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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

Tarrare: The Man Who Could (And Had To) Eat Anything

Written by Dave Page

Anybody who has seen the Pirates of the Caribbean movie will be familiar with the curse. The curse placed upon the Pirates of the Black Pearl that, among other things, meant that no matter how much they ate, they always felt as if they were starving.
But what would it be like if this aspect of that curse afflicted a real person? What would life be like for somebody who was so hungry that they felt compelled to eat anything they found lying around? Not just food but almost literally anything.

Discarded rubbish, books, and even on one occasion live puppies to name just a few things. Today we will find out as we take a look into the fascinating story of the man known only as Tarrare.

Hardly anything is known about Tarrare’s early life. However, it is believed that he was

born around 1772 in Lyon, France. Documentation on his early life is so scarce that we are not even sure if Tarrare was his real name.

According to medical historian Jan Bondeson,“bom-bom tarrare!” was a popular French expression at the time used to describe large explosions and it is believed that the name may have been attributed to him due to his “prodigious flatulence “.

The only other thing we know for sure about his early years is that he developed such a voracious appetite that by the time he was in his early teens, he was capable of eating his own body weight in meat over a 24-hour period.
Unfortunately, his parents were unable to afford the vast amounts of food necessary to sustain him and this would lead to him being thrown out onto the streets to fend for himself.

Directly after being forced to leave home, Tarrare would spend some time travelling the French provinces with a group of street robbers and prostitutes. During this time, he would sustain himself by consuming anything that he could find including discarded food, rubbish, live rats, and any dead animals he could find.

After several brushes with the law, the group with whom he was travelling disbanded and Tarrare would go on to find employment as a street performer, drawing in crowds for a medical conman by swallowing stones and live animals.
It has also been alleged that Tarrare himself was deceived by this charlatan into believing that he could cure him of his debilitating affliction.

Unfortunately, this job did not provide nearly enough in the form of sustenance and, in 1778, Tarrare would make his way to Paris in order to attempt to go it alone as a street performer.

During his time in Paris, his performances would become quite successful. People would travel from miles around to watch him swallow entire baskets of apples, piles of rocks or even entire litters of puppies.
It was as a result of one of these shows that Tarrare first ended up making a trip to the hospital. After having eaten a large portion of Flint pieces, he suffered an acute intestinal obstruction and was rushed to the Hôtel Dieu hospital.
After being treated by the surgeon, Tarrare decided to reward the man with a demonstration of his talents by swallowing his gold watch and chain.

Understandably, the surgeon was less than pleased with this and threatened to slice him open in order to retrieve his property.

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Although what happened next isn’t documented, we are forced to assume that the surgeon elected to wait for his watch to be returned after nature had followed its course.
We also do not know whether he chose to continue using it after it had been returned.

After his brief stay in hospital, Tarrare would continue his crowd-drawing performances until he enlisted in the French army in order to fight in the revolutionary war.

It should come as no surprise to anybody that the army was really not a good vocation for Tarrare. Although he was eventually issued quadruple rations, this was nowhere near enough and he would, once again, be reduced to eating anything that he could find.

Just a few weeks after he enlisted, he would be taken to the hospital at Soultz complaining of exhaustion. During his stay, the army surgeons were so amazed by his condition that they requested he be granted leave from his duties so that he might be the subject of investigative experiments.

This leave was granted very freely indeed and, to be honest, it is doubtful that anybody – especially those forced to spend any time in close proximity to him – would be in any rush for him to return.
In addition to him regularly eating the possessions of those around him, it was reported in the London Medical and Physical Journal that:

“He often stank to such a degree, that he could not be endured within the distance of 20 paces.”


Once his leave had been granted, the doctors set about trying to discover whether it was actually possible to fill him with food. To that end, they presented him with a meal designed to feed 15 labourers.
Once he had consumed this and washed it all down with 4 gallons {or 18 L} of milk he would go onto eat a live cat, puppies, lizards, and snakes.

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It really did appear that there was no amount of food that he could not consume and the doctors studying him, including Pierre-François Percy – one of the greatest military surgeons of his day – were truly at a loss as to what could possibly be wrong with him.


However, one of the other doctors, D M. Courville, did come up with a plan that would allow Tarrare to use his unusual talents to aid the military.

Courville believed that due to Tarrare’s amazing ability to swallow and pass almost any object, he would be an excellent person to use for the carrying of messages across enemy lines, and set about testing his theory.
He gave Tarrare a wooden box to swallow that contained a message on a piece of paper. After a couple of days, Tarrare would pass this box with the message intact, and Courville presented his idea to military high command.
After Tarrare successfully repeated this demonstration at military headquarters, he was officially hired as a spy. None the less, not everybody in military high command believed that this was such a good idea as they believed that he lacked the basic intelligence to be able to carry out his missions undetected.

Therefore, for Tarrare’s first mission – delivering a message to a captured French colonel – was viewed as something of a test. Although he was told that he would be delivering top-secret documents, in reality the message inside the box simply asked the Colonel to report back on any information that he may have with regards to troop movements.

As it transpired, those who had doubted him had been right to do so. He was almost immediately captured and, after being interrogated for a day, he revealed his secret to his captors. These same captors were less than pleased when it transpired that the box purporting to contain vital military secrets actually contained nothing more interesting than a request for troop movements.
Tarrare was subjected to a horrific beating before being sentenced to death by hanging.
For some unknown reason, his execution was aborted just as he reached the gallows, and he was instead further beaten before being dumped back behind enemy lines.


After somehow making his way back to the hospital, Tarrare begged Dr Percy to find him a cure.

The doctor would try every cure for overeating that he could find. At the time, these cures included such things as opium, sour wine, tobacco pills, and large amounts of soft-boiled eggs.
Unsurprisingly, none of these attempted cures were successful. If anything, Tarrare’s appetite only seemed to increase. This led to him frequently leaving the hospital in order to scavenge discarded offal from behind butchers’ shops and even dead rats or pigeons.

Although many of the other doctors argued vociferously to have Tarrare removed from the hospital, Dr Percy refused to send him away. He staunchly defended his presence, even after Tarrare took to drinking the blood of patience taken during blood lettings, and was several times kicked out of the hospital morgue where he had been attempting to eat corpses.

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However, even Dr Percy could not defend Tarrare after what happened next.

One afternoon, during a period of time when Tarrare was absent from his room, a 14-month-old girl disappeared without a trace. Almost everybody was quick to point the finger of blame at Tarrare and, although he never admitted to being involved, it appears that he never denied it either. This was absolutely the final straw and Tarrare was driven from the hospital by porters and doctors alike, and ordered never to return.


At this point in the story, we feel that it is worth talking about the likelihood of all this being accurate. When we began researching, we believed that many of the acts attributed to this fascinating man must be, if not fictional, then vastly exaggerated.
However, the more we looked into the story, the more sources we uncovered – many of which come from well-respected medical sources – and the more we came to believe that the vast majority of information regarding Tarrare is genuinely factual.
So, what was it that was actually wrong with him?
Put simply, nobody knows. Although many medical professionals have speculated that he was probably suffering from an advanced form of hyperthyroidism, there has never been any other case quite like it in the entirety of documented medical history.
Although he was capable of consuming quite frankly unbelievable amounts of food, his weight remained stable at around 100 lb {or 45 kg}.
Physically, he was described as being fairly normal apart from severely damaged teeth and a stomach that was so distended that when empty, he was able to wrap it around his waist. Neither of these things seem particularly surprising, given what he had to put himself through on a daily basis simply in order to remain alive.

There is just one question remaining. What happened to him after he left the hospital?
Well, like several periods of his life, the four years directly after he was banished from the hospital are almost completely undocumented. It is believed that he returned to Street performances in order to make a living but apart from that, nobody is really sure.

We do know that in 1798, he was admitted to hospital in such an advanced state of exhaustion and pain that he was unable to stand under his own power. He would tell doctors that he believed himself to be suffering from the effects of swallowing a solid gold fork. Unfortunately, it was immediately clear that this was not the case. Tarrare was suffering from advanced tuberculosis and would die just a few days later.

Although nobody at the hospital was particularly keen in carrying out an autopsy due to the fact that the body – none too pleasant when it was alive – had deteriorated rapidly upon death. The task eventually fell to Dr M. Tessier, Chief Surgeon of the hospital.

According to one report: “He found that Tarrare’s gullet was unusually wide, and when the jaws were forced open, he could see all the way down into Tarrare’s enormous stomach, which was covered in pus and filled almost the entire abdominal cavity. The liver and gallbladder were similarly oversized.”
Sadly, no further details were discovered due to the fact that the smell produced by the cadaver rendered the surgeon incapable of further exploration.

And that is where the fascinating, tragic story of Tarrare comes to an end. The man who was abandoned by his own family during childhood because of his incurable condition, and subsequently went through life being subjected to ridicule, medical experimentation, and the constant torture of insatiable hunger, passed away as he had lived. Completely alone.

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