You can find scores of people transforming into werewolves in folklore, books, and pop culture—and there have been a few cases in which real people went down in history as lycanthropes. Here are a few of them.
1. Peter Stubbe // 1589
The only written record of the case of Peter Stubbe, a.k.a. the Werewolf of Bedburg, is a lurid pamphlet that was circulated in London in 1590. Stubbe (also spelled Stumpp or Stumpf), who “from his youth was greatly inclined to euill,” made a deal with the devil and requested 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, his head was chopped off, and his body was burned. Stubbe’s girlfriend (a distant relative) and daughter, both accused of incest, were also tortured and burned alive. After the executions, a wolf’s body was set up in public, and its head replaced with Stubbe’s, as a warning to anyone else contemplating lycanthropy.
2. Jacques Roule // 1598
What we know about Jacques Roulet, called the Werewolf of Angers or the Werewolf of Caud (after two French towns), comes from an 1865 account by the antiquarian writer Sabine Baring-Gould. 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 in 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 mentally ill or and instead committed to an asylum and religious education for two years.
3. Gilles Garnier // 1573
About 1572, in the town of Dole, France, several children went missing and were later found torn apart in the woods. That autumn, 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. A traveler who had been attacked by a wolf tracked the injured animal to Michel Verdun’s house, where Verdun was found dripping blood. He was arrested and, under torture, confessed to being a werewolf and 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. Bourgot said in the years that followed that 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 believed they knew exactly who it was: Their unnamed, hated (and dead) mayor, who had returned to the world of the living 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. 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 named 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 citizen 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 was published in 2011; it has been updated for 2023.