HomeLegendsWolves Among Us: Real-Life Werewolves From History

Wolves Among Us: Real-Life Werewolves From History

These days werewolves can be fun, exciting and even a little sexy, but in early modern period Europe, they were deemed a very real and dangerous threat.

Werewolf accusations were not entirely uncommon in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Werewolf and witch hysteria sort of developed in tandem. Indeed, some people were even accused of both. Such accusations, and the subsequent confessions and executions, were often politically expedient. But sometimes the fear was absolutely warranted, whether the danger lurked clad in the fur of a wolf or the clothes of a man.

Here, in celebration of Halloween, are five of the most famous werewolves from history.

The Beast of Gévaudan

What Was the Beast of Gévaudan? - HISTORY

In the 18th century, the former French province of Gévaudan was terrorised by the so-called La Bête du Gévaudan (The Beast of Gévaudan). The Beast was first spotted by a woman tending cattle in the forest near Langogne in June. Her bulls scared it off, but not long after it attacked and killed a 14-year-old girl. Over the ensuing months, sightings and attacks mounted.

Those who had seen the Beast described a large wolf with unusual red fur streaked with black. And it was prolific. According to a 1980 study, there were 210 attacks in all, 113 of which were fatal.

In 1765, King Louis XV decreed that the French state would help slay the beast.

When the appointed professional wolf hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François failed to kill the Beast, the king sent Lieutenant of the Hunt François Antoine instead. Antoine slayed three giant grey wolves, yet the attacks still continued.

It wasn’t until a local hunter named Jean Chastel shot a wolf on June 19, 1767 that the attacks were declared over.

Nowadays, it is thought that the Beast of Gévaudan wasn’t a single wolf at all, but many individual wolves. When France went on a wolf-killing rampage, these wolves were slain, one by one, until none were left and the attacks abated. Not that killer wolves were unusual. According to historian Jean-Marc Moriceau, some 7,600 people were killed by wolves in France between 1362 and 1918.

The Livonian Werewolf

Old Thiess, a Livonian Werewolf by Carlo Ginzburg & Bruce Lincoln review |  The TLS

Werewolf confessions could be quite peculiar. Take Thiess of Kaltenbrun. Living in Swedish Livonia in the 17th century, Thiess was widely believed among his neighbours to be a werewolf who had dealings with the Devil.

Local authorities didn’t much care. After all, Thiess was in his eighties. What harm could he do with a few tall tales? But when they brought him in for questioning on an unrelated matter in 1691, he voluntarily began divulging details of his werewolf lifestyle… although with many inconsistencies.

According to his account, Thiess had given up lycanthropy 10 years prior to his appearance before the judges in 1691. Before that, he and other werewolves would change into wolves on St Lucia’s Day, Pentecost and Midsummer Night by donning magical wolf pelts (although he later changed his story and said they just stripped naked and turned into wolves).

They would then maraud the countryside, killing farm animals and cooking and eating them (when asked how wolves cooked meat, he declared they were still human, not wolves).

His story only grew stranger. He claimed that werewolves were the agents of God, and would travel to hell to battle the Devil and his witches, bringing back grain and livestock the witches had stolen. In fact, he said, he had done so just one year earlier, contradicting his earlier claim of having renounced lycanthropy.

When it was revealed that Thiess was not a devout Lutheran, and indeed practiced a form of folk magic involving charms and blessings, the judges ordered Thiess flogged and exiled. What happened to the strange chap after that is unknown.

The Wolf of Ansbach

The Werewolf of Ansbach | Bizzarro Bazar

In 1685, a wolf was terrorising and killing humans in the town of Neuses in the Principality of Ansbach in what is now Germany. This was not unusual, but the town’s chief magistrate Michale Leicht, had just died. He was a cruel and unpopular man, and it was said that the wolf visited Leicht’s residence, so it was only a small leap for people to claim the wolf was Leicht, returned as a werewolf for his sins.

The wolf’s death was not terribly eventful. The people organised a hunt and chased the wolf into a well and killed it. What they did with its body is pretty macabre, though. They paraded it through the streets, then prepared it for display. They cut off its muzzle, dressed it in human clothes and placed a wig on its head and a mask on its face, so that it resembled Leicht. They then hung the body from a gibbet so that everyone might enjoy the sight.

After, some time, the wolf was removed from the gibbet, and its corpse preserved and put on permanent display at a local museum. Because that’s not weird or creepy at all.

The Werewolf of Allariz

Widely thought of as Spain’s first ever serial killer, Manuel Blanco Romasanta is unusual for a werewolf, operating late in the mid-19th century.

Actually, Romasanta was an unusual case in a few ways. Born in 1809, he had been raised as a girl until about the age of six, at which point doctors discovered he was male. He grew up, married and worked as a tailor. When his wife died in 1833, he took up the travelling salesman trade, also guiding travellers around Spain and Portugal.

His first known murder was Vicente Fernández, the constable of León. Fernández was found dead in 1844 after attempting to collect a debt from Romasanta. Rather than face the law, Romasanta fled to Portugal.

During this time, he murdered several people who had hired him as a guide. He was not a cunning man. Romasanta was noticed selling their clothes, and rumours started to circulate that he was selling soap made with human fat. A complaint was lodged and Romasanta was arrested.

He confessed to 13 murders, but here is where it gets wolfish. He said he had been cursed with lycanthropy. But upon being asked to demonstrate his transformation abilities, Romasanta declared that the curse had passed and he was no longer afflicted.

He was actually acquitted of four of the deaths. Those, forensic examination found, had been committed by real wolves. However, he was found guilty of the rest. A phrenological examination of Romasanta by doctors determined that he had invented his “curse”, and he was sentenced to death. This was commuted to life imprisonment on the request of a French hypnotist, who believed that Romasanta was suffering a delusion and petitioned a stay of execution so that he might study the man.

An 1863 newspaper reported that Romasanta passed away that year in prison from stomach cancer.

Manuel Blanco Romasanta: The Werewolf of Allariz – THE BLACK SPAIN

The Werewolf of Bedburg

Peter Stumpp: The Werewolf of Bedburg – The Dark Histories Podcast

One of the most famous werewolf cases is Peter Stumpp, a wealthy farmer accused of being a serial murderer, cannibal and werewolf in Rhineland in 1589.

In the years preceding Stumpp’s arrest, the country town of Bedburg had been plagued with horrors. It started with dead and mutilated cattle, but bodies of townsfolk were also soon found in the fields. Initially, it was thought that a wolf or wolves were attacking, but the creatures evaded capture. Finally, in 1589, a hunting party managed to corner the wolf with its hounds. When the humans approached, they saw, according to reports, not a wolf at all. Instead, the hounds had cornered Stumpp.

The most damning piece of evidence was that Stumpp’s left hand had been lopped off. The wolf had had its left forepaw cut off. Since wolf and man had the same injury, wolf and man must be one and the same.

Stumpp confessed, but it’s a questionable confession at best. He had been subjected to torture, including the rack. He said he’d made a pact with the devil when he was 12. He had been given a magic belt which allowed him to turn into a wolf. He confessed to killing 14 children and 2 pregnant women. He ate of their flesh and ravished their bodies. He killed his own son, and had a sexual relationship with his own daughter.

He was sentenced to die in the most awful manner. He was fixed to a breaking wheel, and had flesh torn from his body with red-hot pincers. His limbs were broken with the blunt side of an axe so he might not rise from the grave. Finally, he was beheaded. His head was placed on a pole with the figures of a breaking wheel and a wolf on it, as a warning to others.

His daughter and mistress were also flayed, strangled and burned.

It is not known whether the crimes were truly committed by Stumpp. At the time, the region was deeply affected by the Cologne War. Stumpp was a Protestant convert, and the region had been seized by the Catholics in 1857. His death was to the Catholics’ advantage, as his considerable wealth would fall to them. In addition, Stumpp’s death could have served as a strong warning to other Protestants.

Jacques Roulet

12 ‘Real’ Werewolf Cases Throughout History

Jacques Roulet was convicted of lycanthropy in Angers, Western France, in 1598. One day, an archer of the Provost’s company and some peasants happened upon the nude and hideously mutilated body of a 15-year-old boy. The blood-soaked limbs were seen still to be palpitating, and so it was deduced that this was a fresh kill. As the men approached further, two wolves were startled and seen to bound away into nearby bushes. Since they were armed and numerous, the group decided to give chase through the thick undergrowth. Nevertheless, they were not prepared for what happened next.

A tall and gaunt figure of a man, with long, straggly hair and a great beard, half-dressed in torn rags, strode forth to meet them. His hands were bloody, and beneath his fingernails were lumps of human gore. So revolting a sight was the man that the group could scarcely muster the courage to seize and bind him, but they eventually succeeded in dragging him to the local town, where he was presented before the magistrate. It transpired that the man was Jacques Roulet, a vagabond who traveled begging from town to town with his brother, Jean, and cousin, Julien.

Jacques confessed to Maître Pierre Hérrault, examining him, that he was devoted to the devil at a young age by his parents. They had given him a special unguent that allowed him to transform into a wolf with a prodigious appetite for human flesh. Of the incident recounted above, Jacques revealed that the two wolves seen feeding on the carcass were his relatives, Jean and Julien. He confessed to having killed and devoured children, in the company of his brother and cousin, across the areas in which he was accustomed to travel. He also confessed to attending witch’s sabbats.

Jacques gave precise dates and times for his crimes, which were found to tally exactly with records of missing children and those supposed to have been killed by actual wolves. Unsurprisingly, Jacques received the death penalty for werewolfism, cannibalism, and murder, though his accused parents were found to be of good character and released. However, this tale then took an unexpected turn: Jacques appealed against his conviction to the Parliament of Paris. Protesting that his confession had been given under duress, the Parliament decided that he was insane, and instead sentenced him to 2 years in a mental institution.

Perhaps Jacques was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and, doubtless, as in nigh-on, all werewolf and witchcraft cases were tortured to extract his confession. The inquisitors could simply refer to records of deaths in the area, and force him to admit to the crimes. It is noteworthy, though, that the Parliament decided that he was mad rather than blaming his confession on the terrible torture he suffered, which is typical of attitudes towards torture in 16th-century Europe. It has even been speculated that the mysterious unguent was a hallucinogen, leading to a series of wild delusions.

Gilles Garnier

12 ‘Real’ Werewolf Cases Throughout History

Gilles Garnier, ‘the Hermit of Dole’, was convicted of lycanthropy and executed at Dole, Eastern France, in 1573. Our source for his life and crimes is another contemporary pamphlet, printed at Sens in 1574. Taking the form of a wolf, in 1572 Garnier first attacked a 10-year-old girl in a vineyard near Dole, and dragged her into the adjoining Bois de la Serre. There he stripped her naked and ate the flesh from her thighs and arms. He then removed some more of her flesh and carried it to his wife, Apolline, to eat at their shared hermitage.

Soon after, he attacked another young girl in more or less the same place. This time he killed her and wounded her in 5 places, but was chased off by three men before he could start his meal. A week later, he again attacked this time a boy in another vineyard, whom he partially consumed before tearing off a leg for later. His next crime proved his eventual undoing: having killed another young boy and dragged him to the woods, Garnier was surprised at his intended meal, and after retreating a distance resumed his human form, leading to his identification.

Disgusted by the remains of half-eaten children in the district, the Parliament of Franche-Comté issued a decree in 1573 which demanded that werewolves be hunted down by locals and brought to trial. However, it was not these huntsmen who caught Garnier but a group of workers who incidentally came across the hermit crouched over a dead child one night after returning from work. They initially thought the figure in the shadows was a werewolf, but as the light from their torches illuminated it, they identified Garnier. Acting quickly, the men caught Garnier and took him to the magistrates at Dole.

Garnier was, of course, tortured to extract a confession. He explained that he had spent much of his life as a hermit in the St Bonnot woods. He married in 1572, and fathered children, but struggled with the new task of feeding more than one mouth. Desperately foraging one night in the woods, a specter appeared to him and offered him an unguent that could turn him into a wolf, allowing him to hunt more effectively. He confessed to murdering 4 children, supported by the testimony of over 50 witnesses, and was burned alive at the stake.

Hans the Werewolf

12 ‘Real’ Werewolf Cases Throughout History

Hans the Werewolf was active in Estonia until his execution in 1651. He has the unhappy distinction of being the youngest person executed for lycanthropy on this list, being only 18 at the time. Estonia and much of the Baltic were especially rich hunting grounds for witchfinders, as the peasantry were still practicing paganism (and associated folk-magic) into the Early Modern period, and thus often accused one another of casting spells. The God-fearing authorities interpreted such acts and accusations as Satanic witchcraft, and many were put to death. The peasantry also believed wholeheartedly in werewolves, to the detriment of many.

Brought before the judges, Hans made his confession without the need for torture. He admitted to having hunted as a werewolf for 2 years but had not taken on the form willingly. Instead, he claimed to have been bitten by a man wearing black garments, whom he later discovered to be a werewolf. The judges took the opportunity to ask so unusually pliable a werewolf for further detail about his condition. Hans explained that when in wolf-form he felt more like a wild beast than a man, and that he believed the transformation to be physical, not just spiritual.

Although there was no evidence of Hans committing any murders, he was still sentenced to death. The detail of the werewolf dressed in black that bit him was taken to be evidence of pact witchcraft – punishable by death – with the mysterious figure being Satan himself. At his trial, Hans showed the court a scar from what appeared to be canine jaws, which he said was given to him by the werewolf. With hindsight, it is easy to see a teenager confessing to anything in order to escape torture, and showing the physical scars from a normal dog bite as proof.




5/5 (1 Review)

Most Popular

Recent Comments