originally published August 3, 2014
Thankfully for us disciples of feckless fact and impractical information, the human body does not always cater to the limits of logic and science. We can always gawk upon the fortunate – or unfortunate – whose innards form their own rules, leaving their mark in the lore once mined by Ripley and Guinness and Barnum and other protectors of the peculiar. Immersing myself as I have in a mandated one thousand topics across the spectrum of mind-piquing knowledge, I was bound to run across a few of these folks.
Last December I wrote about Tarrare, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who ate his weight in food every day, and made his living on the proto-freak-show circuit, devouring live beasts before gaggles of open-jawed onlookers. The clinical term is polyphagia: an insatiable appetite, or a hunger that can’t be conquered. In Tarrare’s case, one can also account for a critical depravation of good taste, as anyone who eats a live snake before an audience is clearly disgusting as well as edacious.
Right around the time experts were prodding Tarrare with a stick, trying to figure out what made his insides work this way (and perhaps waiting to see if he’d eat the stick), another polyphagious man was making medical headlines. Charles Domery sold his patriotic soul and devoured everything he could find. He was a truly voracious eating machine.
Charles Domery was born in Benche, Poland (sorry – I couldn’t find a better picture of the place) around 1778. He was one of nine brothers, all of whom – according to Charles – shared the same unquashable appetite. Having lived through feeding one male teenager, I cannot fathom what sort of pre-industrial job the Domery patriarch must have held to afford to feed nine with such an appetite. But if the dinner table was a battleground in Charles’ youth, it showed no ill reflection upon his temperament. Those who knew him said he was a good egg.
Nor did his build reveal any signs of the perpetual motor-hum in his stomach. Charles was 6’3”, with long brown hair and cool grey eyes. He couldn’t read, but that was the norm in eighteenth-century Poland; Charles was observed as being of normal intelligence and showing no signs of mental illness. The guy just loved to eat. And whether spurned onward by patriotism, by hopes of a steadier influx of food or by his family who wanted less competition in the pantry, Charles joined up with the Prussian Army to do battle with France during the War of the First Coalition at age 13.
If Charles joined the army for the food, it was a miserable mistake. The Prussian Army was suffering from a food shortage at the time, which led Charles to abandon his post and march into the nearest French-controlled town to surrender. The French commander accepted his surrender, and handed him a melon, which Charles ate – rind and all. More food was brought in, all of which Charles devoured before the commander’s eyes.
Inspired by France’s legendary gustatory gusto, Charles reevaluated his principles and joined up with the French Revolutionary Army, where he was immediately granted double rations by his commanders. A Mr. Picard, who served with Charles around this time, claimed that 174 cats (minus skin and skeleton) met their fate in the murky caverns of Charles’ digestive system. Picard claims that it pained Charles to do it, but it was a necessity. The guy had to eat, and double-rations plus what he could buy on the side wasn’t enough. Sometimes he’d kill the cats first. Sometimes there simply wasn’t time.
Charles was also heavily into grass.
That’s right, not the grass your grandparents smoked whilst ruminating beneath the stars to the throbbing grooves of Big Brother and the Holding Company, but lawn-grass. Charles ate four or five pounds of the stuff every day. He wasn’t big into vegetables, but this easily-obtainable greenery was plentiful and space-filling. Charles would eat whatever he could. While sailing upon the French frigate Hoche, one of his compatriots’ legs was blown off by cannon fire. Charles grabbed hold of the loose limb and started chowing down before one of the other sailors snatched it away in disgust, throwing it overboard.
When Charles and his regiment were captured by the British Royal Navy in 1798, Charles became a medical spectacle. Guards gave him double rations, then triple, then quadruple, and eventually ten prisoners’ worth of rations every day. When that food ran out, Charles caught and ate the rats that wandered into his cell. He ate candles, unused medicine (with no ill effects) and the prison cat. He would even wash the food down with water, which was extremely ill-advised in war-torn areas, as water-borne diseases were rampant, and even prisoners of war were given beer, tea and diluted rum instead. But Charles snarfed it all down, and displayed nothing that could be viewed as a medical concern. Except for that damn appetite, of course.
The prison commander, fascinated and probably a little freaked out by this ravenous prisoner, had Charles treated by two doctors from the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. They wanted to see what Charles could handle. In one day, they fed him four pounds of raw cow’s udder, five pounds of raw beef, twelve candles, more beef, more candles, and a ridiculous amount of porter. At no time did Charles’ pulse rise, nor did he urinate, defecate or vomit. He was in a good mood and even danced a little – so maybe the porter had delivered a slight effect.
The doctors never figured out what made Charles so hungry, and also so physically capable of devouring an astounding mass of food and drink. Modern theories suggest hyperthyroidism, or possibly a damaged amygdala or ventromedial nucleus, which is where the party happens in the heart of the hypothalamus. Any of these could cause polyphagia, though apart from Charles and Tarrare, I can’t find any cases quite as severe. It’s possible that doctors’ observations were distorted, and the 200+ years separating their journals from our eyes leave absolutely no room for verification. After his imprisonment near Liverpool, no more was written of Charles; he ate his way into the fog of history.
Where are the modern Charles Domerys? Are there folks out there who suffer from a truly bottomless pit of hunger? Imagine the devastation someone like this could cause to Bonanza’s all-you-can-eat ribs night. From all accounts, Charles was a friendly and affable guy; his mood and persona were never affected by his appetite. You just wouldn’t want to invite him to dinner.