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

By Shannon Quinn

In the 1700’s, a French man only known as “Tarrare” became a sideshow spectacle, as well as a medical case study that baffled doctors at that time. Instead of juggling fire or performing magic tricks, his “freak show” act was all about eating things…And we mean everything. He dazzled crowds by pouring an entire bushel of apples down his throat, and stuffing a dozen eggs in his cheeks. Later, he devoured live eels, cats, and even human flesh. Listening to the stories of Tarrare makes him seem as though he was a creature out of a fairytale story, rather than a living, breathing human being. But he truly was a real person, and this medical case study baffled doctors for years, even after his death.  

This picture is not of Tarrare, but it illustrates what the situation must have seemed like. “Der Völler” by Georg Emanuel Opitz. 1804. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tarrare Started Out as a Traveling Side Show “Freak”

When you hear the story of a man like Tarrare who was willing to eat non-stop, you may imagine an obese, gluttonous man who was being fed by servants in order to satiate his never-ending appetite. In reality, he was a very skinny man, and people say he only weighed about 100 pounds. There was never a portrait painted or illustrated of Tarrare. We can only guess what he possibly looked like, based on descriptions. In medical journals, they say that the skin on his face and stomach were stretched out, and therefore very flabby when he wasn’t eating. His jaw would come almost unhinged, from years of stuffing his face full of food. Anyone who came in contact with him also said that he absolutely reeked. Even after bathing, he smelled so awful, people would have to step 20 paces away before they could stop smelling his body odor.

Tarrare was born and raised living on a farm in the French town of Lyon. When he was seventeen years old, his parents kicked him out of their house because they could not afford to feed him. According to records, he was eating one quarter of an entire cow per day, which is enough to make any farmer go broke. He found a new family with a gang of traveling misfits who created an early version of a circus sideshow in Paris. Crowds of people were amazed, because they could hand him almost anything, and he was willing to eat it. According to people who watched, Tarrare would open his mouth incredibly wide and fill up his mouth with whatever food people were willing to give him. His cheeks were stretched out, as well, so he was able to hold food in his face like a chipmunk.

Another French man, Jacques de Falaise, was eating live animals during side shows just like Tarrare. Credit: The British Museum

This was so unbelievable, that some people actually thought Tarrare was somehow tricking people into believing he was actually eating all of that food. There was no possible way for a human being to consume so much. But this gig wouldn’t last forever, and he joined the army. During his time serving as a soldier in the French Revolution, his friends noticed that no matter how much Tarrare ate, he always seemed to be weak and malnourished. The army quadrupled his rations so that he ate as much as four men, but he was still never satisfied. It even reached the point where they were giving him kitchen scraps like potato peels, and he would still gobble up every last piece of food, without feeling full. After serving with the army for some time, they did not want him there, either, because he was eating precious rations needed for the soldiers.