The Insatiable Tarrare: A Man of Unfathomable Hunger

The strange case of Tarrare’s insatiable appetite: A Medical Mystery of the 18th Century

Tarrare, a shadowy figure from 18th-century France, was a man defined by his extraordinary appetite. Born around 1772, his exact origins are shrouded in mystery, much like the man himself. Even his name remains a question mark, with some records referring to him as Tarare.

Tarrare’s condition was unique even when compared to others with similar conditions in the same epoch, such as Charles Domery and Jacques de Falaise, due to several unparalleled characteristics. Unlike these individuals who exhibited symptoms of polyphagia (excessive hunger), Tarrare’s appetite was accompanied by an ability to consume an amount of food equivalent to his own weight in a single day, without any significant weight gain or nutritional benefits. His physical peculiarities, such as an unusually elastic stomach, skin that could be wrapped around his waist when not distended, and an ever-present foul odor exacerbated by eating, set him apart. Furthermore, Tarrare’s case involved bizarre dietary preferences, including inedible objects and raw meat from various animals. While Domery and de Falaise also had heightened appetites, Tarrare’s combination of excessive consumption, lack of weight change, and specific physical anomalies remained unparalleled. His case was distinct for the detailed medical documentation and attention it received, offering a deep dive into the extremes of human medical anomalies. The exact cause of Tarrare’s condition, was speculated to be a combination of psychological and physiological factors.

Jacques de Falaise 1816
Jacques de Falaise 1816

From a young age, Tarrare exhibited an insatiable hunger. By his teenage years, he could devour a quarter of a cow, an amount equal to his own weight, in a single sitting. This insatiable appetite proved too much for his family to support, leading to his expulsion from his home.

Driven by hunger, Tarrare embarked on a nomadic existence, traveling with a band of thieves and prostitutes. He later found a peculiar niche as a performer for a traveling charlatan. Here, he shocked audiences with his ability to swallow seemingly inedible objects like corks, stones, and live animals whole. Even raw snake meat found its way into his ravenous stomach.

In 1788, Tarrare made his way to Paris, attempting to carve a niche as a street performer. While initially successful, a mishap during one of his shows led him to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. There, he recovered from a severe intestinal blockage, even offering to devour the surgeon’s watch and chain as a grotesque display of his abilities.

Despite his extraordinary appetite, Tarrare possessed an average build and height. However, his body displayed unsettling characteristics. When not gorging himself, his loose skin hung limply, allowing him to wrap the excess around his waist. After a meal, his abdomen would balloon dramatically, resembling a grotesque parody of a human form. His cheeks, too, were remarkably elastic, capable of holding a dozen eggs or apples when stretched.

Tarrare’s physical peculiarities were matched by an equally bizarre set of bodily functions. His body ran hot, emitting a constant foul odor that could reportedly clear a 20-step radius. Eating only worsened this stench. His eyes would become bloodshot, and a visible vapor emanated from his body after consuming a large meal. He was plagued by chronic, fetid diarrhea, yet somehow managed to maintain a relatively normal weight despite his enormous food intake. Aside from his eating habits, he displayed no signs of mental illness, though he did possess a distinct apathy and a noticeable lack of intellectual curiosity.

The exact cause behind Tarrare’s condition remains an enigma. While other cases of extreme hunger have been documented, none were as extreme as his, and none were ever autopsied. Theories abound, with some suggesting hyperthyroidism as a possible culprit due to its association with rapid weight loss, sweating, and increased appetite. Others speculate that damage to the amygdala, a part of the brain linked to hunger regulation, might have been responsible.

The outbreak of the War of the First Coalition found Tarrare enlisted in the French Revolutionary Army. However, military rations proved insufficient to quell his monstrous hunger. He resorted to scavenging for leftovers, rummaging through refuse heaps, and even begging from fellow soldiers for scraps. This wasn’t enough. Exhaustion from hunger eventually led to his hospitalization.

Even at the military hospital, Tarrare’s insatiable appetite continued. Despite quadrupled rations, he remained famished, resorting to stealing food scraps from other patients and even sneaking into the apothecary’s room to devour poultices. This bizarre behavior piqued the curiosity of the military surgeons, Dr. Courville and Baron Percy.

The surgeons decided to subject Tarrare to a series of physiological experiments. One such experiment involved providing him with an entire meal meant for 15 laborers. Tarrare devoured everything, leaving not a single morsel behind. He then promptly fell asleep, his belly distended like a massive balloon. Another experiment involved feeding him live animals, including cats, snakes, lizards, and even an entire eel, which he swallowed whole, without bothering to chew.

After months of using Tarrare as a human guinea pig, the military authorities saw an opportunity to exploit his unique abilities. Dr. Courville, eager to continue his studies, proposed a daring plan. He suggested using Tarrare as a courier, carrying secret messages concealed within his digestive system. A test run proved successful, with Tarrare retrieving a message hidden inside a wooden box after excreting it two days later.

General Beauharnais, impressed but hesitant about trusting Tarrare with sensitive information, gave him a first mission: delivering a message to a French colonel imprisoned by the Prussians. The message, however, was a mere formality, a ploy to test Tarrare’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, Tarrare’s inability to speak German led to his capture when he attracted suspicion while trying to blend in as a German peasant. Though a body search revealed nothing, the Prussians eventually extracted the message after Tarrare spent 30 hours chained to a latrine. Infuriated by the message”s triviality, the Prussians subjected Tarrare to a mock execution, complete with a noose. However, at the last minute, they relented, opting for a harsh beating before releasing him back to French lines.

Shaken but determined to avoid further military service, Tarrare returned to the hospital, pleading with Dr. Percy for a cure for his insatiable hunger. Percy, however, found no solution. Laudanum, vinegar, tobacco pills, and mountains of soft-boiled eggs all proved ineffective. Tarrare’s ravenous hunger remained a relentless master.

His attempts to adhere to a controlled diet were equally futile. Driven by desperation, he resorted to scavenging for offal outside butcher shops, even fighting stray dogs over scraps. Within the hospital, he was caught multiple times attempting to drink the blood of other patients and even stealing bodies from the morgue for a grotesque feast. Some doctors, convinced of his mental illness, advocated for his transfer to an asylum. However, Percy, captivated by the medical anomaly that was Tarrare, resisted.

The turning point came with the disappearance of a 14-month-old child within the hospital walls. Suspicion immediately fell upon Tarrare. Though there was no concrete evidence, the timing and his bizarre behavior made him a prime suspect. Percy, unable to defend him against the mounting accusations, was forced to expel Tarrare from the hospital.

Four years vanished into a black hole. Then, in 1798, a message arrived from Versailles. Dr. Percy was summoned to see a patient requesting his specific care. It was Tarrare, a shadow of his former self, bedridden and weak. He claimed to have swallowed a golden fork two years prior, convinced it was lodged within him, causing his current misery. He hoped Percy could somehow retrieve it.

However, a seasoned physician like Percy could easily recognize the signs of advanced tuberculosis. A month later, Tarrare succumbed to the relentless grip of the disease, his body ravaged by a persistent, debilitating diarrhea.

The stench of death hung heavy as hospital surgeons contemplated an autopsy. The sheer peculiarity of Tarrare’s case sparked their curiosity. Despite the repulsive nature of the task, Mr. Tessier, a surgeon at the Versailles hospital, decided to defy convention and proceed with the examination.

The autopsy revealed a body unlike any they had ever encountered. Tarrare’s esophagus was abnormally wide, resembling a cavernous tunnel leading to his stomach. When they pried open his jaws, a vast, cavernous space greeted them. His internal organs were ravaged by the disease. His liver and gallbladder were grotesquely enlarged, riddled with ulcers, and occupied a disproportionate amount of his abdominal cavity. The golden fork, however, remained elusive, lost within the abyss of Tarrare’s digestive system.

Thus ended the enigmatic life of Tarrare, a man whose story continues to baffle and intrigue. His insatiable hunger, his bizarre physical characteristics, and the unanswered questions surrounding his condition all contribute to the enduring mystery that is Tarrare.

The golden fork was never found. This marks the end of the peculiar and tragic story of Tarrare, a man whose medical condition remains a topic of fascination and mystery in medical history.

Featured image: Wikimedia

Last Updated on April 8, 2024 by retrofuturista

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