The Man Who Ate Everything, From Cats To Human Corpses (And Possibly A Child)

Saturn devours his son. Image Credit: Francisco de Goya y Lucientes via Wikimedia Commons (CC by 4.0)

There are few stories from history as strange as that of Tarrare, a man with such an appetite that people couldn't leave him in a room with a cat or a puppy for fear of what he might do.

Tarrare was a French soldier turned showman, who likely had an unusual medical condition. Born in Lyon around 1772, from an early age he needed to eat copious amounts of food. In his teenage years, the London Medical and Physical Journal records, he could already eat a quarter of a bullock in a single day.

With his parents unable to provide him with the sheer amount of food he required, he was kicked out of his home and forced to beg and steal food – until he realized he could turn his unusual eating habit into a show, and became the warm-up act for a traveling show. In order to draw in a crowd, he would challenge the public to try and satisfy his hunger. They would give him piles of food and regular objects that he would treat as food, in a misguided attempt to fill him up. 

Though he preferred to eat snakes when it wasn't showtime, in one show he ate flint and cork as well as a pannier-full of apples, like an absolute professional. 

Like many people today, he ended up taking his work home with him and often found himself devouring entire animals in one sitting. The chief physician of the army once watched as he grabbed a live cat and disemboweled it using his teeth, before consuming the whole thing – first drinking the blood as a sort of soup starter, before moving on to the flesh. He vomited out the fur shortly afterward, but this didn't stop him from going on to eat puppies and dogs. He also ate an eel by first crushing its head with his teeth, before eating the body without chewing.

Despite this, he only weighed around 45 kilograms (100 pounds). His appetite was not gluttony or food addiction, but a medical problem. Upon joining the French Revolutionary Army, he was limited to army rations, and ended up performing tasks for other soldiers in exchange for their rations – otherwise rooting through dungheaps and garbage for scraps.

He fell ill of "famine" and was taken to a military hospital in Soultz. Here, he ate quadruple ration portions – but still was found scrounging scraps from others, and in the garbage for more.

The military decided to put his talent to use, giving him a wooden box to eat with a piece of paper concealed inside. When it came out the other end, the paper was still intact, and so they gave him thirty pounds of raw liver as a reward before attempting to use him to pass messages to prisoners. He was given a letter inside a box to swallow, before being into enemy territory. He was captured and flogged, pooping out the message before eating it one more time so that the enemy wouldn't know of the message.

Doctors tried to cure him of his ailment (in a time where that meant giving him opium and tobacco) but to no avail (see previous brackets). He ate boiled eggs in insane numbers in an attempt to suppress his appetite without success. His hunger grew, and the hospital would find him drinking the blood of other patients who had been bled as part of their medical care. He could also be found in the dead room, consuming the corpses therein.

When a 14-month-old child at the hospital disappeared, suspicion naturally turned to the man who would devour dead bodies, cats, dogs, eels, snakes and wash them all down with the blood of inpatients, and so he was forced out of the hospital. It was never proven that he ate the child – his M.O. was to wait until humans were dead, despite eating live animals – but it's easy to see why they wanted to be on the safe side.

Tarrare's life was not a long one. Four years after being kicked out of the hospital, he became bedridden, ending up in another hospital around 26 years old. He believed the cause of his distress was a golden fork that he had swallowed some years earlier, but doctors diagnosed him with advanced tuberculosis. Soon afterward, he started to have continuous diarrhea and died shortly thereafter.

This gave doctors the chance to examine his condition from the inside. They found his body became "a prey to [a] horrible corruption", rotted quickly, and inside his entrails were "putrefied, confounded together, and immersed in pus." His esophagus was recorded as being able to fit a cylinder a foot in circumference with ease. The golden fork was not in his body.

Though people have speculated that he suffered from polyphagia – essentially extreme hunger – it's not known to this day what caused this man's hunger to be so extreme that when a toddler went missing, they just assumed that he was the culprit.


 This Week in IFLScience

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