Strangest Medical Cases: Tarrare - The Man Who Can Eat Everything!
This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History

Shannon Quinn - March 8, 2019

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
A wood block depicting Nicholas Wood, the Great Eater of Kent. Credit: Public Domain

Tarrare’s Skills Made Him Into a Spy

Tarrare’s strange ability to eat non-stop caught the attention of two military doctors named Dr. Courville and Baron Percy. They were curious as to know how it was even possible for one man to eat so much without gaining weight. He was diagnosed with a condition known as “polyphagia”. This is not a disease within itself. It is usually coupled with diabetes or hyperthyroidism, where the body does not process food properly. Usually, people with polyphagia also look very skinny and sickly, because the food is passing through them without absorbing the nutrients. This inability to feel satisfied pushed him to keep eating, to the point where he was willing to scarf down unconventional foods. A lifetime of these habits are what lead to his physical deformities.

In the medical journals, the doctors described Tarrare as being a lot like an animal. He was wild and ferocious, and really only thought about eating. However, despite his ravenous hunger, he was completely sane. People were able to communicate with him perfectly well, and he expressed that he wished he did not feel this way. He was just a really hungry guy. Years after his death, there were other examples of people with the same condition, like a man named Nicholas Wood, the Great Eater of Kent, and another named Jacques de Falaise. Since Tarrare’s case study was in medical journals at the time, doctors were able to go back and compare.

The doctors performed some experiments to see just how far Tarrare would go to satiate his appetite. They handed Tarrare an eel that was still alive. He bit into the head and slurped it up as if it was eating spaghetti. He didn’t seem to care that this was a living creature with hundreds of sharp bones. For a normal person, the sharp eel bones might puncture their internal organs, but Tarrare’s body could somehow handle it. He also ate a cat while it was still alive. He grabbed the unsuspecting feline, ripped its body apart, and sucked out the blood before eating the meat off of the bone. Unlike the eel, he made sure to remove the fur and bones from the cat.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
Jacques de Falaise was yet another French man who was able to eat live animals. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Since these were military doctors who were examining Tarrare, it only made sense that they wanted to see if he could be of any use to the French army. General Alexandre de Beauharnais wanted to give him a secret message to carry into Prussia. He asked Tarrare to eat a small wooden box that had a piece of paper inside of it. Sure enough, the box was still intact a couple of days later. So, the general sent him on a mission to pose as a Prussian peasant, and bring a message to a captured French colonel who was behind enemy lines. However, aside from his stomach, he did not qualify as a spy at all, especially since he could not speak a word of German.

The Prussians captured Tarrare and began to torture him to extract his secrets. Again – since he was not a trained spy – he gave up everything he knew very quickly. The Prussians waited for a couple of days, until he finally went to the bathroom and passed the wooden box with the secret note inside. Once they opened the box, the message simply asked if Tarrare was successful on his mission. Obviously, the answer was “no”, and he completely failed General Beauharnais’ test run. He was ordered to be executed, but Tarrare was sobbing, begging to be set free. After all, he never even asked to be involved with this plot. So, the Prussians let him go.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
“Saturn Devouring His Son” by Giambattista Tiepolo in 1745. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tarrare’s Hunger Gets Out of Hand

When it was clear that Tarrare did not have a career as a spy, he decided he would settle with having a normal appetite. So he begged doctor Baron Percy to find a cure. He was living out most of his time in the hospital as doctors continued to experiment on him. The doctors decided to give Tarrare nearly every type of medication that existed at that time. Back then, people were taking some questionable medications, like cocaine, laudanum, tobacco pills, and more. Surprise, surprise- none of them worked. Today, someone who has polyphagia usually has it due to another underlying cause like diabetes, or hyperthyroidism. Even today, there is no real cure for the condition. Instead of treating polyphagia directly, those other medical conditions are being treated first, and it may help the symptoms of hunger.

At one point during Tarrare’s treatment, the hospital was not giving him enough food. He began to go to the wards where doctors were blood-letting their patients, and he would drink from them like a vampire. Doctors would bring in dead bodies, and Tarrare swooped in to gobble up the human flesh. One day, doctors were horrified to discover that a 14-month old baby had gone missing from the hospital. They could only assume that Tarrare had eaten the baby. Needless to say, this was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. He was kicked out of the hospital, and told never to return.

This 18th Century Man Literally Ate Everything, Which Led to One of the Most Disturbing Medical Cases in History
The terrifying painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco Goya.

For years later, when he was 26 years old, Baron Percy was notified that Tarrare showed up at a hospital in Versailles because he had tuberculosis. When he died, his body reeked noxious odors that were so horrible, doctors were choking and needed to leave the room to get some fresh air. When doctors performed an autopsy on Tarrare’s body, they described his organs as “putrefied” and “covered in pus”. His stomach was so big, it filled up almost his entire abdominal cavity. His liver was also abnormally large, while the rest of his organs were smaller than average. And the opening from his mouth to his stomach was so wide, someone could look inside his mouth and see all the way down to his stomach. It was all so horrifying and difficult to breathe through the stink, the doctors had to stop halfway through, and give up.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Medium – History’s Hungriest Human

Mental Floss – Tarrare, the Greatest Glutton of All Time

Very Well Health – Causes of Polyphagia

BBC Future – The Tragic Fate of The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Eating

Good – A Career As A Competitive Eater In The 1600s Sounds Like It Was Torture

Factinate – The Bizarre True Story of Nicholas Wood, The Great Eater of Kent

The Journal of Foreign Medical Science and Literature, Volume 10.

All That’s Interesting – The Story of Tarrare, The Insatiable Glutton Who Ate Everything From Human Flesh to Live Eels.