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Wolves among us: Five 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.

Content warning: History was awful. This article touches on murder, mutilation, torture, incest and animal cruelty.

The Beast of Gévaudan

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17th century woodcut depicting a hunt for the Beast of Gévauda.

Public domain

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

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Werewolf devouring children, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1512.

Public domain

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 practised 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

A wolf in magistrate's clothing: 1685 woodcut of the wolf on display.

Public domain

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.

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Still from the 2004 film "Romasanta," starring Julian Sands as Manuel Blanco Romasanta.

Fantastic Factory

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.

The Werewolf of Bedburg

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Composite woodcut by artist Lukas Mayer depicting the events of Stumpp's torture and execution.

Public domain

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.