You can find stores of people transforming into werewolves in folklore, fiction, and pop culture—but there have been real people in various parts of the world who went down in history as lycanthropes. Here are a few of them.
1. PETER STUBBE // 1589
The only actual record of the case of Peter Stubbe (also spelled Stumpp or Stumpf), a.k.a. "the Werewolf of Bedburg," is a lurid pamphlet—supposedly a translation from some now-lost German original—that was circulated in London in 1590. According to the pamphlet (sic throughout), Stubbe—who "from his youth was greatly inclined to euill"—made a deal with the devil, requesting specifically to "woork his mallice on men, Women, and children, in the shape of some beast, wherby he might liue without dread or danger of life, and vnknowen to be the executor of any bloody enterprise, which he meant to commit." The devil gave him a belt, "which being put about him, he was straight transfourmed into the likenes of a gréedy deuouring Woolf,"
"strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkeled like vnto brandes of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharpe and cruell teeth, A huge body, and mightye pawes: And no sooner should he put off the same girdle, but presently he should appéere in his former shape, according to the pro∣portion of a man, as if he had neuer beene changed."
The pamphlet pegged Stubbe as a serial killer who murdered and sometimes ate his victims over a 25-year period. He was also accused of incest with his daughter as well as killing and eating his son. (Modern historians speculate that Stubbe was railroaded for political purposes, or to calm those who were terrified of the demons that were killing the townspeople.)
When he was captured, Stubbe told all about his deal with the devil and the magic belt that turned him into a wolf, confessing to murder, incest, and cannibalism. Stubbe's execution on October 31, 1589 in Bedburg, Germany was an exceptionally gruesome process: He was first lashed to a wheel, where the flesh was torn from his body with red-hot pincers; next, his arms and legs were broken; then, his head was chopped off; finally, his body was burned. Stubbe's girlfriend (a distant relative) and daughter, both accused of incest, were also tortured and then burned alive. After the executions, a wolf’s body was set up in public, its head replaced with Stubbe's, as a warning to anyone else contemplating lycanthropy.
2. JACQUES ROULET // 1598
What we known about Jacques Roulet—who was known as "The Werewolf of Angers" or "The Werewolf of Caud" after two French towns—comes to us via an 1865 account by Sabine Baring-Gould. The story goes like this: In 1598, the mutilated body of a teenage boy was discovered in the woods—and wolves were spotted nearby. Not far away, Roulet was found wounded and half-naked. After he was arrested and confessed to the murder, Roulet revealed that he was given a salve that transformed him into a wolf. The boy wasn't even his first kill, he said—he had murdered and eaten others. Unlike other cases, there appears to be no clear record of Roulet having been tortured into making a confession, and he did not confess to making a deal with the devil. Roulet was sentenced to death for murder, lycanthropy, and cannibalism, but after an appeal he was judged as mentally ill or "feeble-minded" and instead committed to an insane asylum and religious education for two years.
3. GILLES GARNIER // 1573
Circa 1572, in the town of Dole, France, several children went missing and were later found torn apart in the woods. That autumn (timeline and accounts vary), townspeople were charged with finding the werewolf responsible. In November, a hunting group witnessed a wild animal attack on a child, and someone recognized that the beast had features that resembled the local hermit, Gilles Garnier. A week later, when another child disappeared, Garnier and his wife were arrested. Fifty witnesses testified against Garnier, and he was put on the rack. He confessed to being a lycanthrope and to hunting, killing, and eating children who ventured into the woods, saying that he shared the meat with his wife. In January 1573, Garnier was burned at the stake. Modern speculation is that Garnier was guilty of murder and cannibalism (he likely found children easier to catch than wildlife), but the werewolf confession is attributed to either mental illness or torture.
4. AND 5. PIERRE BOURGOT AND MICHEL VERDUN // 1521
The Werewolves of Poligny were three men accused of lycanthropy in France in 1521. Someone was traveling through the area when they were attacked by a wolf. The traveler injured the wolf, then tracked it to Michel Verdun’s house, where Verdun was found dripping blood. He was arrested, and under torture not only confessed to being a werewolf, but implicated Pierre Bourgot and Philibert Montot. Bourgot in turn confessed, and told a tale of making a deal with three mysterious men dressed in black to protect his sheep. Bourgot said he only found out later that the deal entailed renouncing God and his baptism. He said in the years that followed, Michael Verdun gave him an ointment that turned him into a wolf, and together they killed at least two children. It's not clear whether Philibert Montot ever confessed, but he was executed along with the other two accused werewolves.
6. THE WOLF OF ANSBACH // 1685
One notorious werewolf case involved an actual wolf. In 1685, the Principality of Ansbach (now a district in Germany) was part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was plagued by a wolf that preyed on livestock—and eventually moved on to eating people. The citizens thought they were being terrorized by a werewolf, and they knew exactly who it was: Their unnamed, hated (and dead) mayor who had returned in the guise of a wolf. A hunting party with dogs drove the wolf into a well, where it was killed. Still believing it was a werewolf, the citizens chopped off the wolf's nose, dressed it in a man's clothing, added a human mask, and hung the body from a pole (you can see a drawing from the hanging here). The carcass was later installed in a local museum.
7. VSESLAV OF POLOTSK // 1044
Vseslav was the ruler of Polotsk, a region that is now part of Belarus, from 1044 to 1101 CE. History records him as a strong leader and warrior, but he was also said to be a sorcerer. (In fact, in Russian literature, he's called Vseslav the Sorcerer.) Soon after his death, he was referred to as a werewolf in folktales; this reputation was recorded in the Old Slavic poem "The Tale of Igor's Campaign," in which the prince was said to race from town to town as a wolf.
8. HANS THE WEREWOLF // 1651
Dozens of people were accused of supernatural crimes in a series of witch and werewolf trials that took place in 17th century Estonia. One 18-year-old named Hans was convicted of both lycanthropy and witchcraft. Though he denied making a pact with the devil, Hans admitted that he had been a werewolf for two years, and had become one of the beasts after he was bitten by a man dressed in black who was, of course, a werewolf himself. The court decided Hans must have made a satanic deal, which made him guilty of witchcraft as well. The teenager was put to death.
A version of this story appeared in 2011.