It’s said that we all hide a darkness inside of us. For a man called Tarrare, his darkness was hunger and it was, quite literally, all-consuming.
The Hunger of Tarrare
Tarrare was born around 1772 around Lyon, France and, to put it mildly, had an appetite. As a teenager, he could eat a lot more than the average boy, at least more than once, he ate his own weight in beef but despite how much Tarrare ate, he wouldn’t gain weight… he was described as thin, weighing only around a hundred pounds. His skin hanging lose around his face and body. Bloodshot eyes. His teeth were described as stained and discolored, set inside a larger than average mouth and was described as smelling so bad that one could not stand within twenty paces of him, his aroma becoming even worse after he had eaten.
His parents, unable to keep up with the extreme expense of feeding him, kicked him out of the house. He wandered around France with thieves, prostitutes, and other undesirables before joining a band of performers where he became a sideshow act, showcasing his ability to eat corks, stones, and even live animals like mice, rats, and even cats. He would eat them all ravenously and was particularly fond of snake meat.
Upon the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition, Tarrare joined the French Revolutionary Army where he would do tasks for other soldiers in exchange for their rations, but even that wasn’t enough. He was known to have dug through garbage and dung heaps for more to eat and was never satisfied.
Tarare was hospitalized from exhaustion and ate quadruple rations every day. Still, his hunger was not satiated and he would dig through trash and even sneak into the apothecaries offices to eat poultice, a warm mass that was used to treat burns and injuries.
Tarare was ordered to remain at the hospital for testing. While there, he had to be physically restrained in the presence of food. When he was allowed to eat unimpeded, the surgeons and doctors would note that his stomach would distend grotesquely, blowing up like a balloon.
On one occasion, he was offered a cat. Tarare tore the animal’s abdomen open, drank its blood, and then proceeded to eat the animal whole, vomiting up its fur and skin a little while later. He ate a live eel without chewing, first having crushed its head with his teeth.
His hunger was making him more cruel than ever.
It was determined that Tarrare could be a military asset. Wooden boxes were constructed to hold documents inside. Tarrare would swallow them whole and act as a wartime courier, retrieving the boxes from his excrement for delivery. He was rewarded with a wheelbarrow full of thirty pounds of beef.
While on one of these missions he was captured and beaten by the enemy and, after that, Tarare did everything he could to avoid any further missions. He returned to the hospital where doctors hoped to cure his monstrous appetite. All attempts were unsuccessful and any attempt to keep Tarare on a strict diet were met by the patient sneaking away to eat out of the refuse, fighting dogs for scraps. He was caught several times drinking the blood of patients undergoing bloodletting. There was talk of committing him to an asylum for the insane.
Sometime later, a 14 month old toddler went missing. Tarare was immediately suspected of doing the unthinkable and, with no way to prove he had cannibalized the child, he was chased away from the hospital.
Four years later, Tarare appeared at a Versailles hospital. He had apparently swallowed a golden fork two years before he believed it had become lodged in his body somewhere, but turned out to be tuberculosis He was bedridden and weak and died a month later in 1798 following a severe case of diarrhea.
Tarare’s body decomposed so quickly that most of the doctors refused to autopsy him. One, however, did and discovered that the man’s gullet was unusually wide and surgeons could see all the way down into his stomach from his mouth. His liver and gallbladder were unusually large and his body was full of pus and ulcers. The fork that Tarare had swallowed was never found.
The cause of Tarare’s appetite was never discovered, though some experts have pointed to hyperthyroidism as a cause or perhaps a damaged amygdala, the part of the brain that controls hunger. One this is for certain, there was never a documented case of this type before Tarare, and there was never a documented case in the two hundred years following his death. Tarare was one of a kind and, for that… we should all be thankful.