The Insatiable Tarrare

I first laid eyes on the man known as Tarrare in a Parisian side street in 1789. 

“Monsieur,” he said, “care to see me eat this rat?”

I did not wish to see such a thing, but before I could utter my resistance, this bizarre man – with sagging jowls that betrayed his youth – unhinged his jaw like a snake and clamped down upon the head of the poor creature. 

Like any respectable gentleman, I squealed and fled, only to find this monster pursue me, with gleeful shouts comparing my buttocks to that of a juicy rump steak. 

I lost the predator in the near by crowds and made it back to my lodgings in one piece, where I recounted the tale to my Landlady. 

“Oh, that was just Monsieur Tarrare,” she said, “he was a spy once.” 

Thus, my interest was piqued, and from the safety of my room, I began to unravel the tale of the mysterious Tarrare.

The Life of Tarrare

At the time of his birth, no one expected Tarrare’s life to be worth of note. As such, his date of birth, and indeed, his name have gone unrecorded in any official documents, although he was known to be born near Lyon, France in approximately 1772. 

Tarrare, as he came to be known, was reportedly quite normal at birth, and were it not for his enormous appetite, it may have stayed that way. By the time Tarrare was a teenager, he could demolish his own weight in beef in a single day. Being an average 18th century family, his parents were unable to sustain his need for enormous quantities of food, and promptly kicked him out of the family home.

Terrare spent the next portion of his life among a travelling gang of rather nefarious folk, before taking advantage of the 18th century’s merry exploitation of “human oddities” and made the most of his freakish appetite as a street performer. Here, Terrare would wow the public with his ability to eat a variety of indigestible things, including pieces of metal, stone and even live animals.

By this time, he’d made his way to Paris and he gained a modest amount of fame, chowing down on whatever the crowds provided. This wasn’t without risk however, and on at least one occasion, he was brought to the hospital due to internal obstructions.

From Showman To Soldier

Alas, the outbreak of war in Europe cut Tarrare’s follies short, and he joined the French Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately, military rations are not the most extravagant of feasts, and Tarrare began to struggle. During this time, he fought his own war with his insatiable hunger, and exchanged tasks for a portion of other’s rations, and even took to scavenging piles of waste for the odd scrap of undigested food.

This was not a mental affliction for Tarrare, as this drastic decrease in sustenance lead him to being brought to a military hospital, suffering from extreme exhaustion. Here, he was allowed the rations of four men, but like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, he was STILL hungry. As such, he took to scavenging through trash for an extra morsel and hospital staff needed to restrain him during mealtimes, lest he loose himself to a feeding frenzy. 

Tarrare’s appetite was so extraordinary, that the military physicians forgot all about the war and focused on understanding how – and why – the young Tarrare needed to eat so damn much. 

They began a series of experiments, to what I assume was Tarrare’s absolute delight,

During one experiment, the doctors had acquired a meal intended to feed 15 nearby labourers, and presented it to Tarrare, who quickly demolished the entire thing, including four gallons of milk, and swiftly fell asleep. In another experiment, the doctors offered Tarrare a live cat, which he tore open with his teeth and proceeded to eat all but the bones, before vomiting up its fur and skin.

Despite all this, there was still a war to be fought, and the doctors were pressured to give their very hungry soldier back to the army. Spotting an opportunity that would allow them to continue investigating Tarrare, the doctors suggested that his bizarre ability may be put to good use.

Attempted Espionage 

Who would have guessed that the rock eating street performer would one day be used to carry secret war plans beyond enemy lines? Tarrare certainly didn’t, but never the less, he found himself behind enemy lines, disguised as a Prussian peasant, with a wooden box in his stomach. Inside the box, was a message he believed to be of top-secret military importance, which he was to deliver to a captive French colonel. In reality, the message was a note, asking the captured man to confirm the strange method of infiltration had worked, and to respond with any illicit details he had learnt in his captivity. 

Unfortunately, Tarrare wasn’t much of a spy, and was quickly captured, although he refused to speak a word of his mission, despite a fierce whipping by enemy soldiers. He was brought before the Prussian commander and still refused to talk. Alas, 24 hours later, with what I can only assume to be an extremely uncomfortable stomach, Tarrare relented, and gave up the plan. “The Plan” itself was not given up by Tarrare’s bowels until a few hours later, during which time he was chained to a toilet. 

Upon finding the “top-secret military intelligence” Tarrare had promised them, the commander flew into a rage and demanded the strange box eating Frenchman be hanged. Upon the gallows, with the noose around his neck and probably crying like a baby, Tarrare must have elicited some pity in the commander, who at the last minute, spared his life in return for a good beating and sent him back to France under the condition that he never try anything so silly ever again. 

Back To France

As can be expected, Tarrare was done being a soldier. Upon his return to France, he arrived back at the hospital and begged to be cured, but unfortunately, all attempts to control his eating failed. The doctors tried pills, laudanum and even a diet consisting of only soft boiled eggs, but it was no use. These all failed, and any attempt to keep Tarrare on a strict diet was met with his sneaking away from the hospital to scavenge the surrounding gutters for food. He’d eat offal from outside butcher shops and even fight stray dogs for scraps.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the worst that Tarrare would do for a bite to eat. Back in the hospital, he was caught on several occasions attempting to drink the blood of other patients undergoing bloodletting and even trying to eat corpses in the hospital morgue. 

Hospital staff had had enough of Tarrare’s antics, and insisted his problems were mental and demand he be transferred to a psychiatric hospital, but Pierre-François Percy, the surgeon-in-chief at the hospital and Tarrare’s doctor, insisted he stay with them.

That was until a fourteen month old baby went missing. 

All fingers pointed to Tarrare, and he fled from the hospital, never to return.

Four years later, Tarrare died of tuberculosis, although he believed his illness was due to a golden fork he’d swallowed two years earlier.

Appearance and Causes 

Tarrare’s appearance was a strange one. Despite the copious amount of food he ate, he was remarkably thin, never fluctuating in weight nor vomiting more than a regular man, although he suffered with constant diarrhoea. He was of average hight, and weighed around 7st 2lb (approx 100 pounds/45kg). His hair was fine and his mouth was wide – some reports estimate he could extend his jaw up to four inches, like a freakish human snake.

Once he was full, Tarrare’s abdomen bloated out “like a huge balloon,” reverting back to relative slimness some time later and leaving behind so much excess skin that he could wrap it around his waist.

Another of Terrare’s most prominent features was his odour. Doctors described him as “stinking to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces”. This smell would worsen when he ate. He was often coated with sweat, and was incredibly hot to touch – if one could bare to get close enough to do so.

During his autopsy, his oesophagus, liver, stomach and gallbladder were found to be incredibly large. When doctors looked into his mouth, they are said to have been able to see straight into his stomacg, which was also covered in ulcers. A large part of his insides were pus-filled, leading his corpse to decompose quickly. 

This was the extent of the physical investigation, as the doctors – although used to the wide variety of stench a human body can produce – called a stop to the autopsy half way through, as they were unable to continue.

The autopsy did prove that Tarrare’s physique was unusual. His bizarre eating was not a symptom of a phycological problem, such as pica – a disorder characterised by the craving of non-foods.

Indeed, doctors today have hypothesised that he may have been suffering from a form of hyperthyroidism, which can produce symptoms such as an excessive appetite, fine hair and excess body heat, although the extent of Tarrare’s affliction has not been seen since. Interestingly,  a Polish soldier named Charles Domery, who was a contemporary of Tarrare, seemed to suffer a similar affliction. 

Many describe Tarrare’s condition as Polyphagia – an incessant hunger, leading to overeating – however, this is not a diagnosis in itself, and is a symptom of other conditions. Some have suggested that Tarrare suffered from damage to the amygdala, as injuries to this part of the brain can induce polyphagia. 

Unfortunately, time has prevented modern medicine from taking a closer look at the cause of Tarrare’s bizarre physique and insatiable hunger. Perhaps there was a concoction of things at play, seen only during the later half of the 18th century, that produced cases as extreme as his and Domery’s. 

As this is the extent of any medical research,  the cause of such insatiable appetites will forever remain a mystery.

-Dr LJ Hawthorn

Do you think Tarrare ate a baby?

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