Throughout history, there have been oddities. Human beings who possess extraordinary abilities. Unexplained (for the time) medical conditions that lead to such terrible places as freak shows. While there were individuals who took to this life in various ways, it was overall exploitative and dehumanizing. Some were studied and experimented on, but that’s a whole topic for another time.
Today I want to focus on two men who had extraordinary appetites. Not merely big eaters, they ate anything and everything put in front of them and asked for seconds. They coincidentally lived in the same century and both served in the French Revolutionary Army. One is a man known as Tarrare, and the other named Charles Domery, and there has been no one quite like them since.
Tarrare was born in France somewhere around 1772. We don’t know if Tarrare was a nickname or his real name. His enormous appetite started early and it was reported by the time he was a teenager he could eat his body weight in beef. Like a real-life Jughead, he was quite thin despite his diet and was described as average height and weighing only 100 pounds at age 17. Maybe not so surprising, his parents couldn’t afford to feed him and tossed him out. For a time, he traveled and demonstrated his ability by eating stones, corks, live animals including lizards and puppies, and baskets of apples.
Something I find quite fascinating about Tarrare is the descriptions of his physical appearance. Many of these are sourced from the London Medical and Physical Journal: Volume 42, from 1819.
‘Let a person imagine,’ says M. Percy, ‘all that domestic and wild animals, the most filthy and ravenous, are capable of devouring, and they may form some idea of the appetite, as well as the wants, of Tarrare.’
Tarrare had an unusually wide mouth with very thin lips. His teeth were notably stained, although I don’t think that fact is too strange given the time period. Interestingly, when he had not eaten his skin was saggy and hung about him in huge flaps, making me picture the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth. His cheeks were loose skinned as well and let him hold a reported 12 eggs in his mouth at once with no difficulty.
After eating, his stomach swelled and resembled a balloon. He would sweat constantly and heavily and stunk to high heaven, the odor getting worse after he’d eaten. He became lethargic after his meals and would often sleep until the next day. I have to wonder how much of his energy was simply expended by digestion. He never vomited but had “chronic, fetid diarrhea.” Sorry for mentioning that—kind of gross.
After joining the army sometime in his 20s (probably for the guaranteed rations), Tarrare was witnessed eating a live cat and sucking the blood from its corpse, and coughing up hair later like an owl with pellets. He apparently loved eating snakes and sometimes did this with live ones as well. He seemed to have no shame or negative feelings about his condition. In fact, he was described as apathetic and “lacking in ideas.” This was his normal. I am certain anyone watching him eat would be disgusted beyond all belief. He once ate a meal made for 15 men with no negative side effects.
Hoping to find some use for his abilities, Tarrare was tasked with smuggling important documents (in reality just a dummy test note) by swallowing a small box and retrieving it across enemy lines. After crossing into Prussia his cover was blown due to him not knowing a word of German. He was arrested, beaten, and once the note was found, almost hanged but released at the last minute to the French army. It’s safe to say after this his brief military career was over.
Tarrare then stayed in a hospital for a time, with different attempts to cure his condition. Laudanum (opium), wine vinegar, tobacco pills, and a diet of soft-boiled eggs had no effect. Desperately hungry, he would sneak out and eat the leftovers from butcher’s shops, carrion in the streets, even drinking from bloodletting patients and devouring corpses from the morgue. After a 14-month old child went missing he was summarily removed from the hospital. I am not sure if he had anything to do with it but at this point…I wouldn’t be surprised.
Disappearing for several years, he later turned up sickly and dying of consumption. He told Drs that he had swallowed a fork and believed it was causing his illness. This fork was never found. After he died his body was equally astonishing. The entrails were putrified, confounded together, and immersed in pus. His liver and gallbladder were abnormally large and his stomach was covered in ulcers. His esophagus was so wide you could see straight through to his gut.
While it’s speculated Tarrare suffered from polyphagia, there has been no case quite as extreme as his. The only thing that comes close is our second example.
Charles Domery was born in Poland in 1778. He was from a family of nine boys, all of who apparently shared his voracious appetite. Nothing is really known about them compared to Domery, though. Unlike Tarrare, Domery was fairly tall, standing six feet, three inches with had an average build. He had none of the abnormal outward features of Tarrare and was regarded as a clean and pleasant person. After he went to bed he would sweat profusely, waking in the middle of the night to eat and then return to bed. He also would sweat while eating and similarly to Tarrare was never witnessed vomiting.
Domery joined the Prussian Army at the age of 13 but was immediately dissatisfied with the rations as the army was going through food storages. He marched into a town and joined the French instead, who rewarded him with a melon. Which he ate—rind and all, of course.
During his time in the army, he was given double rations and used his pay to buy even more food, never sated. It’s reported he ate over 170 cats in a year, leaving only the fur and bones. That’s a cat every other day. If no other food was available he would gorge himself on grass, upwards of 5 pounds. He loved to eat raw meat and his favorite was bull’s liver. Once, while serving on a ship, a sailor’s leg was shot off by cannon fire. Domery did not hesitate to grab it and start eating before his crewmates wrestled it from him and throw it into the sea.
Domery’s ship was captured by the British Royal Navy and he was sent to a prison camp where the rations once again were not enough. First, they gave him double rations. Then they increased it to 10. Still craving more, he consumed rats that wandered into his cell and even wax candles. He also ate random medicines from the infirmary with no side effects.
His unusual behavior caught the attention of Dr. J. Johnston, a member of the commission that oversaw prisoners of war. He decided to test Domery’s abilities.
At 4 AM, he was awakened and immediately four pounds of cow udder. Several hours later he ate five pounds of raw beef and a dozen candles made of tallow. For lunch he had the same; beef, candles, and beer to wash it down. At no point did he vomit or use the bathroom. Afterward, he seemed in good spirits. Free food and beer? Who would say no to that!
Unfortunately not much is known about Domery after these events, or what caused his eating habits. It’s hypothesized that both he and Tarrare had damage to their amygdala causing polyphagia, but there is no way to know for sure. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be so desperately hungry you’re willing to consume anything. To never feel satisfied, to never feel comfortable. If you’ve ever skipped a meal or dealt with eating disorder issues, you know the feeling of hunger. It can hurt. Do you think Tarrare was in pain? I don’t know.