In years past, as part of my Halloween Countdown I've shared some of my favorite monsters of literature and film. This year I thought I'd offer up my favorite real monster.
Ever since encountering it, and the following illustration in The Werewolf in Lore and Legend by Montague Summers, I've had a fascination with "the beast of Gevaudan." Here was a huge, unidentified, wolf-like animal which ranged over 250 square miles of territory in south-central France and killed over 100 people over a three year period while evading all attempts at hunting it down.
While some details in eyewitness descriptions of the beast varied, it was regularly said to be large, about the size of a calf with a white belly, red fur over its body with black stripe running down its back consisting of fur longer than on the rest of its body, much like a mane. It was said to have had a long tail, wide face and broad mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth in a short snout. It also was said to have straight ears and large eyes.
At the time there was a lot of speculation as to just what kind of animal it was. Theories ranged from large cats such as lions and panthers, large wolves, hyaenas, werewolves and even bizarre hybrid animals. Of course, the idea that it was an escaped exotic pet also became part of the speculation. It was also uncertain if it was a single animal, or a number of animals. Some logic was applied to dismissing some of the speculation. The idea that a hyaena would have left its natural territory and not found anything it liked to eat before reaching France seemed to rule out that animal. In a region where many of the victims were shepherds, and wolves were common, the beast was certainly not acting in the manner common to wolves, typically killing the human shepherd while ignoring their plentiful flock. Also a familiarity with wolves would have made misidentification unlikely.
The attacks began in June of 1964 and often involved women and children.The beast would often decapitate its victims and carry off the head. Bullets seemed to bounce off of it, though that was more likely a combination of poor, inaccurate, weapons and the beast's thick coat. In any case it was crafty, evading hunters, trackers, and even the army while continuing to pick off victims throughout the region.
In September 1765, a large wolf, or wolf-like creature was killed, stuffed and presented to King Louis XV as the beast of Gevaudan. Poor preservation and taxidermy methods make an accurate identification of this animal impossible and it was eventually disposed of. The terror seemed to be over, but in December of the same year, the attacks resumed and continued until June, 1767, when a second creature was killed.
While the most popular theory as to the identity of the beast is that it was a large wolf, or several large wolves ranging through the region, this is still speculation and its true species, whether known, or unknown, remains a mystery.