Legendary Wolves - The Beast of Gévaudan
The Beast of Gévaudan is an animal responsible for a series of attacks on humans that occurred between June 30, 1764, and June 19, 1767. These attacks, most often fatal, between 88 and 124 recorded depending on the sources, took place mainly in the north of the former Gévaudan country (which generally corresponds to the department of Lozère), a region of livestock farming. A few cases were reported in southern Auvergne, and in northern Vivarais and Rouergue.
The "Beast of Gévaudan" quickly outgrew the stage of news reports, to the point of mobilizing many royal troops and giving rise to all sorts of rumors, both about the nature of this "beast" - seen in turn as a wolf, an exotic animal, and even a werewolf, or even a serial killer in more recent times - and about the reasons that led it to attack populations - from divine punishment to the theory of the animal trained to kill. While about a hundred equivalent attacks occurred in the course of French history, populated by about 20,000 wolves at that time, this drama comes at the right time for the press in search of sales after the Seven Years' War: the Courrier d'Avignon and then the Gazette de France and international gazettes seized the affair to write a serial, publishing hundreds of articles on the subject in a few months.
Among the many animals slaughtered during this period, two canids are suspected of being the Beast. The first is a large wolf killed by François Antoine, harquebus carrier of the King of France, on the grounds of the Royal Abbey of Chazes in September 1765. Once this wolf was stuffed in Versailles, the newspapers and the Court lost interest in the affair, although other deaths were later deplored. In June 1767, Jean Chastel, a peasant from La Besseyre-Saint-Mary, killed the second animal, identified as a wolf or a canid that partially resembled a wolf. According to tradition, the animal killed by Chastel was indeed the Beast of Gévaudan because, after this date, no more fatal attacks were reported in the province. The biological identity of the canid(s) responsible for the attacks is still the subject of debate, heightened by the controversy linked to the reappearance of the grey wolf in France.
Drawing their inspiration from an essay by gynecologist Paul Puech (1910) as well as from the novels of Anglicist Abel Chevalley (1936) and folklorist Henri Pourrat (1946), several books and articles written by wolf defenders evoke the work of a serial killer, possibly depicted as a trainer of wild animals and sometimes identified with the Count of Morangiès or a son of Jean Chastel named Antoine. However, no document corroborates this hypothesis of human involvement, which is essentially influenced by the Romanesque genre.
1. The first attacks
In 1763, a series of attacks were recorded on the Dauphiné side. The animal is said to be "the size of a very large wolf, the color of a slightly light burnt coffee, with a slightly black bar on its back, a dirty white belly, a very large head, a kind of wadding that forms a tuft on the head and next to the ears, the tail covered with hair like that of an ordinary wolf but longer and carrying it rolled up at the end". Towards the end of October, the beast crosses a herd of sheep to throw itself on a small fourteen-year-old shepherd, who is delivered by his companion. As the attacks and the description of the animal have many points in common with the Beast of Gévaudan, some authors such as Jean-Claude Bourret put forward the hypothesis that it is the same animal.
At the beginning of the summer of 1764, in June, a cowherd living near Langogne returned to the village claiming to have been attacked by a "beast". She escaped with no other harm than torn clothes after being defended by her oxen. On the 30th of the same month, fourteen-year-old Jeanne Boulet was killed in the village of Les Hubacs (near Langogne) in the parish of Saint-Étienne-de-Lugdarès en Vivarais. She is the first official victim of the Beast.
The victim is buried "without sacraments", having been unable to confess before his death. However, on the record of her death, the parish priest mentions that she was a victim of "the fierce chard", which suggests that she is not the first victim but only the first to be declared. Furthermore, it is noted that the act is inserted between two others dated 13 June and 18 September respectively, as if it had originally been omitted. But the chronological order seems to be deficient: the act following that of 18 September is dated 7 September - unless there is a transcription error for October, as the act immediately following is dated 17 October. But in any case, these repeated inaccuracies reflect a lack of attention.
A second victim is reported on 8 August. She was 14 years old and lived in the hamlet of Masméjean, parish of Puy-Laurent. Both victims were killed in the Allier valley. The following ones, at the end of August and during the month of September, die around and in the Mercoire forest.
Étienne Lafont, the trustee of the Diocese of Mende, is in Marvejols at the end of August. It is from this place that he sends hunters from Mende, led by Sieur Mercier, to help the hunts that were gradually being set up near Langogne5. 5 However, Lafont soon realized that these hunts were insufficient and therefore warned M. de Saint-Priest, Intendant of Languedoc, and M. le Comte de Montcan, governor of the province, of the situation. It was the latter who ordered Captain Duhamel, stationed in Langogne with the soldiers of the Clermont-Prince light troop regiment, to conduct hunting operations against the Beast.
2. Duhamel and the Clermont Prince Regiment
Stationed in the region that year, the Clermont-Prince light troop regiment provided Captain Duhamel with the soldiers needed to hunt down the beast. 6 From September 15, Duhamel and his troops began hunting and arming the peasants who were ready to help them.
During the many battles in the Mercoire forest, the Beast was never seen. However, it is probably because of these various hunts that the Beast quickly left this area and reached the borders of Margeride and Aubrac in October.
Indeed, on October 7, a young girl was killed in the village of Apcher, parish of Prunières, and her head was not found until eight days later. The next day, a cowherd boy was attacked near La Fage-Montivernoux. That same day, the Beast attacked another cowherd between Prinsuéjols and the Château de la Baume, a property of the Count of Peyre. However, the young boy took refuge among his cows, which managed to repel the Beast. Shortly afterward, hunters coming out of a nearby wood saw the Beast still prowling around the boy. Two of these hunters shot and hit the Beast, which twice fell and then got up again. However, no one could catch it as it fled into the woods. The hunt that is organized the next day ends in failure. Two peasants claim to have seen the animal comes out, with a limp, during the night. Thus, and for the first time, the Beast was wounded. It was during this month of October 1764 that the Beast perpetrated its southernmost attacks, notably the one that cost the life of Marie Solinhac, attacked at Le Brouilhet, in the commune of Les Hermaux.
On the 2nd of November, Captain Duhamel and his men left Langogne to settle in Saint-Chély, at the innkeeper Grassal. However, it was not until 11 November that they were able to carry out their first hunting expedition, due to heavy snowfall. Seeing the lack of results of the hunts so far, the States of Languedoc meet on December 15 and promise a bounty of 2,000 pounds to whoever kills the Beast. Five more people die after an attack attributed to the Beast during the month of December.
3. The bishop of Mende's mandate
On December 31, 1764, the Bishop of Mende, Gabriel-Florent de Choiseul-Beaupré, also Count of Gévaudan, launched an appeal for prayers and penance. This appeal has remained in history under the name of "mandement de l'évêque de Mende". All the priests of the diocese must make this appeal to their congregation. In this text, the bishop describes the Beast as a plague sent by God to punish men for their sins. He quotes St. Augustine and refers to "the justice of God", as well as the Bible and the divine threats made by Moses: "I will arm the teeth of the fierce beasts against them. At the end of this mandate, prayers of forty hours are to be recited for three consecutive Sundays.
But the supplications remain in vain and the Beast continued his slaughter. In January and February 1765, the hunts of the Clermont-Prince regiment of light troops led by Duhamel proved unsuccessful. Moreover, the locals complained about the soldiers, who were accused of not paying for food and housing and, moreover, of destroying the crops.
4. Jacques Portefaix
On January 12, the Beast attacked seven children from Le Villaret, a parish in Chanaleilles (Haute-Loire). The fight that pitted it against the young shepherds and the courage that the latter demonstrated have remained in the annals. Since the appearance of the Beast, it is recommended not to send the children alone to guard the cattle and the herds are often grouped together.
This is the case of the seven children of Le Villaret, five boys and two girls between the ages of eight and twelve. The Beast attacks by circling around the children gathered to defend themselves. It devours the cheek of one of the youngest boys and then comes back, grabbing Joseph Panafieu's arm in its mouth and taking the child with it. One of the children suggests running away while the animal is busy, but young Jacques André Portefaix urges them to rescue their companion. Slowed down by the nature of the terrain, the Beast is joined by the children, who try to reach it with blades fixed on their sticks. Portefaix and his friends manage to make him let go and keep him at a distance. When one or more men arrive, alerted by the cries, the Beast flees into a nearby wood.
Monsieur de Saint-Priest informed Monsieur de l'Averdy of this confrontation. To reward him for his courage, the king offered to pay for the education of Jacques Portefaix. The young boy was born on the 8th of November 1752 in Chanaleilles. On April 16, 1765, he joined the Brothers of Christian Doctrine or Ignorant Brothers, of Montpellier. He stayed there until November 1770, when he entered the school of the Royal Corps of Artillery. He then became a lieutenant, under the name of Jacques Villaret. He died at the age of "33 years or so" on August 14, 1785, in Franconville.
5. The d'Enneval family - Jeanne Jouve
The adviser of King Louis XV, Clément Charles François de L'Averdy, sent a Norman hunter, the great wolf-cubber Jean Charles Marc Antoine (sometimes called "Martin") Vaumesle d'Enneval (or d'Esneval). Reputed to be the best wolf hunter in the kingdom, he is said to have killed more than 1,200 wolves. On February 17th of 1765, d'Enneval arrived in Clermont-Ferrand accompanied by his son. They were presented to the intendant of Auvergne, Monsieur de Ballainvilliers. The next day, they were at La Chapelle-Laurent and, the next day, at Saint-Flour. At the beginning of March they take their place in Gévaudan.
This month of March is witness to Jeanne Jouve's heroic fight to save her children. On March 14th around noon, Jeanne Marlet, Pierre Jouve's wife, living at the Mas de la Vessière, in the parish of Saint-Albann 9, stands in front of her house with three of her children. Alerted by a noise, she notices that her 9 year old daughter has just been seized by the Beast, which has appeared over the wall. The girl Jouve was holding the youngest of the boys, about 14 months old. Jeanne Jouve threw herself on the Beast and managed to make him let go. The Beast comes back to charge the youngest of the children. She cannot reach him because his mother protects him. The Beast then throws itself on the other boy, Jean-Pierre, aged 6. It grabs him by the arm and carries him away. Jeanne Jouve throws herself again on the Beast. A long fight follows where Jeanne is thrown to the ground, scratched and bitten several times. The Beast, which is still holding Jean-Pierre, manages to escape. She finds herself in front of the two eldest Jouve, who are leaving to lead the herd. They manage to free their younger brother and put the Beast on the run. Alas, Jean-Pierre will succumb to his wounds five days later. As a reward for her heroic act, Jeanne Jouve will receive a 300 pounds gratuity from the king.
As soon as they arrived in Gévaudan, the d'Ennevals claimed exclusive hunting rights. They must therefore obtain the dismissal of Captain Duhamel. They call upon Monsieur de l'Averdy. On April 8th, Duhamel and his men had to leave the country for their new assignment at Pont-Saint-Esprit. 40 However, the d'Ennevals were slow to launch major hunts, the first of which did not take place until April 21. Its aim seemed to be to drive the Beast back to Prunières and the woods belonging to the Count of Morangiès. But the Beast managed to escape without the hunters being able to shoot.
In this month of April 1765, the story of the Beast spreads throughout Europe. The Courrier d'Avignon reports that English journalists derided the fact that a simple animal could not be slaughtered. Meanwhile, the bishop and the stewards had to deal with a massive influx of mail. People from all over France were proposing more or less far-fetched methods to deal with the Beast. The Court also received representations of the Beast, which were broadcast in the Gévaudan region so that "everyone would be less frightened by its approach and less prone to misunderstanding" and so that packs of hunting dogs could be trained to chase the Beast with an effigy "executed in cardboard.
On May 1st, the Beast is near the Rechauve woods, between Le Malzieu and Saint-Albann 10. At 6.30 p.m., as it was about to attack a young shepherd of about 15 years of age, a man, one of the Marlet Brothers from the hamlet of La Chaumette, located southeast of Saint-Alban, saw it from the window of his house, about 200 meters away. He then warns his two brothers and they all hasten to arm themselves and leave the house. The Beast is said to have been shot twice, falling each time before he could get up again. It manages to escape even though it is wounded in the neck. The next day, d'Enneval, who had been warned in the meantime, went to the scene and continued the trace accompanied by about twenty men. They all hoped that the Beast had been wounded to death. The announcement that a woman had been killed in the afternoon, in the parish of Venteuges, finally proved them wrong.
The day after this hunt, Marquis Pierre-Charles de Morangiès wrote to the syndic Étienne Lafont to complain about the d'Ennevals: "MM. Denneval arrived and gave as usual a speech of the most distressing uselessness. [...] you who are a politician are obliged to reveal in the eyes of the powers that be the effrontery of these Norman men who have only human faces. ». On May 18, Morangiès sent a new letter of complaint to Lafont, while the d'Enneval hunts were still unsuccessful. On 8 June, on the order of the king, François Antoine, harquebus carrier of his majesty, leaves Paris for Gévaudan. He was accompanied by his youngest son, Robert François Antoine de Beauterne, but also by eight captains of the royal guard, six gamekeepers, a servant, and two valets of bloodhounds.
6. François Antoine and Marie-Jeanne Valet
It was on June 20th that the squire François Antoine often referred to as "Monsieur Antoine", arrived in Saint-Flour. Invested with the power of the king, he cannot fail in his mission. He settled in Le Malzieu, which he reached on June 22nd. Antoine and his men then joined d'Enneval on various hunts. However, the d'Ennevals left the country on July 28th on the king's orders, and for Antoine, the Beast was nothing more than a wolf. This is what he states in one of his many correspondences: the tracks found offered "no difference with the foot of a big wolf". The harquebus carrier, however, does not immediately succeed in finding the animal. The geography of the country was a problem, and he asked for new dogs to help him out. He also receives help from the Count of Tournon, a gentleman from Auvergne.
On Sunday, August 11th, he organizes a big drive. However, this date is marked by the exploit of "la Pucelle du Gévaudan". Marie-Jeanne Valet, about 20 years old, was the servant of the parish priest of Paulhac. While she and other peasant women were using a footbridge to cross a small river, they were attacked by the Beast. The girls take a few steps back, but the Beast throws himself on Marie-Jeanne. The latter then manages to stick his spear into his chest. The Beast then falls into the river and disappears into the woods. The story quickly reaches Antoine, who then goes to the scene to see that the spear is indeed covered with blood and that the traces found are similar to those of the Beast. In a letter to the minister, he nicknamed Marie-Jeanne Valet the "virgin of Gévaudan".
7. The imprisonment of the Chastel family
A few days later, on August 16, an event occurred that could have remained anonymous if it had not been linked to the Chastel family, whose father is recognized as the killer of the Beast. On this day, a general hunt is organized in the Montchauvet woods. Jean Chastel and his two sons, Pierre and Jean-Antoine, take part in it. Two of François Antoine's gamekeepers, Pélissier and Lachenay, pass by them and ask their advice on the terrain before entering, on horseback, a grassy corridor between two forests. They want to make sure that it is not swampy. The Chastel assured them of the safety of the ground, and Pélissier then fearlessly entered, before his horse got bogged down and was unsettled. It is not without difficulty that he manages, with the help of Lachenay, to get out of the swamp, while the Chastels are enjoying the situation. Soaked, Pélissier grabs the youngest son and threatens to take him to prison for this outrage. The father and the eldest lay him down at once with their weapons. Lachenay threw himself on Jean Chastel and diverted his rifle. The guards beat a retreat and went to report to their commander.
On the basis of the report they drew up, François Antoine had the Chastel family incarcerated in Saugues prison. "I have the honor to inform [...] of the detail and the boldness of these bad people to have dared to lay our so-called guards at gunpoint. It is fortunate that they did not kill them and what they would have deserved on such an occasion. ». The judges and consuls of the city are instructed: "Do not let them out until four days after we leave this province! ».