Tarrare – The man with the insatiable appetite

17190722_424220004586754_4451093048173186664_n****WARNING- this post may contain some unpleasant descriptions for some.****

We all know that one person who seems to have a hollow leg. In this case, Tarrare really could eat anything and usually did. Tarrare was born around 1772 in France, and as a child was noted for being able to eat vast quantities of food. Despite this he was always hungry. His family was not rich and could not afford to feed him, so they kicked him out of the house when he was a teenager. Homeless, Tarrare traveled the French countryside and fell in with a band of thieves and prostitutes. Later he became the warm-up act for a traveling charlatan. His act consisted of swallowing corks, stones, live animals and a whole basket full of apples. later, he took this act to Paris where he worked as a street performer.

At the start of the War of the First Coalition, Tarrare joined the French Revolutionary Army. Much like his family before them, the army was not able to satisfy Tarrare’s vast hunger. To supplement his rations,he would eat any available food from gutters. His condition still caused him to deteriorate through hunger. Suffering from exhaustion, he was hospitalized and became the subject of a series of medical experiments to test his eating capacity, in which, among other things, he ate a meal intended for 15 people in a single sitting, ate live cats, snakes, lizards and puppies, and swallowed an eel whole without chewing.

He was described as having unusually soft fair hair and an abnormally wide mouth, in which his teeth were heavily stained and on which the lips were almost invisible. When he had not eaten, his skin would hang so loosely that he could wrap the fold of skin from his abdomen around his waist. When full, his abdomen would distend “like a huge balloon”. The skin of his cheeks was wrinkled and hung loosely, and when stretched out, he could hold twelve eggs or apples in his mouth. His body was hot to the touch and he sweated heavily, constantly suffering from foul body odor. His BO was so bad, he was described as stinking “to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces”. This smell would get noticeably worse after he had eaten, his eyes and cheeks would become bloodshot, a visible vapor would rise from his body. He would become lethargic, during which time he would belch noisily and his jaws would make swallowing motions. He suffered from chronic diarrhea, which was said to be “fetid beyond all conception”. Despite his large intake of food, he did not appear either to vomit excessively or to gain weight. He showed no signs of mental illness other than what was described as an apathetic temperament.

General Alexandre de Beauharnais decided to put Tarrare’s abilities to military use, and he was employed as a courier by the French army, with the intention that he would swallow documents, pass through enemy lines, and recover them from his stool once safely at his destination. Unfortunately he could not speak German, and on his first mission was captured by Prussian forces, severely beaten and underwent a mock execution before being returned to French lines.

Baron Percy's original paper on Tarrare's medical history, Mémoire sur la polyphagie (1805) (google images)

Baron Percy’s original paper on Tarrare’s medical history, Mémoire sur la polyphagie (1805) (google images)

Damaged by this experience, he agreed to submit to any procedure that would cure his appetite. He was treated with laudanum, tobacco pills, wine vinegar and soft-boiled eggs. The procedures failed, and doctors could not keep him on a controlled diet. Tarrare would sneak out of the hospital to scavenge in gutters, rubbish heaps and outside butchers’ shops, and attempted to drink the blood of other patients in the hospital and to eat the corpses in the hospital morgue. After being suspected of eating a toddler he was ejected from the hospital. He reappeared four years later in 1798 Versailles suffering from severe tuberculosis, and died shortly afterwards, following a lengthy bout of diarrhea.

The corpse rotted quickly and the surgeons of the hospital refused to dissect it. An autopsy was however done and Tarrare’s gullet was found to be abnormally wide and when his jaws were opened, surgeons could see down a broad canal into the stomach.His body was found to be filled with pus, his liver and gallbladder were abnormally large, and his stomach was enormous, covered in ulcers, and filling most of his abdominal cavity

Adela