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Tarrare: Insatiable, Cannibalistic French Spy 

He ate everything from trash, spoons, eels, snakes—and possibly even human toddlers.

Tarrare, the cannibal who ate bizarre items
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  • Photo Credit: Portrait de Jacques Simon dit Jacques de Falaise., 1820

Tarrare, born near Lyons, France in the early 1770s, has a story that seems like a tale as old as time (albeit a sad one). By the time he was 17, Tarrare’s family could no longer afford to feed him, so they turned him out of the house. 

Because no one knows his true name, the facts are murky, but one thing is for certain: Tarrare’s story is far more bizarre than singular poverty. His appetite was insatiable, so much so that when unhoused, he traveled through France as a showman. He opened for a charlatan by swallowing corks, stones, live animals, and a whole basketful of apples. His favorite delicacy, they say, was snake. One viewer stated of his act, “He seized a live cat with his teeth, eventrated [or disemboweled] it, sucked its blood, and ate it, leaving the bare skeleton only. He also ate dogs in the same manner. On one occasion it was said that he swallowed a living eel without chewing it.”

Tarrare was able to eat 100 pounds of a cow in a day, the same as his body weight… in addition to other objects and even trash from the gutter.

But as time would reveal, Tarrare’s insatiable appetite was beyond bizarre—it was downright cannibalistic.

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Tarrare appeared to be undernourished, despite constant 

“Der Völler” by Georg Emanuel Opitz. 1804.
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  • “Der Völler” by Georg Emanuel Opitz. 1804.

    Photo Credit: Georg Emanuel Opitz / Wikimedia Commons

Despite his appetite, he maintained uncanny thinness and appeared as though he was starving. He weighed only 100 pounds (the same as the amount of beef he ate in a day), and his flaccid belly distended so low when it was empty that he could tie it in a knot around his waist—which he did, as a part of his Parisian street performance. In fact, the loose jowls and abdominal skin is what allowed his body to adjust for the vast quantities he consumed, as they expanded when full, like inflated balloons or the belly of a pregnant person. He had fair, fine hair, and a large, pale, lipless mouth that stretched over badly stained teeth Though he seemed to perform these feats of feasting for the repulsion and entertainment of onlookers, sources say he was constantly tired and distracted, and he behaved as if he was undernourished. 

He sweat constantly, and according to one report, “he often stank to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of 20 paces.” One scholar speculates that “Tarrare” was not his given name at all, but rather his nickname (or stage name). Jan Bondeson suggests that the intense flatulence that Tarrare experienced after gorging himself led to this name because the expression, “bom-bom tarrare!” was popular in France at the time, and used to describe explosions. 

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Tarrare’s bizarre diet leads to health complications 

After one show, Tarrare suffered a bowel obstruction that earned him admittance to the Hotel Dieu hospital. While he was being treated with laxatives, he offered to show off his talent to the surgeon by swallowing the surgeon’s watch and chain. The surgeon said that would be fine, as long as he could cut Tarrare open to retrieve them afterward, which dissolved the deal.

Tarrare next enlisted in the French Army, where he was provided rations enough for four soldiers…which was far from enough to satiate his appetite. He was hospitalized at Soulz due to extreme exhaustion, and his appetite so amazed the military surgeons that they asked to observe him for “experiments.” 

While at the hospital, Tarrare ate a meal intended for 15 German laborers, including two meat pies and four gallons of milk. When spurred by the military board that he should soon report once more for service, one doctor, M. Courville, had the idea to weaponize Tarrare’s skill. Courville had Tarrare to swallow a wooden box with a document inside. Two days later, when Tarrare returned from the latrine with both the box and the document in good condition, they decided to employ Tarrare as a spy. His task was simply to deliver a message to a French ambassador in Prussia.

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Tarrare works as a French spy 

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  • Jacques de Falaise, often compared to Tarrare. 1820.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tarrare was captured almost immediately. He was flogged and imprisoned while his captors waited for him to void the message. When he did, he swallowed it again, determined to keep its contents secret for his country. When he finally passed the box a second time, his captors discovered that its contents were only a test, that they said merely for the recipient to let France know if and when he received it. The German powers were so irate at this waste of time that when they found Tarrare’s message to be useless, they put on a mock execution, leading Tarrare all the way to the gallows before calling it off.

When Tarrare returned to France, he understandably begged doctors to cure him of his appetite. They tried everything, but his appetite could not be quenched. Hospital servants discovered him “drinking the blood of patients who had been bled, and in the dead-room devouring the bodies.” At this point, many suggested he would be better suited to a mental hospital, but one doctor, Baron Percy, insisted that though Tarrare’s mind was “devoid of force and of ideas,” there was nothing to suggest insanity.

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Did Tarrare eat humans? 

That is, until a child of fourteen months disappeared. Suspecting Tarrare of eating the toddler, Percy and the other doctors drove Tarrare out of the hospital. 

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Four years later, Tarrare resurfaced in a hospital in Versailles. Realizing that this could be the last chance for him to observe the medical anomaly alive, Baron Percy went to visit. Though Tarrare’s official cause of death was tuberculosis, he maintained that years earlier, he had swallowed a golden fork, and he had yet to pass it. He was certain the missing fork was the cause of his illness until he died.

Tarrare’s disturbing autopsy 

The autopsy of Tarrare’s body revealed shocking but unsurprising findings: his stomach filled nearly his entire abdominal cavity, and his liver and gallbladders were also oversized. His gullet was unusually wide. “The entrails were putrefied, confounded together, and immersed in pus… ulcerated patches dispersed.” The fork was never recovered because the smell of his corpse was so overpowering that the doctors stopped the examination. 

Tarrare’s unusual condition 

Tarrare’s condition has yet to be formally and accurately diagnosed, though medical scholars and historians suggest polyphasia, pica, parasites, and other conditions. People do contain multitudes—and Tarrare was no exception. One thing was for sure, though: this condition, whatever it was, was not relegated to his mind.