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Friday, January 24, 2014

The Beast of Gévaudan

Our holiday home near Saugues
Our holiday home near Saugues
We are frequent visitors to France, but September saw our first visit to the Haute-Loire, and we looked forward to a relaxing holiday amongst the forests, pastures and ancient granite that long extinct volcanoes have left behind. The house we had rented was a curious place, built on the site of a medieval watch tower. Half hewn into solid granite rocks, with barred windows below and sturdy oak doors, it really did look as though it was designed to keep something out. And indeed it was, for it was built at a time when terror stalked the land. From a passing curiosity about the history of our holiday home we found ourselves on the trail of a mass murderer.

This is the true story of a gigantic beast that slaughtered women and children in what was then the old province of Gévaudan, and it all began just a few miles from our gite.

Early in June 1764, a woman was looking after a herd of oxen near the village of Langogne, when she was attacked by a gigantic beast. Her terrified dogs ran off, but fortunately the oxen grouped together and drove the animal away. The woman was not badly hurt, but she came back to Langogne very shaken with her clothes in tatters. Her description of the huge beast was dismissed as the imaginings of someone who had been badly frightened – post traumatic stress in modern parlance. It was only a wolf … maybe a rabid wolf … said the villagers, not that unusual. The story was soon forgotten.

contemporary illustration of beast eating victim
But a few weeks later the Beast re-appeared. On June 30, at Saint-Etienne-de-Ludgares, it made its first kill and devoured a 14 year old girl; on August 8th it attacked a girl from Puy-Laurent and ripped her apart.

The death toll mounted. Three 15-year-old boys, a woman from Arzenc, a little girl from Thorts and a shepherd from Chaudeyrac were all found dead, their bodies terribly mutilated and barely recognisable. In September, a girl from Rocles, a man from Choisniet and a woman from Apcher disappeared. Only partial remains and shreds of clothing were found, scattered across the countryside.

The attacks continued into the autumn. On October 8th, a young man from Pouget met the Beast in an orchard and it slashed his scalp and his chest. Two days later a 13-year-old child had his scalp ripped off. On October 19th a 20-year-old woman was found horribly torn to pieces near Saint-Alban. According to the local press, the Beast “drank her blood and ate her guts”.

The slaughter was to continue for three more years, with almost 100 victims dead, mostly women and children, and many maimed. Sometimes the beast was actually shot, but got up again to charge at its tormentors. Sometimes it was beaten off by its intended victims but eventually it always succeeded in making a grisly kill.

Record of death in parish of Hubacs
Entry in parish record of Hubacs. Translation: On 1st July 1764, Jeane Boule was buried without the final sacrements, having been killed by the Beast. Present Joseph Vigier and Jean Reboul.

The sensational story gripped the nation as newspapers reported the killings, with lurid illustrations adding colour to the reports. Such tales spread terror. Throughout Gévaudan work in the fields was abandoned, streets deserted; people never went out alone and unarmed. Finally the army was called in, with a troop of dragoons under Captain Duhamel making daily excursions. Hundreds of local men, armed with shotguns, scythes, spears, and sticks joined the chase. As soon as the Beast was reported, they would hunt it down. Criers brought out the peasants from the villages; brave men got organized and scoured the snow covered countryside.
 newspaper illustration of farmer and wife beating off beast

All in vain. Duhamel killed one exceptionally large wolf, but despite his claims it was not the beast. The killings continued unabated.

Winter passed into spring. The discredited Duhamel and his soldiers were replaced by a professional hunter from Normandy called Denneval, who had pledged that he would return with the body of the beast within a few weeks. He laid careful plans, reconnoitred the country, took statements from survivors and measurements on the attack sites to ascertain the true size of the animal. In the end he had no more success than Duhamel. As the gravestones and parish records bear testament, the spring of 1765 saw the slaughter rise to its peak.

This was a challenge, not only to the local authorities, but the national government. France has always been a somewhat loose association of independently minded regions, and the state has to prove its value to them if it is to retain its grip on power. There was also the reputation of France to consider. The story had been picked up by a London newspaper, which cast a satirical eye on the story, reporting that a French army of 120 000 men had been defeated by this fierce animal and that after eating 25 000 cavalrymen and the whole artillery it had been brought down by a tabby cat when it tried to eat her kittens.

Now the honour of France was at stake!

woman attacked by the Beast
And so it was that the King took an interest, and a reward of over 9,000 livres was promised. Unsurprisingly this brought about some truly outlandish schemes, my personal favourite being a vast doomsday machine made up of 30 shotguns that would be triggered by ropes attached to a tethered calf – the theory being that its struggles as the beast approached would set off all the guns in one murderous broadside. However, the King was not impressed by the inventors’ enthusiasm and ordered a court official, his hunting companion and “Porte Arquebus” Francois Antoine de Bauterne, to go immediately to Gévaudan. and to bring the monster’s corpse to Versailles. At last the people could take heart. By the command of the King of France, the Beast would die!

Unfortunately the Beast didn’t oblige.

Antoine had little experience of tracking and hunting wolves in hard mountain country. The skills of the royal huntsman, honed in the forests of the Loire were of no use here. He organized traditional beats to flush out his quarry, but had not the faintest glimpse of a wolf. The peasants mocked his efforts and complained that he and his entourage were just as ineffective as all the others, and far more expensive too. After three months of trial and error, and no kills, Antoine suddenly changed tack and left for a wood near Chazes, despite the fact that in this part of the Auvergne the beast had never been seen and no attacks had ever been reported. However, many wolves were known to be in that area. On 21st September, he was lying in wait and saw a large animal, with its mouth wide-open and bloodshot eyes. No doubt about it - it was the Beast! Antoine fired; the Beast fell. It got up again but a second shot brought it down, dead.

The Beast weighed 100 pounds, was 5 feet 8 inches long, and had enormous teeth and huge feet. It was a wolf, a large one, but an ordinary wolf all the same. It was carried in triumph to Saugues where the surgeon carried out a post-mortem examination. Several children who had seen the Beast declared  (under some pressure from Antoine) that they recognised it. Minutes were written and Mr de Ballainvilliers, the Intendant of Auvergne, wrote to His Majesty thanking him for saving the people of Gévaudan. The corpse of the Beast was stuffed and sent to Fontainebleau, where the king joked with his courtiers about the superstition of simple peasants, which had transformed an ordinary wolf into an apocalyptic beast.

Stuffed wolf shown to King
The wolf killed by Antoine de Bauterne is shown to the King

It was a good day for Antoine. He was awarded the Grand-Croix of the Order of Saint-Louis and received a pension of one thousand livres. His son obtained a cavalry company and made a fortune by exhibiting the Beast in Paris. Ten years later, it was still being shown in country fairs.

At last France could sleep easily - the Beast was dead.

But far from Fontainebleau and Versailles, deep in the countryside of Gevaudan, there was scepticism. The people it had attacked knew exactly what a wolf looked like, and their descriptions were of a very different creature, "a beast with a huge head, reddish sides, with a black band along the back, a very bushy tail, thick legs with large claws."

In order to obey the King, said the sceptics, Antoine had killed a beast, but it was not the Beast. Antoine’s “Beast” had been killed far from its usual haunts in a forest where wolves were certain to be found. Fortunately for Antoine, they said, the killings appear to have stopped, but this is just a pause. Maybe it’s somewhere else where the summer weather makes hunting easy, but it will return for easier prey when winter comes.

Beast abducts two children
That prophesy was fulfilled all too soon. As the autumn of 1765 drew into winter the carnage began again. A young girl was killed in the village of Marcillac, then a woman in Sulianges – just her two severed hands were found. From 1st January 1766, it was seen almost every day. In one notable attack two little girls in Lèbre were playing in front of their house when the Beast came and pounced on one of them and grabbed her in its fangs. The other girl jumped on the back of the Beast, held on tightly and was carried off. Her screams of terror alerted the villagers … too late. The head of the first child was ripped off already; the face of the other little girl was torn to shreds.

beast eating a womanThe people of Gévaudan begged the Intendant of the province for help, but their pleas were, of course, ignored. The Intendant did not want to lose face, and indeed his position or his liberty. Versailles had closed the case. To suggest that the Beast was still alive was to challenge the King or at least insinuate he had been cheated by M. Antoine. The Beast was dead. M. Antoine had killed it, and that was that.

But the inconvenient truth was that the Beast was still eating people, and something had to be done. So it was that on 19 June 1767 the Marquis of Apcher, one of the lords of Gévaudan., organized a beat. One of the hunters was Jean Chastel. He was about 60 years old, born in the parish of Besseyres-Sainte-Marie. He was a solid and religious man, well known to be a skilled hunter.

According to his own account, Jean Chastel was positioned outside Sogne-d’Auvert, near the town of Saugues. He was armed with his shotgun, loaded with two consecrated bullets. He was saying his prayers when he looked up and saw the Beast -  “the real one”. Calmly, he closed his prayer book, put it in his pocket, took off his glasses and put them in a case:

“The Beast does not move; it waits. I shoulder my weapon, shoot; the Beast stands still. At the sound of the shot, the dogs run up, knock it down and rip it up. It is dead.”

Its body was loaded on a horse and carried to the chateau at Besques where it was examined. It was indeed “The Beast”.  It was not a wolf. Its feet, its ears, the hugeness of its mouth indicated a monster of unknown origin; in its stomach was the shoulder of a young girl, probably one that had been devoured two days before in Pébrac.

The corpse of the Beast was exhibited around the province, then it was put in a box and Jean Chastel set off for Versailles with his prize. There numerous academics would determine what kind of animal it could be - and Mr Antoine would be exposed as a fraud who had tried to cheat the King. Chastel had never believed Antoine’s claim, and had been an open critic of him during his time in Gévaudan, resulting in Antoine ordering his temporary imprisonment. Chastel had a score to settle with M. Antoine.

Unfortunately, the trip took place in the heat of August. By the time he reached Versailles the Beast was in such a state of putrefaction that the stench was unbearable; it was buried before anyone could examine it.  Alas, the burial site is lost, so even today we will never know exactly what the Beast of Gevaudan was.

Nevertheless Chastel was introduced to the King who was greatly amused by this taciturn peasant and his belated claim to the reward. The King made fun of him, and poor Chastel had to endure the mockery of the courtiers too. He was sure that he was the victim of a court intrigue instigated by Antoine, who, after all, had much to lose if the King took Chastel seriously. But what could he do? Alone and far from home he did not invite further humiliation by protesting his innocence. He made his obeisances to the King  and returned to Gévaudan,where the killings had stopped for good.

This time the Beast really was dead.

view of Besseyres-Sainte-Marie today
Jean Chastel would recognise this view - Besseyres-Sainte-Marie today

The Gévaudan. was less ungrateful than Versailles. The Receiver-General granted him an award of seventy-two livres and Jean Chastel became a hero. Everyone in the region knows his name, and even a century and a half later a local writer devoted an epic poem of 360 pages to him. His name is on many of the memorials of the Beast and its victims, and a bronze plaque in his honour stands outside his village.

And that, it might seem, is the end of the story – but not quite … questions remain …

Sign at Besseyres-Sainte-Marie saying home of Jean Chastel
Sign at Besseyres-Sainte-Marie
Was the ending of this story perhaps the beginning of the werewolf myths? Or were they already so deeply embodied in folklore that the Beast was created as a convenient cover for a murderer?

As well as being, notionally, an innkeeper, Chastel was a hunter and poacher who kept dogs and other beasts at his home. He was well acquainted with the habits of the wolves in the area and continually criticised the rather inept beats organised by the King’s appointed hunter, Francois Antoine. This annoyed Antoine so much that he had Chastel arrested and imprisoned at Saugues with the instruction that he should not be released until well after Antoine and his retinue had returned to Paris.

Bronze plaque to Jean Chastel
Chastel's plaque at Besseyres-Sainte-Marie
And here’s the thing. During Chastel’s imprisonment, the killings by the Beast ceased. And Chastel’s account of how he killed it seems just a little odd. The Beast apparently waited calmly whilst he completed his prayer, put away his glasses, raised his gun and fired. Not the actions of the Beast as described by everyone else that encountered it. Could it be that it knew Chastel? Could it be that it actually belonged to him? The rumours go that Chastel himself had bred a dreadful hybrid of mastiff and wolf and used it to kill and devour in order to cover and distract attention from his own depraved, sexually motivated killings. If true, then far from being a hero, Chastel was one of history’s most notorious serial killers.

It has also been suggested that he began his crimes before the arrival of the Beast, and that the threat of discovery led to its creation - trained to attack and eat human flesh to cover Chastel’s own murders. The rape, killing and mutilation of young women being masked by subsequent attacks, where he simply released his beast to attack men, boys and girls. Then he would commit the next rape and murder, followed by more Beast killings.

But where is the evidence? The cessation of killing whilst Chastel was locked up could be mere co-incidence. Although a part-time inn keeper, Chastel was not a sociable man. By all accounts he was a bit of a loner, a known poacher and not one to have many close friends. Such introverts tend to attract the worst kind of gossip – especially if they gain some sort of fame.
Chastel became very religious after the Beast was killed – almost mystic in his religious fervour, and even more withdrawn. This too has been painted as an indicator of guilt. However, if the rumours had begun during his lifetime, had he found himself not only humiliated at court, but suspected of being a murderer rather than a saviour, then becoming withdrawn and turning to religion is not so strange; perfectly understandable in fact. In any event, whatever the doubts about his story, the Beast was indeed dead, and today his home village celebrates his memory both on the village sign, and with his magnificent bronze plaque.

 Few of its victims were wealthy enough  to have tombstones to record their fate, and for the most part their names now only exist in dusty parish records. Some brave survivors have their courage celebrated in statues and sculptures, but for the most part it is the Beast that is remembered. When children in the Gévaudan misbehave, you might still hear the threat, "Si tu se tiens mal, la Bête te mangera!"

Statues of beast and peasants at Malzieu
The town of Malzieu has these sculptures showing a local farmer and his wife chasing off the Beast

statue of beast and shepherdess fighting at Auvers
The courage of a shepherdess, Marie-Jean Valet who fought off the Beast, is commemorated in the village of Auvers

Today the paths across these granite uplands and cool forests make for wonderful walking, offering wild raspberries and myrtles in the woods, and stunning views across wide valleys. Wolves can be seen too, but only in zoological parks and reserves. The countryside is tamer now than in Chastel’s time. We can safely follow the red and white paint marks of the Grande Routes or the yellow ‘balisage’ of the local paths. But in the quietest parts of the forest you just might fancy that you hear the soft padding of an unseen presence and somehow feel that nearby something is breathing, and watching you. Then you realise that the waymarks have changed to ... large purple pawprints.

These mark the “Traces de la Bête”, and show that you are following in the bloody steps of the Beast of Gevaudan.

waymark showing purple paw print

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