There are few pains more universal to the human condition than hunger. Fortunately, for most of us a sandwich is never far away and the slow horror of starvation is nothing but a distant and abstract idea. However, imagine for a moment, a hunger so persistent that it could not be sated, regardless of how much food you consumed. It sounds like a curse, or some mythological punishment of Hades, but in fact, it was the constant state of existence for a man known only as Tarrare.
He was born in Lyon around 1772 to a family of poor farmers. At a very early age he developed his unusual appetite, consuming seemingly impossible quantities of food without gaining weight. By the time he was a teenager, he was eating a quarter of a cow per day, nearly matching his own body weight. His feeding habits quickly became unsustainable for his parents and they forced the boy to leave home.
Tarrare traveled the country with a roving group of thieves and prostitutes, stealing what he could to support his hunger. Eventually he made the acquaintance of a traveling salesman, whom he partnered with. Tarrare would draw a crowd by consuming handfuls of wine corks, rocks, or live animals (snake meat being his favorite). As part of his act, he was known to be able to eat an entire basket of apples, one after the other.
In 1788 he took his act to Paris and was successful enough to keep himself fed. Contemporary reports describe him as being of average height but thin, under a hundred pounds. His flesh was warm to the touch and he sweated profusely, emitting a foul odor that could be smelled as far as twenty paces away. After eating, a pungent vapor could be observed rising from his skin and his stomach would distend like a balloon. Conversely, if he hadn’t eaten, the skin of his abdomen would hang so loosely that it could be stretched around his waist. His mouth was wider than average, his lips nonexistent, and his teeth discolored and rotten. It was said that he could hold more than a dozen eggs in his mouth at one time.
In 1792, at the onset of the War of the First Coalition, Tarrare joined the French Revolutionary Army. Immediately his appetite proved to be a detriment, as a single soldier’s daily rations were no where near what he required to survive. He traded favors and spent his wages on extra food but it was not enough. He found himself scouring garbage piles, stealing scraps, and even eating rats and other vermin. Still, this proved to be insufficient to sustain him and he was eventually sent to the hospital due to extreme exhaustion.
His unique condition caught the eye of the regimental surgeon, Dr. Courville who staged several experiments to gauge the depth of Tarrare’s abilities. In one experiment, Courville gave him a live cat, which he tore in half with his teeth, drank its blood, and consumed whole with the exception of its bones, before vomiting up the skin and hair soon after. As a demonstration to the doctors and hospital staff, Tarrare ate a meal that had been prepared for 15 people, by himself.
No medical explanation could be provided and psychological evaluations stated only that barring a general apathy and a “complete lack of force and ideas”, he was of normal mental health. During his stay, he was granted four times the regular food rations but it was still not enough. He would regularly barter or steal extra scraps. On several occasions he was caught eating used bandages and medical waste.
With no cure or solutions forthcoming, he was discharged back to his unit. There, Courville suggested to his commanding officer, General Beauharnais, that Tarrare’s unique talents be put to work for the war effort as a secret courier. A proof-of-concept test was performed where a short message was placed in a small wooden box, then given to Tarrare to eat. Two days later, the box was retrieved from his excrement and the message was discovered to still be legible.
Beauharnais agreed in principle and organized a demonstration for other high-ranking officers of the Army of the Rhine in which Tarrare consumed a wheelbarrow full of raw bull’s liver and lungs weighing in excess of 30 pounds. It was decided that the plan would move forward.
Tarrare was given a box containing a secret message, which he ingested. His instructions were to deliver the message to a French Colonel that was imprisoned by the Prussians at Neustadt. He crossed the border in the middle of the night, dressed as a German peasant. Unfortunately, he spoke no German and drew suspicion immediately from the locals, who turned him in to the Prussian Army.
Tarrare did not break in captivity and refused to divulge the nature of his mission. However, when the box was discovered in his feces, he was revealed as a spy. The message was far from damning. As General Beauharnais still had reservations concerning Tarrare’s ability to complete the mission, the note was only a simple request for the colonel to acknowledge that he had received it and contained no sensitive information.
Tarrare was beaten thoroughly by the Prussians before being returned to the front lines. It is likely that in addition to his complete ineptitude for espionage, his insatiable appetite made for an expensive, if not unsettling, prisoner of war.
This experience left him shaken and he had no further desire for military service. He persuaded his commanders to send him back to the hospital in hopes of curing his condition. Tarrare remained there for the next several months until his behavior became intolerable. Faced again with insufficient rations, Tarrare sank to new lows. He was constantly reprimanded for drinking the blood of patients that were undergoing blood letting and for attempting to eat bodies in the morgue. He was caught on numerous occasions sneaking out of the hospital at night to rifle through the gutters and trash heaps or devour the offal in the waste bins of butcher shops. Finally, when a 14-month-old toddler went missing, it was theorized that Tarrare had eaten it and he was expelled from the hospital.
Four years later, in 1798, Tarrare returned to the hospital, complaining that he was suffering a blockage from a golden fork he had ingested. In actuality, he was suffering from advanced tuberculosis and he died soon after. In an abundance of morbid curiosity, his physician, a Dr. M. Tessier conducted an autopsy. His gullet was found to be extraordinarily large. When his mouth was opened, Tessier could easily see all the way to his enormous stomach, which was covered in ulcers, abscesses, and pus. Additionally, his liver and gallbladder were both abnormally large. Regretfully for Tessier, no golden fork was recovered during the procedure.