Medical marvel. Carnival freak. Secret agent. Cold-blooded killer. Call Tarrare anything, but you can’t call him boring. This 18th-century Frenchman has gone down in history for his insatiable appetite and disgusting eating habits. He could—and did—eat the most horrific things and, even stranger, he could eat them all day, every day, without ever gaining a pound. Doctors still don’t know exactly what afflicted Tarrare—but we do know that his life story is one of the most disturbing and bizarre tales of all time.
Tarrare was born in the French countryside of Lyon in 1772. While his birth was unremarkable, by the time Tarrare was a teenager, signs of his, um, gastronomical might were already apparent. At just 17 years old, he could tuck away his own body weight in food...in a single day. He’d eat a quarter of a cow all by himself.
At a certain point, Tarrare’s parents simply couldn’t handle their son’s enormous appetite. He was quite literally eating them out of house and home, and so, in a heartbreaking turn of events, they banished their own son. Abandoned by his parents, young Tarrare fell in with a risqué group of new friends: thieves and sex workers.
Tarrare earned his keep among these new friends by becoming part of their traveling act. Before a con-artist took to the stage, Tarrare would warm up the crowd with his insatiable appetite. He’d start by swallowing corks and stones, and end by polishing off an entire bag of apples. But his antics hid a dark secret: Tarrare’s extravagant appetite would distract the crowd as the theater troupe snuck among them and picked their pockets.
Tarrare was pretty much forced into a life of crime. The man needed to eat so much so frequently that he had no choice but to beg for food—and if passersby weren’t feeling generous, Tarrare would steal to get his fill.
After spending some time with the troupe of charlatans, Tarrare decided to strike out on his own. He transformed his problematic appetite into his meal ticket. After moving to Paris, he rebranded himself as a solo street performer, polishing off bags of coins for stunned on-lookers.
Even though Tarrare ate an ungodly amount of food each and every day, he could blend into a crowd without a hitch. He had soft brown hair, a slim build, and stood at an average height. The only extraordinary thing about Tarrare’s appearance was his noticeably melancholy attitude. Fair enough, dude had problems.
But Tarrare only looked normal at first sight. The longer you stared at him, the stranger he began to appear. His teeth were stained and his lips were eerily thin. If he held up his shirt on a day where he hadn’t eaten enough, you’d see an astonishing amount of loose skin. There was so much that Tarrare could gather it up and tie it around his waist like a belt.
Tarrare’s weird appearance had nothing on his smell. The man had such a powerfully awful body odor that people struggled to be within twenty steps of him. After Tarrare ate his fill, onlookers said that the smell got even worse and even that they could see vapors rise from his swollen body. Apparently, he was incredibly sensitive to heat and if you dared to get close enough to touch him, he’d be noticeably hot.
It shouldn’t surprise you to know that Tarrare suffered from lifelong problems with his daily trips to the bathroom, especially for his number twos. Not to go into the gory details, but one source described their smell as positively “fetid beyond all conception.” I’ll take your word for it, my dude.
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Tarrare ruled the roost in the Paris street performer scene, but his risky act didn’t always go off without a hitch. In 1788, an unknown substance finally overpowered Tarrare: He’d eaten something, but unlike all his other odd meals, this was one that he just couldn’t expel. As Tarrare’s onlookers realized that something was very, very wrong, they leaped into action, carrying their stinky, sweaty street performer to a local hospital.
It took a powerful dose of laxatives, but Tarrare managed to expel the mysterious food that had finally defeated Tarrare’s hitherto unconquerable digestive system. Ever the showman, Tarrare immediately sat up and restarted his act. He wanted to prove that he’d recovered by being a model patient and eating his doctor’s watch and chain.
His doctor drily replied that if Tarrare dared to do so, he’d slice open Tarrare’s stomach to retrieve the items himself.
In so many ways, Tarrare was unlike most men of his age and social rank—but when the War of the First Coalition saw France attack the formidable Habsburg monarchy, he finally had common cause with his brethren. Like many other 20-somethings, Tarrare decided to fight for his country and joined the French army in 1792. There was just one problem...
18th-century army rations weren’t exactly buffet-level meals—and Tarrare’s stomach could definitely tell the difference. The medical marvel tried to survive on the army’s meal plan, but Tarrare became incredibly weak and even had to be admitted to the army hospital. Even when his doctors, Dr. Courville and George Didier, gave him four men’s worth of rations, it still wasn’t even close to enough.
Since Tarrare wasn’t getting enough food out of his quadruple rations, he had to get creative with what he considered edible. Ravished, he’d eat the scraps off his fellow soldiers’ plates, plow through the garbage, and even eat poultices, hopefully before they were used, but with Tarrare, honestly, who can say?
Despite all his outrageous meals, Tarrare weighed barely 100 pounds.
Courville, Didier, and their colleagues were well and truly baffled by their bizarre patient. Like me after a break-up, Tarrare could eat a seemingly limitless amount of, well, anything. As the medical professionals investigated their star patient, their confusion transformed into excitement. What if they didn’t think of Tarrare as a drain on resources, but a thrilling opportunity for some weird statecraft?
The French doctors began to investigate the limits of Tarrare’s theoretically endless appetite. First, they served him a meal that would normally feed 15 (!) people, probably expecting that Tarrare wouldn’t get close to finishing. Instead, Tarrare finished off all 15 plates, licked his lips, and immediately entered the 18th century’s most intense food coma.
After the buffet test, the doctors decided to try out some far stranger, more disturbing experiments on their hungry guinea pig. They gave him a dish that pet lovers are not going to like: a live cat. Perhaps hardened by his life on the grimy streets of France, Tarrare didn’t blink. He ate the entire animal, and then vomited up the fur and skin.
Tarrare’s stomach was cartoonish in its varying sizes. If he hadn’t eaten enough, it would lie flat and mostly consist of loose skin. But after an enormous meal, it would expand, growing larger and larger until it looked like “a large balloon,” according to Tarrare’s doctor.
After Tarrare had offended all of France’s cat ladies, the doctors decided to even the playing field and tick off everyone else. They fed Tarrare animals including snakes, lizards, and even live puppies. He finished them all without a second thought. The doctors were determined to stump their over-eater—so they upped the stakes...
The medical team decided to go with the gross-out option and presented Tarrare with a live eel. Tarrare picked it up, looked the doctors in the eye, and lowered the entire animal down his throat until it was tucked away in his tummy. Yup, Tarrare ate the whole eel without any chewing.
Tarrare’s jaw seemed normal when it was closed, but when he opened it up, people’s eyes widened in fear and disgust. He resembled a snake unhinging its jaw to swallow its prey whole. Tarrare’s jaw and throat were so large that he could dump multiple apples down his gullet without blinking.
Once the doctors realized that Tarrare could truly eat anything, they decided to turn their attention away from cuddly animals and towards the War of the First Coalition, which was ravaging France. The general Alexandre de Beauharnais realized that the French forces could use Tarrare’s strange talents for the good of the country and turn the army’s bottomless pit into a top-secret messenger.
But the way they did this is completely disgusting. Get ready, y’all.
Here was the plan: The doctors would feed Tarrare a box with a crucial memo inside. Once the secret dossier was safely in his stomach, Tarrare would cross borders without enemy agents being any wiser. He’d get to the addressee, then, um, use the bathroom, and give them the note—hopefully after wiping off its “envelope.”
Tarrare was thrilled to hear about his new mission. He eagerly gobbled down the top-secret military documents in front of the Army of the Rhine’s commanders. As a reward for swallowing the box, General Beauharnais gave Tarrare a chilling thank-you meal. It consisted of 30 pounds of bull’s lungs and livers and to make matters even more refined, they were served raw in a wheelbarrow.
Tarrare ate them immediately, of course.
After enjoying his, um, unique reward meal, Tarrare promptly traveled to Prussia to deliver his crucial dossier to its rightful owner. As the French army’s newest secret agent, Tarrare felt like he was on top of the world—but little did he know, everything would derail in the most terrifying way possible.
One of Tarrare’s lesser-known talents was his imitation of a chipmunk. His cheeks were incredibly stretchy and he could hold over ten apples in them at a time.
Tarrare may have been great at eating, but our boy was not meant for espionage. He was supposed to be going undercover as a German peasant, but he hadn’t brushed up on his German. When the Prussians noticed that something was up with their new neighbor, they immediately tattled, leading the authorities to imprison Tarrare.
Led by the sinister General Zoegli, the Prussians were ruthless. They stripped Tarrare and subjected him to brutal physical torment. The amateur spy tried, but he just couldn’t withstand their assault. He lasted 24 hours before he broke and told the Prussians everything about his “secret” mission. Furious and oddly compelled, they decided to see if Tarrare was telling the truth. They chained him to a toilet and waited patiently for the letter to appear.
Nature called and Tarrare did his business. After the Prussian soldiers cleaned off the box and extracted the letter, they were ready for a nice, big pay-off, especially considering the nasty path they’d taken to get to those sweet military secrets. Unfortunately for them, that’s not how things turned out. When the soldiers read the note, their jaws dropped.
It turns out that the French army was keeping some secrets of their own. The whole Prussia mission wasn’t what it seemed: It was just an elaborate trial run to test Tarrare’s espionage abilities. The supposedly crucial documents he carried in his stomach were mere scrap paper! When the Prussians read the letter and realized they’d been tricked, they were furious. They brutally beat Tarrare, but little did he know, his punishment was just beginning.
The Prussians saved their most vicious punishment for last: execution. They mocked Tarrare as they took him to the gallows, slowly lowering the noose over his trembling neck. As Tarrare sobbed, he accepted his fate, only for everything to change. At the last moment, General Zoegli took pity on Tarrare and decided against the execution.
He sent his prisoner back to the French border, trusting that he’d tell his army not to mess with Prussia.
As if that story isn’t terrifying enough, another source insists that Tarrare’s torment was even more disturbing. Apparently, the entire “execution” was for show. The Prussian forces never wanted to kill Tarrare. Instead, they wanted to traumatize him so thoroughly that the French Lieutenants would quake in their boots.
Tarrare’s first mission couldn’t have gone worse. He was deeply scarred by the entire process, especially the vicious assault and faux-hanging. Once he got back to France, he told doctors that he’d submit to any experiment, any trial, any idea to cure his endless eating. No matter what it took, Tarrare was determined not to be a freak anymore.
The doctors tried numerous medications to stop Tarrare’s insatiable appetite. Dr. Percy gave him wine vinegar treatments, tobacco pills, and even laudanum. Then, on a strange whim, they tried feeding Tarrare a diet that was just soft-boiled eggs. None of it worked.
As the days turned into weeks, it became clear that Tarrare was never going to change. Every night, he would sneak out of the facility and scavenge garbage piles and discarded meats outside butcher shops. He’d even go into alleyways and fight stray dogs for scraps. And if those meal options sound dark, it’s nothing compared to Tarrare’s later eating habits.
Tarrare was insatiable. He wasn’t getting enough food from the medical facility and even his nightly feasts didn’t satisfy him—so he turned to a truly chilling option. Whenever fellow patients were having blood taken, he’d rush over to slurp it up from their pulsing veins. And that’s not even the worst part.
Pretty soon, low-key vampirism wasn’t even enough for Tarrare. He needed more, and so he took it to the next level. The medical marvel began to sneak into the medical facility’s morgue and, get ready for this, devour dead bodies. Tarrare had officially graduated from a weird glutton to an outright cannibal.
Tarrare’s behavior was getting more sinister by the day. The hospital staff tried to convince his physician, Dr. Percy, to consider placing Tarrare in an insane asylum. The doctor refused, insisting that Tarrare was unwell in body, not mind. Percy didn’t know it at the time, but he would regret his refusals...
Up until this point, Tarrare had managed to rein in his appetite to animals, inanimate objects, and dead bodies. It wasn’t the best option, but at least he wasn’t hurting people. However, as time passed, Tarrare began to crave even more. In 1794, the worst possible thing happened: A 14-month-old baby disappeared from the hospital where Tarrare was being treated.
When it came time to identify suspects who were responsible for the missing infant, all eyes turned to Tarrare. If he had hurt an innocent baby, he was officially beyond hope. Even Dr. Percy, the man who had stood by Tarrare for so many years, was speechless. A furious crowd chased Tarrare out of town until they finally lost track of the supposed child-killer.
After that, no one heard from Tarrare for four long years.
Tarrare’s physician, Dr. Percy, once said that dogs and cats would flee from Tarrare, almost like they knew “what kind of fate he was preparing for them.” Gah.
Remember the fiasco with the espionage poop-letters and the Prussian forces? Well, it’s not over yet. One source claims that the Prussians never managed to read the dummy memo for an utterly disgusting reason. Before the enemy forces could extract the box from Tarrare’s waste, Tarrare beat them to the punch: He consumed his own feces so that the box could hide in his stomach once again.
No one knows what Tarrare did during his four long years of exile, but we do know that he did not want to be part of regular society. He only resurfaced because of a heartbreaking reason. Tarrare was incredibly ill with tuberculosis and only ventured into the town of Versailles to see a doctor and pray that he’d receive help.
Tarrare managed to cling to life for a month after he arrived at the hospital, during which time his old physician, Dr. Percy, came to visit him. Sadly, Tarrare wasn’t long for this world. After being ravaged by a brutal bout of diarrhea, Tarrare passed away at just 26 years old. But Tarrare’s strange story doesn’t end with his death...
Percy knew he had to conduct an autopsy on Tarrare and try to understand what factors had contributed to his horrifying appetite. The medical team had no idea what to expect, but nothing could have prepared them for what they found. When they sliced Tarrare open, they saw that his corpse was full of pus. And that’s not all.
The doctors learned that Tarrare’s throat was bizarrely enormous, helping to explain how he could lower an entire eel down his gullet. They also saw that if they opened his jaws and looked down, they could actually see straight into the man’s stomach. Not only that, but his liver, gall bladder, and stomach were also far larger than usual, his entrails were “putrefied,” and worst of all, his stomach was riddled with painful ulcers.
Percy and his team of doctors probably could have learned more about Tarrare’s wacky body, but unfortunately for them, Tarrare wasn’t one to let death get in the way of a lifelong hobby: stinking to high heaven. The smell of Tarrare’s diseased innards was so unbearable that after a short time, even Dr. Percy gave up on the autopsy.
What do you feed the man who can eat anything? If you ask Tarrare, the answer is simple: snakes. Apparently, they were one of his favorite foods.
Modern scientists and historians don’t think Tarrare was a freak—just a very sick man. They hypothesize that he had to eat such extraordinary amounts because he suffered from an extreme form of hyperthyroidism. Their theory makes a lot of sense: it would also explain Tarrare’s sensitivity to heat and his strangely soft hair, both symptoms of hyperthyroid issues.
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