There are many roads to fame. In our time, people have been known to eat foolish and disgusting things in order to attain celebrity¹; Tarrare the Eater, alone in the annals of Man, ate them because he was hungry. Like most regular people of his time and place, his exact date of birth was not noted and so does not survive, but he was born in the last years of the 1760s or the first of the 1770s, near Lyon. From the first, his appetite was vast: in any one day he could eat half again his weight in beef or pork, most of it in a single sitting. His parents, unable to support him, threw him out, and he lived for years off eating refuse, pigeons and clod, and stranger things for an act — one of his standard tricks was to devour corks and flints, another to swallow a whole bushel of apples whole, one by one. It is said that his favorite food was raw snake meat.
Although fundamentally of average, even slight, size, Tarrare's appearance was grotesque: his jowls were wrinkly bags flanking an unnaturally wide mouth, the teeth of which were chipped and blotchy; he could fit a dozen eggs in it at once. His skin was like a sack that hung about him, so large that he could swaddle himself in it once around when hungry: when he had eaten his fill, he would be swollen to the point of stretching it. Like a lizard in the sun, such a meal would leave him lethargic: he would flop about, groaning, immobile; his mouth would chaw the air. He was unnaturally hot, exuding a rank sweat, copious and constant; when recently sated, a steam would rise from him making his presence unbearable.
When the revolution came, Tarrare joined the army; although he ate not only his own rations but the scraps his fellow-soldiers threw away, he took ill with starvation and was sent to field hospital. There he was permitted quadruple rations, but still he would eat all the leftovers of the other patients, and the kitchen scraps; after a few days, he was caught breaking into the apothecary, where he had devoured a multitude of curatives and all the prepared poultices.
This unsurprisingly brought him to the attention of the army médécins, who, true to Enlightenment form, were fascinated by his copious appetite. The baron Percy, chief surgeon of the hospital, who wrote the monograph that brought Tarrare to posthumous fame, tells that
One day, in the presence of the chief physician of the army, Dr. Lorence, he seized by the neck and paws a large living cat, tore open its belly with his teeth, sucked its blood, and devoured it, leaving no part of it but the bare skeleton: half an hour afterwards he threw up the hairs of the cat, just as birds of prey, and other carnivorous animals, do.
Percy further maintains that he ate not only cats but also dogs; that he did so habitually; that both species of animal fled before him, as if they knew and feared the fate he intended for them. We might suspect that the odor that kept men at twenty paces had rather more to do with it... Other displays Tarrare performed included swallowing a live eel whole (»but we thought we perceived him crush its head between his teeth«) and eating in moments a dinner laid out for fifteen day-laborers: four large bowls of curdled milk and two enormous pies.
The famous Beauharnais heard of the prodigy and concluded that he could use Tarrare to carry messages; he was induced to swallow a wooden box containing a message, which he did with ease. A day and a half later he passed it, with the wrapping-paper around it still intact. In reward, Tarrare was brought a wheelbarrow full of raw liver and lung, which he ate on the spot. However, when a real attempt was made at sending a message, Tarrare was captured and beaten, and it was concluded that his terrible odor, his dimness and his propensity to go astray in search of food made him unfit for such duties. The physicians tried instead to cure him of his mad hunger, but nothing availed: opium, various acids, a prescription of pills of tobacco essence all failed to make any notable difference.
Not long after, the hospital workers began to catch Tarrare sating his appetite in increasingly disturbing ways: drinking the blood of phlebotomized patients; devouring corpses in the morgue... Finally, a fourteen-month-old baby disappeared without a trace: Tarrare was immediately suspected of having done something abominable, and was run out of the hospital and Army.
It was years before the baron Percy met him again, by chance, at the hospital of Versailles, where Tarrare lay dying. He himself believed that he had been pierced internally by a silver fork he had eaten accidentally, he would not say how; however, it was plain that this was not the case. He was immensely emaciated, and suffered from a copious pustulent diarrhea of incredible odiferousness; the ailment was labeled consumption, as were most wasting sicknesses at the time. Tarrare died soon after Percy's arrival; naturally that gentleman, along with Tessier, the chief surgeon at Versailles, dissected the corpse, but they could not complete the examination, because the body rotted with unnatural rapidity. Before having to break off due to the stench, the two doctors found that the liver was enormous and spongy; the gall bladder was likewise enlarged; the œsophagus could expand to over a foot in width; and the stomach filled almost the entire abdominal cavity. His entrails were entirely immersed in pus. No trace was found of a fork.
At his death, Tarrare was about 26 years of age.
1: In fact, a »trick eater« is an entire class of performer in France, although I daresay its prevalence has declined in recent years.