Read more about Mysteries
The monstrous stories of history's 'real' werewolves
In every part of the world, the earliest known cultures all seem to have one type of legend in common – that of men, women, and children turning into animals. Our ancestors were fearful people and often these shapeshifters were considered a serious threat.
For centuries in Europe, with its deep, dark forests, the animal everyone was afraid of was the wolf. Thus, in European folklore, the superstition that abounded was that some people could transform into a wolf. The term ‘werewolf’ originates from the Old English ‘wer’ meaning ‘man’.
From the famous werewolf story by the first-century Roman author Gaius Petronius to modern films such as An American Werewolf in London, the werewolf has long been a favourite fictional monster.
But did werewolves actually exist? The five cases below are all alleged to have been true cases of ‘werewolfism’.
1. King John (1166-1216)
13th-century writer Gervase of Tilbury stated that werewolves were common in England in his day. He wrote, ‘It is certain there are men who at certain waxings of the moon are transformed into wolves.’
Strangely, Gervase wrote his book during the reign of King John of England and, according to an obscure legend, King John himself was a werewolf.
In 1185, the future King John travelled to Ossory, a kingdom of medieval Ireland that is now mainly in County Kilkenny. Several medieval accounts, including English and Norse, maintained that Ossory was a land full of werewolves. Gerald of Wales, a chronicler who accompanied John to Ireland, recorded meeting and chatting with werewolves while in Ossory a few years before.
It has been supposed (perhaps with more of a leap of imagination than any real evidence) that John mingled with werewolves. Walter Keating Kelly, in his 1863 book on folklore, said, ‘King John of England is said to have gone about as a werewolf after his death.’
2. The Werewolf of Dole (died 1574)
In January 1574, Gilles Garnier was convicted of ‘lycanthropy and witchcraft’ and burned alive at the stake. Garnier, a murderer and cannibal, came to be known as ‘The Werewolf of Dole’, after his hometown of Dole in eastern France.
For a few years before his execution, the town was plagued by the mysterious deaths and disappearances of local children. People suspected Garnier, the unlikeable loner who lived in an isolated house outside of town. One day, Garnier was allegedly caught in the act and arrested. His confession horrified the community as he said a ghost in the woods had given him a potion that allowed him to change into a wolf.
Garnier confessed that as a werewolf he hunted and attacked young children, killing and eating at least four. More than 50 of the Dole townsfolk testified at Garnier’s trial that he’d cannibalised innocent victims and was seen sometimes as a man and sometimes as a werewolf.
3. The Beast of Bedburg (c. 1535-1589)
Probably the most famous alleged ‘real’ werewolf in history is Peter Stumpp, born in around 1535 in the town of Bedburg, near Cologne.
An 1846 book describes Stumpp as having been ‘one of the sorcerers termed werewolves’, and it was for this and the crime of murder that he was tortured and broken on the wheel in 1589.
A lifelong practitioner of witchcraft and necromancy, his evil activities also included incest with his sister, with whom he fathered children.
Stumpp’s sorcery one day enabled him to invoke the Devil, who gave him a special ‘ointment’ and belt which, when worn, transformed him into a huge wolf the size of a bear. When Stumpp was in the form of the beast he’d hunt, kill, and feast on men, women, and children. He murdered at least 16 people, though the authorities at the time suspected he had slain many more. When he wanted to return to his human form, Stumpp would simply remove the belt.
When the werewolf couldn’t locate any human prey, he’d devour farm animals instead, tearing helpless sheep and goats apart with his huge razor-sharp teeth and claws.
4. The Demon Tailor (died 1598)
About 20 years after Gilles Garnier’s reign of terror, another werewolf was on the prowl 140 miles north of Dole.
Nicholas Damont was known as ‘The Demon Tailor of Châlons’ and was eventually executed for being a werewolf. Damont, like some kind of horrendous 16th-century Sweeney Todd, lured his young victims into his tailor’s shop, attacked them, and cut their throats. He was also believed to have murdered and devoured people as a werewolf in the forests around Châlons.
His shop was eventually raided by city officials and human remains were found in his cellar. His grisly confessions and court testimony sent shockwaves through France, and the case remains one of the most famous of the so-called ‘werewolf trials’ which abounded in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Like Garnier, the wicked tailor was condemned to the stake, where he was roasted alive in 1598.
5. The Welsh Werewolf (1790s)
In the 1790s, the wild countryside of North Wales was being terrorised by a savage beast – said to have been a werewolf.
The first report concerned a horse-drawn coach that was travelling one night on the road between the towns of Denbigh and Wrexham, with a full moon lighting the lonely road. Suddenly the coach was set upon by a monster, described as a huge black beast the size of one of the horses which it had attacked and torn apart.
In the winter of 1791, a farmer in the same area found a scene straight from a horror film – a mass of dead sheep that had been ripped apart. Massive paw prints, which appeared to belong to a huge animal of some kind, were seen leading to the bodies of the sheep.
This farmer apparently witnessed the werewolf ripping one of his sheep’s throats out and ran back to his farmhouse while being pursued by the werewolf. He recounted how the beast walked on its hind legs and peered at him through the windows of his house, after banging on the door. The farmer described the creature’s eyes as man-like.
In about 1798 the werewolf was reportedly seen again, allegedly murdering two men whose bodies were found savagely mutilated. After this, the sightings of the werewolf stopped, but locals continued to move carefully around the moors and forests by Denbigh, for fear of the lurking beast.