Coins, corks, live kittens and puppies, eels and even corpses — nothing could satisfy the insatiable appetite of the 18th-century Frenchman Tarrare. He was such a slave to his hunger that he would do anything to repress it.
The brief and disturbing life of Tarrare is a fascinating case study of perhaps the most bizarre eating disorder ever, and one that remains a medical mystery some 250 years later.
From Birth to Beggar to Street Performer
By all accounts, Tarrare was "normal" when he entered the world in 1772, in a rural French community near Lyon. But this bouncing bundle of joy's ravenous appetite soon became his most identifying feature. By age 17, he was wolfing down an entire split half of beef, yet barely gained weight beyond his slight 100 pounds (45 kilograms).
Exasperated by his insatiable appetite, his parents kicked him out of the house. Left to make his own way on the streets, Tarrare begged and stole to get enough sustenance to satisfy him, taking up with prostitutes and con men and thieves along the way. Eventually, he discovered he could capitalize on his oddity, and became a street performer wowing crowds by eating anything they gave him. He'd gobble down sacks full of apples, handfuls of corks, bags of coins and, well, anything.
And boy, was it a sight to see.
Ooh That Smell
At first glance, Tarrare was rather unremarkable — superfine brown hair, average height and slim build despite his constant eating. According to the Journal of Foreign Medical Science and Literature, if you looked closer, you'd see that his teeth were streaked with stains, his lips whisper thin, and his cheeks, wrinkled and droopy. If he had gone several hours without eating, and then lifted his shirt to show you, you'd see the skin around his belly sagging so low he could tie the hanging folds around his waist like a belt.
But when he began to eat, his body transformed. He'd open his mouth surprisingly wide and his flaccid cheeks would stretch and bulge like a chipmunk's to accommodate his feast. He'd shovel large diameters of food down his throat never appearing to chew, just swallowing whole whatever entered his cavernous throat. While he ate, he would fall into a drowsy, drunken-like stupor as his belly grew and expanded like a gigantic balloon.
Even more strange, the more Tarrare ate, the worse he smelled. According to his medical records, "He often stank to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of 20 paces." Onlookers said, as he began to consume, you could see vapors rise from his swollen body. And if you dared get close enough to him, he'd be hot to the touch as well.
When Tarrare finally got around to relieving himself of all that he consumed, his bowel movements (he suffered from chronic diarrhea) were described as "fetid beyond all conception."
Enlisting and Experimenting
Tarrare's freak-show antics finally came to an end in 1792, when the War of the First Coalition began and, like other young men his age, he signed up to join the French Revolutionary Army.
But military rations for soldiers were hardly enough to keep Tarrare's hunger at bay. The poor guy would finish his meal, then lick up the scraps left behind by other soldiers, rummaging through the garbage in search of more. With too little to satiate him, he fell into a fit of extreme exhaustion and was sent to the hospital. That's when he met Dr. Pierre-François Percy, a renowned physician who would follow his saga, off and on, for the rest of Tarrare's miserable life.
Percy, along with colleague Dr. M. Courville, gave Tarrare four rations to see if that could satisfy his appetite. When that failed, Percy and Courville decided to see just how much he could eat. So they served him a meal for 15 German laborers, including two huge meat pies and 4 gallons (15 liters) of milk, which he devoured within minutes.
Flabbergasted at the ease with which Tarrare consumed the meal, the doctors took their experiment further. They handed him a live cat, which he disemboweled with his teeth before sucking its blood, eating all but the bones, and then vomiting out the fur, as archived in the Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine.
They also fed him an assortment of other animals including snakes, lizards and live puppies. And, on at least one occasion, they handed him a live eel, which he swallowed whole without chewing.
Then suddenly, they had an idea. Could Tarrare's disturbing talent be used to the French army's advantage in the war against Prussia?
Tarrare on a Mission
The doctors conducted a new experiment. They put a note inside a wooden box, then had Tarrare eat it. After Tarrare, uh, passed the box, they opened it to be sure the note survived the passage unscathed. It worked!
General Alexandre de Beauharnais liked the idea and ordered Tarrare to be a spy, delivering secret messages across the Prussian border through the hypothetical "GI Express."
Tarrare was given his first mission, during which he proudly gobbled down the box with the note. As a thank you, he was presented with a wheelbarrow full of 30 pounds (13 kilograms) of bull's lungs and livers, which he gratefully consumed.
All was going to plan until the Prussians became privy to the French spy (likely because his odor preceded him, not to mention he didn't know a lick of German). They beat him senseless until he admitted to swallowing the box with the note. He was promptly shackled to the toilet to sit for hours until his bowels released the secret box.
However, General de Beauharnais wasn't entirely sold on Tarrare as a spy and had put a fake note in the box to test the idea. The Prussian general was furious about being duped and ordered Tarrare to be hung. However, in the eleventh hour, the general had mercy on Tarrare's soul and instead sent him back to French lines with a warning never to attempt the stunt again.
Please Help Me, Dr. Percy
The failed spy attempt, violent beating and near-execution traumatized Tarrare to the point that he wanted nothing to do with the army ever again. Instead, he begged Percy to admit him to the hospital and find a cure for his awful problem.
Try as he might, Percy could never find a cure for what ailed Tarrare. But it wasn't for lack of trying. He loaded the young man up with wine vinegar, tobacco pills, a mixture of alcohol and morphine, and any other medicine he could get his hands on. Nothing helped.
Still starving, Tarrare resorted to sneaking out of the hospital at night and scavenging for food outside butcher shops, in gutters and in alleyways, sometimes fighting dogs and wolves for their scraps. Percy had even mused in his notes, "The dogs and cats fled in terror at his aspect, as if they had anticipated the kind of fate he was preparing for them."
But animals weren't the only ones who worried. At one point, Tarrare was caught trying to drink the blood of patients as it pulsed from their veins during bloodlettings. He was also known to eat corpses in the morgue.
Fellow hospital employees begged Percy to kick Tarrare out of the hospital and admit him to an asylum. But the good doctor insisted that the young man was sick in the body, not in the mind.
Then in 1794, a 14-month-old baby went missing from the hospital. Tarrare was immediately blamed and was promptly run out of the hospital by an angry mob.
Tarrare Returns, Briefly
Four years would go by before Tarrare was heard from again. This time, he turned up at a hospital in Versailles seriously ill. His treating physician reached out to Percy who came to Tarrare's bedside. Percy realized that Tarrare had a bad case of tuberculosis. After a month, Tarrare developed a severe form of diarrhea and died in the hospital at the age of 26.
As wretched as he smelled when he was alive, in death his stench was even worse. Surgeons shuddered at the thought of cutting open his body. But Percy knew that in the name of medical research, it had to be done.
Tarrare's Autopsy Findings
- Enormous gullet, or esophagus, so large you could peer into his open mouth and see straight into his stomach.
- An abdomen full of smelly pus
- An enlarged gallbladder and liver
- A gigantic stomach covered in ulcers
- Putrefied entrails
What Do You Suppose Was Wrong with Him?
"There are a lot of things called eating disorders because they have eating-related symptoms, but their root is in something else," says Jessica Setnick, a registered dietitian, author and creator of Eating Disorders Boot Camp. "In the case of Tarrare, he may have had a medical condition that's not an eating disorder as we define them nowadays."
We can only speculate what Tarrare was afflicted with. Prader-Willi Syndrome, hyperthyroidism, diabetes. "Or, it could be something very rare that we don't even have a name for," Setnick says. We may never know, but that doesn't mean we can't learn something from his life.
"The lesson is to say look at how people judged him and look at how people thought he was gross and look at how people thought he was out of control and all along he could have had a medical condition that just wasn't identified in that era," she says. "I think that's the same thing for a lot of people now. They get blamed for their size when really there's nothing they can do because there's something going on with their hormones."