Likely one of the strangest figures in history was a man known only as Tarrare. A glutton, his ravenous appetite could not be satiated and he never gained weight although his abdomen became distended with each large “meal,” he toured the French countryside performing for anyone who would stop and watch as he gorged himself. Tarrare would eat large amounts of food and literally anything else that anyone asked him to ingest. Items ranged from pocket watches to cutlery and everything in between.
Although we are aware that the competitive eaters of today go through strenuous exercises to expand/stretch their stomachs in order to take in more food, the story of Tarrare is still unnerving and, ultimately, very strange indeed. Tarrare was certainly a medical anomaly and performed as a freak to support himself.
Born in France near Lyon around 1772, (his DOB is unrecorded and there is debate as to whether Tarrare was his real name or a nickname) Tarrare lived with his parents until his early teens. At this point, he could eat his weight in meat and his family just couldn’t manage to feed him. They forced him to leave. After this, he toured the country with a group of sex workers and thieves with whom he begged for and stole food. He eventually came upon a traveling charlatan who welcomed him into his show as an attraction. Tarrare would eat everything he could including refuse and stones. He would even eat live animals including live eels that he would consume whole and swallow basketfuls of apples one after another.
Around 1778, his work as a street performer brought him to Paris. In general, he had a successful career and drew fairly large crowds who would gawk and cheer until one of his acts went awry and he had to be carried to the Hotel-Dieu hospital by members of the crowd in order to have an intestinal obstruction removed. Powerful laxatives worked their magic and Tarrare was back in business, but not before he offered to swallow a surgeon’s watch and chain. The surgeon, M. Giraud, said that if Tarrare swallowed his belongings he would cut him open and recover the items himself.
Terrare’s eating habits didn’t affect his outward appearance at all. In fact, he was rather gaunt and at the age of 17 weighed in at a mere 100 lbs. His mouth is described as abnormally large and his teeth were heavily stained, no doubt from consuming pure refuse and other inedible items for show, and if he didn’t eat his skin would droop. His cheeks would sag and the skin of his stomach would deflate like a burst balloon. He could then wrap the skin completely around his waist like a flabby belt. Tarrare was essentially a combination of The Human Skeleton and The Elastic Man sideshow acts from early circus sideshows. In addition to these anomalies, Tarrare is also described as having a terrible odor that could be experienced from a distance of 40 paces, was always sweating heavily, and he was prone to terrible bouts of diarrhea. He would belch loudly, he would constantly swallow, and his eyes would become bloodshot if he didn’t eat. According to Wikipedia, “Hyperthyroidism can induce an extreme appetite, rapid weight loss, profuse sweating, and heat intolerance. […] Bondeson (2006) speculates that Tarrare had a damaged amygdala; it is known that injuries to the amygdala in animals can induce polyphagia.”
When war broke out in 1792, Tarrare enlisted in the French Revolutionary Army. The FRA was known for its revolutionary fervor, poor equipment, and large numbers and Tarrare threw himself into a life of military service. Unfortunately, food rations would not satisfy Tarrare’s seemingly endless hunger and, although other soldiers would offer Tarrare part of their ration in exchange for services, it just didn’t fill him up. He took to eating refuse and scavenged through dung heaps for scraps. Eventually, Tarrare was admitted to a military hospital because he was suffering extreme exhaustion. He was granted quadruple rations by hospital staff but still remained hungry and foraged in garbage cans and gutters, even leaving his bed at night to steal away into the apothecary cabinet and eat the poultices. Tarrare was ordered to stay in the military hospital and undergo psychological and physical evaluations devised by Dr. Courville (surgeon to the 9th Hussar Regiment) and George Didier, Baron Percy, surgeon-in-chief of the hospital. Courville and Percy would watch as Tarrare consumed every item placed in front of him. In one instance, a meal was prepared to consist of two large meat pies, plates of grease and salt, and four gallons of milk, though the impressiveness of this particular consumed item depends on the definition of a gallon for the time period. From savoringthepast.net (https://savoringthepast.net/2012/07/02/interpreting-measures/), “In other recipes, the word “gallon” was used as a measurement. Now, this is a good example of how nomenclature has changed through the years. If you live in the United States, you expect a gallon to hold 128 ounces of liquid. It’s a measure that was officially adopted in the early 19th century from the old “wine” or “Queen Anne” gallon. It’s volume capacity precisely holds 231 cubic inches. But the term “gallon” in the 18th century was likely the “ale gallon,” which had a capacity of approximately 277-1/4 cubic inches — approximately 20% larger than the wine gallon. The ale gallon held precisely 10-pounds of water at 62 degrees (F). This measure later morphed into the “Imperial Gallon” that is still used in Great Britain and Canada. In addition to the wine and ale gallon, there is the corn gallon. This measure is still occasionally used today to measure grain. In the 18th century, it was also used to measure flour and bread. Its capacity is 268.8 cubic inches, or 16% greater than the wine gallon.”
Regardless of how large the gallon might have been, that’s still a fuck of a lot of dairy. Just sayin’.
Tarrare was also given a variety of other items to consume including snakes, lizards, and puppies. It is said that Tarrare also ate a cat alive, stripping the flesh from its bones and eating it whole. He later vomited up the fur and skin. When given an eel, he ate it whole after crushing the creature’s head between his teeth. Percy wrote of this scene, “ The dogs and cats fled in terror at his aspect as if they had anticipated the kind of fate he was preparing for them.”
It wasn’t long before the military began asking for Tarrare to be released and put back on active duty. Percy had no choice but to allow his patient to leave as he could see no medical reason for the man to stay under his care. Dr. Courville, however, approached General Alexandre de Beauharnais and suggested that Tarrare might be an asset to the war effort. Courville placed a note inside a wooden box and instructed Tarrare to eat it. Two days later, the box emerged in Tarrare’s excrement and the document was still legible. Courville told de Beauharnais that Tarrare would make an excellent courier of sensitive documents as enemy forces would find nothing if they searched him and he could pass undetected through their checkpoints. And so, Tarrare became a spy. A spy that could only speak French, but a spy nonetheless. Let’s just say he was no James Bond. I think I would have had reservations about swallowing a box containing sensitive military information, but I’m not a professional glutton. Also, Tarrare was paid handsomely with a wheelbarrow full of 30 lbs of bull lungs, liver, and testicles as a reward so it’s not like he didn’t get anything out of the deal. Something tells me he did get diarrhea, but that’s neither here nor there.
So Tarrare was employed officially as a spy for the Army of the Rhine and was immediately sent on a covert operation. “Tarrare was ordered as his first assignment to carry a message to a French colonel imprisoned by the Prussians near Neustadt; he was told that the documents were of great military significance, but in reality de Beauharnais had merely written a note asking the colonel to confirm that the message had been received successfully and if so to return a reply of any potentially useful information about Prussian troop movements.” (Wikipedia) Tarrare made his way through Prussian lines in order to deliver the return message and dressed as a German peasant in order to blend into his surroundings. Remember how I said he wasn’t James Bond? Well, Tarrare couldn’t speak a lick of German so of course, he began to arouse suspicion with the locals who alerted Prussian authorities. He was almost immediately arrested, but even after hours of whipping, he refused to disclose his mission. It wasn’t until a full 24 hours later that he finally relented. “He was chained to a latrine, and eventually, 30 hours after being swallowed, the wooden box emerged. Zoegli was furious when the documents, which Tarrare had said contained vital intelligence, transpired only to be de Beauharnais’s dummy message, and Tarrare was taken to a gallows and the noose placed around his neck.” Some believe that Tarrare actually passed the box with the message, but retrieved it from his stool and ate it again. Yep.
“At the last minute, Zoegli relented, and Tarrare was taken down from the scaffold, given a severe beating, and released near the French lines.” (Wikipedia)
At this point, Tarrare was desperate to be free of military service and returned to Percy at the hospital. He begged Percy to find a cure for his relentless eating and Percy conceded. The doctor would feed Tarrare large amounts of soft boiled eggs, but this failed to suppress his appetite. If Tarrare smelled bad before, it was all downhill from here. Tarrare would leave the hospital and rummage through the garbage outside butcher shops and fight stray dogs for scraps in the gutters and rubbish heaps. Percy would catch Tarrare drinking the blood of patients who were undergoing bloodletting. Tarrare would also creep into the mortuary at night and consume body parts of deceased patients. Percy’s colleagues insisted that Tarrare was mentally ill and should be immediately committed to an asylum, but he refused to believe that he could not somehow help the man. It wasn’t until a 14-month-old boy went missing that Percy had had enough and demanded Tarrare leave the hospital and never return.
Four years later, in 1798, Percy would receive a call from M. Tessier of Versailles Hospital claiming that he had a patient in his care that was very ill. The patient had asked that Percy be called. The patient was Tarrare. Percy visited with Tarrare who was sure he was suffering what he believed was an intestinal blockage. He’d eaten a gold fork during one of his performances and, to the best of his knowledge, had not passed the item. One look at Tarrare was all Percy needed. Clearly, the man was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis and was not long for the world.
Tarrare passed away a month later. His corpse rotted so quickly and gave off such a stench that the doctors at the hospital refused to be anywhere near it. Tessler, however, dissected the remains because he still had a fork to find. Upon close examination, he found that he could open Tarrare’s mouth and see all the way down into his stomach. Additionally, his body was filled with pus and his liver and gallbladder were enlarged. His stomach was enormous and covered in ulcers, but Tessler could not find the fork inside Tarrare.
The story of Tarrare the glutton seems too fantastical to be believed, but there is evidence of another such individual capable of such grand consumption. A man named Charles Domery
“Charles Domery was a man born in Poland in 1778. Domery joined the Prussian army when he was young, but was very dissatisfied with the rations. He even went over to the French army just for the food. Once he went through all of the French’s food, he turned to cats. Reportedly, Domery ate 174 cats in a single year. Other unimaginable feats of his include eating 5 lbs (2.3 kg) of grass per day, and attempting to eat the severed leg of a fellow soldier. Domery’s incredible eating abilities is due to a medical condition called polyphagia, which involves excessive appetite. One time, the British army gave him the following items just to see if he could eat them: 10 lbs (4.5 kg) of meat, multiple bottles of wine, a raw cow’s udder, 2 lbs (0.9 kg) of candles. He did.” (Curiosity.com)
Were Tarrare and Domery one and the same? We will likely never know.
Your Fellow Haunt Head,
Tweet us @hauntheadscast
Facebook: Haunt Heads Podcast
Coming Soon: Instagram