Silver (Ag) bullets, French Werewolves, and the Periodic table of Death.
That April day in 1764 Gévaudan, France, was one where winds swept mares tail clouds through a powder blue sky. The girl in the field—for she was only 15—hummed and dreamed as she ambled through her milch-cows, oblivious of the beast that stalked her in the dense copse of trees. But the two bulls in the herd knew caught its scent. When the reddish-gray beast leapt for the girl’s throat, they charged it, protecting their harem and the shrieking teen (1).
Hysterical, she relayed to the villagers the beast’s enormous size, its crushing jaws and slashing teeth, its supple tail, like a cat’s (2), the dun stripe down its back, and its evil yellow eyes. A wolf, yet not a wolf, she said. Perhaps…a werewolf. But after the span of a month or two, the girl who cried werewolf and her tale were dismissed as fable, and their children were sent out alone to tend the flocks. That’s when the slaughter truly started.
Fourteen-year-old Jeanne Boulet was the first victim (3). Next, a boy, then another child, and another. Lone men, women, and children—varying accounts documented 100 to 300 souls—were massacred one by one over a period of four years (4). The beast tore out their throats, decapitated others, ate the breasts of more, or just killed for pleasure. Terror gripped the region.
Huntsmen were sent, even by the King of France (2). Wolves were killed, one said to weigh 130 pounds (5), but to no avail. The carnage continued.
Finally, in the summer of 1769, the Marquis d’Apchier organized a hunt and hired Jean Chastel, a local innkeeper. It is said Chastel, a pious man, wore a silver (Ag) medal of the Virgin in his hat (6). He melted it into a bullet, and while stalking the wolf on the slopes of Mont Mouchet, killed La Bête du Gévaudan. When he cut the animal open, he found the remains of its last human victim (7).
So, what was this beast, really? Historians have suggested everything from a Eurasian wolf, an armored war dog, to an escaped panther, lion, or hyena. My favorite theories point to ancient extinct creatures: a bear dog (Amphicyonid) (8), dire wolf (Aenocyon dirus) (9), or Hyaenodon horridus (10). But the eeriest whispers are those that suggest Jean Chastel was the killer. And like serial murderers from Jack the Ripper to the Golden State Killer, Chastel manipulated those who tried to solve his crimes. But one thing is for certain. The epidemic of death that plagued the French countryside had finally stopped.
Or did Jean Chastel get better at hiding his murders? We probably won’t ever know.