Tarrare was born in rural France, near Lyon, around 1772. His date of birth is unrecorded and it is not even known if Tarrare was his real name or a nickname.
As a child, Tarrare had a huge appetite and by his teens could eat a quarter of a bullock, weighing as much as Tarrare himself, in a single day. By this time, his parents could not provide for him and had forced him to leave home. For some years after this, he toured the country with a roaming band of thieves and prostitutes, begging and stealing for food, before gaining employment as a warm-up act to a travelling charlatan. Tarrare would draw a crowd by eating corks, stones and live animals, and by swallowing an entire basketful of apples one after the other. He would eat ravenously and was particularly fond of snake meat.
In 1788, Tarrare moved to Paris to work as a street performer. He appears to have been successful in general, but on one occasion the act went wrong and he had severe intestinal obstruction. Members of the crowd carried him to the hospital, where he was treated with powerful laxatives. He made a full recovery and offered to demonstrate his act by eating his surgeon’s watch and chain; The surgeon was unimpressed by the offer and warned him that if he did so, he would cut Tarrare open to recover the items.
Appearance and behaviour
Despite his unusual diet, Tarrare was slim and of average height. At the age of 17, he weighed only 100 pounds (45 kg; 7 st 2 lb). 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, he constantly had foul body odour; 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 vapour would rise from his body, and he would become lethargic, during which time he would belch noisily and his jaws would make swallowing motions. He had chronic diarrhoea, 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. Aside from his eating habits, his contemporaries saw no apparent signs of mental illness or unusual behaviour in him, other than an apparently apathetic temperament with “a complete lack of force and ideas”.
The cause of Tarrare’s behaviour is not known. While there are other documented cases of similar behaviour from the period, none of the subjects other than Tarrare were autopsied and there have been no modern documented cases resembling Tarrare. Hyperthyroidism can induce an extreme appetite, rapid weight loss, profuse sweating, heat intolerance, and fine hair. Bondeson (2006) speculates that Tarrare had a damaged amygdala; it is known that injuries to the amygdala in animals can induce polyphagia.
On the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition, Tarrare joined the French Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately for him, military rations were insufficient to satisfy his appetite. He would carry out tasks for other soldiers in return for a share of their rations and scavenge on the dungheap for scraps, but this was not enough to satisfy him. He was admitted to the military hospital with a case of extreme exhaustion. He was granted quadruple rations but remained hungry; he would scavenge for garbage in gutters and refuse containers, eat the scraps of food left by other patients, and creep into the apothecary’s room to eat the poultices. Military surgeons could not understand his appetite; Tarrare was ordered to remain in the military hospital to take part in physiological experiments designed by Dr. Courville and George Didier, Baron Percy, surgeon-in-chief of the hospital.
Courville and Percy decided to test Tarrare’s capacity for food. A meal had been prepared for 15 labourers near the hospital gates; although generally hospital staff restrained Tarrare in the presence of food, on this occasion Courville allowed him to reach the table undisturbed. Tarrare ate the entire meal of two large meat pies, plates of grease and salt and four gallons of milk, and then immediately fell asleep; Courville noted that Tarrare’s belly became taut and inflated like a large balloon. On another occasion Tarrare was presented with a live cat. He tore the cat’s abdomen open with his teeth and drank its blood, and proceeded to eat the entire cat aside from its bones, before vomiting up its fur and skin. Following this, hospital staff offered Tarrare a variety of other animals including snakes, lizards and puppies, all of which were eaten; he also swallowed an entire eel without chewing, having first crushed its head with his teeth.
Service as a military courier
After several months he spent as an experimental case, military authorities began to press for Tarrare to be returned to active duty. Dr. Courville was keen to continue his investigations into Tarrare’s eating habits and digestive system, and approached General Alexandre de Beauharnais with a suggestion that Tarrare’s unusual abilities and behaviour could be put to military use. A document was placed inside a wooden box which was in turn fed to Tarrare. Two days later, the box was retrieved from his excrement, with the document still in legible condition. Courville proposed to de Beauharnais that Tarrare could thus serve as a military courier, carrying documents securely through enemy territory with no risk of their being found if he were searched.
Tarrare was called on by Beauharnais to demonstrate his abilities before a gathering of the commanders of the Army of the Rhine. Having swallowed the box successfully, Tarrare was given a wheelbarrow filled with 30 pounds (14 kg) of raw bull’s lungs and liver as a reward, which he immediately ate in front of the assembled generals.
Following this successful demonstration, Tarrare became employed officially as a spy of the Army of the Rhine. Although General de Beauharnais was convinced of Tarrare’s physical capacity to carry messages internally, he was concerned about his mental state and reluctant to entrust him initially with significant military documents. Tarrare was ordered as his first assignment to carry a message to a French colonel imprisoned by the Prussians near Neustadt; he was told that the documents were of great military significance, but in reality de Beauharnais had merely written a note asking the colonel to confirm that the message had been received successfully, and if so to return a reply of any potentially useful information about Prussian troop movements.
Tarrare crossed Prussian lines under cover of darkness, disguised as a German peasant. Unable to speak German, he soon attracted the attention of local residents, who alerted the Prussian authorities, and he was captured outside Landau. A strip search found nothing suspicious on his person, and despite being whipped by Prussian soldiers, he refused to betray his mission. Brought before the local Prussian commander, General Zoegli, he again refused to talk and was imprisoned. After 24 hours of captivity, Tarrare relented and explained the scheme to his captors. He was chained to a latrine, and eventually, 30 hours after being swallowed, the wooden box emerged. Zoegli was furious when the documents, which Tarrare had said contained vital intelligence, transpired only to be de Beauharnais’s dummy message, and Tarrare was taken to a gallows and the noose placed around his neck. (Some sources state that Zoegli never retrieved the box, as Tarrare had the presence of mind to recover and eat the stool containing it before it could be seized by the Prussians.) At the last minute, Zoegli relented, and Tarrare was taken down from the scaffold, given a severe beating, and released near the French lines.
Following this incident, Tarrare was desperate to avoid further military service, and returned to the hospital, telling Percy that he would attempt any possible cure for his appetite. Percy treated him with laudanum without success; further treatments with wine vinegar and tobacco pills were likewise unsuccessful. Following these failures, Percy fed Tarrare large quantities of soft-boiled eggs, but this also failed to suppress his appetite. Efforts to keep him on any kind of controlled diet failed; he would sneak out of the hospital to scavenge for offal outside butchers’ shops and to fight stray dogs for carrion in gutters, alleys and rubbish heaps. He was also caught several times within the hospital drinking from patients undergoing bloodletting, and attempting to eat the bodies in the hospital mortuary. Other doctors believed that Tarrare was mentally ill and pressed for him to be transferred to a lunatic asylum, but Percy was keen to continue his experiments and Tarrare remained in the military hospital.
After some time, a 14-month-old child disappeared from the hospital, and Tarrare was immediately suspected. Percy was unable or unwilling to defend him, and the hospital staff chased Tarrare from the hospital, to which he never returned.
Four years later, in 1798, a M. Tessier of Versailles hospital contacted Percy to notify him that a patient of theirs wished to see him. It was Tarrare, now bedridden and weak. Tarrare told Percy that he had swallowed a golden fork two years earlier, which he believed was lodged inside him and causing his current weakness. He hoped that Percy could find some way to remove it. Percy, however, recognised that he had advanced tuberculosis. The man who could eat anything was dying. A month later, Tarrare began to experience continuous exudative diarrhoea, dying shortly afterwards.
The corpse rotted quickly; the surgeons of the hospital refused to dissect it. Tessier, however, wanted to find out how Tarrare differed from the norm internally, and was also curious as to whether the gold fork was actually lodged inside him. At the autopsy, 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.
The fork was never found.
Jan Bondeson, a medical historian at the University of Cardiff in Wales who has written a book about Tarrare and other medical oddities, says we probably won’t see anything like him again. Medicine has improved greatly since the 18th century, and anyone like Tarrare would hopefully be diagnosed and treated appropriately before things spiralled out of control. But also, our interests have changed. “The working man’s pastimes were completely different,” he says. “Instead of sitting in front of the computer, they [used to] like brutal and unsavory amusements like…watching Tararre eat a cow’s udder. He was a product of his time.”
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.