The first victim of la Bête was a fourteen-year-old girl named Jeanne Boulet, killed in the summer of 1764 while she tended livestock near her village. Peasants back then knew that sheep and cattle sometimes drew hungry wolves and other predators, says historian Jay M. Smith. But a few weeks later, two more teenagers were killed the same way. A month after that, four people died, and word started to spread across France that a fearsome beast was on the loose in the hills of the small, south-central province called Gévaudan.

This went on for more than a year: people dying gruesome deaths, often out in the fields where there were no witnesses. Hunters failed to track the beast. The crown sent a military captain, a pair of professional wolf hunters, and finally the king’s lieutenant of the hunt to catch the beast. Newspapers followed the story closely. By the time the attacks petered out in 1767, the beast had struck more than two hundred times, killing (and eating) more than half of its victims.

“Almost certainly, it was a wolf, or wolves,” Smith says. “That’s what the physical evidence overwhelmingly points to.” On the shelf next to him is a thick volume; it catalogs the evidence for up to nine or ten thousand deaths by wolf attack in France between 1500 and the early nineteenth century. “The practice in France was to send women and adolescent children into the fields with the flocks and the herds,” he says. “So there were many frail and isolated people, usually armed with nothing more than a staff, available for hungry wolves.” The real question isn’t what killed them, Smith says—it’s why an episode that enthralled France for a year and even involved the crown has been shunted into the realm of folklore.

Today, the beast is known in France as a supposedly unsolved mystery. It’s fodder for cryptozoologists and for the tourism industry. But as part of the country’s history, the Beast of the Gévaudan might as well not exist. “At the time, the whole episode was densely documented,” Smith says. “The people involved—the hunters who were sent to kill it, the administrators of the region—left extensive correspondence, and the newspapers were full of stories. But it’s been almost entirely ignored by serious historians.”

Smith is an expert on eighteenth-century France, and he’d been studying the period for nearly two decades when he first learned about what had happened in the Gévaudan. He was at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, looking for images for a book he was writing on French nobility, when he stumbled across engravings depicting the beast. “Most of them had detailed captions, so as I sat there I was able to piece together this story that had held the attention of France for a year,” he says. “The images were so interesting that I was immediately drawn to the story—but I was also intrigued by my own ignorance, because why I’d never heard about this before was a mystery in itself.” He checked with other American historians of France; they had never heard about the beast, either. So he decided to write a book—not just to give the story its proper place in history, but also to figure out why it wasn’t already there.

National Library of France

If wolf attacks were so common in France, why would anyone have thought that the deaths in the Gévaudan were caused by anything more than ordinary, hungry wolves? From what Smith found, the episode has always been blamed—wrongly—on the superstitious peasants of the Gévaudan. As early as 1766, just months after the craze over the beast had died down, Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant bemoaned how easily “common country folk” had led “a substantial number of intelligent men to take a common wolf for a hyena … in spite of the fact that any sensible person could see that there are not likely to be any African predators prowling around the forests of France.” Over the next century, French intellectuals who wrote about the beast blamed irrational women and children for creating it. And the very few French historians who talked about the beast in the twentieth century described it as a magnification of peasant superstition.

That isn’t what happened at all, Smith says. “First, some peasants even at the time did say it was a wolf, and you get that report in the newspapers. They say it resembles a wolf, or it’s like a wolf but it has a longer tail, or something like that. Then you have these other reports that are more fantastic. It would have been easy enough, especially in a moment of terrible fright, to merge the characteristics of this large wolf with creatures that filled local lore, so there are some accounts that this may be a werewolf, or that witches are somehow involved.”

These more fantastic stories were a great opportunity for journalists who, Smith says, were looking for something gripping to fill pages that until the year before had been taken up with dramatic news of the Seven Years’ War against Britain. Apart from war news, papers of the time mainly ran boring accounts of political happenings in the European capitals. One editor in particular, François Morénas of the Courrier d’Avignon, was trying to distinguish his paper by breaking up the dry political news with human interest stories. “He saw early on that this story had real potential,” Smith says, “and he did pretty sensationalistic reporting in the fall of 1764 that spread the word and that got the attention of other journalists.” In those early months of the attacks, Morénas referred to the Gévaudan as “a theater of war,” compared the beast to the giants and hydras of Greek myth, and spread the story that it might be a hyena.

Not long after, the crown got behind the idea that there was something strange about the situation in the Gévaudan. Louis XV had good reason to pay attention to the beast, Smith says. The king’s reputation was in bad shape: he’d lost the Seven Years’ War, he had levied too many taxes on the provinces, and he was known for wasting his time with hunting and womanizing. He saw an opportunity to appear concerned for his people and took it, sending hunters and offering a large bounty for the beast.

The leader of the first group of hunters, Jean-Baptiste Duhamel, had been a French captain in the Seven Years’ War. During his time as a hunter of the beast he wrote constantly, Smith says, and he described the hunt for the Beast of the Gévaudan as a way to regain honor for himself and for the supreme commander during the war. He told the commander’s secretary: “I sincerely hope that I will be able to announce in my next letter … that the monster is no more, and that it was the dragoon company of His Serene Highness that put it to death.”

According to Smith, Duhamel did more than anyone else to spread the idea early on that the Beast of the Gévaudan was a fantastic creature. “He’d been commissioned to go find this thing, and for more than four months he was fighting through terrible conditions, braving the winter of the Gévaudan, and he was frustrated by this animal many times,” Smith says. “There was one episode, he said, where he had the beast in his sights and was about to shoot him, and his men came up behind him on horseback and startled the beast, and he was unable to get off a shot. That was, as he put it, ‘the most crushing disappointment of my life.’”

In the letters he wrote while leading the hunt, Duhamel really seems to have believed that the Beast of the Gévaudan was one creature, Smith says. “And he then perpetuated the idea that it was this particularly ghastly creature, to explain his failures and account for his own disappointments. He described the beast as this weird hybrid animal that was part horse, part lion, part hyena—jaws like a vise, six talons on its paws.” But the key thing that Duhamel did to perpetuate the story of the beast was fail, obviously and publicly. In February 1765, Duhamel led a hunt by thousands of villagers, who marched through a winter storm only to find no trace of the beast. This image “impressed even the most jaded readers of news,” Smith writes. Throughout France and beyond, people became hungry for any news from the Gévaudan.

Of course, if the beast could be used as a political tool, it could be used as a religious one as well. A powerful bishop in the area wrote to all his parishes warning that the beast was a monster “drawn from the arsenal of God’s anger to execute the death sentences that his justice has pronounced.” It would be easy now to dismiss the bishop as a superstitious crank, Smith says, but actually he was putting the beast to good use. The bishop belonged to a school of Catholic thought called Jansenism, which had been declared heretical by the Church because it was too close to Reformation ideas about human depravity and the grace of God. The bishop used the “scourge” of the beast as a pretext to set up special public prayers in the Jansenist style of worship.

Eventually, the beast started to outlive its usefulness, at least in the eyes of Louis XV. “The crown began to worry about the embarrassment that was being caused by this ongoing crisis that it was unable to solve,” Smith says. “From January through August, the crown had become very visibly engaged in the hunt, and they hadn’t been able to bring the tragedy to an end.” After Duhamel, another pair of hunters failed. That fall, more than a year after the attacks in the Gévaudan had begun, a fourth hunter sent by Louis XV killed an especially large wolf. Several victims confirmed that it had been their attacker—they were probably under a good bit of pressure to say what the king’s representative wanted to hear, Smith says. And so the animal was embalmed and sent to Versailles to be paraded before the king, even though, a civil servant later said, the surgeon who had examined the beast “saw nothing indicating that this animal had eaten human flesh.” In Versailles, “the recorded reactions to the show suggest that the beast fell short of expectations,” Smith writes. “Its appearance failed to dazzle.”

National Library of France

The crown used the wolf’s ordinary appearance to bring the saga of the beast to an end. The official paper Gazette de France stated: “The most experienced hunters have concluded that it was a true wolf that boasted nothing extraordinary, neither in its size nor in its composition.” After that, the paper stopped reporting on the attacks in the Gévaudan, which continued off and on for two more years. The other papers eventually either followed the Gazette’s lead, Smith says, or just decided that the public was tired of the story.

Fear of shame was a powerful motive for French intellectuals, Smith says. “They had either participated in the frenzy surrounding the beast or lent silent support by looking on and not offering skeptical words. Then they were embarrassed after it sank in that the killings probably resulted from wolf attacks.” Intellectuals in the following decades claimed that rumors from the villages had been to blame, but Smith found that the intellectuals themselves had helped create the climate that made a monster seem like a plausible theory. “Speculation about freakish or preposterous products of nature took place not on the margins of scientific inquiry but at its very center,” Smith writes. “From the late seventeenth century through the 1730s, the French Academy of Sciences showed an almost obsessive interest in monsters, those creatures defined as ‘contrary to the order of nature.’”

National Library of France

And the theory that the beast was an African hyena? Smith thinks that it probably came from a bestselling encyclopedia of natural history that was circulating around France at the time; physical descriptions of the beast-as-hyena read like those from the book. The author’s summary of hyena behavior probably encouraged this interpretation: hyenas were “extremely ferocious,” fond of digging up graves and breaking down stable doors and fences, and sometimes attacked men.

Having already been reinterpreted as a peasant fantasy, the real story of the beast couldn’t survive the nineteenth-century French emphasis on reason and progress. It might have disappeared from academic writing altogether, Smith says, except that late in the nineteenth century France started to idealize its preindustrial past. “Folklore emerges as an academic discipline then, and there’s this new interest in rural culture and peasants—the dress they wore, the farm implements they used, the stories they told, the crazy beliefs they had,” Smith says. “So the Beast of the Gévaudan, even though it’s a fairly complicated story, becomes just one more remnant of an archaic French past that doesn’t require much explaining, because it’s just an emanation of peasant superstition.”

Smith’s book, Monsters of the Gévaudan, will be coming out in early 2011. A historian friend who is French has warned him that French academics may be skeptical. To talk about the beast is to risk being grouped together with people who speculate that it was a human-trained, wolf-dog hybrid—or perhaps a Mesonychid, a wolflike species that’s been extinct for millions of years. Pretty much everyone agrees that the last thing the story of the beast needs is another theory.

Unless, maybe, it’s the right one.

Jay M. Smith is the John Van Seters Distinguished Term Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences. His book, Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, is being published by Harvard University Press.