This article was written by Hayley E. You can view more of her work here.
There are legends across the globe; they span years, they go back centuries, they could involve animals, monsters, killers, death, and even magic. Some of these legends are documented, and none are more well-documented than La Bête du Gévaudan (The Beast of Gévaudan) – typically referred to as a ‘she’ because ‘La Bête’ is a feminine noun in French. Terror and death wracked the southern French countryside between 1764 and 1767. During this time there were 240 reported attacks. Of these, 112 people died, 53 were wounded, and 75 people escaped unharmed.
Most deaths had the same traits, letting the people know that this was the same beast committing them. Victims were usually missing organs, but most of the body was untouched and left for other animals. Sometimes, a victim’s organs would be misplaced such as one case with a woman whose organs were laying neatly on the grass beside her body. More often than not, a victim’s head would be gone – only to be found a little ways away. At times, there would be chewing marks on the bodies, however La Bête would only eat the organs. Sometimes victims would be so well covered with their clothes, people thought they were merely sleeping. Hats would be placed atop heads, clothes would be neatly put on the bodies, but the person would be missing body parts.
According to the majority of reports, La Bête was a canine as big as a calf. She had a broad chest, dark brown or red fur, a white stripe down her chest and belly, large pointed ears, and a tuft of fur at the end of her tail. However, this creature is said to be more than just that. Some people report her to be some form of werewolf. Two women on their way to Mass reported seeing a man emerge from the forest. He offered to bring them to the church as La Bête had just been seen in the area. Before the two women could respond, a hard wind blew open the man’s shirt and the women claimed that they saw his body covered in fur. They even said he hand fur on his hands.
There were some people that thought that how La Bête killed was too specific and difficult for an animal to do alone – they thought she was some sort of serial killer. Some others believe that this canid was a wolf-hound trained to kill by the very man that killed her, Jean Chastel, an innkeeper. Evidence of this can be found it one tracks the locations of the murders that La Bête committed. They start nearby Jean Chastel’s house and slowly loop around the countryside until she was shot by him, just a short distance away from his home. Many people believe Jean Chastel trained her to be a vicious beast so he could get credit for the kill. “Monster Slayer” would certainly give him power in the land and bring more business to his inn.
The most curious thing about this animal was not the fact that, even after death, no one identified what she was, but that she was so intelligent. Many of these moments of intelligence have been preserved in the collection of reports and letters published by Pierre Pourcher. One letter was written about the famous encounter between La Bête and a girl by the name of Marie-Jeanne Valet. This encounter is so incredible, there stands a statue of the event in current day Gévaudan: Lozère, France. The following letter describes the event:
“Mende, 14th August 1765.
I have just received a message from M. Antoine and my brother which tells me of an event which happened last Sunday in the parish of Paulhac in Gévaudan. Someone called Marie-Jeanne Valet, servant of the Curate of this parish was in the country with her sister, which she was attacked by La Bête and wounded her with a spear, stabbing the chest when she sprang at her. The spear was covered in blood for a length of three inches. M. Antoine has sent me the verbal report he made in the presence of the Curate, the Count of Tournon and my brother. He asked me to take a copy and send it to you with the letter he has the honour to write to you.. I have this and am sending you both items together. The conclusion that can be drawn from this event is that even after the wounds La Bête has received she has always got away, so we dare not build up our hopes.
I have the honour, etc.
This beast would hunt down women and children, sometimes the elderly. As if she knew what she could handle and what she could not. She avoided contact with young and adult men, knowing well that they were more powerful than her normal victims. She could dodge spears and firearms that were aimed her way. She could easily scale walls and dive into rivers to escape her enemies. On one encounter, she scaled a wall to steal a small child but the child was too heavy to climb back over with. She was chased out of the area by a woman with a weapon and escaped quickly. However, no matter how intelligent, agile and strong as she was, she still had a great fear.
La Bête was incredibly afraid of bulls and cows. These animals would be the protector and even the savior of many a cattle herder. More than once have young girls been rescued by the cattle they had been tending. Many of them report that La Bête would spit blood at the bovine and they would be speckled with red. She would take on men with weapons and struck fear into their hearts, and yet she was terrified of cows.
La Bête is indeed a very strange animal no matter how many records we have of her. Her strength, agility, intelligence and bravery keeps stories of her alive in France, even allowing there to be a museum of her (Musée Fantastique de la Bête du Gévaudan) and statues of her to thrive and become tourist destinations. Her story may never be solved, as the body of La Bête was gone before it could ever be examined. She may forever be a mystery even though there are such impressive records of her existence.