The Strange Life of Tarrare, the Insatiable Glutton

Some people in history have been so strange and baffling that we may never know their story. For example, Tarrare was known for his extreme hunger and bizarre eating habits. Records indicate that he ate constantly and could eat up to 20 pounds of food in one day.

What caused him to be so greedy, and what happened to him after he died? To this day, his story is a medical marvel and one that is still a mystery for over 250 years. Today, we will look at the mysterious life of Tarrare and try to answer some of these questions.

Illustratio from Gustave Doré’s Gargantua and Pantagruel Gustave Doré/Wikimedia Commons

Who Was Tarrare Before He Became The Weirdest Man In History?

The strange Frenchman was a true manifestation of one of the seven deadly sins known as Gluttony. Tarrare was born in rural Lyon outside France in 1772; sources have difficulty validating the exact timeframe, but his life began in the late eighteenth century.

It’s also unclear whether Tarrare, or Tarare, is his actual name, but in all references to him in history, he is known by this name. 

Not much is known about his early life, but we do know that he was orphaned at a young age because his parents could not afford to care for him as his appetite grew to voracious heights.

As a child, he displayed some bizarre eating habits that would make him famous (or infamous) later in life. He was known to eat not only food that most people would find disgusting but also inedible objects like dirt and stones.

His appetite was so ravenous that he would eat anything that he could fit into his mouth, no matter how distasteful or dangerous it may have been. Despite his appetite, Tarrare was not a very big man. He was of average height and build, making his insatiable hunger mysterious. By the age of 17, he was eating the equivalent of half a cow or his entire body weight of food per day.

After his family disowned him, the Frenchman struck out on his own, and his hunger began to take on a more sinister edge. At the same time, his story grew stranger, like something out of a dark fairy tale; unfortunately, Tarrare was a faithful slave to his hunger. Forced to throw in with a group of thieves and beggars to survive, he began to eat food and inanimate objects as entertainment.

Onlookers say that he would put objects like rocks and even small animals into his mouth as repulsed onlookers tried to stump his endless appetite. This sickening display was a form of entertainment for the young

Frenchman, who found a twisted sort of joy in shocking those around him with his bizarre behavior. Moreover, Tarrare used this act to distract the onlookers from his merry band of thieves as they relieved their guests of their belongings. As he grew older, Tarrare eventually left the group of thieves and set out on his own. Still, no explanation explained why he ate so much or what motivated his hunger.

What Made Tarrare’s Appetite So Insatiable?

While he was alive, no medical professional could say for sure what made Tarrare’s appetite so insatiable. However, a few theories have been suggested. The first likely, explanation is that Tarrare had a tapeworm infection. Tapeworms are known to consume the food that their host eats. However, this theory does not explain why Tarrare ate inedible objects or why he would eat so much food.

The second explanation is that Tarrare may have had Prader-Willi syndrome. This rare genetic disorder causes patients to exhibit an insatiable hunger. However, this theory does not explain why Tarrare also ate inedible objects or how he was so thin as those afflicted with this disorder tend to be obese.

The third explanation is that Tarrare may have had a form of pica. Pica is a condition where people crave and eat non-food items, although it usually affects children and women when they are pregnant temporarily.

Unfortunately, people with mental disabilities may suffer from Pica much longer, putting themselves at risk for issues like lead poisoning. However, this theory does not explain how Tarrare could eat such large quantities of food or why he remained so thin.

The fourth and most likely, explanation is that Tarrare had Polyphagia caused by a severe case of Hyperthyroidism. While there are many causes of Polyphagia, such as stress, diabetes, or a side effect of medication, in Tarrare’s case, an overactive thyroid is most likely the cause.

His ravenous hunger is most likely due to an overactive metabolism and his thin frame. It is also worth noting that those suffering from hyperthyroidism often suffer from weight loss, sweatiness, nervousness, and hair loss. Unfortunately, this describes Tarrare to a tee.

How Did Tarrare’s Strange Appetite Affect His Life?

As one can imagine, Tarrare’s hunger profoundly affected his life; he was constantly stealing food to satisfy his never-ending appetite. At first glance, Tarrare was of average height and build, with golden hair. However, upon closer inspection, one would notice that his teeth were stained, his breath was foul, and his skin was stretched, folded, and constantly covered in sweat.

Before he overindulged himself, reports indicate that he could tie the loose skin around his waist like a belt, and his stomach looked sunken in and sickly. It was only after a meal that his stomach and cheeks would swell up like a balloon. Tarrare would evacuate his meals soon after eating them, leaving behind a truly “fetid” display that was horrible beyond conception.

In addition, no one could stand to be near Tarrare due to the smell that came from his body. People described it as smelling like rotting meat and animal feces.

Medical records also indicated that his body was constantly hot to the touch. Many bystanders would comment that he seemed to emit a vaporous cloud of odor that would make people gag and dry heave. This smell only seemed to get worse after each meal.

He was always on the move, as he could not stay in one place for too long without getting into trouble. He would steal food from markets, homes, and even the garbage. All in all, Tarrare seemed to be in control of his mind and sanity, even as he ate live animals like cats and dogs.

Tarrare, The Soldier

Around the time doctors began to take an interest in his case, the First Coalition War started during the French Revolution in 1792. Tarrare took the opportunity to put his insatiable appetite to use. He enlisted in the French Army as a soldier of the French Army of Rhine and eventually caught the attention of Dr. Percy and Dr. Courville.

Unfortunately, his rations could do nothing for him, so like before, he would scrounge through garbage and eat anything he could find.

The lack of appropriate rations made him extremely sick and weak, so he had to go to the hospital for treatment. Both Dr. Percy and Dr. Courville thought to test Tarrare’s endless appetite and experiment on him as they tried to understand his condition.

Both doctors decided to try and satisfy Tarrare’s inexplicable hunger by giving him the rations of four soldiers. When that did not work, they decided to try a buffet-style meal on him that should have been enough to feed 15 people, including two large meat pies and gallons of milk.

Even this did not satiate Tarrare, and the doctors were at a loss. Stunned by Tarrare’s nonchalance and ease at which he consumed this banquet, they sought to test him on more uncommon types of food.

A series of gruesome experiments followed where Tarrare ate a live cat, snakes, lizards, and live puppies. Medical records indicate that Tarrare regurgitated its skin and fur after eating the cat.

On one occasion, reports suggest that the doctors even gave him a live eel to eat, which he had no trouble doing. Nothing edible or inedible seemed to faze Tarrare, and he would eat anything put in front of him.

The doctors eventually gave up on their trials, revealing another plan laid out by a French General named Alexandre Beauharnais. He wanted to use Tarrare as a spy who would ferry messages across the Prussian border through his GI tract.

They placed the message in a wooden box, which he devoured, and rewarded him with a 30-pound wheelbarrow full of bull lungs and livers. Gratefully, the sideshow freak ate the entire contents and went on his merry way across the border.

Unfortunately, Tarrare was not spy material and was quickly discovered and captured before he could deliver his message to the French colonel behind enemy lines. Shortly after, Tarrare gave up the French army’s plans after being beaten and tortured for being a spy.

The Prussians waited for his bowels to move, and what they found was a note that contained no actual information they could use. In anger, they beat Tarrare further and planned to execute him for his role. After the psychological stress of going through the ordeal, Tarrare had gotten his fill of military work.

The Prussians felt sorry for the man, let Tarrare go, and sent him back to the French army. Having nowhere else to turn, he returned to Dr. Percy and begged him to cure his ailment.

Tarrare’s Hunger Becomes a Liability

It was clear that Tarrare’s hunger had become more of a liability than an asset. In addition, he cost the French army too much money in rations, and his spying escapades yielded no results, so they relieved him of his duties. From then on, Tarrare spent his time in the hospital as Dr. Percy continued to try and understand his condition.

They tried different medications on him, some of which are incredibly taboo, including cocaine, tobacco pills, and laudanum opiates, but nothing worked.

Some might even say that the cocktail of medicines seemed to make his problems worse, driving his appetite to unfathomable levels. During this time, Tarrare’s appetite turned for the worst as he dined on slaughterhouse scraps and even drank the blood of patients undergoing bloodletting treatments.

Illustration of Tarrare

But, despite his terrible food choices, it continued to worsen as he moved on to eating corpses in the hospital morgue to satisfy his dark hunger.

Tarrare’s eating habits disgusted even the doctors, but the final straw happened when a 14-month-old child went missing in the hospital. Known to be a cannibal, Tarrare was the first and only suspect as rumors spread like wildfire that he was involved.

Finally, Dr. Percy could no longer take Tarrare’s presence and banished the glutton from the hospital. Historically, there aren’t any records that prove Tarrare ate the child, but the belief was strong, and everyone knew he had crossed a line. At this point, Tarrare disappeared and wasn’t seen or heard from for the better part of four years.

Tarrare’s Final Days

Dr. Percy may have thought that he had seen the last of Tarrare, but he would be proven wrong. In 1798, officials called the doctor to a hospital in Versailles, where he found the glutton dying of Tuberculosis. Unfortunately, there was nothing that could heal him, and Tarrare passed away within the month from complications of Tuberculosis and diarrhea.

While his death was not surprising, the condition of his body was astonishing to the doctors. An autopsy revealed that Tarrare’s innards were “putrefied” and “covered in pus.”

In addition, they discovered that the glutton’s stomach nearly made up his entire abdominal cavity as it had stretched from eating such grotesque amounts of food. In the recorded medical records of the autopsy, doctors recount that his liver appeared to be extremely large and his gallbladder. Not to mention that his stomach seemed to be overtaken by pus and ulcers.

His throat was also so wide that his jaw could stretch, as the report put it, “a cylinder of a foot in circumference.” If you looked into his mouth, you could see down to his stomach.

Eventually, doctors had to stop the autopsy as the smell of Tarrare’s rotting corpse was too much to bear. Thus, the story of Tarrare, the insatiable glutton, came to an end. The glutton died at the young age of 26.

A Bizarre Life

While his life was short, it was indeed a bizarre one. Tarrare’s story reminds us that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

As for his death, it seems only fitting that someone with such a dark hunger would die in such a gruesome way. Yet, even in the end, Tarrare’s insatiable appetite was on display for the world to see.

Tarrare’s story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when someone gives into their darkest desires. His hunger drove him to do things that most people would consider unthinkable, ultimately leading to his demise.

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