originally published December 20, 2013
Every so often I come across a topic so bereft of logic and reason, so astoundingly zapped with surrealism and unfathomable strangeness, I feel I may as well be writing a piece of fiction. And while any tall tale from the eighteenth century is certainly subject to hyperbole and the exaggerated and skull-warping lens of loosely-transcribed anecdotery, this tale appears to be rooted in fact. Actual sources, like the London Medical & Physical Journal are cited. This guy was real.
The veracity of the specific details may merit some scrutiny, but I’m going to pour these words all over the page like freshly-squeezed fact-juice, letting the weirdness dribble down the sides of my screen and collect in a Technicolor puddle between my toes because this is a story that I need to tell, dammit.
This is the tale of Tarrare: eating machine, freedom fighter, unbelievably crappy spy, and possible cannibal. Had he lived in the modern era, he would have quickly graduated beyond circus freak into an internet sensation. He might have even dated a Kardashian. Or eaten one. Either way, it’s a hell of a story.
Decide for yourself how much of this you choose to believe.
Tarrare – and we only know him by that one name – was born in rural France sometime around 1772. He was a normal child, except for his voracious appetite. The kid could eat and eat and never find that plateau of satisfaction. In his teens he could reportedly devour a quarter of a bullock (that’s a steer, not a British testicle or the Oscar-winning Sandra) in a single day. That was his entire weight. I can’t imagine where he found the time, let alone the physical space.
His parents eventually had to jettison the kid from their home; they simply couldn’t afford to feed him. Tarrare hooked up with a travelling band of thieves and prostitutes – probably a delightfully motley gaggle of roustabouts, with whom he begged and stole and generally grifted his way around the country. He had a marketable skill though, and it was only a matter of time before a touring charlatan booked Tarrare as his opening act. The guy would pull in the gawkers as he swallowed corks, rocks, and an entire basket of apples one at a time. He would also chow down on live animals. He was particularly fond of snakes.
Tarrare was a slim young man, clocking in at around a hundred pounds when he was seventeen. He’d look almost emaciated before he ate, his skin hanging so loosely he could wrap it around his abdomen. But once he started in on the grub his belly would inflate like a pregnant balloon. It was as though he existed only to serve as a conduit for food. He sweated a lot, had loose-fitting, wrinkly skin around his abnormally wide mouth, and by all accounts he had a body odor that could cripple an otherwise healthy bison. Once he’d eaten, the stench would become unbearably worse. His cheeks would grow rosy and glowing, and he would become lethargic and wholly unmotivated.
It was a bizarre condition, one that modern medical science has not seen, at least not to this extent. One expert believes Tarrare might have suffered from an extreme form of polyphagia, which is an excessive hunger, perhaps due to a damaged amygdala. Hyperthyroidism is another possibility, but truly nothing can account for the extremeness of Tarrare’s condition. And if he’d possessed even a modicum of control as a travelling freak show, that flitted away quickly once he joined the army.
The French Revolution was splashing its sticky blood into every crevice of French society in the early 1790’s, and Tarrare felt the need to join up with the French Revolutionary Army when the War of the First Coalition broke out in 1792. This was when the other nations of Europe flipped their proverbial coins to decide whether to intervene and support Louis XVI, or whether to simply take advantage of an internally messed-up nemesis. Tarrare was of very little help, as his primary concern in the war was that his military rations were far too inadequate to match his appetite. He would trade favors with other troops in exchange for food, and when that wasn’t enough he’d scavenge in gutters and garbage containers for more.
Eventually he was overwhelmed by extreme exhaustion and admitted to the military hospital at Soultz-Haut-Rhin. He was assigned quadruple rations, but that wasn’t enough. In addition to what he could siphon from the garbage, he’d slip into the apothecary and gobble up the poultices – those medicated masses that are used to treat burns and inflamed skin. Eventually Drs. Courville and Percy decided they wanted to test out the limits of Tarrare’s appetite. They set up a meal for 15 laborers and let him loose. He ate the entire thing.
Hospital staff was astounded when Tarrare would eat complete animals, including lizards, snakes and puppies. On one occasion he bit into the abdomen of a live cat and ate every bit of the creature, apart from its bones. He barfed up the fur and skin, because you know… decorum.
The military decided that the best way to use Tarrare’s skill set would be as a military courier. He could swallow a note, wander across enemy lines, then poop it out and deliver it as needed. They tested him with a relatively insignificant document, sending him across Prussian lines disguised as a German peasant, headed for a French colonel who was imprisoned by Prussian forces. The problem was, Tarrare didn’t speak German. The plan was foiled right away, though Tarrare didn’t fold under whip-splashed questioning. He was locked in a prison cell for a whopping 24 hours before he confessed the plan.
Once the Prussian commander found the note, he was furious to discover there was nothing of importance therein. He ordered Tarrare to the gallows where a noose was slipped around his neck. He changed his mind at the last minute, ordered Tarrare beaten to a pulp, then had him deposited near the French lines. Tarrare returned to the hospital, where he pleaded with Dr. Percy to find a cure to his unquenchable hunger.
Percy tried laudanum, an opium tincture. Nothing. He tried wine vinegar and tobacco pills… nope. Even huge quantities of soft-boiled eggs (also known as the almost-Cool-Hand-Luke treatment), but that was no good. Tarrare snuck out of the hospital to the local butcher shop where he’d fight stray dogs for scraps and carrion. He was caught drinking the blood of patients who were receiving bloodletting treatments, even nibbling on the bodies in the morgue. Other doctors wanted Tarrare transferred to a lunatic asylum, despite the absence of any indicators of mental illness (except when it came to eating). When a 14-month-old child disappeared, Tarrare was suspected. That was when he was chased out the hospital doors.
Years later, Dr. Percy met up with Terrare in a Versailles hospital in 1798, where he was weakened by tuberculosis. The patient believed he was simply reacting to a golden fork he had eaten a few days earlier. A short while later, Terrare died due to continuous exudative diarrhea, quite possibly the most gruesome way a person can go. The autopsy revealed a lot of pus, a massive ulcer-covered stomach, but no answers as to what caused this medical anomaly known as Tarrare.
Also, no golden fork. A mystery within a mystery.