Have you ever felt hungry even after having a big meal? How about after every meal? What about being so hungry that you resort to eating things that aren’t food?
Chances are you’ve never been as hungry as the insatiable Tarrare, a French soldier and showman who was able to eat vast amounts of food (and other non-food objects).
As a teenager, he was forced out of his home by his parents who could no longer provide for him. Turning to a nomadic lifestyle, he toured France with a group of thieves and prostitutes, performing a warm-up act for a traveling charlatan (snake oil salesman).
His performance included swallowing corks, whole baskets of apples, stones, and even live animals. After life on the road grew tiresome he took his act to Paris where he worked as a street performer.
Despite his incredible appetite, Tarrare sported a slim frame and never seemed to gain weight. While his appearance was odd enough, his odor was often more noticable.
Observers claimed that they could smell Tarrare from a distance. Constantly covered in sweat, his glistening body gave off a stench that distracted onlookers from noticing his giant mouth filled with discolored teeth.
In addition to his ghastly visage and smell, he frequently farted, burped, and experienced constant rancid bowel movements.
When the War of the First Coalition (French Revolution) broke out, Tarrare joined the French military in 1789. As a soldier he did not see any fighting but instead helped other soldiers perform menial work in exchange for rations.
Due to the restrictive soldier’s diet, Tarrare could never satisfy his appetite. As a result he ended up in a military hospital where physicians tried everything to curb his hunger.
He was fed quadrupled rations, medical gauze, and even live animals like cats, dogs, snakes, and eels. Doctors were shocked to see that not even those items could stop him from eating.
One of the surgeons who was fascinated by Tarrare had him eat a wooden box with a note written inside as an experiment. When it passed through his system (with the note intact), French General Alexandre de Beauharnais realized he could possibly use this to his advantage in communicating with captured soldiers.
Tarrare was sent to the Prussian border disguised as a peasant in an attempt to communicate with French POWs. He swallowed the same box with a note from the General and managed to sneak past enemy lines.
However his success was short-lived. Prussian soldiers discovered his true identity when he was unable to answer questions in German. Despite being captured and tortured, the Prussians never discovered his true intentions. Tarrare at one point expelled the wooden box and swallowed it again to prevent the enemy from compromising his mission.
He managed to escape captivity and fled back to France where once again he sought medical help for his condition. Physicians tried treating him with opioids (known to cause constipation) and tobacco to no avail. During his hospital stay, staff found him drinking drained blood from fellow patients and eating corpses. The hospital had enough and kicked him out when a 14-month old toddler went missing in 1794.
Disappearance and death
For the next four years, Tarrare faded into obscurity. He has no government records or medical documents identifying where he was or what he was doing (presumably eating lots of food and non-food items). When he died from tuberculosis at the age of 26 in Versailles, doctors performed an autopsy.
They found that he had a massive stomach, a giant, fatty liver, and most of his body was filled with pus. The rest of his organs were decaying rapidly and the horrible smell prompted the chief surgeon to call off the operation before they could get a more in-depth look at him.
While we may not know what caused his exact condition, one thing is clear: Tarrare suffered from a form of polyphagia, a medical condition characterized by an insatiable appetite and over-eating.
Medical historians believe that he may have had hyperthyroidism as well. People with this condition tend to have thin hair and experience excessive sweating, both of which match Tarrare’s description.
However even hyperthyroidism doesn’t make people swallow live animals or eat corpses. Another possible cause of his hunger could have been a brain tumor on either the amygdala or hypothalamus, both of which control appetite.
While trying to explain Tarrare with medical terms is all well and good, he may have developed his habits as a traveling performer, where his incredible eating ability was encouraged by cast and audience members alike. Life as a sideshow and social pressures may have worsened his already strange condition.