Tarrare: The Man Who Ate Too Much

Mar 1, 2022 0 comments

If gluttony is a sin, then perhaps the worst offender was a man named Tarrare who lived in 18th century France. He had such an insatiable appetite that he would eat anything to suppress his hunger, even live cats and rotten corpses. He could devour his entire body weight worth of beef in a single day, and still be hungry.

Nobody remembers what Tarrare’s real name was, but everybody called him Tarrare. It is believed that his nickname was derived from the popular French expression “Bom-bom tarare” used at that time to describe powerful explosion, and it is speculated that the name could have been applied to Tarrare on account of his prodigious flatulence.

“Der Völler” by Georg Emmanuel Opiz.

Tarrare was born near Lyon in 1772. When he was in his teens, his parents threw him out of the house because he ate so much. For several years, Tarrare toured the country in the company of thieves and prostitutes, begging and stealing for food, before taking up employment with a traveling quack, swallowing stones, corks and live animals to draw a crowd. He would eat ravenously and was said to be particularly fond of snake meat. In 1788, he moved to Paris to work as a street performer doing similar stunts. After one such show, Tarrare suffered from severe intestinal obstruction and had to carried away to the hospital where he was treated with powerful laxatives. This experience might have stirred another person to give up such a perilous career, but not Tarrare. On the contrary, upon recovering, Tarrare offered to demonstrate his act by swallowing the surgeon's watch and chain. The surgeon was not amused and replied that he would cut Tarrare open to recover his possessions if he did so.

After the War of the First Coalition broke out, Tarrare signed up with the French Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately for him, military rations were not enough to satisfy his appetite. He began to carry out tasks for other soldiers in return for a share of their rations and scavenge on the dungheap for scraps. The military’s frugal diet left him with extreme exhaustion and he was admitted to a hospital. The doctors quadrupled his ration, but still he remained hungry. He lurked about looking for food in the gutters and dustbins, and would creep into the apothecary's room to eat the poultices. The military surgeons including Professor Percy, the surgeon-in-chief of the hospital, were so amazed at his appetite that he was ordered to stay at the hospital so that the doctors could study him more closely.

As part of an experiment to determine his capacity for food, Tarrare once ate a meal intended for 15 laborers, including two large meat pies, plates of grease and salt and four gallons of milk, and then immediately fell asleep. On another occasion, he was presented a live cat. Tarrare tore the cat's abdomen open with his teeth and drank its blood, and proceeded to eat the entire cat aside from its bones, before vomiting up its fur and skin. He also ate a variety of other animals including snakes, lizards and puppies. He also swallowed an entire eel without chewing, having first crushed its head with his teeth.

Despite his voracious appetite, Tarrare never seemed to put on weight. He was of slim build and of average height. During his teens, he weighed only 100 pounds. The only indication of his unusual diet was his mouth which was abnormally wide and the skin of his abdomen that would hung loose like a huge leather bag, which he could wrap round his waist. But after having eaten a hearty meal, his paunch could distend in a remarkable manner. Tarrare sweated profusely and was constantly surrounded by a stench so powerful that he “not be endured within the distance of twenty paces,” as Dr. Percy described. Tarrare would smell worse after he had eaten, his eyes and cheeks would become bloodshot, and a visible vapor would rise from his body.

After a few months in the hospital, the military board inquired how soon Tarrare might return to duty. But Dr. Percy, unwilling to lose such a fascinating subject, came up with a bizarre plan—use Tarrare to courier documents with his own body. Tarrare was asked to swallow a wooden box with a document inside. Two days later, the box was retrieved from his excrement, with both the box and the document in good condition. After the experiment was successfully repeated at the French army headquarters, Tarrare assumed a new role as a spy. His first task was to deliver a message to a French colonel held prisoner in a Prussian fortress.

Although the general knew Tarrare was a valuable asset, he still did not want to entrust him with any document of real importance. So the glutton was tricked into swallowing a simple note telling the imprisoned French colonel to send back, by the same messenger, all possible information about Prussian movements of troops. As the general suspected, Tarrare was captured outside the city of Landau. The poor Tarrare was strip-searched and whipped but he still did not betray his cargo, but the Prussians had ways of making prisoners talk and within 24 hours Tarrare relented and explained the scheme of things. Tarrare was taken to the latrine, and eventually, 30 hours after being swallowed, the wooden box emerged. When the Prussians read the message they were furious because they expected something far more important. Tarrare was given a beating and taken to the gallows, but called off the execution and let him go.

Terrified by the ordeal, Tarrare returned to the hospital and begged Dr. Percy to cure him. Unfortunately all the known methods tried—tincture of opium, sour wine, tobacco pills, and large quantities of soft-boiled eggs—had no effect on Tarrare’s appetite. Effort was made to keep Tarrare on controlled diet, but unable to suppress his hunger, he would sneak out of the hospital to scavenge for offal outside butchers' shops and fight stray dogs for carrion in gutters, alleys and rubbish heaps. He even drank the blood from other patients undergoing bloodletting, and several times he was caught trying to eat the corpses in the morgue. The other doctors complained that Tarrare should be committed to a lunatic asylum, but Percy insisted that he remained in the hospital. But when a 14-month-old child mysteriously disappeared, Tarrare became an immediate suspect. This time not even Percy was able to defend him, and the enraged doctors and porters chased Tarrare away.

Four years later, in 1798, Tarrare showed up at a hospital in Versailles. Percy went to see him and found him weak and bedridden. Tarrare told Percy that he had swallowed a golden fork two years earlier, which he believed was lodged inside him and causing his current weakness, but Percy recognized him as suffering from advanced tuberculosis. A month later, Tarrae was struck with terrible diarrhea. He died a few days later.

The corpse rotted pretty quickly, and the surgeons of the hospital were loathe to perform a dissection. However, the chief surgeon at the Versailles hospital overcame his disgust and opened up the cadaver. He found Tarrare's gullet to be abnormally wide and it filled the major part of the abdominal cavity. When his jaws were forced opened, surgeons could see down a broad canal into the stomach. No golden fork was found.

The cause of Tarrare’s extreme gluttony was never diagnosed. He may have been suffering from hyperthyroidism or some sort of endocrine disease. Polyphagia or abnormal hunger is one of the most common symptoms of diabetes mellitus, that causes a disruption in the body's ability to transfer glucose from food into energy. Intake of food causes glucose levels to rise without a corresponding increase in energy, which leads to a persistent sensation of hunger. Questions have also been raised about the validity of the claims, but Dr. Percy was the Chief Surgeon to the French Army, a university professor, inventor of important battlefield medical implements, and a highly reputable doctor whose personal documentation on Tarrare was considered credible enough at the time of their publication to be featured in reputable medical texts such as The Study of Medicine, Popular Physiology, and London Medical and Physical Journal.

Tarrare wasn’t the only such case in history. Less than thirty years after Tarrare died, a guy named Antoine Langulet was arrested by the Paris police and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane. A tall and lean fellow, a little under 170 pounds, Langulet was known to eat some of the most disgusting substances. “He liked putrid meat from a fly-blown cadaver better than a fresh beef steak. He spent the daytime lurking inside his humble abode, but after dusk, he ventured out to scavenge the streets, collecting offal and rotten meat from the gutters and stuffing his pockets with his foul-smelling treasures,” wrote Jan Bondeson in The two-headed boy, and other medical marvels. Bondeson also speaks of one Charles Domery, a French soldier, who had an equally voracious appetite. “While at an army camp outside Paris, Charles Domery had eaten 174 cats in a year's time,” wrote Bondeson. “Dogs and rats equally suffered from his merciless jaws, and he also ate 4 or 5 pounds of grass each day, if bread and meat were scarce. He liked raw meat better than cooked or boiled meat, and a raw bullock's liver was his favorite dish. When, in action on board a ship of the line, another sailor's leg was shot off by a cannon ball, Domery grasped it and began feeding heartily, until another mariner tore it away from him in disgust and threw it into the sea.”

Such extreme examples of polyphagia will perhaps no longer arise today due to the availability of modern diagnosis and cure.

# Jan Bondeson, The two-headed boy, and other medical marvels
# Bess Lovejoy, Tarrare, the Greatest Glutton of All Time, Mental Floss


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