The story of the French showman Tarrare is one of the strangest in history.
We don’t know for sure whether Tarrare was his real name; we don’t know exactly where he was born, or what year. There are no pictures of him, just illustrations of what people believe he looked like.
What we do know: Tarrare was hungry for most of his life, and he could—and would—eat anything. He had superhuman eating abilities, which eventually resulted in his death. For years, his amazing talents captivated audiences across France, but Tarrare spent his last years searching desperately for a cure.
In any case, this is one story that you’re not going to want to miss (although you might hold off until after you’ve had lunch).
Tarrare was likely born in rural France some time around 1772.
He was a slim boy of average height, but his skin hung loosely around his sides. Contemporary accounts noted that Tarrare was sometimes capable of wrapping the skin from his abdomen around his waist. His biology changed considerably after he’d eaten; his belly would visibly fill up “like a huge balloon.” He also had abnormally wide jaws, and he’d demonstrate that feature by holding up to a dozen eggs in his mouth at one time.
Quickly, Tarrare became a burden on his parents. He was constantly hungry, and they simply couldn’t afford to feed him. Some sources claim that Tarrare was eating his own body weight every day (he weighed about 100 pounds at age 17).
Tarrare was forced from his home, and he joined up with a traveling con man. They’d put on a show, with Tarrare performing amazing gastronomical feats as the opening act.
Those shows were the stuff of legend. Fascinated crowds would watch with wonder and horror as he ate orks, basketfuls of apples, stones, and even live animals. They’d also hold their noses, as Tarrare was said to smell “to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces.” The smell would get much worse after he’d eaten, and Tarrare would become slow and apathetic as he neared the end of his act.
Soon, Tarrare began working on his own as a street performer.
He found audiences on the streets of Paris and was largely successful, although he suffered an intestinal obstruction some time around 1788. He was treated with laxatives at a local hospital and made a full recovery (he demonstrated that he was feeling better by offering to eat a surgeon’s watch).
But Tarrare’s life changed drastically when war broke out. He joined the French Revolutionary Army, where he quickly presented a problem to his commanding officers: Military rations were ineffective at curbing Tarrare’s massive appetite. While he was afforded four times the rations of his fellow soldiers, he was still hungry, and he’d eat leftover scraps of food to attempt to sate his strange affliction.
He was admitted to a military hospital, where the staff tested his hunger by presenting him with live animals. He ate them (the animals, not the staff).
Naturally, someone attempted to militarize Tarrare’s hunger. He was made into a military courier, but his methods were unique; his commanding officers asked him to consume secret documents, preserved in special containers, then travel across enemy lines. If Tarrare was caught, he’d have nothing to give the enemy, and they’d never suspect his unusual talents.
His first mission was a success, and he was rewarded with 30 pounds of bull organs (we’re assuming that other soldiers would have received notably different “rewards”). He ate the organs in front of fascinated French Revolutionary Army commanders.
But when traveling through Prussia, Tarrare was captured by German forces. He was unable to speak German, so he was quickly forced to confess and severely beaten for espionage. He might have also received punishment from French forces for giving up his mission, but as it turned out, Tarrare was given a false “dummy” message in that particular case.
That incident had a profound effect on Tarrare.
He returned to the military hospital, desperate for a cure for his lifelong hunger. Baron Percy, surgeon-in-chief of the hospital, agreed to help him.
Initially, Tarrare was treated with common medications of the time, including opium and white vinegar. When these failed, Percy moved on to more novel “cures,” including large quantities of soft-boiled eggs and a controlled diet. Tarrare, driven by his hunger, would routinely escape from the hospital to fight dogs for scraps of food in the alleys. Some sources also claim that Tarrare attempted to eat the bodies in the hospital morgue.
Eventually, the hospital’s staff chased Tarrare out of the hospital. Four years later, Percy received a phone call from a hospital in Versailles; Tarrare was deathly ill because of (he believed) a golden fork that he’d eaten two years earlier.
Unfortunately, the fork had nothing to do with the illness. The surgeon-general diagnosed Tarrare with tuberculosis, and within a month, France’s greatest glutton had died. An autopsy showed that Tarrare had an extremely large stomach, liver, and gallbladder, but they failed to find the golden fork that he’d blamed for his demise.
Some modern physicians believe that Tarrare had a damaged amygdala.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls hunger, and animals with damaged amygdala sometimes present similar symptoms (polyphagia, or insatiable eating). Tarrare might have also had an extremely fast thyroid, as he never seemed to put on weight despite his incredible eating habits.
In any case, the bizarre story of this doomed French eater continues to confound physicians. However, their curiosity—like Tarrare’s hunger—will go forever unsatisfied.