The beast was huge, with a chest “as wide as a horse’s” and a body “as long as a leopard.” It had a meaty, wide snout and long, shaggy red hair, with fiery eyes. It could reportedly walk on its hind legs, and crack open a human skull with one bite from its powerful jaws. Some people even said the beast was bulletproof, as no marksman seemed able to take it down.
The beast of Gévaudan, a creature blamed for the deaths of dozens—possibly hundreds—of peasants in the 18th century French countryside proved to be an irresistible tale at the time, and endures to this day. Experts are still unsure if the beast was a wolf, an escaped lion, or an exaggeration of mythic proportions thanks to breathless coverage and rumors.
Wolf attacks are much less common now, and in fact wolves in Europe have only recently been making a comeback after being nearly wiped out by humans. But this particular story demonstrates how some things never change: humans fear what they can’t explain, we love a good monster story, and sometimes the most dangerous thing out there is fake news.
“Most of the records from the time can be put into one of two categories: journalistic commentary and archival material that consists largely of correspondence,” said Jay Smith, a historian and the author of Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast. “One newspaper in particular—the Courrier d'Avignon—picked up on the story early on and realized its appeal and sensationalized every anecdote that the editor could get his hands on. They turned it into an international news story.”
It all started in the summer of 1764, in the small country villages that made up France’s southeast region of Gévaudan. Surrounded by thick forests and hillsides, wild animal attacks were not unheard of in this region, including wolf attacks. In the early summer, a 14-year-old shepherdess was found dead, her throat ripped out by an unknown animal attack, near the village of Langogne. Soon, similar attacks and deaths were taking place all over the region, and rumors began to spread that this was no ordinary wolf killing people, but a fantastic beast with mythical attributes, maybe a werewolf, or even a shapeshifting witch.
By early 1765, it was time to send in the cavalry. King Louis XV ordered several accomplished aristocrat hunters to go to the region, lead hunting parties, and kill the alleged beast. But even these skilled marksmen found whatever was killing the locals elusive.
“The hunters had an interest in making the beast appear to be more fantastic than it was because they failed so spectacularly to capture a killer,” Smith said. “So one of the things you find in the archival material, the letters written by the hunters-in-chief, are self-pitying sentiments and exaggerated accounts of the hunts themselves, the kind of sacrifices they had to make, and strange descriptions of the physical characteristics of the beast.”
By the end of the summer of 1765, one of the king’s appointed hunters was successful in killing a large wolf on the grounds of an abbey near Gévaudan, Smith said. The wolf’s carcass was hauled back to the capital and the aristocracy declared the beast slayed. Locals would later claim that the royally-appointed hunters killed the wrong wolf, and it wasn’t until a local party obliterated a wolf pack in 1767 that the scourge ended. Either way, reports indicate as many as 100 men, women, and children were killed in the region at this time, and all were attributed to the mysterious beast.
The descriptions that were recorded at the time—both in sensationalized newspaper reports but also in letters and first-person accounts—make modern biologists question whether it could have been a wolf at all, because wolves don’t really get that big.
“The size of wolves is pretty consistent, a little over 100 lbs,” said Jay Shepherd, a wildlife biologist who leads the wolf program for Conservation Northwest, an environmental protection group. “They go down in weight, maybe, but they don’t seem to hit this fantastic size described. I would be skeptical of that.”
The biggest wolves he’s heard of described in the wild top out at around 150 lbs, Shepherd told me, which still wouldn’t be near the dramatic descriptions of the massive beast with a horse-width chest.
The described behavior, however, gives the story a little more credibility, Shepherd told me. While wolves in North America rarely attack humans, there’s a long history of wolf attacks and deaths in Europe. That may be because wolves in Europe were habituated to humans, because the region was more densely-populated than North America.
“Habituated wolves are a different topic entirely,” Shepherd said. “These wolves would not only scavenge on already-dead humans, they would also attack and kill. I’m sure that happened, that doesn’t surprise me.”
But a combination of the unusual physical descriptions, and the reported ferocity of whatever animal was wreaking havoc on these humble farmers has led other modern biologists to propose alternate hypotheses. Rather than a habituated, particularly large wolf, some scientists have suggested the beast was some kind of hyena-hybrid, or a lion, either of which could have escaped from one of the many menageries that dotted France at the time.
In the end, there is no scientific consensus of what, exactly, terrorized the French countryside in the mid-18th century. We may never know the truth, but Shepherd and Smith both proposed similar conclusions: that the beast was the product of actual wolf attacks, scavenged bodies, and good old-fashioned sensationalism.