In the autumn of 1764, the inhabitants of the region of Gevaudan, in the southern part of the French province of Auvergne, between Margeride and Aubrac, were beginning to panic.  Frightfully mutilated bodies were being found all over the countryside.  It had started in July.

Decapitated, shredded, dismembered, the bodies seemed to have been attacked by a strong, wily, supernatural, bloodthirsty creature.  For more than two years, this “Gevaudan Beast” would terrorise the region, killing over one hundred people.  But did the beast really exist?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Professor Puech of Montpellier looked into the story, which was still well-remembered in the region where it happened.  While on holiday, one summer, in a village of Lozere, he heard it mentioned frequently, accompanied by retrospective shudderings of horror.

Songs and images have passed down the story.  One engraving at the French National Library carries an explanatory text, which I have translated:

“It is written in a letter, dated 1 November 1764, and sent from Marvejols, in the province of Gevaudan, that for the last two months, it appears that a ferocious beast has been spreading consternation all over the countryside around Langogne and the Menoire forest.  It has already devoured about twenty people, above all children and particularly girls.  Hardly a day goes by without being marked by some new disasters.  The fear that it inspires is stopping the woodsmen from going into the forests, which is making wood rare and very expensive.

“It was only eight days ago that this frightening animal was actually seen.  It is a lot taller than a wolf:  its front is low and its paws are armed with claws.  It has reddish fur, a very big, long head ending in a greyhound muzzle, the ears are small and straight like horns; the breast wide and slightly grey; the back striped with black and an enormous mouth, armed with teeth so sharp that it has separated several heads from their bodies like a razor would.  It walks rather slowly and runs in bounds.  It is extremely agile and fast;  in a very short space of time, it is two or three leagues away.  It stands on its hind legs and throws itself on its prey, which it always attacks at the neck, from behind or on the side.  It is afraid of cattle, which make it flee.

“Alarm is universal in the canton;  public prayers have just been offered up;  four hundred peasants were assembled to give chase to this ferocious animal;  but it hasn’t yet been caught.”

The first appearance of the beast had been noted the preceding June.  A shepherd girl, who had been guarding her herd during the day in the countryside near Langogne, returned at night with her blouse all torn;  she said that she had been attacked by a monstrous animal, which had made her dogs run away in fright, and from which her cattle had luckily saved her.  It was generally believed to have been a wolf, and the girl’s apparent exaggeration was put down to her terror.

Several weeks passed with nothing happening, then suddenly, reports of its activity came from everywhere at once.  Horribly mutilated bodies, mainly women, little girls and young boys, were discovered in the fields.

The local peasants organized hunts.  Prodded by public opinion, the government sent a detachment of dragoons, which camped at, and around, Saint-Chely.

The peasants had their lords leading them, and the best hunters of the region joined in.  Wolf hunters from as far away as Normandy rushed to hunt the beast.  But it defied bullets and poisons, and appeared to be invulnerable.  Its victims were multiplying, while it remained elusive and seemed to be in several places at once.

One day, they thought that they had wounded it.   It ran away limping, but they couldn’t find it again.  Another time, at dusk, they had tracked it into a wood, where they fired on it from all sides.  They thought that it must have been mortally wounded, as it limped into a thicket, and were sure that they would find it the next day.  The search, executed at dawn by two hundred men, came up empty.

Terrified, no-one wanted to venture outside.  Field work was suspended.

As human efforts had been of no avail, people demanded God’s intervention.  The Bishop of Meude ordered that special prayers be said all over his diocese.  Nothing happened.

The situation was brought to the king’s attention.  Compassionate, and possibly a bit miffed that an animal had eluded nearly twenty thousand men who were out to get it, the king gave the order to his First Bearer of the Arquebus, Antoine de Beauterne, to leave immediately for Gevaudan, with his gamekeepers, his whippers-in and his bloodhounds, and to bring the animal’s body back to Paris, without fail.

It must be pointed out that the failure of the peasants was not due to their incompetence, but to their lack of means.  Guns, which were rare and expensive, belonged to the lord.  Most peasants had none.  On top of this, they were forbidden to kill animals themselves.  Wolves could only be killed by wolf hunters.  Therefore, it is easier to understand why the king sent his best troups.

After several scouting forays, the little troup managed to track down the fantastic beast and the First Bearer of the Arquebus gave it the coup de grace.  Some children, who had had contact with it, said that they recognized it.  It was stuffed at Clermont and sent to Fontainebleau.

In 1912, Dr Cabanes brought to light the report of the expedition.  We shall examine it tomorrow, because this is not the end of the story.

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