Tarrare, the Greatest Glutton of All Time

Today's competitive eaters are renowned for consuming dozens of hot dogs in a single sitting, but the unusual eaters of old performed much weirder feats. Medieval reports describe people consuming hearty helpings of stones, spiders, and snakes, among other poisonous things, and showmen were making a living touring Europe on the strength of their strange stomachs by the early 17th century.

“The Great Eater of Kent,” a 17th century English laborer named Nicholas Wood, entertained fair-goers at country festivals by consuming 60 eggs, mutton, three large pies, and a black pudding in a single sitting. In the 18th century, one Charles Tyle of Dorset ate 133 eggs in an hour alongside large quantities of bread and bacon (he then complained he hadn’t had a full supper). In 1792, according to medical historian Jan Bondeson, a French showman named M. Dufour ate a particularly Luciferian banquet in front of a packed house in Paris, including an hors d’oeuvres course of asps in hot oil, dishes of tortoise, bat, rat, and mole, an entrée of roast owl in a sauce of “glowing brimstone,” and a dessert of toads adorned with flies, crickets, spiders, and caterpillars. Dufour then swallowed all the candles on the table alongside a flaming glass of brandy, and opened his mouth wide so the audience could glimpse the flickering flames inside his throat.

But the most amazing eater ever recorded is Tarrare, an 18th-century French showman able to consume his own weight in beef by the time he was 17. It’s unclear whether Tarrare was his real name or a nickname; “bom-bom tarrare!” was a popular French expression at the time used to describe powerful explosions, and Bondeson speculates that it may have been applied to Tarrare because of his prodigious flatulence. 

Tarrare’s appearance was reportedly relatively normal, except for an enormous mouth stretched wide over badly stained teeth, and a distended belly that hung so low he could wrap it around his waist when it was empty. He was also said to sweat constantly, and emit a powerful odor. According to a report in The London Medical and Physical Journal, “he often stank to such a degree, that he could not be endured within the distance of 20 paces.” 

Born in the French countryside near Lyons in the early 1770s, Tarrare ate so much that his parents kicked him out of the house when he was in his teens. According to Bondeson, Tarrare then spent a while touring the French provinces “in the company of robbers, whores, and vagabonds” before taking up employment with a traveling quack, swallowing stones and live animals to draw attention to the charlatan’s dubious medical cures. In 1788 he left the quack’s employment and made his way to Paris, where he performed on the streets, swallowing basketfuls of apples, corks, flints, and other objects. After one such show, he suffered an acute intestinal obstruction and had to be carried to the Hôtel Dieu hospital. After being treated by the surgeon there, he offered to show off his talents by swallowing the man’s watch and chain. The surgeon was not amused, and replied that he would cut Tarrare open with his sword to recover his valuable possessions. 

When the revolutionary wars broke out, Tarrare signed up with the French army. The military rations weren’t enough for his appetite, though, and he was soon taken to the hospital at Soultz complaining of exhaustion. Despite being given quadruple rations, and chowing down on all the poultices in the apothecary, his needs remained unsatisfied. The military surgeons were so amazed they asked to keep him in the hospital for experiments. While there, Tarrare ate a meal intended for 15 German laborers, including two enormous meat pies and four gallons of milk. He also ate a live cat—breaking open its abdomen with his jaws, drinking its blood, and later vomiting up the fur and skin—as well as puppies, lizards, and snakes, which were said to be a special favorite. The doctors, which included one M. Courville and Pierre-François Percy, one of the greatest military surgeons of his day, declared themselves astonished.

After a few months in the hospital, the military board inquired about when Tarrare might return to duty, but the doctors were unwilling to part with their fascinating subject. As Bondeson describes it, M. Courville came up with an ingenious, if bizarre, plan to make Tarrare useful for both science and the military—he would courier documents with his own body. First, Courville asked Tarrare to swallow a wooden box with a document inside. Two days later, Tarrare returned from the hospital latrines with both box and document in good condition. After a repetition of the experiment at French army headquarters on the Rhine (Napoleon may or may not have been present), Tarrare was officially employed as a spy. His first task: deliver a message to a French colonel held prisoner in a Prussian fortress.

However, Tarrare’s mental abilities were apparently dwarfed by the powers of his stomach. According to a report in The London Medical and Physical Journal, Tarrare was “almost devoid of force and of ideas.” And so while the army officers told Tarrare he was swallowing papers of key strategic importance, the note he was entrusted with simply asked imprisoned French colonel to report back on any information he might have about Prussian troop movements.

It turned out the French officers were right to be concerned: Tarrare was captured outside the city of Landau almost as soon as the mission began. (This may have had something to do with the fact that he didn’t speak a word of German.) The poor glutton withstood a strip-searching and whipping without betraying his cargo, but after a day with the Prussian counter-intelligence, he finally confessed. The Prussians tied him to a bog-house and waited for his digestive system to deliver the goods. When it complied, however, they were enraged to discover such a banal message inside the wooden box—they believed, as did Tarrare, that he was carrying crucial military intel. The Prussians beat him brutally, then subjected him to a mock execution, letting him get as far as the scaffold before calling off the executioner.

Understandably terrified by his ordeal, Tarrare returned to the hospital begging Dr. Percy to cure him. Unfortunately, all of the reported solutions for excessive eating that Percy tried—tincture of opium, sour wine, tobacco pills, copious amounts of soft-boiled eggs—proved to be in vain. Tarrare found himself unable to live on the hospital’s food, and snuck out to butcher shops and back alleys, fighting street urchins and animals for scraps of decaying carrion. He even drank the blood from other patients at the hospital, and was kicked out of the hospital morgue several times for trying to eat the corpses. 

Several of the doctors complained that Tarrare would be better off in a lunatic asylum, but Percy defended his presence at the hospital. That is, until a toddler mysteriously disappeared from the wards. Tarrare was the prime suspect, and the furious doctors and porters finally drove him away from the hospital for good.

For the next four years Tarrare’s whereabouts are unclear, but in 1798 he showed up at a hospital in Versailles, so ill he could barely rise from his hospital bed. Tarrare believed his troubles stemmed from swallowing a golden fork, but the doctors recognized him as suffering from advanced tuberculosis. About a month after Percy was notified of his admittance, Tarrare was struck with terrible diarrhea. He died a few days later. 

The doctors were loathe to undertake an autopsy—apparently the corpse became “prey to a horrible corruption” soon after death—but the chief surgeon at the Versailles hospital overcame his disgust and opened up the cadaver. He found that Tarrare’s gullet was unusually wide, and when the jaws were forced open, that he could see all the way down into Tarrare’s enormous stomach, which was covered in pus and filled almost the entire abdominal cavity. The liver and gallbladder were similarly oversized. According to The London Medical and Physical Journal, "The stench of the body was so insupportable that M. Tessier, chief surgeon of the hospital, could not carry his investigation to any further extent." 

The cause of Tarrare’s extreme gluttony has never been diagnosed. According to Bondeson, no case resembling Tarrare has been published in modern medicine. And while the reports of his eating habits beggar belief, they were recorded by some of the foremost medical authorities of his time, and well-known among the Parisians who delighted in his macabre displays. Percy wrote in a memoir: "Let a person imagine all that domestic and wild animals, the most filthy and ravenous, are capable of devouring, and they may form some idea of the appetite … of Tarrare."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios