This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History

Shannon Quinn - March 8, 2019

In the 1700s, a French man is only known as “Tarrare” became a sideshow spectacle, as well as a medical case study that baffled doctors at that time. Instead of juggling fire or performing magic tricks, his “freak show” act was all about eating things…And we mean everything.

He dazzled crowds by pouring an entire bushel of apples down his throat and stuffing a dozen eggs in his cheeks. Later, he devoured live eels, cats, and even human flesh. Listening to the stories of Tarrare makes him seem as though he was a creature out of a fairytale story, rather than a living, breathing human being. But he truly was a real person, and this medical case study baffled doctors for years, even after his death.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
This picture is not of Tarrare, but it illustrates what the situation must have seemed like. “Der Völler” by Georg Emanuel Opitz. 1804. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tarrare Started Out as a Traveling Side Show “Freak”

When you hear the story of a man like Tarrare who was willing to eat non-stop, you may imagine an obese, gluttonous man who was being fed by servants in order to satiate his never-ending appetite. In reality, he was a very skinny man, and people say he only weighed about 100 pounds. There was never a portrait painted or illustrated of Tarrare. We can only guess what he possibly looked like, based on descriptions.

In medical journals, they say that the skin on his face and stomach was stretched out, and therefore very flabby when he wasn’t eating. His jaw would come almost unhinged, from years of stuffing his face full of food. Anyone who came in contact with him also said that he absolutely reeked. Even after bathing, he smelled so awful, people would have to step 20 paces away before they could stop smelling his body odor.

Tarrare was born and raised living on a farm in the French town of Lyon. When he was seventeen years old, his parents kicked him out of their house because they could not afford to feed him. According to records, he was eating one-quarter of an entire cow per day, which is enough to make any farmer go broke. He found a new family with a gang of traveling misfits who created an early version of a circus sideshow in Paris. Crowds of people were amazed because they could hand him almost anything, and he was willing to eat it. According to people who watched, Tarrare would open his mouth incredibly wide and fill up his mouth with whatever food people were willing to give him. His cheeks were stretched out, as well, so he was able to hold food in his face like a chipmunk.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
Another French man, Jacques de Falaise, was eating live animals during sideshows just like Tarrare. Credit: The British Museum

This was so unbelievable, that some people actually thought Tarrare was somehow tricking people into believing he was actually eating all of that food. There was no possible way for a human being to consume so much. But this gig wouldn’t last forever, and he joined the army. During his time serving as a soldier in the French Revolution, his friends noticed that no matter how much Tarrare ate, he always seemed to be weak and malnourished. The army quadrupled his rations so that he ate as much as four men, but he was still never satisfied. It even reached the point where they were giving him kitchen scraps like potato peels, and he would still gobble up every last piece of food, without feeling full. After serving with the army for some time, they did not want him there, either, because he was eating precious rations needed for the soldiers.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
A wood block depicting Nicholas Wood, the Great Eater of Kent. Credit: Public Domain

Tarrare’s Skills Made Him Into a Spy

Tarrare’s strange ability to eat non-stop caught the attention of two military doctors named Dr. Courville and Baron Percy. They were curious as to know how it was even possible for one man to eat so much without gaining weight. He was diagnosed with a condition known as “polyphagia”. This is not a disease within itself. It is usually coupled with diabetes or hyperthyroidism, where the body does not process food properly. Usually, people with polyphagia also look very skinny and sickly, because the food is passing through them without absorbing the nutrients. This inability to feel satisfied pushed him to keep eating, to the point where he was willing to scarf down unconventional foods. A lifetime of these habits are what lead to his physical deformities.

In the medical journals, the doctors described Tarrare as being a lot like an animal. He was wild and ferocious, and really only thought about eating. However, despite his ravenous hunger, he was completely sane. People were able to communicate with him perfectly well, and he expressed that he wished he did not feel this way. He was just a really hungry guy. Years after his death, there were other examples of people with the same condition, like a man named Nicholas Wood, the Great Eater of Kent, and another named Jacques de Falaise. Since Tarrare’s case study was in medical journals at the time, doctors were able to go back and compare.

The doctors performed some experiments to see just how far Tarrare would go to satiate his appetite. They handed Tarrare an eel that was still alive. He bit into the head and slurped it up as if it was eating spaghetti. He didn’t seem to care that this was a living creature with hundreds of sharp bones. For a normal person, the sharp eel bones might puncture their internal organs, but Tarrare’s body could somehow handle it. He also ate a cat while it was still alive. He grabbed the unsuspecting feline, ripped its body apart, and sucked out the blood before eating the meat off of the bone. Unlike the eel, he made sure to remove the fur and bones from the cat.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
Jacques de Falaise was yet another French man who was able to eat live animals. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Since these were military doctors who were examining Tarrare, it only made sense that they wanted to see if he could be of any use to the French army. General Alexandre de Beauharnais wanted to give him a secret message to carry into Prussia. He asked Tarrare to eat a small wooden box that had a piece of paper inside of it. Sure enough, the box was still intact a couple of days later. So, the general sent him on a mission to pose as a Prussian peasant, and bring a message to a captured French colonel who was behind enemy lines. However, aside from his stomach, he did not qualify as a spy at all, especially since he could not speak a word of German.

The Prussians captured Tarrare and began to torture him to extract his secrets. Again – since he was not a trained spy – he gave up everything he knew very quickly. The Prussians waited for a couple of days, until he finally went to the bathroom and passed the wooden box with the secret note inside. Once they opened the box, the message simply asked if Tarrare was successful on his mission. Obviously, the answer was “no”, and he completely failed General Beauharnais’ test run. He was ordered to be executed, but Tarrare was sobbing, begging to be set free. After all, he never even asked to be involved with this plot. So, the Prussians let him go.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
“Saturn Devouring His Son” by Giambattista Tiepolo in 1745. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tarrare’s Hunger Gets Out of Hand

When it was clear that Tarrare did not have a career as a spy, he decided he would settle with having a normal appetite. So he begged doctor Baron Percy to find a cure. He was living out most of his time in the hospital as doctors continued to experiment on him. The doctors decided to give Tarrare nearly every type of medication that existed at that time. Back then, people were taking some questionable medications, like cocaine, laudanum, tobacco pills, and more. Surprise, surprise- none of them worked. Today, someone who has polyphagia usually has it due to another underlying cause like diabetes, or hyperthyroidism. Even today, there is no real cure for the condition. Instead of treating polyphagia directly, those other medical conditions are being treated first, and it may help the symptoms of hunger.

At one point during Tarrare’s treatment, the hospital was not giving him enough food. He began to go to the wards where doctors were blood-letting their patients, and he would drink from them like a vampire. Doctors would bring in dead bodies, and Tarrare swooped in to gobble up the human flesh. One day, doctors were horrified to discover that a 14-month old baby had gone missing from the hospital. They could only assume that Tarrare had eaten the baby. Needless to say, this was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. He was kicked out of the hospital, and told never to return.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
The terrifying painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco Goya.

For years later, when he was 26 years old, Baron Percy was notified that Tarrare showed up at a hospital in Versailles because he had tuberculosis. When he died, his body reeked noxious odors that were so horrible, doctors were choking and needed to leave the room to get some fresh air. When doctors performed an autopsy on Tarrare’s body, they described his organs as “putrefied” and “covered in pus”. His stomach was so big, it filled up almost his entire abdominal cavity. His liver was also abnormally large, while the rest of his organs were smaller than average. And the opening from his mouth to his stomach was so wide, someone could look inside his mouth and see all the way down to his stomach. It was all so horrifying and difficult to breathe through the stink, the doctors had to stop halfway through, and give up.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Medium – History’s Hungriest Human

Mental Floss – Tarrare, the Greatest Glutton of All Time

Very Well Health – Causes of Polyphagia

BBC Future – The Tragic Fate of The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Eating

Good – A Career As A Competitive Eater In The 1600s Sounds Like It Was Torture

Factinate – The Bizarre True Story of Nicholas Wood, The Great Eater of Kent

The Journal of Foreign Medical Science and Literature, Volume 10.

All That’s Interesting – The Story of Tarrare, The Insatiable Glutton Who Ate Everything From Human Flesh to Live Eels.