There is an ancient anonymous rhyme which runs thus: Even he who is pure of heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the Moon is full and bright.

Werewolves - men and women who have been transfigured into wolf-like creatures - may seem nothing more than a grim folk tale from the Dark Ages, but long before the time of Christ, there were well-documented reports of sinister human-wolf hybrids being at large. Some of these creatures were said to have been ordinary people transformed through black magic into enormous wolves or fur-covered bipeds who retain some of their human characteristics. If only these reports were unreliable, sensational products of a superstitious or unbalanced mind; then we would be able to dismiss them. But a majority of the accounts and descriptions of werewolves come from level-headed soldiers, doctors and lawyers. The ways a man or woman can become a werewolf are not known with any certainty, but it was once claimed that eating the wolfbane plant or drinking from a stream from which a wolf has drunk will induce the transformation. Then there is the transforming power of the malevolent curse inflicted by those well versed in Occult science. This was thought to have been the case in 18th century France, when a libidinous nobleman named Count Getulio Vargo attacked a beautiful young gypsy woman near the Auvergne Mountains in southern central France. Count Vargo raped the 20-year-old woman one moonlit night but he was apprehended by her brothers as he dragged her by the hair through the woods. The brothers dealt the young nobleman a severe beating and chased him through the woodland. One of the Romany brothers swore a strange curse at the fleeing aristocrat, which seemed nonsensical. In the jinx, the gypsy said all of nature would be against the count; all the animals would turn against him and that he would never rest. The lustful count laughed nervously as he fled, but thirty minutes later, a wood chopper saw a strange grey-furred overgrown beast, like a wolf, but standing on its hind legs, watching him from a forest clearing. The beast roared and charged towards the woodman, who was too terrified to run. Thankfully, the huge animal - which was larger than a bear - ran past him and closed in on a caped figure who had been strolling down a lane. This figure was the Count Vargo, just five minutes away from his home. The lupine monstrosity seized its terror-struck human prey with its huge foaming jaws and shook the body as if it were a rag doll. The wood chopper suddenly regained the power of movement in his legs and ran off to the sanctuary of his abode, which was little more than a log cabin. As the woodman opened the door to his mountain home, his sole companion, an old Alsatian shepherd dog, bolted past its trembling master and ran off to the strange creature attacking the Count. The hound bit the rear of the ravenous beast, and the grizzled fiend reacted by twisting swiftly from the heavily lacerated body of the count. In one swift deadly reflexive movement, the monster tore out the throat of the old Alsatian with its powerful razor-toothed jaws. The wood chopper watched what happened next from a gap in the window shutters of his bolted home. The unidentified animal reared up on its hind legs and released a stomach-turning howl which echoed through the mountains. The animal then turned to face the woodman's dwelling, and for one heart stopping moment, the wood chopper expected the demonic bipedal brute to come for him, but the animal ran off into the forest. The wood chopper refused to budge from the safety of his home until well after dawn, when he finally ventured out with a wood axe to survey the carnage. His old dog lay in a wide pool of blood, but Count Vargo was still alive and moaning, despite a heavy loss of blood from a neck and chest wound. The wood chopper carried the nobleman to his wooden shack and then went to the count's brothers to tell them of the traumatic incident.

Count Vargo made a miraculous recovery, but a month later, he went missing from his home. His cook had thought it strange that during the past fortnight, the count had repeatedly asked him to undercook the meat and poultry of his meals. One of the servants had even witnessed the Count Vargo eating a raw leg of lamb in the pantry during the night.

The brothers of the count surmised he had been driven insane by his horrific encounter with the ursine-like monster, so they paid the local villagers to patrol the region, but the missing aristocrat was nowhere to be found.

Then one Sunday night a month later in June 1764, a bloodcurdling howl reverberated through the nearby Margeride Mountains in the neighboring district of Gevaudan, and so began a nightmare saga which is still talked about in that part of France to this day. The howling that caused the peasants of Gevaudan to shiver in their beds came from the Mercoire Forest near Langogne. One brave woman who went out to locate the eerie animal came upon a sight which was to haunt her for the rest of her life. She described the animal to the terrified villagers:

It was the size of a cow with a very wide chest, an enormous head and neck, pointed ears that were like erect horns. It's long snout was akin to that of a greyhound, and four long fangs protruded from the monster's mouth, which was foaming. The tail of the animal was long and very thin, and a black stripe ran from the space between the beast's eyes, along its back, down to the tail. It had big claws which looked like a man's hand only three times larger, and it's eyes glinted red and contained so much evil. For as long as I live I shall never forget the malicious way the creature regarded me. Those eyes were not those of an animal; they were the eyes of something that had once been a man. The woman went on to describe how the strange-looking animal had circled the cows, but two bulls had kept the creature at bay with their horns. After a few tense moments the freakish animal ran off at high speed in 30-foot bounds.

In the months following the sighting, the "Beast of Gevaudan" as it became known, went on a killing spree; and humans as well as livestock were the victims. The beast slaughtered men women and children in the region and often left the victims barely alive minus their torn-off limbs. The people of Gevaudan and the farming communities of the Margeride mountains barricaded themselves indoors as soon as twilight was falling, but the marauding beast still found more victims. One young milk maid was literally torn apart within twenty feet of her two brothers, who attempted to beat off the Beast of Gevaudan with cudgels studded with spikes, but it was useless. The animal seemed invulnerable and hardly reacted to the two men beating it on the head and back as the screaming woman's head was torn off by the lion-sized mouth. One of the brother's fled and the one who stood his ground had four fingers on his hand bit off by the Satanic creature. When the brothers returned at first light to the spot of the attack, they found the shredded corpse of their sister. It was only recognizable because of the ring visible on the remains of a mutilated hand. An old man who visited the site of the butchery trembled and remarked, 'This is not the work of a wild animal. It is the work of a werewolf. There were werewolves in these woods and mountains when I was a child.'

The elderly man's comments struck a chord of terror in the mind's of the people gathering to see the torn-apart remains of the milk maid.

On 8 October 1764, it became apparent that the Beast of Gevaudan was no ordinary animal when two professional hunters tracked down the animal and blasted it with powerful muskets from a mere ten paces. The Beast dropped but got quickly to its feet. The hunters reloaded their rifles and moved closer, thinking they would be able to finish it off, but after they fired at it again, the animal fell down for a few seconds then got up and ran into a wood. The hunters reloaded and gave chase. The men managed to discharge a two rounds into the animal, but the Beast of Gevaudan seemed impervious to the musket shot and escaped.

The hunters assured the terrified locals that the bloodthirsty creature had been fatally wounded and would be found dead soon.

Even more victims were killed by the demoniacal carnivore in the following week, bringing the death toll to forty. The Beast of Gevaudan generated so much mass hysteria with its horrific and audacious attacks, news of it's horrifying assaults reached the ears of a Captain Duhamel, who decided to draft 57 of his dragoons into the animal's killing grounds.

Forty men patrolled on foot and seventeen mounted soldiers scoured the countryside after dark, but still the Beast managed to carry out its horrifying attacks right under the dragoon's noses. Duhamel was greatly embarrassed by the boldness of the creature, and added fuel to the werewolf rumor by saying that the Beast of Gevaudan suspiciously showed an almost human intelligence, which made him ponder upon it's nature.

Even when the cracksmen of the dragoons had fired repeatedly at the Beast, it seemed invulnerable and simply turned to run without suffering a scratch. This seemed to back up the claims of a deranged local peasant suffering from religious mania who warned the people of the region that Beelzebub had been sent among them as the Beast as punishment for their iniquities. The news of the eerie ravenous animal spread throughout France and the other countries of Europe, and soon every professional and amateur hunter was converging on Gevaudan, spurred on by the promise of a large reward which had been put up by the farmers being terrorized by the voracious killer. King Louis XV was mortified by the failure of the dragoons to kill the Beast of Gevaudan, so he enlisted the services of a man named Denneval who was reputed to be the greatest wolf hunter in Europe. Denneval had killed 1,200 wolves during his career and was said to have an almost supernatural talent for tracking down animals. The hunter turned up at Gevaudan in February 1765 with six of his best bloodhounds and attempted to track down the Beast, but the dogs became quivering wrecks and began to yelp when they approached the area where the creature had been recently seen.

A month afterwards, the Beast carried out a particularly violent attack on the Denis family of Malzieu. Julienne and Jeanne, the young daughters of Farmer Denis were looking after the livestock in a field with their 16 year-old brother Jacques, when the Beast came out of hiding and struck.

Jeanne, Jacques 20-year-old sister suddenly let out a scream. The boy turned from the fire he had just lit in the field and saw the enormous wolf-like animal seizing his sister's head with its jaws. Jacques was so enraged by the animal's attempt to kill his sister, he ran over to it and somehow managed to grab the animal by its throat and pull it away from Jeanne, who was screaming hysterically.

Jacques squeezed the Beast's throat as hard as he could, and the animal snapped at him with its enormous mouth, but the muscular young farm hand used his fear and anger and summoned an inner strength. He threw the Beast onto the fire he'd just built and the animal howled in agony than ran off back to where it had sprung from.

Jeanne Denis was still screaming with blood pouring from too deep perforations behind each ear, made by the fangs of the Beast. Jacques tried to calm his older sister down but she never recovered from the attack and went insane.

A month later, the gruesome remains of a woman and her child were found in a wood. The grisly find incited Denneval to track down the creature, but it always seemed one step ahead of him and continued to evade capture.

In April 1765, the Beast approached a nobleman called de la Chaumette and acted very strange. De la Chaumette said the animal wagged its tail as if to exhibit some sort of affection for him. It whined and approached the nobleman, who was on horseback, but he reacted by firing his pistol at the creature. It ran off and kept glancing back before it vanished into a wood. That same day the Beast was seen crossing a ravine just a mile from the curious encounter with de la Chaumette.

Around this time, an old Jesuit priest made a startling accusation about de la Chaumette's placid encounter with the Beast of Gevaudan. The priest maintained that he had discovered that the Beast had been the nobleman's close friend Count Vargo in the form of a werewolf; that was why the animal acted so affectionately towards de la Chaumette.

De la Chaumette was outraged by the holy man's claim, but secretly confided to friends that the Jesuit might have hit on the awful truth behind the Beast of Gevaudan. After all, no one had yet been able to find the missing count. The Jesuit was later interrogated by de la Chaumette, who was curious how the Roman Catholic priest had deduced that Count Vargo was the Beast of Gevaudan, but the elderly divine would only say that he could no longer comment on his allegation because his superiors had instructed him to refrain from discussing werewolves and other unholy creatures.

In May 1765, the creature terrorizing Gevaudan killed people in one day and also killed the rumors that the Beast had been killed by troops. The King of France had been confidently informed by his emissary Denneval that the creature had been killed and was probably lying dead in a wood. When the King heard that the Beast was still at large and again on the rampage, Denneval was unceremoniously sacked by the monarch, and Antoine de Beauterne, the King's personal gun carrier was assigned to rid Gevaudan of its monster.

De Beauterne was more methodical in his pursuit of the Beast. He drew up detailed maps of Gevaudan, analyzed the common routes the animal took on its people-hunting expeditions, and hatched meticulous plans to entrap the creature. All the plans hinged on a gut feeling de Beauterne had about a ravine in the area which he suspected of being the Beast's lair. By 21 September of that year, the plans were ready and rehearsed to a tee. Forty hunters and a dozen dogs encircled the Beal ravine. The circle of men and canine's closed in slowly, and sure enough, the Beast appeared in a clearing. It turned slowly, surveying the armed men closing in as they beat the thicket with canes. The hunting dogs barked furiously at the unearthly creature, which was looking desperately for a break in the human link to make its escape. Suddenly, the Beast charged at one of the hunters but Antoine de Beauterne shouldered his heavy caliber musket and fired. The shot blasted the Beast's eyeball open and exited through its skull.

Another shot from a gunman struck the animal in its right shoulder. The Beast reared up on its two legs, then fell down. One of the hunters cheered and sounded on his horn in triumph.

Then the Beast got up with blood dripping from its eye socket. It bounded at de Beauterne, but another hunter shot it in its thigh. The animal yelped and turned towards a break in the circle, then raced off to make its escape. Antoine de Beauterne and the hunters watched in disbelief as the ultra-resilient creature once again cheated death and evaded capture, but this time the animal was too seriously wounded, and as it ran off, it stumbled and fell. It refused to get up again, and when the hunters gathered around the Beast with their muskets trained on it, they saw that the animal was motionless. At last, the Beast of Gevaudan was dead.

The carcass was measured and weighed. It was over six feet in length and weighed 143 pounds. No one could decide just what the animal was, although some naturalists claimed it was a rare type of overgrown wolf. The Beast of Gevaudan was stuffed and taken to the King's court. It was later exhibited at the Museum of natural History at Paris, but was lost at the beginning of the 20th century.

The people of Gevaudan regarded Antoine de Beauterne as their savior, and were almost ready to venerate him as a saint, but in the winter of 1766, something started killing and mutilating the locals again. The word went round that the Beast had been resurrected, while other rumors had it that there was a family of werewolves at large in the area.

In the summer of that year, several villagers from Gevaudan made a pilgrimage to Notre Dame de Beaulieu, which was located at the foot of Mount Chauvet. After celebrating mass and taking holy communion, the pilgrims had a gun and several cartridges they had brought along blessed. When they returned to Gevaudan, a man named Jean Chastel was given the blessed gun and cartridges to kill the new Beast. This took place on 19 June 1767 at the scene of the last Beast-slaying - the Beal ravine. Chastel read out passages from the Bible, and everyone present heard the rustling of leaves. An enormous animal which looked identical to the Beast came out of the shadows of a wood and stood staring at Chastel. The latter raised his blessed musket and ammunition and pointed it at the creature. After saying 'You will kill no more,' he opened fire and hit the animal in the head. The gigantic wolf-like animal fell dead instantly. Some accounts say the second Beast was thrown on a bonfire, and that on the spot where it was killed, the grass still refuses to grow.

Count Vargo was never found, and his fate remains a mystery.

� Tom Slemen

This story reproduced with permission from Tom Slemen

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