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2: Tarrare - The French Cannibal

On today's episode, Cody is joined by Sam Brown to discuss the strange life of Tarrare. Tarrare was a French cannibal during the French Revolution who is described as having an abnormally insatiable appetite. This is a truly strange tale of espionage, cannibalism, and, possibly, murder.

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Episode Information

Tarrare was a French showman, military spy, and eventual cannibal who lived during the 1700s. He was characterised as having an incredible appetite. Today we’ll cover the strange life that led Tarrare from his childhood home to espionage, cannibalism, and, possibly, murder.

Young Life

There is not much known about Tarrare’s early life. In fact, we don’t even know if his actual name was Tarrare. Many people believe it to be a stage name, but he went by it for his entire life. However, we do know that Tarrare was born with a severely insatiable appetite that couldn’t be sated until he ate his bodyweight in food, which was said to be 100 pounds when he was 17 and throughout the rest of his life.

 

As you can imagine, a child that can eat their actual weight in food each day could become a troublesome and costly burden. Unfortunately for Tarrare, his family just couldn’t afford to feed him anymore and he was sent out of the house to live on his own in his late teens.

Leaving Home

Tarrare had a hard time on his own, to say the least. He was at the age of 17 and had to fend for himself dealing with a medically uncontrollable hunger. It was at this time where he most likely picked up his life-long habit of eating food straight from the garbage to help satisfy himself. 

 

Luckily for him, he soon joined up with a travelling conman (snake oil salesman) who performed street shows using Tarrare as an opening act. For his acts, Tarrare would show off his impressive eating abilities. He would eat entire basketfuls of apples swallowing them whole, one after the other. He would even eat live animals, such as birds, later belching up the feathers and beaks.

 

Tarrare’s body was as abnormal as his appetite. His cheeks were said to stretch so widely that he could fit 12 eggs in his mouth at one time, and when not engaged in eating, they would hang down his face creating a look of premature jowls. His stomach hung loosely around his body and was capable of being wrapped around his waist, like a belt. During his acts, Tarrare’s stomach would extend similar to that of a pregnant woman.

 

During one particularly unfortunate street act, Tarrare collapsed mid-performance with what was later discovered to be an intestinal obstruction, requiring his audience to carry him to the nearby Hôtel-Dieu hospital. After being treated with laxatives, Tarrare offered to demonstrate his talents by eating the surgeon’s pocket watch. The surgeon agreed, but only under the condition that he be allowed to cut Tarrare open to retrieve it. Wisely, Tarrare declined.

Joining the Military

At about this time in Tarrare’s life, a highly important moment in French history was also occurring: The French Revolution. This is a highly complicated moment in history and we will not be covering it in this episode.

 

Tarrare decided to leave his life of street performing and join the military, but he saw no improvement in his quality of life, nor his condition. Quite quickly, Tarrare found that the rations provided to him would not come close to satisfying his hunger. He began to do side jobs for fellow soldiers in exchange for portions of their rations. Unfortunately, even these further rations would do nothing for his hunger, and he kept to his habit of sifting through and eating garbage. 

 

After being sent to the front lines, the other soldiers had no rations to spare and it wasn’t long before Tarrare collapsed from his hunger. He was then sent to a military hospital to recover. It was at this hospital that Tarrare met Baron Pierre-François Percy, a military surgeon who took responsibility for Tarrare’s care. Baron Percy saw in Tarrare an interesting subject for observation and set out to learn more about Tarrare’s affliction. 

 

Baron Percy decided to experiment with the limits of Tarrare’s appetite. He ordered that Tarrare be given four times the normal amount of rations, which Tarrare would devour instantly, causing his loose stomach skin to balloon out. After his meals, he would become uncontrollably sleepy and sleep until the following day. Baron Percy also would test Tarrare’s limits as to what he would reasonably eat. He offered Tarrare snakes and eels to consume, which Tarrare did with ease and delight. To the horror of other doctors, Percy also offered Tarrare a live cat. Tarrare took the cat, ripped his stomach open with his teeth, drank its blood and swallowed the animal leaving nothing but its skeleton. He later vomited up the cat’s fur, similar a wild predator 

 

Baron Percy’s description of Tarrare is on par with what you would expect. Although his general appearance was relatively normal, aside from his oversized and loose-hanging stomach, his stench was something else entirely. Percy described his stench as putrid and the odour could be noticed from a distance of 20 paces. Baron Percy also said the smell could be sensed not just through the nose, but also with the eyes. Meaning that Tarrare actually had visible stink lines. Adding to his stench, Tarrare was said to be constantly hot to the touch and visibly sweating, and this would increase when he would feverishly eat, which would cause his odour to become even worse. 

Chosen for a Special Assignment

It wasn’t long before the general-in-chief, Alexandre de Beauharnais, heard of Tarrare’s odd talent, and he quickly decided to put this talent to military use.

 

Side-Note: Alexandre de Beauharnais, first husband of Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie who went on to marry Napoleon Bonaparte and become Empress of the First Empire. Alexandre was beheaded by guillotine during the French Reign of Terror (which we should cover).  

 

With the French at war with Prussia, Alexandre wanted to see if Tarrare would be capable of using his odd ability for espionage, smuggling documents over the Prussian border to deliver to captured French soldiers. Tarrare was first asked to swallow a wooden box containing a letter. He did so easily and, once the box was passed in his stool, the note was checked to see if it was still legible. It was, and Tarrare was rewarded for this with 30 bull organs, to which he devoured instantly and gratefully in front of his military generals. 

 

Tarrare was then asked to swallow another wooden box, this time containing a note for a captured French colonel. Tarrare was to disguise himself as a Prussian peasant, sneak over the Prussian border, and deliver the note to the colonel. However, as we said earlier, Tarrare’s stench was awful and obvious. Further to this, he actually could not speak any German. So, it’s unsurprising that Tarrare was quickly captured by the Prussian forces.

 

Once captured, he was stripped, searched, whipped, and tortured for the better part of a day before he gave up the plot. Predictably, Tarrare broke and told the Prussians about the secret message hiding in his stomach. Then, they chained him to a latrine and waited. For hours, Tarrare was made to sit with his guilt and his grief, struggling with the knowledge that he’d let down his fellow countrymen while he waited for his bowels to move. Some accounts state that once the note was retrieved from Tarrare’s bowels, it wasn’t actually a note to the colonel. It is said that it was a note merely asking the reader to inform the French if Tarrare had been able to successfully deliver the note.


The Prussian general was understandably infuriated by the note and ordered that Tarrare be hanged. Tarrare was forced to endure days of anguish in anticipation of his death. However, it was found that the threat of execution was empty, and Tarrare was released back to the French border. 

Devolving Into a Cannibal

On his return from his failed espionage, Tarrare declared that he was tired of his insatiable hunger and begged Baron Percy to treat him for his condition. Percy agreed and had Tarrare admitted to the hospital for constant observation. 

 

There were multiple treatments attempted to help stave off Tarrare’s hunger. First, Percy tried wine vinegar because the acetic acid in red wine can be used to reduce fat storage, increase fat burning, and reduce appetite. He then tried tobacco pills, as nicotine apparently creates a pathway in the brain that suppresses appetite, although that is not our recommendation. He also tried laudanum, which was a form of opioid that actually had some similar issues in relation to addiction as other opioids do today.

 

Unfortunately, these treatments did nothing to help Tarrare’s hunger. Baron Percy described his uncontrollable hunger as the following: 

 

“Let a person imagine all that domestic or 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.”

 

As he had in the military, Tarrare would search for food in the worst of places due to his desperation. He would frequently eat from the garbage and would seemingly never turn away an edible substance, and sometimes substances that weren’t edible. He would even break into slaughterhouses to consume the raw meat inside, and he was found multiple times trying to eat medical instruments.

 

Tarrare’s hunger finally became so insatiable that it took a sinister turn. He was found drinking the blood from patients being treated by bloodletting. But that wasn’t the end of his interest in the other patients. Tarrare was an inpatient at the hospital while receiving his treatment from Baron Percy, and what do all hospitals have? Morgues. On MULTIPLE occasions, Tarrare was caught in the hospital morgue, eating the bodies of dead patients.

 

However, if ingesting the bodies of dead hospital patients wasn’t enough, near the same time of Tarrare’s initial cannibalism, a 14-month old child went missing in the same hospital. It is not known whether Tarrare in fact did or did not eat the child, but the timing of his cannibalistic behaviour is quite coincidental nonetheless. Which most of the other patients and doctors felt as well. This act being the last straw for Baron Percy, he decided to run Tarrare out of the hospital to fend for himself. 

Death

Not much is known about the few years between Tarrare’s expulsion from the hospital and his death. But four years after Baron Percy had run Tarrare out of the hospital, and also from the city, he received word that Tarrare was in a hospital in Versailles. Tarrare was seemingly dying and requested Baron Percy’s assistance. It was Tarrare’s belief that he was dying from a Golden Fork he had ingested a few months prior and which he had not yet passed. He believed that Percy was the only surgeon that could help.

 

However, when Baron Percy arrived, it was found that Tarrare was actually dying of late-stage tuberculosis. He quickly succumbed to the illness with Baron Percy at his side. 

Autopsy

Tarrare’s stench during his life was something of legend, but it paled in comparison to his stench following his death. It is said that many surgeons refused to perform an autopsy on his body due to the smell. 

 

Baron Percy was one of the few practitioners willing to brave the autopsy. He found that Tarrare’s esophagus was so large that it could stretch to a foot in diameter, and his stomach could be seen through his mouth. His stomach took up nearly the entirety of his abdominal cavity and his intestines and organs were found to be incredibly enlarged. 

 

Interestingly enough, the Golden Fork Tarrare thought was killing him had not been recovered.

 

It is not known what Tarrare’s actual condition was. Some have hypothesised that he had a combination of polyphagia, which is a medical condition involving excessive eating and appetite, as well as some form of parasite. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that we’ll ever know what really caused Tarrare’s crazy appetites which lead him to a life of eating garbage, live animals, and eventually human beings. 

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