On Silver Bullets, Werewolves, and Gévaudan

This reminds me, I must re-watch ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf’…

One of my YouTube subscriptions is Trey the Explainer, who does good stuff on history, natural history, evolution, and cryptid creatures, among other things. His latest Cryptid Profile is especially relevant to my interests, because it covers the ‘Beast of Gévaudan’, and I have by coincidence just finished helping with a forthcoming documentary about La Bête. I fully support his conclusion that this was a classic cryptid/social panic case, with anything and everything being identified/misidentified as the beast in question. It was very likely several wolves and/or wolf-dogs, possibly a hyena, possibly a lion or other escaped big cat, and possibly even all of the above. I won’t even rule out the suggestion of a human murderer or two in the mix somewhere. What it wasn’t was a single creature with a supernaturally hard or charmed hide. However, Trey gets a few facts wrong about werewolf and silver bullet mythology. Firstly, there’s no evidence that any of the creatures killed and recovered were actually dispatched with a silver bullet, and some good evidence that they weren’t (such as not being mentioned at all in period sources, notably an autopsy report). Suspected ‘Beasts’ WERE shot at with silver bullets but importantly, they apparently did not work. A Madame de Franquieres wrote to her daughter-in-law on the Beast:


‘The express sent to Aurillac relates that M. de Fontanges has had many encounters with the ferocious beast, of which you have no doubt heard, that traverses the Gevaudan. He has passed places where she often goes; he was forced to stay three days in the snow for fear of meeting her. She crosses, without wetting her feet, a river thirty-six feet wide. He claims that she can cover seven leagues in an hour. The peasants do not dare to go out into the country unless in groups of seven or eight. We can not find anyone to herd the sheep. She does not eat animals, only human flesh; men she eats the head and stomach, and women over the breasts. When she is hungry, she eats it all. We tried to shoot him with bullets of iron, lead, silver. Nothing can penetrate. We must hope that in the end we will overcome it.’

-M.”° de Franquières à M.”° de Bressac, Grenoble, 14 March 1765 – see the French original here (p.138).


This is supported by another source from 1862 (see here): that reports the use of ‘almost point blank’ folded silver coins, also to no apparent avail. Of course it’s possible that some poor wolf did slink away and die, but either wasn’t the Beast or wasn’t the only ‘Beast’ abroad at that time.

Trey is also under the impression that this incident is the source of the belief that silver bullets can kill werewolves. This is true insofar as there are no written accounts of silver bullet use against canids until Gévaudan, despite modern claims that the silver bullet aspect was only introduced in more modern times or even in fictionalised accounts. The source above proves otherwise. The story certainly helped to spread the idea and perpetuate it into the era of mass literacy and supernatural fiction. However, the idea that this is ground zero for silver bullets versus werewolves is untrue in the sense that the belief applied by no means just to werewolves, but rather to a range of supernatural or charmed targets (although as I’ve previously noted, not vampires until 1928). As such, it predates Gévaudan, meaning that there is in fact no source for the slaying of werewolves with silver bullets. For as long as silver bullets were ‘a thing’, they would have been seen as effective against werewolves or wolf-like supernatural beasts. I should note here that nowhere in the historical literature is the Beast of Gévaudan claimed to have been a loup-garou or werewolf. There are no accounts of it shifting shape, no accusations made of any people suspected to be the Beast. However, historians have noted in period reports werewolf traits such as a foul stench, unusually long claws and teeth, ‘haunting’, ‘sparkling’ or glowing eyes, and an erect posture (see Jay Smith’s ‘Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast’, p.21).

So where does the silver bullet myth come from? The oldest references that I’ve found are in Scots and American poems (1801 and 1806 respectively), and relate to yet another class of supernatural being, albeit one with close ties to the werewolf; that of the witch. The very earliest is the 1801 Scots poem ‘A Hunt’ by James Thomson:


‘Quoth he, “I doubt there’s something in’t, Ye’re no’ a hare.

Then in he pat a silver crucky [sixpence],

And says, “Have at ye now, auld lucky ;

Although ye were the de’il’s ain chucky,

Or yet himsell, If it but touch of you a nucky,

It will you fell.”’


The sacred cross on the face of the penny was significant. Other accounts mention that the projectile has actively been blessed. A Swedish story from the Gösta Berlings Saga mentions bullets cast from a church bell. But the silver itself seems to have had a divine and magical significance, one that stretches back to ancient times (notably the Delphic Oracle, see this fantastic collection of references). In the German folk tale ‘The Two Brothers’ for example, the witch is shot at with three ordinary silver buttons.

My next source, ‘The Country Lovers‘ (published by Thomas Green Fessenden in 1804) comes from the United States:


‘And how a witch, in shape of owl,

Did steal her neighbour’s geese, sir,

And turkies too, and other fowl,

When people did not please her.

Yankee doodle, &c.

And how a man, one dismal night,

Shot her, with silver bullet,*

And then she flew straight out of sight,

As fast as she could pull it.

Yankee doodle, &c.

How Widow Wunks was sick next day,

The parson went to view her, And saw the very place, they say,

Where foresaid ball went through her !

Yankee doodle, Sec.

*There is a tale among the ghost-hunters, in New England, that silver bullets will be fatal to witches, when those of lead would not avail.


More Germanic folklore, recorded in 1852 (Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Folklore, Vol.III, p.27), related that a witch, if shot with silver, would receive a wound that would not heal, and would have to resume its human form. Witches were commonly thought to shapeshift into animal form, hence the overlap with the werewolf. The ‘Witch of Schleswig’ was also known as ‘The Werewolf of Husby’,

Beyond witches, silver bullets might help against other entities. One story includes a shot used against the magic itself rather than the offending creature’s body; in this case a group of fairies;


‘In a Norse tale, a man whose bride is about to be carried off by Huldre-folk, rescues her by shooting over her head a pistol loaded with a silver bullet. This has the effect of dissolving the witchery; and he is forthwith enabled to seize her and gallop off, not unpursued.’


Frank C. Brown recorded (from North Carolina) a variety of uses of silver (bullet and otherwise) against black magic of all sorts. Ghosts are also associated with silver bullets, as in Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of a Traveller’, Vol.2 (1825), which references a (fictional) pirate ghost. Collections/indices of American folklore also reference ghosts as well as witches (e.g. ‘Kentucky Superstitions’ (1920).

However, the very oldest written accounts were made in reference to ordinary human beings that have been protected (or have protected themselves) by magical charms. These were known as ‘hardmen’, and were typically powerful or noteworthy men with a literal aura about them. One such was John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, who led the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘Tales of My Landlord’ (1816, p.69):


‘Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power.’


The same went for 17th/18th century Bulgarian rebel leader ‘Delyo’, and ‘…an Austrian governor of Greifswald, on whom the Swedes had fired more than twenty balls, could only be shot by the inherited silver button that a soldier carried in his pocket’ (see here). The oldest of all pertains to an alleged 1678 attempt upon the life of English King Charles II.

My point is really that the whole silver bullet myth is misunderstood today. It’s not like the wooden stake that’s specific to vampires or, for that matter, wolfsbane for wolves, conkers for spiders (yes, that’s a genuine belief too). The silver bullet is not specific to werewolves, vampires, or any other target. It is really an apotropaic – it works against magic itself, whether negating the charm of protection around a corporeal enemy, dispelling a ghostly apparition, or breaking fairy magic to free a captive. It’s the ultimate in supernatural self-defence, but it’s only a footnote in the story of the Beast of Gévaudan. It neither originated with the Beast, nor killed it. 




‘We ride at once to rebellious Stoke, where it is my sworn intent to approach the city walls,
bare my broad buttocks, and shout, “Behold! I honor thee most highly!”’

I really like the ‘Horrible Histories’ TV series. I wasn’t quite sold on the books – too many one-liners – nor Terry Deary’s apparent disdain for actual historians. But the TV version is much funnier and, like the books, no doubt helps get youngsters into history. It does drop the ball sometimes, notably for me the repetition of the Charles I Tower of London ravens myth (I must cover that one soon). I don’t see why with a bit more effort, you couldn’t run the exact same sketches, but instead of the little pop-up flag saying ‘TRUE!’ and ‘THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED!’ you couldn’t have one that said ‘MYTH!’ or ‘UNCONFIRMED!’ or something. The stories are still part of history, but that way you could introduce some critical thinking for children.

Anyway, I was particularly interested in their version of ‘the Witch of Brandon’ story, featured in a repeated episode I saw recently. Here’s a version from the BBC’s Emma Borley in 2004;

‘William knew that he had to act against this band of fen-men. He ordered many attacks on the Isle of Ely, with little success (even going so far as to employ a witch, who bared her bottom at William’s foe in an act of repulsion!).’

I had to check that out, because I wanted it to be true, but it did sound like a garbling of some pretty early medieval history. So a win-win for me really. Guess what? It’s a real piece of history;

‘The twelfth-century Gesta Herewardi, a legend of the historical Hereward the Wake, tells of a witch of the Fens who offended her pursuers by muttering incantations while baring her backside at them (ch. xxv).’

That’s from Cambridge University’s Press’s ‘A Social History of England, 900–1200’ (p.407). I should point out the word ‘legend’ in that source, and qualify my phrase ‘real piece of history’. I’m afraid that even here there’s an historian to throw a spanner in the works. Anthony Davies, who also references the incident, suspects that it was made up to make William look bad for employing witchcraft against pious Christians.

Still, it’s still genuine medieval history with a traceable primary source being conveyed here, even if the incident itself may not have happened quite as painted. Well done ‘Horrible Histories’; just keep an eye on the ball and maybe take a leaf out of QI’s book.

If she weighs the same as a duck…

The ad-hoc witch trial in \

I see that a recent petition to have Britain’s “last witch” pardoned (not, as this piece claims, all those convicted as witches), has been summarily dismissed by the Scottish Government. Although the petition itself attracted only 206 signatures, the comment from the politicians that the attempt “has no purpose whatsoever“, this might seem callous. Why not show compassion? Surely such people were innocent victims of superstition? Or perhaps even harmless self-identifying “wise women” or “cunning men” persecuted for their unorthodox beliefs? Well, many burned in Scotland before the 1735 Witchcraft Act was enacted were (the former at any rate). There is a separate petition (by the same man, to give him his due credit) to pardon those people. They are not who we are talking about here.

“S.-4 Whereby ignorant persons are frequently deluded and defrauded, if any person shall pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, he shall be exposed to penalties.”
from The Witchcraft Act 1735 (sounds reasonable to me)

I can’t emphasise this enough. Those prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act were not witches, and they were not unfortunate victims of gossip and personal vendetta, either. They were self-proclaimed mediums and clairvoyants; the Sylvia Browne and Colin Fry equivalents of their day. They weren’t “real” witches, they didn’t think of themselves as witches, and they weren’t seen as such either. At least, not until the tabloid press of the time got hold of the story. No, they were, according to sceptics such as myself, con-artists and charlatans. As, after more than 100 years of searching, there is no evidence whatever that contacting the dead or seeing the future is even possible, I feel that anyone claiming to be able to do so and charging to do so, must be able to put up or shut up. Preferably, with a hefty fine or custodial sentence. These people are preying on the bereaved, after all. As such, I feel any pardon for a person convicted under the original Act would require some sort of retrial, which would be extremely difficult to accomplish these 60 years later.

As you might have guessed, Full Moon Investigations, the paranormalist group that organised the petition, consists mostly of psychic mediums – Spiritualists. This was, as this Independent article suggests, a political move by a religious group; an attempt to legitimise what they do. And as far as I’m concerned, what they do is to take money from the vulnerable and bereaved using simple fairground tricks. The clear intention was to obtain a pardon for medium Helen Duncan as a validation of not only their religion (which shouldn’t even be at issue here) but more importantly, of their primary income stream. Parallel efforts to have all “witches” convicted under the act also pardoned can be seen as a way to appeal to the emotion of a public who will assume that this has to do with the unjust “witch mania” I refer to above. To re-iterate, people convicted under the act were not convicted of witchcraft – this was no longer possible in law as of 1735. They were convicted of pretending to engage in what was still at that time (1735) referred to as witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act was actually a successful reformation of the horrific acts of the preceding 200 years, carried out under the 1536 Witchcraft Act that gave its name, but not its contents, to the later Act. For more on this see Vanessa Chambers’ piece here.

Duncan with a \

“Medium” Helen Duncan with a wholly convincing materialised “spirit”

Back to the case of Helen Duncan, who had already been convicted of fraud in 1933. The evidence against her in the 1944 case was damning. A good account of her story is on the BBC website. Much is made of her alleged prediction in 1941 (post-sinking but pre-announcement) of the sinking of HMS Barham. This is usually claimed as the materialisation (in the manner common to the time) of the ectoplasmic form of a sailor with the ship’s name visible on his cap. I think even believers in the paranormal today would struggle with the notion that this might be possible, especially given all that we now know about physical mediumship (check out this BBC documentary on the subject). Duncan was not especially good at it (or at least, wasn’t worried about sceptics seeing photos of her cheesecloth ectoplasm). Perhaps the name on the prop hat-band she made for the seance was indeed the Barham’s. Perhaps she had really did have a hotline to the spirit world and just decided for some reason to fake the materialisation to get that information across? Perhaps she simply chose a lucky name? Or more likely, perhaps she had been told by a survivor or other sailor? Many other ships witnessed the Barham’s loss, and Portsmouth was the biggest naval base in the UK. It’s even possible that a loved one told her – next of kin were officially informed in December that year – the same month that Duncan’s seance occurred. However she actually became aware of the incident, Duncan must have known that to pre-empt the news would enhance her credibility. Oh, and remember that cap-band? Well, Royal Navy sailor’s caps post-1939 were not permitted to bear the name of the ship. They simply read “H.M.S.” as can be seen in this photograph of one of the sailors tragically lost when the Barham went down. Duncan may well not have appreciated this fact when she fabricated the cap used in the seance. All of this assumes that the claim is accurate in the first place. It seems there may be some doubt that a cap-band was even seen at the seance, and that Duncan may simply have used cold reading techniques to recover the ship’s name from the widow present:

Mrs Duncan did not give the name of the ship, but extracted it from the sitter.
From “Spiritualism a critical survey” by Simeon Edmunds, via this pdf.

In any case this Barham claim is a somewhat of a red herring as far as the safeness of her conviction is concerned, even if Duncan’s propensity for “loose lips” did attract the attention of the authorities. It wasn’t the Barham “leak” that got her busted; her arrest did not take place until three years later. It’s interesting also to note that Churchill himself (understandably) thought the case a waste of resources at a crucial tipping point in the War;

I would hope that the Prime Minister at time of war would have been in the loop regarding the need to stamp out dangerous gossip if that was the goal of the prosecution. Perhaps as mediums claim, he was simpy sympathetic to her cause. Regardless, her conviction was NOT for revealing state secrets, but for taking (a lot!) of money (from bereaved people) for non-existent occult services, which is exactly what the Witchcraft Act was designed to restrict, and certainly what it was interpreted to mean by the 1940s. With the rise of the Spiritualist movement, the Witchcraft Act was in danger of criminalising a large number of people. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle helped ensure that mediums perceived as genuine could practice without threat of prosecution by backing a change in the law; the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951. The shift of emphasis that this created meant that mediums, as long as they played it safe and did away with the spirit cabinets and muslin of the old days, were home free. Today, psychic mediums positively rake in the cash and the adulation using techniques that though obvious, are not possible to prove as fraud under the 1951 act. This month, this act will itself be repealed, by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2007. This is an umbrella piece of legislation intending to stop people being misled into parting with their money. Who could object to this? Well, the Spiritualists are justifiably concerned that they might once again be unable to charge money for their “services”. Of course, they are playing this down and crying “religious persecution”, as they frequently and loudly do, regardless of the facts in evidence. This petition was clearly part of this agenda to head off any curtailment of this multi-million pound industry.

It remains to be seen whether this will be better or worse than the Witchcraft or Fraudulent Medium acts, and for whom. Until we find out, I can’t put it any better than this, from Emma-Louise Rhodes of badpsychics.com;

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2007 will hopefully bring such acts of deceit to light and bring to justice those who have cruelly sought to exploit the bereaved and suffering for their own personal financial satisfaction.