Since writing this post, I’ve learned that the Marquis De Lafayette hunted La Bette as a boy. Talk about your weird coincidences.
It sounds like the premise of a bad Fox Network Special: A large creature springs out of the woods, attacking local farmers before melting back into the underbrush, disappearing until its next attack.
Questions surrounding the beast still persist today: Was it real? And if so, what was it? And why did the attacks grab the public’s attention so?
The first recorded incident that can be linked to the beast occurred on June 1, 1764. A young woman was tending to her cattle when a large beast emerged from the nearby woods, and charged directly for her. The woman later said that the dogs that were with her fled from the beast. However the bulls in the pasture charged it and drove it away with their horns.
She claimed she saw a large wolf-like animal, about the size of a cow.
The woman would prove to be the first, most fortunate survivor in an encounter with the beast. No doubt her story was remembered as the summer progressed into autumn and the partially-devoured corpses of men, women and children began turning up all over area.
The beast was most often described as a wolf, or wolf-like creature, but experts of the time (and now) were baffled as to what the beast actually was. For one thing, its description didn’t fit with any known predator. While descriptions varied widely, the beast was consistently described as being wolf-like, approximately the size of a cow, with protruding fangs, red fur, a tail like a lion and a head like a greyhound.
For another, it behaved unlike any creature they had ever seen.
It seemed to posses a kind of cunning, predatory intelligence in that it avoided armed groups of men. Instead its prey of choice was women, children, and unarmed men traveling alone. Additionally, its favorite method of attack was a lightning strike to the head, as opposed to the legs or throat that most predatory animals favored.
The beast’s grisly string of murders would capture the morbid fascination of the general public in a way that no other string of murders had before, and would not again until 100 years later when Jack The Ripper would terrorize London.
As more and more people were killed, and even greater numbers saw the beast, it became clear that there was something very real in the woods of the Gévaudan area.
As the years rolled by, the beast took an impressive toll. Official records list almost 200 encounters, with 33 wounded and 88 dead. However, some sources put these numbers much higher.
Meanwhile, a sort of mass hysteria fell upon the people. After the creature survived numerous encounters with hunters, word got around that it was impervious to most weapons. Rumors began spreading that the creature was a werewolf, demon, or something conjured and controlled by a sorcerer.
Multiple sightings of beasts fueled fears that there were entire packs of the creatures hiding in the bogs and woods surrounding the region.
Entire villages would be abandoned, seemingly overnight, if the creature was spotted nearby. Local officials sent appeals for help to King Louis XV. The king responded by sending in the army. Specifically, capitaine-aide-major Duhamel and fifty-seven dragoon soldiers.
Since the beast hunted primarily women, the soldiers put on dresses to try and draw the beast out. Although they slaughtered hundreds of wolves, they proved unable to stop the attacks.
As the creature’s presence stirred up political and religious unrest in Southern France and made the country look weaker abroad, King Louis XV took a personal interest in getting rid of the beast.
Plan B involved replacing Duhamel with professional wolf-hunters Jean-Charles-Marc-Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François. The men arrived in the region with eight bloodhounds, and spent the next several months exterminating even more wolves.
But when the attacks continued, King Louis went with his third back-up plan: his personal gun-bearer and lieutenant of the hunt, François Antoine de Beauterne.
Accounts conflict over what happened next. Some say that the king’s lieutenant killed the beast. Others say that he simply killed a large wolf. Still others claim that he killed several members of a pack of beasts.
At any rate, François Antoine de Beauterne killed something. Or several somethings which may or may not have been stuffed, mounted, skinned, or paraded around in front of the king and then buried when it began to rot.
And then, the killings began again.
Finally, in June of 1767 the Marquis d’Apcher assembled hundreds of hunters in the hopes of dispatching the problem once and for all. Under his direction, the hunters formed smaller parties and fanned out through the region searching for the monster.
The credit for the ultimate kill goes to a local hunter named Jean Chastel – although it is hotly debated whether what he killed was the beast, or it’s remaining offspring. According to popular tradition, Chastel assumed that the beast was a werewolf and took all the required precautions: carrying a gun blessed by a priest, loaded with silver bullets and praying all the proper prayers.
The legends say that Chastel was kneeling in prayer when the beast emerged from the woods to stare at him. Rather than take action, Chastel finished his devotions before standing and firing on the beast and killing it.
When the monster was subsequently gutted, human bones were found in its stomach.
Since the time of the monster’s rein of terror, a mountain of literature almost as tall as the creature itself has been written about it. Theories on what it was, as well as examinations of the impact it had on politics and religion in the region have been reexamined over the centuries. And over and over again, the same questions have been asked.
Was it real?
There is no doubt that there was really something terrorizing the Gévaudan region. The large number of eyewitness accounts, along with the very tangible evidence in the form of body count attests to that.
What was it?
In the two centuries since the attacks have ended, explanations for the beast have been wide ranging and increasingly creative. Early doomsday prophets claimed that she was sent by God to punish the wicked. Others claimed that the beast was part of an entirely new species. With the recognition of serial killers such as Jack the Ripper, the idea has been put forward that the beast was perhaps a serial killer taking advantage of the local wolf population to hide his grizzly activities.
The most widely accepted theory of the time was that she was a werewolf. Another was that it was a wolf/dog hybrid that was bred for hunting and then got out of hand. Or perhaps a lion, bear or hyena imported from Africa.
Speculation will always remain as to what exactly was killing the people in the Gévaudan region. Of the beast or beasts themselves, only the stories remain.
However, to quote the story “A Prowl With la Bête, or: When Twigs Crack Don’t Whistle”: The true tale of La Bête du Gévaudan is like a Shakespeare play, loving a plain woman or being a member of parliament – the more you put in the more there is to take away.