Charles Domery, The Glutton

Nov 19, 2022 0 comments

In 1799, Doctor Thomas Cochrane, a surgeon at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, found in his care a man with the most unusual eating habits. The man, whose name was Charles Domery, had a voracious appetite, and would eat almost anything, including cats, dogs and rats, as well as candles and grass. While he was prisoner with the English at Liverpool, Domery shocked his captors by eating 16 pounds of raw cow's udder, raw beef and tallow candles and four bottles of porter, all of which he ate and drank without defecating, urinating, or vomiting.

The Glutton, 1813, Thomas Rowlandson.

“The eagerness with which he attacks his beef when his stomach is not gorged, resembles the voracity of a hungry wolf, tearing off and swallowing it with canine greediness,” wrote Dr J. Johnston, who was brought in to examine the man. He continued: “When his throat is dry from continued exercise, he lubricates it by stripping the grease off the candles between his teeth, which he generally finishes at three mouthfuls, and wrapping the wick like a ball, string and all, sends it after at a swallow.”

Charles Domery was born in Benche, Poland, in around 1778. He was one of nine brothers, all of whom Domery said had ravenous appetites. Even his father, Domery recalled, was a hearty eater and generally ate his meat half-boiled. The peculiar craving for food began when Domery was thirteen, and it only got worse as he became older.

Domery joined the Prussian Army at a young age, but constantly complained about the lack of food. Hunger drove him to switch sides and he joined the French Revolutionary Army. While with the French, Domery was granted double rations but still he starved. Once while at an army camp near Paris, Domery was recorded to have eaten 174 cats in a single year, leaving only the skins and bones, as well as 4 to 5 pounds of grass each day if other food was unavailable. Domery suffered from severe conflicts of interest when he killed the cats “by feeling the effects of their torments on his face and hand.” recalled fellow soldier M. Picard. He continued: “sometimes, he killed them before eating, but when very hungry, did not wait to perform this humane office.”

Domery liked to eat meat raw; he would vomit when fed roasted or boiled meat. His favorite meat was raw bullock's liver, but he would eat anything when he was hungry. Once when in service on board the French ship Hoche, a sailor's leg was blown off by cannon fire, and Domery grabbed the severed limb and proceeded to devour it until a disgusted crew member wrestled it out of his hands and threw it into the sea.

Despite his unusual diet, Domery was described as of normal build and tall for the period at 6 feet 3 inches. He had long, brown hair and grey eyes, was smooth-skinned, and was described as having a ‘pleasant countenance’. He showed no signs of mental illness, and no outward signs of ill health.

In 1798, Domery was captured by the British and imprisoned in a camp near Liverpool. After they witnessed Domery’s enormous appetite, they agreed to place him on double rations. These being insufficient, his rations were gradually increased until they reached the proportion consumed by ten men each day. Still, Domery was hungry. He ate the prison cat, and about twenty rats. Domery also ate the medicines of those prisoners in the camp's infirmary who refused to take them, suffering no adverse effects.

The prison commander turned Domery over to the Sick and Hurt Commissioners, who were responsible for all medical services in the Royal Navy as well as oversaw the welfare of prisoners of war. The doctors decided to conduct an experiment on him to determine how much he could actually consume.

On 17 September 1799, in the presences of Dr. J. Johnston and several other respectable persons, the experiment began. At four in the morning, Domery was woken up and fed 4 pounds of raw cow’s udder. At 9:30 am, he was given a meal of 5 pounds of raw beef, twelve large tallow candles totaling one pound, and a bottle of porter, all of which he consumed within one hour. At one o’clock, there was again put before him, 5 pounds of beef, a pound of candles, and three large bottles of porter. By two o’clock, Domery was seen chatting with two of his friends and was in good spirits. He had nearly finished the whole of the candles and a great part of the beef. At quarter past six, he had devoured the entire meal and declared that he could eat no more, and wished to retire to his prison cell. During the entire course of the experiment, Domery did not defecate, urinate or vomit at any point, his pulse remained regular and his skin remained cool. Before going to sleep, Domery danced, smoke his pipe and drank a further bottle of porter.

Domery usually went to sleep at about eight o’clock in the evening, and immediately after would begin to sweat profusely. After laying awake in bed perspiring for one or two hours, he would fall asleep, only to wake up at around one o’clock extremely hungry, regardless of what he had eaten before going to bed. At this time, he would eat whatever food was available, and if none was to be found, he would smoke tobacco. At about two o'clock, he would fall back to sleep and wake again at between five or six in the morning, sweating heavily. The sweating would cease, but start again once he started eating.

Domery’s case is nearly identical to that of his contemporary, the Frenchman Tarrare, who also had a rapacious appetite and loved to feast on raw meat and live cats and puppies. Like Domery, Tarrare also served the French army where he too became a subject of experiment. Unable to satiate his hunger, Tarrare would regularly escape from the hospital, and eat offal behind butcher shops or eat street cats and dogs. Several times he was caught trying to eat the corpses in the morgue. Then one day day, a 14-month-old child disappeared and Tarrare became an immediate suspect. He was driven out of the hospital and died of tuberculosis a few years later.

There have been a few other cases of polyphagia in modern times where subjects exhibited abnormal hunger, but none went to such extremes as devouring raw meat and live cats like Domery or Tarrare did. Neither men were properly diagnosed, and only Tarrare was autopsied. Domery disappeared after his release from prison.

Polyphagia is usually caused by hyperthyroidism that can give sufferers a fast metabolism and extreme hunger. Polyphagia (also known as hyperphagia) is also a sign of diabetes mellitus, that causes a disruption in the body's ability to transfer glucose from food into energy, which leads to a persistent sensation of hunger. Inflammation of the hypothalamus—the part of the brain that deals with hormones throughout the body—can also lead a person to become endlessly hungry and he will feed until he becomes obese. Similar gluttony was observed in cats whose amygdala, the center of emotions and motivation, was destroyed and the cat kept feeding until it became obese. Knocking out the vagal nerve receptors—which controls the heart, lungs, and digestive tract— has also been shown to cause polyphagia. There are a dozen more conditions including several congenital diseases that can cause a person to develop morbid appetites. Domery and Tarrare could have been suffering from any one of it.

# J. Johnston, "Account of a Man who lives upon large Quantities of raw Flesh", The London Medical and Physical Journal


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