Tarrare, the Greatest Glutton of All Time

An illustration of a gluttonous man by George Cruikshank
An illustration of a gluttonous man by George Cruikshank
iStock.com/whitemay

Today's competitive eaters are renowned for consuming dozens of hot dogs in a single sitting, but the unusual eaters of old performed much weirder feats. Medieval reports describe people consuming hearty helpings of stones, spiders, and snakes, among other poisonous things, and showmen were making a living touring Europe on the strength of their strange stomachs by the early 17th century.

“The Great Eater of Kent,” a 17th century English laborer named Nicholas Wood, entertained fair-goers at country festivals by consuming 60 eggs, mutton, three large pies, and a black pudding in a single sitting. In the 18th century, one Charles Tyle of Dorset ate 133 eggs in an hour alongside large quantities of bread and bacon (he then complained he hadn’t had a full supper). In 1792, according to medical historian Jan Bondeson, a French showman named M. Dufour ate a particularly Luciferian banquet in front of a packed house in Paris, including an hors d’oeuvres course of asps in hot oil, dishes of tortoise, bat, rat, and mole, an entrée of roast owl in a sauce of “glowing brimstone,” and a dessert of toads adorned with flies, crickets, spiders, and caterpillars. Dufour then swallowed all the candles on the table alongside a flaming glass of brandy, and opened his mouth wide so the audience could glimpse the flickering flames inside his throat.

But the most amazing eater ever recorded is Tarrare, an 18th-century French showman able to consume his own weight in beef by the time he was 17. It’s unclear whether Tarrare was his real name or a nickname; “bom-bom tarrare!” was a popular French expression at the time used to describe powerful explosions, and Bondeson speculates that it may have been applied to Tarrare because of his prodigious flatulence. 

Tarrare’s appearance was reportedly relatively normal, except for an enormous mouth stretched wide over badly stained teeth, and a distended belly that hung so low he could wrap it around his waist when it was empty. He was also said to sweat constantly, and emit a powerful odor. According to a report in The London Medical and Physical Journal, “he often stank to such a degree, that he could not be endured within the distance of 20 paces.” 

Born in the French countryside near Lyons in the early 1770s, Tarrare ate so much that his parents kicked him out of the house when he was in his teens. According to Bondeson, Tarrare then spent a while touring the French provinces “in the company of robbers, whores, and vagabonds” before taking up employment with a traveling quack, swallowing stones and live animals to draw attention to the charlatan’s dubious medical cures. In 1788 he left the quack’s employment and made his way to Paris, where he performed on the streets, swallowing basketfuls of apples, corks, flints, and other objects. After one such show, he suffered an acute intestinal obstruction and had to be carried to the Hôtel Dieu hospital. After being treated by the surgeon there, he offered to show off his talents by swallowing the man’s watch and chain. The surgeon was not amused, and replied that he would cut Tarrare open with his sword to recover his valuable possessions. 

When the revolutionary wars broke out, Tarrare signed up with the French army. The military rations weren’t enough for his appetite, though, and he was soon taken to the hospital at Soultz complaining of exhaustion. Despite being given quadruple rations, and chowing down on all the poultices in the apothecary, his needs remained unsatisfied. The military surgeons were so amazed they asked to keep him in the hospital for experiments. While there, Tarrare ate a meal intended for 15 German laborers, including two enormous meat pies and four gallons of milk. He also ate a live cat—breaking open its abdomen with his jaws, drinking its blood, and later vomiting up the fur and skin—as well as puppies, lizards, and snakes, which were said to be a special favorite. The doctors, which included one M. Courville and Pierre-François Percy, one of the greatest military surgeons of his day, declared themselves astonished.

After a few months in the hospital, the military board inquired about when Tarrare might return to duty, but the doctors were unwilling to part with their fascinating subject. As Bondeson describes it, M. Courville came up with an ingenious, if bizarre, plan to make Tarrare useful for both science and the military—he would courier documents with his own body. First, Courville asked Tarrare to swallow a wooden box with a document inside. Two days later, Tarrare returned from the hospital latrines with both box and document in good condition. After a repetition of the experiment at French army headquarters on the Rhine (Napoleon may or may not have been present), Tarrare was officially employed as a spy. His first task: deliver a message to a French colonel held prisoner in a Prussian fortress.

However, Tarrare’s mental abilities were apparently dwarfed by the powers of his stomach. According to a report in The London Medical and Physical Journal, Tarrare was “almost devoid of force and of ideas.” And so while the army officers told Tarrare he was swallowing papers of key strategic importance, the note he was entrusted with simply asked imprisoned French colonel to report back on any information he might have about Prussian troop movements.

It turned out the French officers were right to be concerned: Tarrare was captured outside the city of Landau almost as soon as the mission began. (This may have had something to do with the fact that he didn’t speak a word of German.) The poor glutton withstood a strip-searching and whipping without betraying his cargo, but after a day with the Prussian counter-intelligence, he finally confessed. The Prussians tied him to a bog-house and waited for his digestive system to deliver the goods. When it complied, however, they were enraged to discover such a banal message inside the wooden box—they believed, as did Tarrare, that he was carrying crucial military intel. The Prussians beat him brutally, then subjected him to a mock execution, letting him get as far as the scaffold before calling off the executioner.

Understandably terrified by his ordeal, Tarrare returned to the hospital begging Dr. Percy to cure him. Unfortunately, all of the reported solutions for excessive eating that Percy tried—tincture of opium, sour wine, tobacco pills, copious amounts of soft-boiled eggs—proved to be in vain. Tarrare found himself unable to live on the hospital’s food, and snuck out to butcher shops and back alleys, fighting street urchins and animals for scraps of decaying carrion. He even drank the blood from other patients at the hospital, and was kicked out of the hospital morgue several times for trying to eat the corpses. 

Several of the doctors complained that Tarrare would be better off in a lunatic asylum, but Percy defended his presence at the hospital. That is, until a toddler mysteriously disappeared from the wards. Tarrare was the prime suspect, and the furious doctors and porters finally drove him away from the hospital for good.

For the next four years Tarrare’s whereabouts are unclear, but in 1798 he showed up at a hospital in Versailles, so ill he could barely rise from his hospital bed. Tarrare believed his troubles stemmed from swallowing a golden fork, but the doctors recognized him as suffering from advanced tuberculosis. About a month after Percy was notified of his admittance, Tarrare was struck with terrible diarrhea. He died a few days later. 

The doctors were loathe to undertake an autopsy—apparently the corpse became “prey to a horrible corruption” soon after death—but the chief surgeon at the Versailles hospital overcame his disgust and opened up the cadaver. He found that Tarrare’s gullet was unusually wide, and when the jaws were forced open, that he could see all the way down into Tarrare’s enormous stomach, which was covered in pus and filled almost the entire abdominal cavity. The liver and gallbladder were similarly oversized. According to The London Medical and Physical Journal, "The stench of the body was so insupportable that M. Tessier, chief surgeon of the hospital, could not carry his investigation to any further extent." 

The cause of Tarrare’s extreme gluttony has never been diagnosed. According to Bondeson, no case resembling Tarrare has been published in modern medicine. And while the reports of his eating habits beggar belief, they were recorded by some of the foremost medical authorities of his time, and well-known among the Parisians who delighted in his macabre displays. Percy wrote in a memoir: "Let a person imagine all that domestic and wild animals, the most filthy and ravenous, are capable of devouring, and they may form some idea of the appetite … of Tarrare."

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Apple/Amazon

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A Wide Difference: When Shoulder Pads Reshaped the 1980s

Linda Evans goes big in the shoulder department in Dynasty.
Linda Evans goes big in the shoulder department in Dynasty.
ABC Television

At some point in the 1980s, a mandate was handed down from CBS network executives concerned about the excesses of the costume designers on their hit primetime soap Dynasty. Specifically, they wanted stars Linda Evans and Joan Collins to stop wearing shoulder pads, the rigid foam accessory that gave their profiles a distinctive V-shaped appearance.

Word quickly came back to CBS: Defiantly, Evans and Collins would not be shedding their pads. According to Nolan Miller, the show’s costume designer, the stars “almost mutinied.” Their exaggerated shoulders were there to stay.

For most of that decade, shoulder pads were as ubiquitous a fashion statement as neon colors and Ray-Bans. Though American women might not have gone for as severe and steep a postural precipice as the Dynasty stars, the pads were nonetheless emblematic of the era. Pitted against chauvinistic attitudes about women in the workplace, feminine style took on a physically assertive stature. But that idea didn’t originate with television stars. It was rooted in a response to the domestic work crisis during World War II.

From protective gear to feminist wear

Joan Crawford is all padded up and ready to square off with Moroni Olsen in Mildred Pierce (1945).Warner Home Video

Before the war, shoulder pads were perceived as a glamorous but impractical clothing flourish or as part of protective football gear. In 1931, Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli showcased high fashion styles with the look, the purported result of being influenced by surrealist artwork. So did fellow designer Marcel Rochas. But international evolution was slow to make it to the States.

It wasn’t until costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenburg dressed actress Joan Crawford in a stylish padded look for films like 1932’s Letty Lynton all the way through 1945’s Mildred Pierce that the wide-profile approach drew national attention. (It’s believed that Greenburg was struck with inspiration at the sight of Crawford’s large shoulders, and opted to accentuate rather than try to hide them.)

That admiration gave way to purpose when women began taking on new roles in the domestic labor scene. With men fighting overseas, women took to the pads as a way to better assimilate into a physical world. Their silhouettes became more angular, more defined, and broader—a subversive announcement that their role was professional and equitable. With shoulders raised to meet those in a padded men’s suit, the pads worked to establish conformity in the workplace.

With resources during wartime scarce, these pads were often made of wool, cotton, or even sawdust. But as the war wound down and men began returning to their old work roles, the pads lost much of their utilitarian purpose. Shoulders began to slope once more.

Shoulder heights rise again in the '80s

Joan Collins and Linda Evans compete for biggest shoulders with John Forsythe as judge in Dynasty.ABC Television

Because fashion is often cyclical, it wouldn’t take another global conflict for shoulder pads to rise again. Designer Norma Kamali was reported to have reintroduced them into casual daywear in 1980. Coupled with the decade’s newfound edicts of material wealth and gender equality, the pads surged in popularity. Women’s attire was once again squared off. This time, it wasn’t just about office appearance. Designers saw potential in the ability of the pads to reform the female body, making the waist appear smaller and even helping to make up for bad posture. Some were even customizable. On Dynasty, Linda Evans and Joan Collins each had unique pads. Evans preferred a thicker foam, while Collins hated them touching her neck.

The pads were not without controversy. Some blouses were designed for pads and sold without them, necessitating an additional purchase in order to prevent the clothing from sagging. Unless they were sewn in, the pads could easily become dislodged, creating peculiar anomalies as they slid down the arms or torso. Purse straps could shift their position. And if a person wasn’t careful, they ran the risk of doubling or tripling up on the pads, with a layer each in a blouse, sweater, and jacket. The resulting puff threatened to brush their earlobes.

Thanks in part to the influence of celebrities and even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who favored the look, the power pad trend endured for most of the ‘80s but disappeared along with much of that decade’s ostentatiousness by the 1990s. While they still make periodic comebacks on fashion runaways, foam shoulder enhancement is now considered poor form.