more convinced that the creature was super- natural and, therefore, unstoppable.
Heavy snow began to fall, putting an end to the search. But the snow did not deter the beast. On 15 December, it decapitated a 45- year-old woman in Auvergne. Five days later, a young girl suffered the same fate, and on December 22, the beast was pursued for half an hour by a troop of dragoons – and, according to their report, it literally vanished before their eyes.
Then, on 12 January 1765, the beast suffered its First defeat. Seven children – Eve boys and two girls – were guarding a flock of sheep near Villeret d’Apchier. Suddenly, they cried out in terror as they saw a great wolf loping towards them through the long grass.
Languedoc has always been steeped in the occult. In the Middle Ages the Albigensians, a religious sect, who lived in the fortresses like this one, were suppressed by a Papal crusade.The beast leaped on one of the boys and began to drag him off. The others gave chase, stabbing at the creature with improvised spears made from knives lashed to the ends of staves. The beast dropped its first victim – who was badly torn about the face, but still alive – and seized another boy by the arm. Led by 12-year-old Andre Portefaix, the others rushed the creature again, trying to stab it in the eyes. One of them thrust his spear between the beast’s jaws, forcing it to release its hold. Portefaix cried ‘Save him – or die with him!’ and stood over the fallen boy, fending off the creature. At last, bleeding from several deep gashes, it turned and fled. (When King Louis XV heard of Andre Portefaix’s bravery, he rewarded the boy by paying for his education out of the royal purse. Later, Portefaix became an artillery officer.)
However, the people’s jubilation was short-lived. Before the end of January, as though enraged by its defeat, the beast claimed five more victims. A fortune was put on the creature’s head, the king alone promising 6,000livres to the person who killed it.
On 7 February 1765, 20,000 men – everyone capable of carrying a weapon – converged on Mont-Grand, where the beast had last been seen. A troop of dragoons flushed the creature out of its hiding-place and drove it towards the Truyere River, where it was to have been trapped by a strong force of peasants. Unfortunately, the peasants went to the wrong place – and the beast swam across the river and vanished in the woods on the other side.
It was sighted again an hour later, and was bowled over by a volley of musket-fire. It scrambled to its feet again and loped off into the forest – but the pursuers were certain that they had dealt it a mortal blow. No creature of flesh and blood could have survived such a blast of musket-balls. But less than 24 hours later, the beast decapitated another girl. And it left no tracks in the snow around the body.
The superstitious people of Languedoc were now completely resigned to the belief that the beast was an instrument of the Devil, and that no mortal man had the power to destroy it. To make matters worse, the Church stepped in and declared that the wolf had been sent by God to punish the peasants for their sins. A dark aura of gloom hung over the whole land. People went about their tasks furtively, in constant fear.
And meanwhile, in March, the beast killed eight more people. On 7 April, after months of fruitless searching, the dragoons rode away from Langogne. As though to celebrate the occasion, the beast tore out the throat of a 17-year-oldshepherdess. On 30 April, after claiming three more victims, the beast was shot twice in the flank by a hunter near Saint-Alban. It escaped, leaving a pool of blood behind it – but just a few hours later; it killed a 40-year old woman.
The beast grew bolder, prowling along village streets after dark and snarling at barred doors. People whispered that it often walked upright on hind legs, like a man, and now a fearful name sped from mouth to mouth – a name that no-one had dared to utter until now. Werewolf!
Then, in May, came fresh hope. For nearly three weeks, there was no new killing. Perhaps the beast was mortal after all; perhaps a musket-ball had found a vital spot. But the hope was soon dashed. In the evening of 19 May, in Servilanges Wood, the beast struck down an elderly woman and devoured her heart. And on Friday, 24 May, the creature made up for its period of inactivity by killing no less than four people in one day. The terror continued throughout June, when the beast claimed several more victims within sight of their homes.
Meanwhile, King Louis was growing increasingly worried in case the peasants’ terror flared into open revolt. In July, he placed the Master of the Royal Hunt – Monsieur Antoine – in command of 20 guardsmen and ordered him to rid Gévaudan of the beast, or die in the attempt. The peasants may have been impressed by the colorful uniforms of Antoine and his guards; the beast apparently was not. As dusk was falling on 9 August, it killed a milkmaid under the very windows of the Chateau de Besset, where Antoine was staying.
A new and sensational rumor swept the countryside. The beast was indeed a werewolf – and it was said that the man who changed into the savage creature had been captured. His name was jean Chaste!’ and he lived the life of a hermit in the forest. He had once been a prisoner of the Moors in North Africa; they had tortured him and turned him into a warped, twisted caricature of a human being. Chastel lived in a part of the forest where the beast was known to lurk, and Monsieur Antoine came upon him there one day. The man refused to answer any questions; instead, he gave a scream of fury and launched himself at his questioner. He was seized by the guards and spent the next few weeks in prison.
It was rumored that while Chastel was in prison, the killings stopped. Whether that was true or not, the fact remained that Chastel was released on 1 September – and the following day, the beast tore a young girl to pieces. On 9 September, the mutilated body of another girl was found, and two days later a mule-driver was attacked and killed. On 13 September, a 12-year-old girl vanished completely; all the searchers found were her bonnet and clogs.
Antoine had hunting-dogs brought from Paris and embarked on a new search for the creature, but although he succeeded in killing a large wolf it was clear to all and sundry that it was not the right one. He packed his bags and left Gévaudan for good during early November, in disgrace.
A month later the beast struck again, attacking two shepherdesses and killing one of them. Another girl was killed on 10 December, and 11 days later the beast devoured an n-year-old named Agnes Mourgues. There was so little left of her that the parish priest thought it was not worthwhile burying the pitiful remains.
The hunt for the creature continued, led now by a young nobleman, the Marquis d’Apchier. With a force of 90 men, he set out every Sunday morning to search the surrounding forest. But always, the party came back empty-handed.
On 4 March, 1766, at dusk, the beast attacked and killed nine-year- old jean Bergounioux as he was driving his father’s cows home for milking. Ten days later, eight-year-old Marie Bompard suffered the same fate in the wood of Liconesse.
As a desperate last resort, the Marquis ordered his men to slaughter dozens of dogs. The carcasses were poisoned and then scattered throughout the woods – but although many animals died a painful death as a result, the beast was not among them. On 17 April, it devoured a six-year-old girl near Clavieres, followed by a re-year-old boy a few weeks later.
There is no record of any killing between 4 June 1766 – when a young girl was decapitated – and the end of August that year. It seemed as though the beast was growing weary of its fearsome activities; between September 1766 and March 1767, there was an average of only one killing per month. But in March came a brutal re-awakening.
By the end of that bloody month, eight people had been killed – all within the area of just one parish. The next month, the horror was repeated in a different parish.
On 19 June, 1767, a small army advanced into the forest once more, determined to pursue the beast until either they or it dropped. And with them went Antoine Chastel, the father of Jean Chastel, who had fled back into his woods to escape the vengeance of those who claimed that he was half-man by day, and the beast by night.
As he walked deeper into the forest, following the line of beaters, Antoine Chastel cradled his musket in the crook of his arm. The gun was loaded with a very special ball. He had made it himself – out of silver. Reaching a broad clearing, Chastel sat down on a tree-stump and settled down to wait, leafing through the pages of his prayer-book. The noise of the hunt died away and an uncanny silence fell over the woods.
Suddenly, Chastel sensed that he was being watched. Looking up, he felt a thrill of excitement, mingled with fear. At last, the time had come. Standing motionless on the edge of the clearing was the beast.
Slowly and deliberately, Chastel closed his prayer-book and put it in his pocket. Then, sinking to one knee, he raised his musket and took careful aim at the vulnerable spot just behind the creature’s left foreleg. The crash of the musket echoed through the trees. When the smoke cleared, the beast was lying on its side, the grass around it spattered with blood.
Cautiously, Chastel walked over and surveyed the creature. It was big – but not much bigger than an ordinary male wolf. The terrifying thing about it was that even in death it exuded cruelty and ferocity. Its long jaws were equipped with 42 razor-sharp teeth, capable of removing a person’s head with a single bite. But Chastel was puzzled by the creature’s body. It was not really the body of a wolf; the legs were too thick and the breast too wide. Apart from that, the feet were elongated and had an extra claw. The creature’s reddish fur was streaked with strange black bands, and there was a white, heart-shaped mark on its breast.
Today, more than 200 years after Antoine Chastel’s silver bullet put an end to the creature’s life, mystery still shrouds the true nature of the Beast of Gévaudan. Many people believed that the thing shot by Chastel was not the Beast at all- but the fact remains that there were no more killings after 19 June 1767.
Just how many people were killed by the beast during its three- year rampage will never be known for certain, but the parish records of the area quote at least 75.Added to this, there were 30 cases of serious injury and mutilation.
Some witnesses maintained that the beast was in fact a were- wolf – but if it was, it had nothing to do with Antoine Chastel’s son, jean. He turned up safe and sound a few days later, his name completely cleared. The beast may have been a mutation – a freak of nature that combined almost human cunning with an exceptionally strong body. Whatever the truth, old legends die hard in superstitious Languedoc – and the legend of the beast that left its mark in blood across the land is no exception.