1938: A man chews up a gramophone record. Beside him is a table on which are light bulbs waiting to be eaten.
Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

With more than 5.5 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or idly wondering about the expected lifespan of someone who eats nothing but KFC and overcooked steak with ketchup. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,591,330-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Tarrare

What it’s about: The French have long been known for their cuisine, but in the late 1700s, one particular Frenchman went for quantity over quality. Tarrare (it’s not known what his full name was, or even if Tarrare was his real name) gained infamy from a young age as a remorseless eating machine, who could consume his own weight worth of food in a day, yet somehow always stayed thin. Doctors were baffled, but he was eventually able to turn his strange ability into a career as a performer, eating large quantities of food and other things for rapt audiences.

Strangest fact: Tarrare was decidedly not a picky eater. While performing, he would eat corks, stones, and live animals. When his act led to an intestinal blockage, he thanked the doctor who treated him by offering to eat his watch. The doctor said he’d cut Tarrare open to get it back if necessary. When not performing, he was known to eat garbage and pick food scraps from dung heaps, and once while hospitalized, he allegedly drank the blood of patients undergoing bloodletting and was caught attempting to eat bodies in the morgue. He also apparently ate a cat—minus the bones (he vomited up the fur after)—and swallowed an eel whole, and was once suspected of eating a toddler.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Tarrare was able to use his appetite to serve his country. In the 1790s, he enlisted in the War Of The First Coalition, in which France took on the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Britain, Spain, Portugal, and the Dutch Republic simultaneously, and won. But military rations weren’t nearly enough to sustain him—Tarrere would become extremely exhausted if he didn’t have his customary intake of food—and he would scavenge for food or barter with other soldiers.

The French Revolutionary Army defeats the Austro-Dutch forces at the Battle of Fleurus during the War Of The First Coalition on June 26, 1794.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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His commanders quickly caught on to his condition, and realized they could exploit it for military purposes. After eating 30 pounds of raw liver and cow’s lungs as a demonstration for the top brass, he was assigned a role as a spy—a message was placed into a small wooden box, which Tarrare would eat. He would, for lack of a better word, poop out the box, message intact. However, his first mission went awry when he was sent behind German lines despite not speaking a word of German. He was quickly found out and captured, and under duress admitted the ruse. Upon retrieving the box, the Prussian commander was enraged to find it was only a dummy message the French were using to test the system. He ordered Tarrare hanged, but relented at the last minute, and he was released near French lines after a severe beating.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While Tarrare never gained weight, his affliction had other consequences. He sweated constantly, and was described as having body odor “to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces,” especially after he had eaten, which was most of the time. After eating, his eyes would be bloodshot, and “a visible vapour would rise from his body.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he suffered from chronic diarrhea, the smell of which is described here as, “fetid beyond all conception.”

Also noteworthy: In his late 20s (his exact birth year is unknown), Tarrare was found in a hospital in Versailles. He told doctors he had swallowed a golden fork two years earlier, and believed it was still lodged inside of him. But what was in fact ailing him was severe tuberculosis. He died a month later, and the autopsy showed an abnormally large esophagus, liver, and gallbladder, as well as an enormous, ulcer-ridden stomach. And according to the best final sentence I have yet to encounter on a Wikipedia page: “The fork was never found.”

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The garden front of the Palace Of Versailles circa 1750. Engraving by Langlois after Perelle.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: After his stint in the army, Tarrare checked into a hospital, ready to submit to any possible cure rather than repeat his behind-enemy-lines fiasco. Treatments included wine vinegar, tobacco pills, and eating large quantities of soft-boiled eggs, but nothing worked. His doctor also tried laudanum. The 19th century’s favorite extra-extra-extra-strength cough medicine, the tonic is a tincture of opium that includes nearly all of the plant’s various alkaloids, including morphine and codeine, mixed together with alcohol for good measure. As such, it’s dangerously addictive. And in case anyone thinks our current opioid epidemic is a new phenomenon, it was wildly popular in the 1700s and 1800s, used to treat everything from menstrual cramps to insomnia to colicky babies.

Further down the Wormhole: Tarrare became a performer after his parents threw him out for eating them out of house and home. As a teenager, he could eat a quarter of a cow in a day, and his family couldn’t afford to keep him fed. Cows are believed to have originated in southeast Turkey, where they were first domesticated, and have since spread all over the world. Many have escaped domestication and have gone feral, even on relatively contained islands like Hawaii, Galapagos, and Hispaniola. For 31 years, half of that island, the Dominican Republic, was ruled over by one of the most brutal dictators in the Western Hemisphere, Rafael Trujillo. He murdered tens of thousands of his own people, crushed dissent, was openly racist (neighboring rival Haiti’s population is primarily black), and, in what is almost certainly the least of his offenses, he put together a baseball team of ringers to rival Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s. Next week is a Wiki Wormhole first, an article that appears in Spanish Wikipedia but not English: los Dragones De Ciudad Trujillo. (Don’t worry about translation; we took Spanish all through high school and college, so as they say in Latin America, mi perrito trabaja en la zapatería.)

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