Tarrare was a man who lived in 18th-century France and had a peculiar and fascinating medical condition that made him famous. He was born in 1772 in Lyon, France, and from an early age, he showed an insatiable appetite that could not be satisfied. This condition continued to worsen as he grew older, and eventually, it became so extreme that he became a subject of medical curiosity.
Tarrare’s Insatiable Appetite
Tarrare’s condition was characterized by an insatiable appetite that made him eat anything and everything he could find. He was reported to have eaten everything from raw meat to stones, candles, live animals, and even the carcasses of dead animals. Tarrare could eat a meal that would be enough to feed several people, and yet he would still be hungry and would continue to search for more food.
Tarrare’s appetite was so extreme that he was kicked out of his home at the age of 17 by his family because they could not afford to feed him anymore. He then traveled across France, performing as a sideshow attraction, where people would pay to watch him eat.
In 1792, Tarrare came to the attention of a physician named Dr. Philippe Curtius, who was intrigued by his condition and decided to conduct a series of medical examinations on him. Dr. Curtius noticed that Tarrare’s appetite was not accompanied by weight gain, and he also had a very fast metabolism. In addition, Tarrare had an abnormally large mouth and a flexible esophagus that allowed him to swallow large objects without choking.
Dr. Curtius subjected Tarrare to a series of tests, including eating contests and observations of his digestive system. In one experiment, Tarrare was given a meal that was enough to feed 15 people, which he consumed in just a few minutes. He was then given a live cat to eat, which he swallowed whole, and then regurgitated intact several hours later.
Tarrare’s Military Service
On the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition, Tarrare joined the French Revolutionary Army. However, 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 at Soultz-sous-Forêts 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 (surgeon to the 9th Hussar Regiment)[note 2] and Pierre-François 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’s 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 that 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 them 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 General 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.
After leaving the military, Tarrare continued to perform as a sideshow attraction, but his health began to decline rapidly. He developed severe diarrhea and abdominal pain, and his body began to emit a foul odor. Tarrare’s condition continued to worsen until he eventually died in 1798 at the age of 26.
The cause of Tarrare’s death is not known for certain, but it is believed that he died from complications of his extreme eating disorder. At the time of his death, Tarrare’s body was said to have been so decomposed and foul-smelling that it had to be buried immediately.
Tarrare was a man with a highly unusual medical condition that fascinated people of his time and continues to intrigue medical professionals to this day. His insatiable appetite and ability to swallow large objects without choking make him a medical anomaly that is hard to explain. Tarrare’s story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of extreme eating disorders and the importance of seeking medical help if you have similar symptoms.