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  • Writer's pictureLotte Drewitt

Tarrare, a Man of Insatiable Hunger

It is the early 1790’s, the start of the War of the First Coalition in France. A young soldier, known only as “Tarrare” and barely 20 years old, lies overcome with exhaustion in a hospital bed. He has eaten his normal rations every day, but he is still starving. Doctors don’t know what to do for him. They give him four times the normal rations in an effort to nourish him to no effect.

Illustration by J. Smith for the Journal of the Unexplained.

He stinks as if rotting from the inside out. His teeth are stained, his skin burning hot. His hair is remarkably thin and soft and pale, and he weighs no more than 100lbs. (50kg).Whatever illness he has is beyond the knowledge of the doctors of the time. He had been sneaking away to eat garbage and had been eating what extra scraps his fellow soldiers would give him when he was brought in to the hospital. Even now, he roams around in search of food, and eats almost anything: poultices, body parts, blood. In spite of his extreme hunger, he is considered to be of sound mind, if not perhaps somewhat indifferent to his situation. Curious, the doctors want to experiment on Tarrare to learn what they can of whatever it was that afflicted him.

Tarrare agrees and the tests begin.

In one experiment, he is given a live cat. First he bites open its stomach and drinks its blood. Then he swallows it whole. Sometime after the meal, he vomits up the fur, like an owl that swallowed a mouse. Over the months of his stay in the hospital, he is offered a variety of animals, including lizards and puppies. Nothing escapes his strangely wide mouth.

Another time, he is offered a feast laid out for 15 workers and eats every crumb. His stomach bulges as it does every time he eats a large meal. He sweats even more than usual, his eyes and cheeks red, bloodshot. He falls asleep, like a snake in torpor after eating a rat.

After many months of these experiments, the military begins to wonder when their soldier will be returned to active duty. But the doctors are not so quick to give up their bizarre and fascinating subject. In order to prove the usefulness of their experiments, one of the doctors comes up with an unbelievable idea: Tarrare will swallow a box which will be retrieved from his excrement. This is meant to demonstrate his usefulness in transporting secret documents across enemy lines. Plans go in, plans come out. Even more unbelievably, Tarrare swallows and later produces the box without a hitch. He is rewarded with a new job as a spy, as well as a handcart full of cow entrails, which he eats greedily.

Unfortunately, nothing goes according to plan. He is captured almost immediately by German soldiers and badly beaten. In order to not be tortured again, Tarrare manages to explain--though he speaks no German--that he was sent as a spy to deliver plans, and also somehow manages to explain how the plans would be (re)produced. When the box finally appears, the enemy’s excitement quickly turns into disappointment and then into rage when there are in fact no secret plans, but a note in the box. Tarrare is beaten again.

The enemy pretends to execute him before dumping him near the French border. He is returned to the hospital.

Filled with renewed disgust for his lot in life, Tarrare begs the doctors in the military hospital to cure him. Several cures are tried, including opium. Even so, Tarrare cannot help the compulsion to sneak off in search of “food”, and continues to fill his stomach with anything and everything–including corpses from the morgue. Hospital workers and patients complain incessantly about him, but nothing is done to expel him from the grounds until the day when a toddler goes missing. Nothing can save Tarrare now. He is lucky to escape with his life, and never darkens the door of the hospital again.

Some four years later, he turns up dying from tuberculosis in a hospital in Versailles. His body decomposes uncommonly quickly, and the autopsy reveals organs full of pus, and a giant stomach, with an uncommonly wide throat. He dies at the age of 26, leaving behind the story of a life that reads like a horror tale.



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