Despite their reputation, attacks by wolves on humans in modern times are incredibly rare, even by the extremely infrequent standards of fatal attacks on humans by other wild species. In North America, just two confirmed incidents (the 2005 death of Kenton Carnegie in Saskatchewan and 2010 killing of Candice Berner in Alaska) are believed to have been caused by wild wolves. Even factoring in incidents with captive wolves, only three fatalities were recorded in North America in the 50 years leading up to 2002, and a further eight in Europe and Russia. In North America, black bears, brown bears, cougars, alligators and even coyotes, elk and moose have been responsible for more recorded human fatalities than wolves over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, not to mention domestic dogs.
Despite modern trends, grey wolves have over the course of history earned a reasonably well-deserved reputation for killing and eating humans, resulting in a fearful notoriety that continues to this day for many people. France appears to be the country that has most been plagued by fatal wolf attacks, and certainly is the nation with the most extensive historical records. From 1200 to 1918, 7,600 fatal attacks by wolves on humans were recorded in France, figures compiled by the historian Jean-Marc Moriceau, a professor of rural history at the University Caen-Normandie. Clearly, wolves posed a significant threat throughout much of the history of France, and no individual (or possibly pack) exemplifies this more than the notorious Beast of Gévaudan.
Between 1764 and 1767, the French province of Gévaudan (now modern-day Lozère), located in the mountainous Margeride region of France, was plagued by frequent wolf attacks. One modern analysis estimated that as many as 113 individuals were killed, with the majority wholly or partially consumed. A further 50 people were injured. Other historians believe the death toll was somewhere between 60 and 100.
The culprit became widely referred to as the Beast of Gévaudan, described as a huge, russet wolf, its fur streaked with black. The creature was believed by many to possess supernatural powers, given its extensive killing spree and the difficulties the soldiers of the Kingdom of France encountered hunting down the beast. Indeed, the modern idea of the werewolf is profoundly influenced by the story of the Beast of Gévaudan. Superstitious farmers credited the creature with the ability to turn invisible, deflect bullets or walk on two feet like a man.
Despite the proficiency the creature later displayed at rapidly killing, often tearing out the throats of victims before they had a chance to defend themselves, its first recorded attack was unsuccessful. In the summer of 1764, the beast attacked a young woman herding cattle in the Mercoire forest. However, she was saved when the bulls amongst the herd charged the creature, preventing it from reaching her and eventually driving it off. A few days later, 14-year old Janne Boulet was less fortunate, becoming the first victim of the beast near the village of Les Hubacs.
Attacks continued over the following months, with the beast primarily preying on lone shepherds and herders, ambushing and killing them with bites to the head or neck. By December, there were growing claims that more than one individual was behind the attacks, given the frequency of the killings, and reports emerged of a pair of beasts being spotted as well as farmers telling of seeing the animal with pups.
On January 12th 1765, the beast made one of its most brazen attacks yet, charging at a group of eight young children who had been tending cattle in a meadow. Organised primarily by 10-year old Jacques Portefaix, the children were able to drive off the beast, grouping together to prevent it singling out a victim to drag away. News of Portefaix’s bravery reached Louis XV, impressing the King of France to the point that he ordered a significant sum of money to be distributed amongst the children, and for Portefaix to be educated at the king’s expense. The story bringing the existence of the beast to the attention of the King also saw him pledge to destroy it, dispatching a troop of dragoons to hunt it down.
Commanded by a Captain Duhamel, the soldiers were unsuccessful at apprehending the creature, despite several near misses. Duhamel later spoke of his frustration at missing killing opportunities due to the failings of his troopers. Louis XV later dispatched two professional wolf hunters, Jean-Charles d’Enneval and his son Jean-Francois, to support Duhamel. The duo from Normandy claimed that they had already killed 1,200 wolves, but found working alongside the dragoons impossible, favouring stealth over Duhamel’s loud cavalry patrols. Duhamel returned to Clermont frustrated, later stating that it was his belief the beast was some form of hybrid, the father being a lion and the mother species unknown. The d’Enneval’s proved no more successful that the soldiers, and Louis XV eventually resorted to sending his personal gun bearer and bodyguard, François Antoine, to Gévaudan. Again, the hunter was accompanied by his son.
It was during Antoine’s hunt that perhaps the most well-known incident involving the Beast of Gévaudan took place. Later recounted by Antoine himself, the beast attempted to attack 19-year old Marie-Jeanne Valet, who was attempting to cross a narrow log bridge over the river Desgnes with her younger sister Therese. Valet was armed with a homemade spear, a simple wooden pole with a metal tip. Shouting for help as the beast approached, she successfully thrust the spear into its chest, driving it off its feet. The beast retreated, whimpering, and men running to help found the end of Valet’s spear coated in blood. Unlike men that had faced the beast, including Captain Duhamel who had described it as a huge and imposing beast, Valet described it as similar in size to a large farm dog. Today, a statue of her stands in the French village of Auvers commemorating her bravery.
After three months of hunting, Antoine successfully shot and killed a large wolf which was identified as the beast by attack survivors. Sending his son with the stuffed wolf to the Palace of Versailles and a hero’s welcome as well as a large reward from the King, Antoine himself remained in Gévaudan, successfully hunting down the large wolf’s mate and one of two reported cubs. On killing the cub, he found that it was already larger than either of its parents. Despite his frustration at failing to find the second cub, he ultimately returned to Paris to claim his rewards. Less than two months later, the attacks resumed.
Again, the first attack was unsuccessful, a 12-year old boy forcing the beast to drop his six-year old brother after repeatedly striking it. However, successful attacks soon followed, with witnesses reporting that the beast no longer even feared the bulls that shepherds had hoped could keep them safe. Believing the issue dealt with and, perhaps crucially, having already paid out a reward, the king showed little interest in dealing with the threat this time around. Left to protect themselves, without support from the King’s army or even a bounty to attract professional hunters to to the region, the people of Gévaudan were plagued by further attacks for over a year. The threat finally came to an end during a hunt organised by the local Marquis on 17th July 1767, during which a local farmer and amateur hunter named Jean Chastel shot and killed a huge wolf. When later asked how he had been able to successfully kill the beast when professional hunters and soldiers alike had failed, Chastel revealed that he had shot the animal with a homemade combination of large calibre bullet and silver buckshot. This reference to silver successfully killing the beast is almost certainly the origin of the believe that a silver bullet is required to kill a werewolf. An autopsy of the wolf found that it still held the remains of its last victim in its stomach when it died.
Modern scholars believe that the most likely explanation is that rather than a single beast, or even family of them, instead a number of separate wolf packs were responsible for the killings. The frequency of attacks on people compared to livestock, wolves’ usual preferred target, could be explained by the prevalence of the Aubrac breed of cattle in the region, a hardy and robust cow quite capable of defending itself. Another theory that refers to reports of the beast’s russet coloured fur and unusual size is that it could have been a hybrid between a wild wolf and a Dogue de Bordeux, a large and powerful mastiff breed similarly popular in the region.