Tarrare: The Man Who Ate Everything

Tarrare was a French 18th century man who is known to history for having the largest appetite known to man. He would regularly eat ridiculous amounts of food without ever gaining weight. This included entire baskets of fruit, piles of garbage, rocks, corks, dogs, cats, a quarter of a cow, and – reportedly – an entire living 14-month old toddler! In this episode, we examine the case of the insatiable Tarrare and then play the quick quiz with Magician Rebecca Spectre.

Tarrare was a man from Lyon, France. He was born in 1772 and it’s unknown if Tarrare was the man’s real name, or simply a nickname taken from the French saying “bom-bom-tarrare” – which translates to basically “Boom goes the dynamite.”

From a very young age, the boy had an insatiable appetite. So much so, that he was abandoned by his parents, who couldn’t afford to keep him fed. How much was this kid eating? Well as a young kid, he would regularly eat one quarter of a cow – more than his own body weight. And he would do so and never gain weight. He was always a skinny kid. So his parents, out of self preservation, kicked him out. 

He roamed the streets as a teen, eating anything he could. Even garbage. He eventually found his way into a band of prostitutes and thieves. He would travel around with them, and during the day would perform on the streets, eating ridiculous amounts for the amazement of onlookers. While he was always described as being thin as a rail, his mouth was said to be freakishly large. For the crowd of people, he would swallow corks, rocks, and anything people would point to, and eat them without a problem. This included entire baskets of apples and – sadly – cats and dogs. A contemporaneous account from an eye-witness used these exact words: “he seized a live cat with his teeth, eventrated it, sucked its blood, and ate it, leaving the bare skeleton only. In about thirty minutes he rejected the hairs in the manner of birds of prey and carnivorous animals.”

At one point, it was reported that he bit the head off an eel, then swallowed the whole eel whole. One bite. Similarly, it was said that he preferred snakes, lizards and other reptiles. At one point, there’s an account of Tarrare attending a dinner for 15 people. He ate all of the food and drink for all 15 people. And being a skinny guy, when he would do this, it would change his physical appearance. 

After eating, his abdomen would blow up like a balloon. And while we’re talking about his physical characteristics – the guy was disgusting. Not just his eating habits. He was said to be constantly covered in sweat, horribly smelly and unclean. It was said you could smell him so strongly you couldn’t stand within 20 paces of the man.  I already mentioned his abnormally large mouth, but inside that mouth, his teeth were dark and permanently stained. And due to the constant shrinking and growing of his abdomen, he was reported to have skin that would hang loosely from his body. After he ate, his eyes would be bloodshot and the smell would get worse. And the guy was constantly farting. Some have said that’s the origin of the use of the phrase “Bom-bom tarare” to describe him. Boom goes the dynamite.

Tarrare was sort of a vagrant. He didn’t have anywhere to go, and was literally only motivated to eat. In the 1790s, The War of the First Coalition broke out within France. He joined up with the French Revolutionary Army. Finally – he had found purpose. But if you think modern Army rations wouldn’t be enough to satisfy your hunger, try being Tarrere. He found himself trading all sorts of duties and jobs just to be able to eat the rations of his fellow soldiers. This still wasn’t enough. He would eat everything he could find – including inside dumpsters and trash heaps and all of the gauze for wounds he could find – and he was still malnourished and ended up in the hospital. Doctors were stumped. No one had any explanation for the strange eating habits or the fact that he couldn’t put on weight. The man was constantly malnourished. 

At one point, the military had an idea to put Tarrare’s unusual ability to their use. They would turn him into a spy. He would swallow military documents, travel in plain clothes through enemy lines, and deliver plans to people who needed them. In other words, someone had to rummage through his droppings to retrieve the plans. At this point, we’re talking about the Army of the Rhine, which was a group trying to bring the French Revolution to the Prussians. The generals put him to a test. They put documents inside a wooden box and wrapped it in paper, then gave it to Tarrare to eat. He ate the box, no problem, so they rewarded him with 30 pounds of random cuttings from a cow. 

So once he’d proven himself, they gave him his first official assignment. A French Colonel had been imprisoned in Prussia and the Army of the Rhine needed to deliver important plans to the colonel. So they gave these plans to Tarrare to swallow. What he didn’t know was this was just another test. The plans he was carrying were nothing but a note to confirm that the colonel had in fact gotten the message from Tarrare. But he didn’t know this at the time, so he dressed like a German peasant and headed toward Landau, where the man was being held captive. Heck, he already smelled like a peasant. But when locals discovered that he didn’t speak their language, it sent up red flags and before long, he found himself in front of a Prussian Commander, who was now accusing him of being a spy. 

Now the man who ate everything was facing the gallows. History didn’t record how, but somehow the Prussian Commander changed his mind, didn’t hang Tarrare, and just had his soldiers beat the crap out of the man instead. 

Tarrare returned to France and promptly decided he was sick of this military stuff. So he decided that he needed to go back into the hospital and figure out what was wrong with him. At this point in his life, he suffered from constant horrible diarrhea. Doctors were still confused. They had never seen a case like this.

But there’s a story that often gets included with tales of Tarrare that really caught my eye. Is it true that Tarrare once ate a living toddler?

Much of what we know about Tarrare comes from the accounts of his doctor, Pierre Francois Percy. Percy was the Surgeon in Chief at the military hospital. But some of the rumors about Tarrare came from other people at the time. And one of them was about a toddler. 

At the same time Tarrare was in this hospital, a 14-month old boy disappeared. Many people nearby suspected that the boy was eaten by the insatiable Tarrare. But there was never any proof of that and he was never formally accused. So we don’t have any evidence at all that this was true, but there is THIS fact. He was known to sneak into the hospital’s blood storage and would drink the blood. He also was accused of sneaking into the morgue and feasting on the bodies of the dead. So maybe it’s not that much of a stretch to believe this guy ate a kid. We’ll never know. But while he wasn’t formally accused, the hospital – including his doctor, Percy, believed he ate the kid. So they made him leave the hospital. 

Four years later, Percy got word that Tarrare wanted to see him. He reluctantly visited Tarrare, who was now in a hospital in Versailles and found him bedridden, ill and still experiencing constant gastric distress. The diarrhea had never stopped and to make matters worse, he told Percy he had swallowed a golden fork a few years earlier that was causing him horrible pain. Percy had tried everything with no success. And he now recognized that Tarrare was suffering from another ailment – an advanced case of tuberculosis. It killed Tarrare within days of Percy’s arrival. 

The details about his autopsy are pretty gruesome. They talk about how quickly the body decayed, how it was rotten on the inside and filled with pus and ulcers. They never found a golden fork. But they also never finished the autopsy because the smell was so bad. So sadly we’ll never really know exactly what made him this way. 

The word for what he experienced throughout his life is polyphagia – an abnormal appetite that just never goes away. But that’s generally a symptom, not a cause. The cause could be a lot of different things. Parasites, blood-sugar issues, brain chemistry problems, are just a few of the possible causes. But next time you eat so much you don’t think you could possibly eat another bite, go ahead and load up that fork and do it for Tarrare. 

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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