Lately, I have focused on bizarre food related history. This wasn’t anything that I did on purpose; in fact, it only happened that way because my research for the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 led me to the Bradford Sweets Poisoning and the London Beer Flood. This week we are moving away from food to the people who eat it. While these days, eating is a competitive sport, big appetites are nothing new to history. If anything, historical eaters make our modern competitive eaters look like amateurs. None more so than a Frenchman only known as Tararre, whose disgusting and bizarre eating habits would go on to inspire a play in his name.
A life of gluttony
Tararre began his life of gluttony early on. His biographer, Professor Percy, claims that his massive appetite began in childhood, and became so out of control in his teenage years that his parents forced him out of their house because they couldn’t afford to feed him. Now on his own, he spent years wandering France with a company of robbers and whores, and then as an act for an itinerant snake-oil salesman, drawing attention to the swindler by swallowing stones, whole apples, and live animals.
His career as a showman continued when he reached Paris in 1788, where he drew audiences with his disgusting gastronomic feats. He joined up with the French Army during the French Revolution, where he was constantly exhausted despite eating quadruple rations and scavenging in gutters and trash heaps. Military surgeons became interested in his case, and they began a series of bizarre experiments to test his appetite. He was given a live cat–he drank its blood by tearing its abdomen open with his teeth, and proceeded to eat it fur and all. He later vomited up the skin and fur. They fed him other live animals, all of which he ate with relish.
While under the dubious care of the military surgeons, Tararre met his biographer, Professor Percy. A chronicler of medical oddities, Percy took a special interest in his ravenous patient. The professor described his charge as thin and of normal height, weighing no more than 100lbs. His hair was fair and strangely soft, and his teeth were stained from his bizarre diet. His mouth was very wide. Doctors of the day did not think Tararre was mentally ill, judging by the standards of the day, but he was extremely apathetic, likely due to the constant hunger raging in him. Strangely, he was always sweaty, and his body odor was legendary even in a time period when everyone stunk. This became worse after a meal.
Tararre’s military career
Not knowing what else to do with the glutton, the French military decided to put his gastronomic prowess to good use. In a test run, a doctor at the military hospital persuaded the glutton to down a wooden box with a document inside, which was successfully retrieved two days later from the hospital latrines. With this test passed, Tararre became an unlikely spy.
Mission one for the glutton was to smuggle a document to a French colonel held by Prussian forces in a fortress near Neustadt. Disguised as a German peasant, despite not knowing any German whatsoever, he attempted the feat but was quickly arrested. He was beaten and eventually confessed what he was up to, and he ended up chained up until he passed the box containing the message. It turned out that the French feared trusting their new spy with anything too sensitive, and gave him a useless dummy message. The Prussians were not amused, and beat the unfortunate Tararre again before releasing him.
After that incident, Tararre returned to the military hospital and pleaded with Professor Percy to help him with his raging appetite. The doctor tried everything from opium to tobacco to cure Tararre’s out of control appetite, but nothing helped. The young man was driven by his hunter to stalk the back alleys of Paris, fighting with dogs over scraps of carrion in gutters. In the hospital itself, workers caught him more than once drinking blood from patients being bled. He was eventually banned from the morgue for taking chunks out of the corpses. Finally, a 14 month old infant disappeared from a ward. Doctors and porters blamed Tararre for the disappearance and chased him out of the hospital.
Little is known of what happened to Tararre in the next four years, but he eventually turned up at a hospital in Versailles, where he was admitted to a ward suffering the a suspected case of tuberculosis. He suffered constantly from diarrhea, and died within days of being admitted. Disgusting as he was in life, Tararre was even more putrid in death. His body rotted faster than normal, and was so foul that surgeons were unwilling to dissect him. When they finally did muster up the courage to do so, they found his entrails were swimming in pus, his liver large and swollen, and a massive gallbladder. His stomach was abnormally large, filling the majority of the abdominal cavity. The surgeons could actually see down his throat and into his stomach. His habit of swallowing food whole had distended his gullet.
Tararre’s disgusting and sad story raises the inevitable question–what was wrong with him? The go-to diagnosis seems to be polyphagia, a term for an increased and excessive appetite. However, slapping a term onto his behavior does little to explain why he was so hungry in the first place. While many diseases can cause polyphagia–from diabetes to hyperthyroidism–it is unclear which if any of these Tararre suffered from given the evidence recorded by his doctors. Any diagnosis will be speculative, and so the odds are we will never completely understand what drove Tararre’s enormous, disgusting appetite.
Bondeson, Jan. “The Cat Eaters.” Fortean Times. October 2001. Retrieved from: http://www.lightforcenetwork.com/sites/default/files/Fortean%20Times%20%20Cat%20Eaters.pdf
Godman, John D. The Journal of Foreign Medical Science and Literature. Volume 4. pgs 135-136 1824