Tarrare (1772? - 1798)
The living incarnation of Horror Hunger.
The individual known only as "Tarrare" was a French sideshow performer, soldier, and genuine freak of nature. An oddity that baffled the medical community of his day, he was equal parts tragic figure and repulsive monster. Come with us on this journey, if you dare...
History records little about Tarrare's origins or early life, or even his real name ("Tarrare" is a nickname, coming from...well, we'll talk about that later). He was born sometime around 1772, in a rural area near Lyon. There was, it would seem, little remarkable about his childhood, but as he grew older, it became clear that there was something...different about him.
Namely, his ravenous, insatiable appetite. He was constantly hungry, and never seemed to be able to put on weight. It was said that he could eat his weight in food on a daily basis (since he never weighed more than 100 pounds, that's not huge, but still) but he could never be satisfied. Food seemed to just go right through him, in the form of constant, extreme diarrhea (that's apparently where the nickname "Tarrare" came from: "Tarrare" is a French onomatopoeia for an explosion, roughly equivalent to the English word "Kaboom"). Supposedly he stank so badly that people couldn't get within twenty feet of him for fear of passing out. He was also, not surprisingly, weird-looking: according to contemporary accounts, he had skin that would hang off him so loosely that he could wrap it around him, a mouth big enough to hold a dozen eggs, eyes so bloodshot that they just looked red in color, and lips so small as to be invisible. All of these factors combined meant that his parents were soon unable to provide for him, and were forced to turn him out of their home.
Now homeless, Tarrare made his way through the countryside, living as best he could - which meant begging, stealing, and occasionally just rummaging through the trash - until he took up work as a sideshow performer. He could, and did, eat anything people would give him, including rocks, corks, pieces of flint, and live animals. Needless to say, this caught up with him one day, and after being treated for a bowel obstruction, the prominent doctors of the time began to take notice of his unique condition. They began to study him, in the hopes of identifying the cause of his behavior. Unfortunately for Tarrare, these particular doctors saw him as more of a scientific curiosity to be observed rather than, you know, a human being suffering from a weird medical condition, so their "treatments" mainly consisted of putting things in front of him and watching what happened. Results were about as gross and off-putting as you could imagine; there was almost nothing Tarrare would not try to eat, if only to finally feel full and satiated. Some of the things he devoured during these experiments included a live eel, a live cat, and a huge dinner meant to feed 15 laborers (after which he just went into some kind of anaconda-after-eating-a-wild-boar coma for a few hours). The experiments got put on hold with the outbreak of The Napoleonic Wars, when Tarrare, feeling the call of patriotism, enlisted to fight for France.
The problems with this situation became obvious almost immediately: Tarrare was completely useless as a soldier. He couldn't survive on regular military rations, and his other physical and psychological issues meant he was unfit to be a fighting man. There was an attempt to make use of him as a spy and a courier, by feeding him a box with a secret message inside and then, ahem, letting nature take its course. Of course this failed miserably; whichever French Army Intelligence officer who thought that sending the freakish-looking, mentally-unstable man who doesn't speak a word of a German deep into Prussian territory was a brilliant plan...clearly hadn't thought his plan through.
After being captured and tortured by the Prussian army, and then finding out that the secret message he'd been, ahem, holding onto was just a meaningless test message, Tarrare finally realized that maybe the army life was not for him. Upon his release, he returned to France and was committed to a hospital in Saultz Haut Rhin, where he was placed under the care of the renowned surgeon George Didier, the Baron Percy. Unlike the previous doctors he'd seen, Baron Percy genuinely did want to help Tarrare rather than merely study him, and employed the best treatments 18th-Century French medicine had to offer. Unfortunately, the best treatments 18th-Century French medicine had to offer weren't all that effective even for average, everyday maladies. Trying to treat a condition as unprecedented as Tarrare's was a stab in a dark at best. Attempted treatments included doping him up with opium and tobacco, employing vinegars and mineral waters, and, bizarrely, stuffing him full of soft-boiled eggs. Nothing worked.
To exacerbate matters, Tarrare's condition soon took a turn for the worse, causing him to grow more and more desperate to find anything to satisfy his all-consuming hunger. He started sneaking out of the hospital at night, raiding butcher shops for offal and garbage. He would eat roadkill, sometimes fighting with stray cats over them. He would eat bandages and human blood from the surgery, and was even caught trying to sneak into the morgue to eat corpses. Percy still stood by his patient, determined to cure him and protect him from persecution...until the day a toddler that had been at the hospital at the same time went missing.
The allegation was never proven to be true, but it was the last straw. Percy could no longer protect Tarrare, and he was turned out of the hospital. Tarrare only resurfaced four years later, being admitted to a hospital in Versailles with a fatal case of tuberculosis. He reached out to Percy, who came to his side as soon as he could, but by then nothing could be done, and Tarrare finally passed away in 1798 at the apparent age of twenty-six.
To this day, we have no idea exactly what was wrong with Tarrare. An autopsy was done, revealing several abnormally-enlarged organs (it's said that when they forced his mouth open, they could see straight to his stomach, which filled most of his abdomen), but old-timey medical science could only yield so much information. Besides which, reportedly Tarrare's body almost immediately began to decompose and the grossed-out surgeons cut the autopsy short. Theories include an extreme case of hyperthyroidism, or uncontrolled diabetes, or damage to his brain's limbic system, but no one single malady could account for the entirety of his behavior. This, combined with accounts of his strange physical appearance, has led to all kinds of legends and wild speculations about him. Was he mentally ill? Was he some kind of mutant? Was he a frigging wendigo? We just don't know. All we know is that he is one of history's weirdest true stories.
Due to the bizarre and macabre nature of his story, Tarrare has something of a cult following in art and avant-garde circles. He's the subject of short films, stage plays, metal concept albums, and even a few puppet shows.
Tropes of Tarrare
Tarrare's depictions in works of art and folklore include the following:
- Ambiguous Disorder: We'll probably never know what was wrong with him. Malformed digestive tract? Damaged Amygdala? Mental illness? Gypsy Curse? It's all up for grabs.
- Ambiguously Human: Given Tarrare's strange appearance and behavior, there's a question of whether or not he was even human. Some puppet shows, of course, take this to a logical extreme, depicting him as something out of Jim Henson's fever dreams.
- Big Eater: One of the biggest in history. But due to his screwed-up metabolism, he never put on weight.
- Eats Babies: Maybe. Certainly he was very much suspected when a toddler disappeared from the hospital he was staying at.
- Epic Fail: Tarrare's military career, for so many reasons.
- Extreme Omnivore: His desperation to be full meant that he would eat just about anything people would put in front of him. That made him a great sideshow attraction, but...
- Horror Hunger: As his mental state deteriorated, Tarrare turned to more and more bizarre and disturbing things to eat.
- I Am A Humanitarian: in real life, maybe. In stage plays, definitely, though most depictions limit Tarrare to eating corpses, and sidestep the whole "possibly ate a baby" thing.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: No one bothered to record Tarrare's thoughts - least of all Tarrare himself - so we have no idea what motivated him to join the French Army, despite his clear shortcomings as a soldier. Some depictions of him attribute this to a desire to be remembered as something other than a circus freak.
- Riddle for the Ages: What, exactly, was wrong with him? His contemporaries couldn't figure it out, and there's been no other known cases like his.
- Tragic Monster: A disturbing and disgusting individual driven to this behavior by his own body.
- Worst Aid: Most of the doctors treating Tarrare had no real interest in curing him, just observing his curious behavior. The ones that did weren't really able to do much better, considering this was the late 18th Century and medical science hadn't progressed very far past bloodletting and trepanation. But, really, soft-boiled eggs?