Using modern biology and history to investigate a series of grisly deaths in the countryside of 18th-century France.
Something unimaginable occurred from 1764 to 1767 in the remote highlands of south-central France. For three years, a real-life monster, or monsters, ravaged the region, slaughtering by some accounts more than 100 people, mostly women and children, and inflicting severe injuries upon many others. Alarmed rural communitiesand their economieswere virtually held hostage by the marauder, and local officials and Louis XV deployed dragoons and crack wolf hunters from far-off Normandy and the King’s own court to destroy the menace. And with the creature’s reign of terror occurring at the advent of the modern newspaper, it can be said the ferocious attacks in the Gévaudan region were one of the world's first media sensations.
Despite extensive historical documentation about this awesome predator, no one seemed to know exactly what it was. Theories abounded: Was it an exotic animal, such as a hyena, that had escaped from a menagerie? A werewolf? A wolf-dog hybrid? A new species? Some kind of conspiracy? Or, as was proposed by the local bishop, was it a scourge of God? To this day, debates on the true nature of La Bête, “The Beast,” continue.
With historical illustrations, composite sketches by the author, on-the-scene modern-day photographs, autopsy analysis, and fictionalized accounts, Beast takes a fascinating look at all the evidence, using a mix of history and modern biology to advance a theory that could solve one of the most bizarre and unexplained killing sprees of all time: France’s infamous Beast of the Gévaudan.
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Werewolves, Serial Killers, and Man-Eaters: The Mystery of the Monsters
By Gévaudan S. R. Schwalb, Gustavo Sánchez Romero
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2016 Skyhorse Publishing
All rights reserved.
June 30, 1764
In the light of the sun at the fall of day, at the edge of a wood on a rocky crag, lay the Beast, sphinx-like, scanning the countryside with panoptic vision.
Its nostrils flared, taking in an abundance of information: the odor of newly-turned earth in faraway fields, the fragrance of fir trees, the smell of sheep in a meadow below, and that of their attendant, a young woman.
The Beast had located its next meal.
The sheep, of the breed called Blanche du Massif Central, adapted to dizzying heights and tricky terrain, consisted of several four-month-old lambs, along with ewes and a ram, all cropping grass on the vertiginous hillside.
Their shepherdess, fourteen-year-old Jeanne Boulet, was singing, her adolescent voice afloat in the mountain air. "Eat your grass, sheep," she sang. "Eat your grass."
The Beast listened to her song, ears up, head tilted.
Stealthily, on its belly, it began to inch forward in the tall vegetation.
* * *
The day had gone by quickly for Jeanne Boulet. Early on, the shepherdess had used her staff to guide a lamb away from the peat bog at the bottom of the meadow.
"You want a drink? Come along."
She took it to a spring she'd known about since she was ten, when she first began caring for the animals on her own. The lamb drank, its tail switching to and fro. Thirsty herself, Jeanne crouched beside her charge, cupping the bubbling water in her hands. She tasted. Cold! She took off her bonnet, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the promise of summer after a long winter; the region was in the grip of a little ice age. She heard the sound of distant church bells announcing the noontime Angelus. She said her Hail Marys and ate the chestnut bread her mother had given her for her midday meal. She stood on a granite boulder, trying to see her family's little house far below through the emerging leaves of the trees along the mountain trail. She sat down and clomped her wooden sabots(clogs) rhythmically against the rock. She wondered what her friend Marie was doing. She would see her at mass tomorrow.
She watched a vulture coasting in the currents above.
The sun sank low in the sky.
"Oh!" said the shepherdess.
Shadows of tree limbs reached into the meadow. Tendrils of mist ascended from the bog.
She took up her bonnet and tugged it down over her ears.
"Come along, sheep," she sang. "Time to go home." She clambered off the rock, clutching her staff.
* * *
The Beast froze behind clumps of a flowering shrub called broom. Bright gold by day, its blooms in the waning light had become a jaundiced yellow.
Jeanne began shooing her animals to the stony path that led to the farm below. Some of the lambs stopped to steal last mouthfuls of grass.
"Come along!" Jeanne used her staff to manage the more wayward.
The Beast rose as if on command, riveted on its target. The sight of its prey decamping, turning tail, triggered a primal urge to pursue. A modern-day dog compelled to chase passing cars retains something of that instinct.
The Beast went after them.
At the head of the trail, Jeanne may have hesitated. From the corner of an eye, she may have caught an unexpected movement in the meadow. She may have wheeled, holding her staff before her, ready to defend herself against a village boy or vagrant man.
Maybe a wolf.
Blinded by the setting sun, Jeanne's eyes may have only registered the advance of a freakish silhouette.
Like a wolf. No. Not a wolf. Not a dog.
The gap between them closed.
"Run!" she screamed.
But the predator did not veer from its course and go after her sheep.
It was coming for her.
Apparitions galloped through Jeanne's head, creatures from fireside stories recounted by her grandmother on long winter nights.
A loup-garou! A werewolf!
Perhaps Jeanne tried to scramble after her livestock. Her sheep would have bolted helter-skelter, bleating in terror.
Sheep are not stupid. They are trainable. They will come when called by name. But even though there are accounts of Rambo-like sheep in the French mountains, and even though bacteria found in fleece is a source of the deadly substance anthrax (coincidentally, a pioneer in the study of anthrax and rabies, Pierre Victor Galtier, was born in nearby Langogne in 1846), sheep are for the most part defenseless when attacked by predators. Unlike cows, which can deliver disabling kicks, and, along with goats, can do serious damage with their horns, or pigs, which can bite viciously, the main defense of sheep is to run.
In their frenzy, some of Jeanne's flock may have run into the very boulder upon which their mistress had spent much of her day.
Jeanne shrieked, afraid for her life.
Afraid for her soul.
The Beast lunged.
It brought the girl down with a thud, her staff still within her grip. Pinned down, in shock, Jeanne would have been assaulted by a reeking stench, a slavering muzzle, and bestial eyes reflecting red in the last light of day. Snapping, the Beast sought the girl's throat.
It locked its jaws under her chin and shook, threshing her neck.
As if from far away, Jeanne may have been aware of her own blood ebbing away over her garments and the tang of copper mixed with the smell of heather, and the stink of the Beast.
Her staff slipped from her hand.
The creature clawed, shredding her simple frock, and fed greedily, carnassial teeth gutting her torso, mincing flesh and organs.
A tawny owl, Strix aluco, hunting mice nearby, called softly.
There was shouting from below. Men's voices. The Beast flattened its ears and bared its teeth. Snarling, it bit at Jeanne's shoulder, separating flesh from bone. It tore away a part of her and dragged its prize into the wood.
* * *
The sounds of screams and bleating had echoed down the mountainside, imaginably alerting the people of Les Hubacs that something was very wrong.
And so they'd come looking. In semidarkness and evening chill, they may have nearly stumbled over Jeanne's remains in the blood-smeared grass.
The horrified searchers would have gazed apprehensively into the now lightless forest beyond.
* * *
Little did anyone know that Jeanne Boulet's death, and those of approximately one hundred other victims over the next three years, would set in motion the mystery of a man-eating monster that would electrify all of France, from the Vivarais to Versailles.CHAPTER 2
On that last day of June 1764, Jeanne Boulet's killer stole from the shepherdess not only her life in this world, but the blessings that would prepare her for the next. She was interred on the first of July, according to the official record documented by her curé or priest, Father Soucher, "without sacraments, having been killed by the ferocious beast."
Because of her sudden and violent end, she could not receive the traditional Catholic last rites, the sacraments administered to those who are seriously ill and presumed near death. These included a final confession of sins, receiving of communion, and anointing with blessed oil, or extreme unction.
Historians hold that the words "the ferocious beast" in Father Soucher's record suggest that the community was already acquainted with the brute that killed Jeanne, and that she was likely not its first victim.
As the story goes, more than two months before — about the time King Louis XV's mistress Madame de Pompadour passed away — a terrified young woman had returned home from attending her cattle to declare she'd had a hairbreadth escape from a "beast" that ignored the bovines in favor of her. Fortunately, the cattle had come to the damsel's aid — cattle were known to aggressively defend their caregivers, along with their own offspring, from danger. Still, the girl's clothes were in tatters and she was badly frightened.
She claimed the creature was "like a wolf, yet not a wolf."
This young woman was from Langogne, France, in the Gévaudan.
* * *
Missing from contemporary maps, and unknown to most eighteenth-century inhabitants of France, the Gévaudan is today associated with the département, or administrative district, of Lozère, created at the time of the French Revolution. Something of the ancient Gévaudan subsists, however, in the mists of the undulating hills of Languedoc and Auvergne, among the Margeride mountains, and in the Cévennes range made famous by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The Cévennes make up the southeastern rim of the enormous Massif Central, or central mountain mass, which is the source of several major rivers, including the Loire, the longest river in France.
These highlands feature a climate in keeping with the challenging terrain. At least one travel source has referred to the region as "The Scotland of France." Summers, especially in lower, Mediterranean-oriented valleys, are sunny, hot, and dry. But the Massif Central has a subalpine climate. Winters are long and harsh, with some of the snowiest conditions in the country. Daytime temperatures average minus six degrees Celsius, about twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit. Sibères or burles(biting winds) cause snowdrifts to accumulate at alarming rates.
Fir and beech trees clothe the mountain slopes. Chestnut trees have been cultivated for centuries. Peat bogs and moors provide additional habitats for flora and fauna. Plant life ranges from myriad varieties of wild orchids to the carnivorous sundew. Griffon vultures, recently reintroduced, circle the skies as they would have hundreds of years ago.
At the time of the Beast, the world was also in the grip of an exceptionally cold period, a little ice age that began in the 1500s. In addition, the plague struck here in 1720; well over two thousand people died in the Gévaudan capital of Mende and the nearby town of Marvejols. Poor harvests and subsequent famines affected the area from 1748 to 1750. According to seminal Beast chronicler Abbé Pierre Pourcher, writing almost a century and a half later, "The famine was so terrible that tales of the suffering are still recounted."
* * *
In antiquity, the Gévaudan was home to the Gabali, a tribe of the Celts, or Gauls, as their Roman conquerors deemed them. And the landscape is dotted with reminders of even more ancient predecessors: monuments known as menhirs(from the French; men, stone plus hir, long) — tall upright stones, erected alone as monoliths, or in groups, and dolmens — structures of upright stones capped by large flat stones; these are considered tombs. The menhirs were traditionally associated by locals with giants, the devil, fairies, and fertility gods into the Age of Enlightenment and beyond.
A pastoral people, the Gévaudanais were known for a long tradition of cloth making, especially for their serges, woolen fabrics. In the late 1700s, about three-quarters of local families kept flocks of sheep, along with goats and cattle. Locals' homes, humble oustas, held few furnishings.
* * *
In the twentieth century, this rugged world was the ideal base for the World War II guerrilla Resistance movement, the Maquis (referring to the maquis, the thickets or underbrush in which the Nazi fighters thrived):
The narrow, winding gorges and the caverns of the limestone causses [limestone plateaus] of Quercy provided a labyrinth in which the hunted might hide. So, to the east, did the deep chestnut forests of the Ségala; the granite mountains of the Margeride in Auvergne, reforested with pine, spruce, and fir; the high desert of the Cévennes; the fastnesses of the Alps. Everywhere, there were potential lookout points on the high hills and dispersed hamlets and abandoned farms for shelter.
In June 1944, several thousand Maquis were able to hold back more than twenty thousand Nazi soldiers during a German drive to Normandy in the rugged area of Mont Mouchet. Today, there is a museum on the mountain which commemorates the remarkable achievements of the F.F.I. (Forces Françaises de l'Interieur).
More than two centuries earlier, the area served as a refuge for Protestants rebelling against King Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes and reinstatement of Catholic control. King Henry IV of France had issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598 granting Protestant Huguenots — followers of Martin Luther and John Calvin — religious and political freedom following decades of persecution. Thousands of Camisards (referring to the Protestants' camisos, everyday shirts; they had no uniforms) were killed in the early 1700s.
* * *
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, came this way more than one hundred years after the time of the Beast in search of the homeland of Protestant heroes.
His sojourn through the countryside with four-footed companion Modestine became the basis for his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), from which comes his well-known quotation, "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to move ..."
Stevenson's journey is also the foundation for the modern footpath known as the GR70. GRs, Grandes Randonnées, are marked walking and hiking routes that trace timeworn roads and shepherds' paths.
The writer's account speaks of the "bleak fields" of Gévaudan and its "roaring blackness" at night, in which the author says, "I was sure of nothing but the direction of the wind."
Stevenson, who'd recently finished reading a novel about the Beast of the Gévaudan, writes of the creature,
Wolves, alas, like bandits, seem to flee the traveler's advance; and you may trudge through all our comfortable Europe, and not meet with an adventure worth the name. But here, if anywhere, a man was on the frontiers of hope. For this was the land of the ever-memorable BEAST, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and 'shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty'; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king's high-road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head....
Stevenson traveled the Gévaudan in September of 1878.
A little over one hundred and a dozen years earlier, in August 1764, the Beast's second official victim would die.
Excerpted from Beast by Gévaudan S. R. Schwalb, Gustavo Sánchez Romero. Copyright © 2016 Skyhorse Publishing. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
To the Reader v
The Main Characters xi
Part I The Never-Ending Night
1 The Apparition 3
2 The Gévaudan 7
3 Lafont 13
4 Count Morangiès 19
5 Le Petit Versailles du Gévaudan 27
6 "Ferocious with Design" 35
7 "Inconsolable" 37
8 Wolf Month 39
9 Wolf-Stalk 47
10 "An Old Norman Gentleman Who Has Gone Gray in the Pursuit of Wolves" 51
Sidebar: Artificial Women and Little-Girl Lambs 52
11 "Courage, Hunters of France" 55
12 "An Unfortunate Time" 61
Sidebar: A Dickens of a Beast 65
13 The Royal Gunbearer 67
14 Chazes 73
Sidebar: Another Version 76
15 "A Short Truce" 79
16 Ténazeyre 85
Part 2 The Hunt for Truth
17 Hypotheses 95
18 Modus Operandi 105
19 Werewolves of France 113
20 Man-Beasts and Serial Killers 135
21 Other Contenders: Prehistoric and Exotic Species 159
Sidebar: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo: Parallels to La Bête 173
22 What of Wolves and Hybrids? 191
23 Two Dead Beasts 201
24 Cold Winters, Killer Wolves 221
25 Beasts Past and Present 237
26 The Beast and Wolves Today in France 259
Appendix: Details of the Autopsies 265