Les chasseurs luttent contre la Bête du Gévaudan

The story of the Beast of Gevaudan

🔸Early June 1764, a woman of Langogne in Gevaudan that was looking after a herd of oxes, was attacked by a fierce Beast. When they saw the appearance of the Beast, the dogs cowered and ran away; the oxes on the contrary, grouped together courageously around their keeper and routed the animal. The woman was not hurt; she came back to Langogne, very moved, her dress and corsage were in rags. Because of the description she made of the monster that had assaulted her, one understood that fear had disturbed her mind. It was only a wolf maybe a rabid wolf, said the sceptics; it was not rare and it was not talked about it anymore.

🔸But a few weeks later, the rumour spreads in the valley of the upper Allier that the Beast has re-appeared. On June 30, in Saint-Etienne-de-Ludgares (Vivarais), it devoured a maiden of 14 years old; on August 8th, it attacks a girl of Puy-Laurent (Gevaudan) and tears her apart; three 15-year-old boys (from Chayla-l’Evêque), a woman from Arzenc, a little girl from Thorts and a shepherd from Chaudeyrac are found dead in open country; their bodies are terribly mutilated and are barely recognizable. In September, a girl from Rocles, a man from Choisniet, a woman from Apcher disappear; their remains and their rags are found scattered in open country and in woods. On October 8th, a young man from Pouget returns home, terrified, half dead: he has met the Beast in an orchard and it slashed his scalp and his chest. Two days later, the forehead of a 13-year-old child is slashed and his scalp ripped off. On October 19th, a 20-year-old maiden is found horribly torn to pieces around Saint-Alban: the Beast hammered at her, “drank her blood”, and ate her guts.

🔸The whole Gevaudan was shaking. Captain Duhamel, "aide-major des dragons de Langogne", voluntarily made himself available to lead a troop of bold peasants to hunt down the mysterious animal. Duhamel had surrounded and killed a big wolf for 18 pounds of prime but the folks were not relieved: this ordinary wolf was not the Beast, as one strived to make it believe, and indeed it was learned that the Beast was messing around and wreaking havoc.

🔸In October, a peasant from Julianges, called Jean-Pierre Pourcher, was putting into order some bundle in his barn; the dusk was coming, the snow covered the countryside. All of a sudden, a shadow goes through the narrow window of the warehouse. Pourcher is gripped by a “kind of terror”, takes his shotgun, stations himself in front of the stable’s dormer and sees in the street of the village, in front of the waterspout, a monstrous animal such as he had never seen.

“It is the Beast, it is the Beast!”, he said to himself.

🔸Although very courageous, he was shaking so much he could barely hold his weapon. However, after crossing, he shoulders, aims and fires; the Beast falls, gets back on its feet, shakes its head standing still and looks around furiously. Pourcher fires again: the Beast shouts out, bends its legs and escapes making “a noise anything like two persons breaking up after a dispute”. This night, Pourcher was convinced that, unless a miracle, all the inhabitants of Gevaudan were doomed to be eaten.

🔸Such tales spread the terror; the country works were abandoned, streets deserted; people never got out alone and unarmed. Captain Duhamel and his dragons were making daily beats; 1200 peasants, armed with shotguns, scythes, spears, and sticks escorted him; as soon as the Beast was reported, they would hunt it down. Mr de Lafont (property manager in Mende), Mr de Moncan (general commander of the troops in Languedoc), Mr de Morangiès (gentleman) and Mercier, the boldest hunter in Gevaudan took the field; they travelled all around the country from Langogne to Saint-Cléty, from Malzieu to Marjevols. Criers brought out the peasants in all villages; brave men got organized and in snowy country roads, seeked resolutely the monster.

🔸One day, the troop lead by Mr Lafont, marching for 72 hours, stopped all of a sudden near the castle of Baume. The Beast! The Beast is there! It was seen, hidden behind a wall; it lays on its belly and watches a young shepherd who keeps oxes in the distance in a pasture. But the enemy has discovered it and in a jump the Beast reaches the grove nearby. This time, it is caught: peasants dash for it, surround the small wood, others squeeze in between the branches…

The Beast is flushed out and is gaining momentum. A hunter fires at 10 feet; it falls, gets up, receives a second bullet, falls again, gets up and gets hobbling into the woods. One hunts it down, shoots it: here it is again in the plain, falling at each shot, always getting up; finally it is seen coming back in the grove and disappearing…

🔸It is hunted the whole night but no contact could be made. As it was believed to be dead, the search for its remains was postponed. In the morning, 200 well-armed men explored all the bushes, opening the branches, digging the piles of dead leaves until it was learned that two women thinking the Beast was dead, saw it hobbling in the fields. Two days later, three miles away, a young man from Rimeize was found bleeding, scalped and his side open. The same day, a child from Fontan was bitten to her cheek and to her arm; one also found, in a field nearby the house of Mr de Morangiès, the corpse in rags of a 21-year-old girl whose parents forced to milk the cows. Hopeless case! Of the 10 000 hunters, all estimated that the attempts were deemed to be useless; the Gevaudan should resign and suffer with a pious patience this mysterious and cruel plague.

🔸It was sure now that the Beast was not a wolf. Too many people had seen it and gave the same description: it was a fantastic animal, sized like a calf or a donkey; it had reddish hair, a large head similar to a pig, the mouth always gaping, short and perched ears, white and large breast, a long and white tip. Some said that its hind legs wore hooves of a horse.

🔸It seemed the Beast could be everywhere at once; in the same day it was in places separated by 6 to 7 miles. It liked to stand up and do some clowning, looking like it was “happy as a Larry” and seemed to have no viciousness. If it was in a hurry, the Beast would cross the rivers in two or three jumps and it was seen walking on the water without getting wet. Someone assured that he heard the Beast laugh and speak. Usually, a mother would scold and threaten her child with the Beast and this would lay unexpectedly its hooks on the windowsill, gazing arrogantly the sought-after baby. Moreover, it rarely devoured the corpse of its victims, contenting itself with tearing it, sucking its blood, scalping its head and taking away the heart, the liver and the intestines.

🔸The disaster that hit the Gevaudan moved the whole kingdom; the news was now in the Parisian newspapers and the Beast was in all conversations. The king Louis XV, himself, even though having other concerns, wanted to sympathise with his subjects and his minister commanded to use the troops

🔸In accordance to his instructions, the captain Duhamel installed his headquarter in Saint-Chély; he gathered with the most reputable gunmen of the county: Mr de Saint-Laurent and Lavigne. Then he made out a tactic that consisted of eight beats; a reward of two thousand then six thousand pounds were promised to the one who would kill the Beast; all parishes informed the peasants during the sermon and they were comforted. Unless it came from hell, the monster had to succumb for sure and one would learn its death sooner or later. To make sure the Beast had been slaughtered, the lords of the Languedoc ordered that the remains of the Beast should be exposed to the public.

🔸The eight beats were performed from November 20 to 27: they gave no result. As soon as the troops had returned to their billet, one learned the Beast had gone to Sainte-Colombe, killing 5 girls, a woman and 4 children… The terror intensified: the bishop of Mende consecrated a pastoral for this public devastation and prayers were said all around the diocese to give rise to another Saint Georges. Whereas the people were praying, the Beast kidnapped a mother in the daylight: Delphine Courtiol from Saint-Méry. It was its 60th victim and no count was made of the unfortunates it had wounded or crippled within the last 6 months.

🔸In January 1765, an incident moved the whole county: the 12th, a shepherd from Chanaleilles, a twelve-year-old boy named Portefaix was looking after cattle in the mountains. He was accompanied by four friends and by two little girls: fearing the Beast these children had armed themselves with sticks bearing iron points. One of the little girls shouted: the Beast had appeared suddenly from a bush next to her.

🔸Jacques Portefaix gathers the band: the stronger in front to protect the rest of the troop; the monster rounds them, its mouth frothing. The courageous children, huddled together, cross and defend themselves with their sticks: nevertheless, the Beast dashes forward, grabs the 8-year-old Panafieux by the throat and takes him away. Portefaix gives it a try, stabbing it repeatedly, forcing it to drop its pray; the cheek of Joseph Panafieux is teared off and the Beast eats it. Excited, it now attacks again the horrified group, knocks over one of the misses with its horrible snout, bites one of the boys to his lips – his name was Jean Veyrier – grabs his arm and takes him away.

🔸Another boy is too scared and shouts to let him and escape when the Beast eats him. But Portefaix declares they will save their friend’s life or they will all perish. They follow him, even Panafieux blinded by his blood and missing one cheek; all of them boldly stab the Beast, try to burst his eyes or to cut its tongue; they corner it into a slough where it get bogged and releases the child. Portefaix places himself between the Beast and the child, hits the snout of the Beast that finally steps back, shakes and runs away.

🔸The genuine minutes of this feat was sent to the Bishop of Mende who delivered it to the King. He decided that each of the seven little peasants of Chanaleilles would get 300 pounds and that Portefaix would be reared and paid for by the State. He was placed some months later to the Brothers of Montpellier: after brilliant studies, he joined the army and died in 1795 as lieutenant of the artillery.

🔸All over France, the newspapers, the complaints and the images described this epic fight; the fame of Jacques Portefaix became immediate but the reputation of the Beast increased too. From everywhere in the Kingdom, heroes offered themselves in sacrifice to clear out the Gevaudan. The less lark hunter dreamed of the decisive gunshot given that the King had promised 9400 pounds to the fortunate hunter who would triumph over the invincible and mysterious animal.

🔸The scared people themselves did not loose interest in that public misfortune and imagined the more careful subterfuges: one expressed the idea to make “artificial women” that would be placed on the edge of the woods the Beast was going in. It was very easy: a bag made of ewe’s skin would feign the body, two other elongated bags would portray the legs; all this would be overhung by a bladder painted like a visage and filled with sponges soaked with fresh blood, mixed with guts seasoned with poison so that the Beast eats its own end.

🔸Another would propose to elect 25 bold men, to cover them with the skins of lions, bears, leopards, stags, does, calves, goats, wild boars and wolves and with a hat filled with knife blades: each of these costumes should wear a little box containing 12 ounces of Christian fat mixed with viper blood and supplied with 3 square bullets previously bitten by a girl…Another had imagined a doomsday machine made up of 30 shotguns that would be triggered off by 30 ropes set in motion by the contortion of a six-month calf struggling in front of the Beast.

🔸Whereas unreliable persons were thinking, the Beast wreaked havoc and its boldness seemed to increase. Around January 15th, it ripped off a 14 year-old boy, Jean Chateauneuf, from the parish of Crezes. A church service was celebrated for the victim and the next day, as the father was crying in his kitchen, the Beast took a look by the window: it put its legs on the windowsill. Chateauneuf did not dare to take catch it by its legs. On February 2nd, it crossed the village of Saint-Amant at a jog when the peasants attended Mass; it tried to break and enter the houses to find children but all doors were closed and it ran away, vexed.

🔸Therefore a big hunt was organized: Duhamel commanded to 73 parishes; 20 000 men responded to the appeal; the lords of the whole region took charge of the operations and this formidable army took the field on February 7th. The countryside was covered with snow and it was easy to track down the Beast. Five peasants from Malzieu fired it off: it fell in a scream but got back on its feet immediately ad disappeared. The next day, the Beast cut off the head of a fourteen-year old girl and bait was made of her remains, put in an appropriate place and surrounded by skilled gunmen. But the Beast mistrust and did not show off.

🔸The discouragement was immense; these fruitless hunts, the demands of the Dragons, the expenses incurred by their stay were ruining the country; besides this country was so paralyzed that the cattle did not pasture and the markets were deserted. Such a pathetic disaster had never hit the Gevaudan and no one could foresee the end of the plague.

🔸In Normandy, lived an old gentleman called Denneval, whose wolf hunter reputation was great. He had killed, he said, 1200 wolves. The feats of the Beast disturbed his sleep: he went to Versailles, succeeded in meeting the King, offered his services and they were accepted. He swore to his Majesty that he would kill the Beast and would bring the stuffed animal in Versailles in order that all lords of the court could witness his triumph. The King wished him good luck and Denneval took the road.

🔸He arrived in Saint-Flour on February 19th with his son, two steppers and six enormous mastiffs: to spare their dogs, the Normans did not cover a long distance and the Beast took advantage of this to devour around 20 children (once a day approximately).

🔸Denneval prepared himself slowly and wisely: he wanted to study cleverly the unusual game he was about to hunt. The peasants stamped on their feet; they had bucked up and did not doubt that at first snap hook shot, Denneval would dump the Beast. But Denneval did not hurry: he explored carefully the country and noticed that each of its jumps – in flat land - was 28 feet long. He concluded, “This Beast is not easy to catch”. Besides, his dogs were not present and he had to wait for them before hunting.

🔸Moreover, he did not want any rivalry and got it over that he would not attempt anything if Duhamel would stay. Discussions, little intrigues, the time passed and the Beast did not fast: on March 4th, it devoured Ally, a 40 year-old woman; the 8th, in the village of Fayet, it ate a 20 year-old girl; the 11th, in a warehouse, in Mallevieillette, she ripped off a 5 year-old girl; similar crimes the 12th, 13th and 14th in such distant places that one could not explain the fastness of its running. This constant wandering inspired such a terror in France that as similar incidents had occurred around Soissons it was published everywhere that the Beast was devastating the Auvergne and the Picardy at the same time!

Denneval kept his head and claimed he wanted to hunt without contestant. Duhamel persisted not to leave…and the Beast was eating people!

🔸It would be pointless to give details about the arguments between the Norman and the Dragon; as expected, the Norman prevailed: Duhamel beat a retreat with his soldiers and left the country, vexed to leave the victory to his rival; no doubt now that the wolf hunter would soon triumph over the Beast. Unfortunately, during three months, he hunted it without reaching it; the 10 000 peasants he had with him could only kill a poor female wolf, weighing barely 40 pounds. In her body one found only some piece of cloth and hare hairs.

🔸In vain, Denneval used processes unworthy of his great reputation; in vain he poisoned a cadaver that he exhibited as a trap near a wood where the monster had been reported: it ripped off the cadaver, made it and seemed to be going well. After 10 weeks of beats and ambushes, after so many gunfires and traps, one admitted the Beast made fun of the people, the bullets and the poison. The more enthusiastic hunters became discouraged, Denneval moaned he was badly assisted; the peasants laughed of him and said he was unable to kill the less rabbit. The minds embittered, even the tune of the official correspondence became caustic and one blamed the Norman to take it easy.

🔸It was a good period for the Beast. She showed itself daily and deprived itself of nothing. The list of its slaughter is frightening: she devoured, in La Clause, a young girl, Gabrielle Peissier, and arranged the body so cleanly that one thought the girl was only asleep. On April 18th, it kills a 12 year-old cowherd, bleeds him dry as a butcher would have done, eats his cheeks, his eyes, and his thighs and dislocates his knees. In Ventuejols, it cuts the throat of a 40 year-old woman then two girls that it bleeds dry and pulls out their hearts.

🔸There is no village in the Gévaudan whose parish registers do not bear, in this spring of 1765, many sinister mentions of this kind: “Death certificate of the body of…eaten partially by the ferocious Beast…”Always seen, tracked down, shot, hounded, poisoned and still starving, it reappeared every day and seemed to entertain itself of the terror it inspired: one saw it, from a distance, to lie in ambush, to sit on its behind and motion with its legs as if she wanted to taunt its future victims.

🔸The rumour of its feats had crossed the seas; the Englishmen, sheltered in their island, were making fun of the terrors of the Gevaudan: a newspaper from London wrote amusingly that a French army of 120 000 men had been defeated by this fierce animal and that after eating 25 000 cavalrymen and the whole artillery it had been defeated by a female cat he had eaten the kittens.

🔸It was too much: the honour of the country was at issue and Louis XV, who was not emotional, understood he had to act and ordered his first porte-arquebuse, Mr Antoine de Bauterne to go immediately to Gevaudan and to bring him the mortal remains of the monster. This time, one was encouraged: the Beast was going to die as it was his Majesty’s commandment.

🔸Antoine, his son, his servants, his guards, his valets and his bloodhounds arrived in Saugues the 22nd June. He started by dismissing Denneval; then he conscripted some men to carry his luggage and take care of his dogs. He acted high-and-mighty, having only to appear to conquer. Knowing this, the Beast challenged him: on July 4th, at midday, it took an old woman, Marguerite Oustalier, who was spinning wool in a nearby field of Broussoles and left her dead after ripping her skin face.

🔸In his capacity of porte-arquebuse of the King, of lieutenant of His hunts and of knight of Saint-Louis, Antoine remained unblinking; he organized a few scouting that gave no results. The peasants said he was expensive although not performing better than the others. Surprisingly, after three months of trial and error and blowout, Antoine left along with his crew for a part of Auvergne where the beast had never been reported. He went to the wood of the abbey of Chazes where wolves were numerous. On 21st September, he was lying in wait and saw a large animal, with its mouth wide-open and bloodshot eyes. No doubt about it; it is the Beast! Antoine shot, the Beast fell; it had received the bullet in its right eye. It got up again but a second bullet caught it right in its body; it tumbled, dead.

🔸Antoine and his guards dashed: the Beast weighed 100 pounds, was 5.7 feet long, and had enormous teeth and huge feet. It was a wolf, an ordinary wolf and it was carried in triumph to Saugues where the surgeon Boulanger proceeded to the post-mortem examination. One summoned seven or eight children who some time ago saw the Beast and declared under the pressure of the porte-arquebuse that they recognized it. Minutes were written and Mr de Ballainvilliers, intendant of Auvergnes, wrote to His Majesty an enthusiastic letter in which he thanked Him to have saved the people of Gevaudan. The corpse of the Beast was carried as soon as possible to Clermont, was stuffed and sent to Fontainebleau: the King laughed a lot about the simplicity of these god peasants whose superstition had transformed an ordinary wolf into an apocalyptic beast.

🔸Because he had cleared out the kingdom of this nightmare, Antoine was – incredibly – named “grand-croix of the order of Saint-Louis” and received a pension of one thousand pounds; his son obtained a cavalry company and made a fortune by exhibiting the Beast in Paris; ten years later, it was still shown in country fairs. It was officially dead and one forgot it.

🔸It was not the same in Gevaudan. Some incredulous people assured that Mr Antoine was only a hoaxer; that at least, to obey the King, he had killed a beast but it was not the Beast. However, this one did not show up anymore – a fawning attitude surely because good people assured it would reappear soon.

🔸Indeed, It showed up again. Early winter, it took one girl of Marcillac, made its second feeding was a woman of Sulianges whose two hands only were spared…The priests had once again to write in the parish registers: “I have buried in the cemetery of the village, the remains of … devoured by the fierce Beast that travels all over the country”. Indeed it had resumed its wanderings and since 1st January 1766, it was seen every day.

🔸It was it! One could not be mistaken: as formerly, it kidnapped daily one child or a woman; as in the past, it came at night in villages, laid its hooks on the windowsills and looked in the kitchens. It was not a wolf: the whole Gevaudan would have testified under oath: for the last two years, one had killed one hundred and fifty two wolves in the region and the peasants could not be mistaken.

🔸There were some tragedies: two little girls of Lèbre were playing in front of their house, the Beast came and pounced on one of them and took her in its fangs. The other girl jumped on the back of the Beast, held on tightly and was taken away. As she was shouting, the villagers rushed up… too late: the head of the child was ripped off already; the face of the other little girl was in bits. One peasant, Pierre Blanc, struggled with the Beast for three consecutive hours. When they were too exhausted, they would rest a little then fight again; Pierre Blanc saw her closely; he said it would stand on its hind legs to scratch and it seemed wearing buttons on its belly.

🔸The Gevaudan begged for help; but its laments remained unanswered. The intendant of the province did not want any other disgrace as Versailles had closed the case for a long time. Talk of the Beast was equivalent to challenge the King or at least insinuate He had been cheated. Which sycophant would dare to irritate the King for a few peasants? The Beast was dead. Mr Antoine had killed it, period.

🔸But the Beast was still eating people. On 19 June 1767, after a large pilgrim at Notre-Dame-des-Tours, the marquis of Apcher, one of the lords of Gevaudan, organized a beat; one of the hunters was Jean Chastel. He was 60 years old, was born at the turn of the century, in Darmes, near Besseyres-Sainte-Marie. It was a solid and religious man; the whole region regarded him with esteem for his honesty and good conduct.

🔸Jean Chastel was stationing himself in front of Sogne-d’Auvert, near Saugues. He wore his shotgun loaded with two consecrated bullets; he was saying the rosary when he saw the Beast, “the real one”. Calmly, he closes his rosary, puts it in his pocket, takes off his glasses, puts them in a case…The Beast does not move; it waits. Chastel shoulders his weapon, aims, shoots, the Beast stands still: the dogs run up to the sound, knock it down, and rip it up. It is dead. Its body, loaded on a horse, is carried to the castle of Besques ; it is examined and it is indeed « the Beast », it is not a wolf. Its feet, its ears, the hugeness of its mouth indicate a monster of unknown origin; in its innards, one finds the shoulder of a young girl, most probably the one that had been devoured two days before in Pébrac.

🔸One showed the corpse of the Beast in the whole country then it was put in a box and Jean Chastel went to Versailles with this cumbersome parcel. There, numerous erudite would determine what kind of animal it could be; one would realize that Mr Antoine had made light work of the King. Unfortunately, the trip took place under the warmth of August; all in all, the Beast was in such a putrefaction state that it was buried right away before anyone dared to examine it. Therefore one will never know what was the Beast of Gevaudan. However Chastel was introduced to the King who made fun of him. The brave man thought he was the victim of a Court intrigue. He did not protest his innocence; he kowtowed and came back to Gevaudan where the receiver-general granted him with seventy-two pounds.

Recent historical research suggests that it may not have been Jean Chastel who made the journey up to Paris but that it may have been somebody else.

🔸But the Gevaudan was less ungrateful than Versailles; Jean Chastel became a hero. Everyone knows his name, one century and a half after; a local writer devoted an epic poem of 360 pages to him; the death of the monster is depicted colourfully: the bold hunter is seen

Adjusting his shotgun; the shot is given and the Beast vomits streams of blood.

Sure of his conquest, noticing that any effort, any cry are unnecessary,

Chastel exclaims: "Beast, you won’t eat them anymore!"

In la Sogne-d’-Auvert – is it worth to notice - some assure that “ the grass does not grow”: it is reddish and no animal agrees to feed on this damned grass.

G. LENOTRE Histoires étranges qui sont arrivées, 1933

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