The Beast of Gévaudan rambled about France (the Margeride Mountains, to be precise) for approximately three years, from 1764-1767, and is believed to have killed between 60 and 100 (even as many as 300+, according to estimates based on official documents) people by crushing and/or removing their heads. Little is known about the beast's origin or whether it was the only one of its kind (and if so, where did it come from? and if not, where did the rest go?), and it's a favorite and hotly contested topic for cryptozoologists and conspiracy theorists alike.
In appearance, the beast was said to resemble both a lion and a wolf, with a broad chest, a sinewy tail, and a head similar to a greyhound's, with small, straight ears and protruding eye teeth, or fangs. This particular beastie was usually about the size of a cow, had red or medium brown fur with a black stripe running the length of its back, and could jump, rumor holds, about 30 feet in the air (although this is most likely an exaggeration or error resulting from misreading its tracks).
The beast's mode of attack was unusual for a predator, focusing on the head and ignoring more obvious targets such as the throat or legs. It also seemed to have a fear and/or hatred of cattle: a good number of its reported attacks involved victims in fields where cattle or other farm animals were nearby, which also speaks to a preference of people over livestock. Several reports indicate that the beast did hunt with another animal, but never with human beings. The beast exihibited a strong preference for women and children, perhaps because they often worked in pairs or alone, which would make them easy targets, while men frequently used tools such as scythes that could easily be wielded as weapons, if necessary.
The first attack attributed to an animal fitting the above description occured on June 1st, 1764. The beast charged from a wooded area towards a woman traveling from Langogne, but bulls from a neighboring farm chased the beast away. Four weeks later, on June 30th, the body of Jeanne Boulet, the beast's first official victim, was found near Les Hubacs, not too far from Langogne. All told, estimates from official documents indicate a body count ranging from 198 to over 300, with the majority of victims dying shortly after attacks and only a scant few surviving.
In January of 1765, Jacques Portefaix and six friends were attacked by the beast and managed to fight it off by grouping together. They eventually hunted and killed an extremely large grey wolf, which they believed to be the cause of the attacks; awards, titles, money, and fame soon followed, up until the attack on two small children at la Besseyre Saint Mary on the second of December, 1765, which was attributed to the beast that Portefaix claimed to have vanquished. Dozens more attacks followed, the majority ending in death for the victims.
The successful hunt that led to the end of the attacks is attributed to local hunter, Jean Chastel, at the Sogne d'Auvers on June 19, 1767. Legend holds that Chastel sat down to read his Bible and pray, while the beast approached him and watched. Chastel stood up only after finishing his prayer, picked up his gun, and shot the beast, killing it. As the beast usually attacked on sight, some naysayers claimed that Chastel had participated in the slaughter with the beast, or was even responsible for training it, while the tale of the prayer was simply invented for romantic or religious reasons.
So what, precisely, was this beastie, in all actuality? Well, in all actuality, no one is particularly sure. Explanations include a werewolf guided by an evil sorcer, a wolf, a hyena, a wolf-dog hybrid, among others. Loren Coleman's Cryptozoology A to Z, page 35, mentions a taxidermist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Franz Jullien by name. Jullien found that an animal matching the description and "listed as shot by Jean Chastel, had been stuffed and was on display from 1766 to 1819. It had been definitely identified as an African striped hyena" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beast_of_gevaudan).
The Beast has been mentioned in works ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes to the TV show Animal X, and has inspired or been included in the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf, the novel Rogue Angel: Destiny, and the board game Nightmare. Clearly the animal is curious, but how, exactly, did a hyena (if Jullien is correct in his assumption) survive for three years or more in France, on its own, only noticed during its attacks? What was its history -- how did it appear in the Margeride Mountaints, and when, and was it truly without a master or companion? Of course, you, the would-be survivor, only care about how to dodge or defeat said beastie, but on occasion — perhaps too rare of an occasion — these questions are the route to finding the answers you seek. In any case, travel carefully and care a big stick, preferably one that shoots or comes with sharp, shiny attachments.
Questions, comments, criticism, praise — make a suggestion or contact the author at: meghan[dot]armes[at]gmail[dot]com, or the webmaster at: webmaster[at]projecthauntedhouse[dot]net.