I’ve read a few accounts about a French soldier known simply as, Tarrare (1772 – 1798). He was renowned for his ability to consume massive amounts of food – baskets of apples, whole eels, wheelbarrows full of bovine entrails, just about anything he could find. Modern doctors presume this “ability” was more likely a symptom of hyperthyroidism, or perhaps a damaged amygdala.
In fact, Tarrare did seek medical help from a doctor named Baron Percy (the first page of Percy’s account of Tarrare’s unusual condition is pictured below). However, 18th-century medicine was not advanced enough to provide Tarrare with an effective treatment plan. Percy could only authorize an extended hospital stay for Tarrare so he could be observed over a long period in a clinical setting.
After a toddler disappeared from that same hospital, the blame fell squarely on Tarrare. Though there was no physical evidence linking him to the child’s disappearance, Tarrare was rumored to have consumed live cats during his stint as a street performer in Paris. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch for hospital staff to believe he was capable of cannibalizing a small child. Percy’s professional reputation was on the line, and he decided to permanently ban Tarrare from the campus.
Tarrare died some years later in Versailles, likely from tuberculosis. I’ve always found this story quite tragic. Here was a man who suffered incessantly from a profound hunger – a hunger driven by a pathology unknown to the medical practitioners of his time. The story also piques that morbid curiosity that seems to dwell in most of us, but I suppose that’s just human nature. That’s not to say we don’t have the same capacity for empathy and kindness, and Tarrare certainly could have benefited from a little bit more of that.
Tarrare’s hunger –
barrels of tripe could not fill
his ravenous soul