The walking manifestation of one of the seven deadly sins prowled the cobbled streets of 18th-century Paris, seeking only to indulge his endless hunger. Earlier in life, his dietary needs started out robustly, but were otherwise innocuous. However, things would soon take a sinister turn so far as this overzealous diner was concerned. According to contemporary accounts and existent medical records, his quenchless appetite continued growing to the point that his legendarily gluttonous gorging caused this ravenous Frenchman to ingest live animals and maraud morgues for sustenance. He was once even suspected of kidnapping and devouring a toddler.
The crack team at Ripleys.com was able to speak with a doctor who specializes in science-based nutrition in search of a possible diagnosis, but first, let’s chew the fat on the life of this legendary cannibal and his strange circumstances of existence. Be warned, this is not for the weak of heart—but if you think you can stomach it, then strap in!
The Sad, Voraciously Unquenchable Existence of Tarrare
Paris, Circa 1788
With a large, lip-less mouth stretched wide beyond human regularity and filled with stained teeth, he ate corks, stones, entire baskets of apples—one at a time in quick succession—and live animals (his favorite was snake) for the morbid amusement of repulsed onlookers that were challenged to satiate his seemingly interminable appetite.
Like most modern competitive binge-eaters, Tarrare was diminutive in stature, weighing no more than one hundred pounds—prior to eating, at least. Despite all of his daily intake, he never seemed to keep any of the weight on. When empty, his stomach was loosely distended to the point that he could wrap it around his waist as if it were a belt made of his own, still-attached flesh. When full, it was inflated like a balloon—not unlike a pregnant woman in her final trimester. His hair was fair and soft, while his cheeks, when not engaged at capacity—allegedly able to hold so much as a dozen eggs—were wrinkled and hung slack to create premature jowls.
Prior to life as a successful street performer, the individual is known only by his stage name, Tarrare, lived in destitution as part of a traveling caravan of criminal misfits. Born in the rural countryside surrounding the epicenter of the booming silk-weaving trade in Lyon, France in approximately 1772, his rapacious appetite was readily apparent from an early age. As the legend goes, a young Tarrare was capable of eating his own bodyweight in cow meat within a 24-hour period. Sadly, this boundless craving forced him out of his family’s home as a teenager, as they could no longer afford to feed him.
After several years of touring the country as a vagabond begging for food, for a time Tarrare became the opener for a snake-oil peddling mountebank before taking off to Paris to perform as a solo act. With success came risk. Tarrare once collapsed mid-performance with what was later discovered to be an intestinal obstruction, requiring his audience to carry him to the nearby Hôtel-Dieu hospital. After being treated with laxatives, a grateful Tarrare offered to demonstrate his talents by eating the surgeon’s pocket watch. The surgeon agreed, but only under the condition that he be allowed to cut Tarrare open to retrieve it. Wisely, Tarrare declined.
“Let a person imagine all that domestic or wild animals, the most filthy and ravenous, are capable of devouring, and they may form some idea of the appetite, as well as the wants of Tarrare.”—Dr. Pierre-François Percy, Mémoire sur la polyphagie.
Soultz-Haut-Rhin, Circa 1792
It was during the French War of the First Coalition when respected military surgeon Dr. Pierre-François Percy first made the acquaintance of the inexplicable Tarrare, now a soldier for the French Revolutionary Army. Barely twenty years old, this peculiar patient proved to be quite extraordinary. Unable to subsist off of military rations alone, Tarrare began doing odd jobs around the base for other soldiers in exchange for their rations and, when that proved to be insufficient, foraged for food scraps in dunghills. Despite all of his scrounging, Tarrare succumbed to exhaustion and was admitted to a military hospital under the care of Dr. Percy.
There, even being granted quadruple rations failed to satiate his hunger. Tarrare began to eat out of the garbage, steal the food of other patients, and even chow down on the hospital’s bandage supply. Psychological testing found Tarrare to be apathetic, but otherwise sane.
Percy’s report described Tarrare as having bloodshot eyes and constantly being overheated and sweating, with a body odor so rancid that he could be smelled from twenty feet away—and that’s by 18th-century French military surgeon standards. Woof. The smell only got worse after eating. Percy described it as being so bad he literally had visible stink lines.
After eating, Tarrare would succumb to the itis and pass out. Percy observed this after preparing a meal made for fifteen to test Tarrare’s limits, which he predictably porked down. Percy continued this experiment by feeding Tarrare live animals: a cat—which he drank the blood of and after consuming, like an owl, he only regurgitated its fur—lizards, snakes, puppies, and an entire eel.
Months of experimentation passed before the military discovered a way to put Tarrare’s unique ability to use: Tarrare was commissioned as a spy for the French Army of the Rhine. His first mission was to secretly courier a document across enemy lines in a place that it could not easily be detected if caught: his digestive tract. After being paid with a wheelbarrow full of thirty pounds of raw bull viscera—which he ate immediately upon presentation directly in front of what we can only imagine to be the incredibly revolted generals and other commanding officers—Tarrare swallowed a wooden box containing a document that could pass through his system completely in-tact and be delivered to a high-ranking prisoner of war in Prussia.
As one might expect, an individual who smells like a foot and compulsively eats from the garbage would likely attract attention—not exactly the ideal, hallmark makings of a spy.
Compound this with the fact that Tarrare did not speak any German and he was quickly caught, beaten, imprisoned, and forced to undergo the psychological torment of a mock execution before being returned to France.
Again under the care of Dr. Percy, the trauma Tarrare endured left him incapable of continuing his military service and desperate to find a cure for his condition. Laudanum opiates, wine vinegar, tobacco pills, and a diet of soft-boiled eggs were all employed, but Tarrare was still forced to walk the streets fighting stray dogs for discarded slaughterhouse cuisine, drink the blood of patients who were being treated with bloodletting, and was even caught consuming cadavers from the hospital morgue multiple times. Eventually, a toddler went missing from the hospital and Tarrare, the suspected culprit, was chased from the premises before disappearing into the city.
Versailles, Circa 1798
“His body, as soon as he was dead, became a prey to a horrible corruption.”—The London Medical and Physical Journal.
Dr. Percy is contacted by a physician of Versailles hospital at the behest of a patient on their deathbed. Sure enough, it was Tarrare, now brought to death’s door by what he professed to be a golden fork he had swallowed two years previously and was now lodged inside of him. It had been four years since Percy had last seen Tarrare, who hoped he could save his life by removing the fork. Unfortunately for Tarrare, it was not a fork that was killing him, but end-stage tuberculosis. Within a month, he passed.
A curious colleague intended to inspect Tarrare’s corpse. However, fellow surgeons refused to partake and it quickly became a race against the clock as the body began to rot rapidly. Findings from the autopsy revealed that Tarrare possessed a shockingly-wide esophagus which allowed spectators to look directly from his open mouth into his stomach, which was unfathomably large and lined with ulcers. His body was full of pus, his liver and gallbladder abnormally large, and the fork was never recovered.
Discovering the Diagnosis Behind This Bizarre Medical Mystery
So, what was the cause of Tarrare’s insatiable hunger? In short, we don’t know for sure. When contemporary medical procedures of the time included drinking raw mercury to clear out head demons (probably), should it come as a surprise that Tarrare received no suitable diagnosis or treatment in his own lifetime?
However, some interesting theories have been suggested over the years. Ripleys.com was able to speak to Dr. Don Moore, a chiropractor certified in science-based nutrition and owner and operator of Synergy Pro Wellness, to get his take on things.
Now, granted, there is a possibility that Dr. Percy’s personal documentation in the years following Tarrare’s death were exaggerated or falsified, but they were considered credible enough at the time of their publication to be featured in reputable medical texts such as The Study of Medicine, Popular Physiology, and London Medical and Physical Journal. Plus, Dr. Percy is considered the father of military surgeons, was Chief Surgeon to the French Army, a university professor, inventor of important battlefield medical implements, and is considered an all-around highly reputable guy. So, given we accept the above tale as an accurate representation of Tarrare’s symptoms, what does Dr. Moore have to say about it?
“It can be broken down by category: He didn’t suffer from psychosis, so he was completely aware and cognitive. But that doesn’t rule out hyperactivity of hormones and dysfunction of components of the brain. His sensor that would let him know he was full was damaged. If he underwent a brain study, he would have probably been identified as having had an enlarged hypothalamus.”
The hypothalamus regulates the body’s temperature and is responsible for causing the sensation of hunger. Given Tarrare was constantly overheated and in dire search of food, it’s a perfect fit. Dr. Moore also suspects a possible case of pica, which causes the eating of non-edible objects.
As for why Tarrare never weighed more than one hundred pounds, Dr. Moore adroitly theorizes, based on his habitually eating raw meat: “He most likely had a parasite as well. The fact that he was of normal size means something else is being nourished, and the fact that he was constantly hungry leans towards him feeding a secondary organism. A parasite like a hookworm or roundworm, perhaps.”
There exist other equally plausible theories as well: hyperthyroidism, which can cause an excessive appetite and sweating, as well as fine hair; Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition which causes constant hunger, even for non-edible items; extreme iron deficiency, which causes cravings for the same; a damaged amygdala is also a possibility, as it can cause polyphagia, the medical term for extreme overeating.
Interestingly, a case similar—albeit less extreme—to Tarrare’s was reported at the exact same time and in the exact same area, that of Charles Domery, which may point to a common environmental cause. Given that all of this occurred concurrently with the French Revolution, which was built on a foundation of famine, a shared nutritional deficiency may be at fault. Any of or a combination of the aforementioned could be what caused Tarrare to be an anthropophaginian, or, in other words, induced his cannibalistic tendencies. We’ll never know for sure.
In all, this tale sounds more like something from the mythos of Stephen King than it does an unresolved mystery from the pages of medical history. Whatever the cause, it may be easy to ridicule Tarrare and label him a monster, but it would be more accurate to categorize his case as a tragedy. Tarrare did not ask for his deleteriously high metabolism and there is no telling how he personally felt about the grotesque actions it pushed him to commit. Imagine a hunger so agonizing that it pushes you to eat anything—anything—to sate it. Nevertheless, all that we can do now is be thankful for the advances in medical technology that have prevented more cases like this from occurring and, until next time, Believe It or Not!
By Kris Levin, contributor for Ripleys.com
Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.