The Man That Could Eat a Corpse

'Saturn Devouring his Son', painting by Francisco de Goya (1819-1823)
‘Saturn Devouring his Son’, painting by Francisco de Goya (1819-1823)


Our culture relies on overindulging. From food challenges to mukbangs to insane portion sizes that are served on a plate the size of a dustbin lid.

Imagine, however, finishing your food challenge and still remaining hungry. The sheer thought of consuming thousands of calories in one sitting only to be left wanting more. Sounds inconceivable, but as history suggests, is not impossible.

What if such a person did exist? A person whose appetite was so colossal that the expression “I am so hungry I could eat a horse” would also include a human baby appetizer and a corpse…

Such a person did exist and his name was Tarrare.


Tarrare (c. 1772–1798) was a mysterious French man who was known for his extreme appetite, bizarre eating habits, and an unknown medical condition that caused him to consume inedible objects.

He was born in rural France near Lyon, and from an early age, he was known for his ravenous appetite and strange eating habits.

He would scarf down food with an intensity that was almost unnatural, and he was known to consume food that was far beyond what would be considered normal. He was also known for his near-insatiable hunger, and he would often go days without eating and then consume as much as he could when he was allowed to eat.

By his teenage years, his appetite was so ferocious, he was turned away from the family home as his family could no longer afford to feed him. It is said that Tarrare could eat his own weight in beef (literally) in one sitting from an early age.

The Man that Could Eat a Corpse
The Man That Could Eat a Corpse

Tarrare moved to Paris and began living on the streets. He turned to begging and stealing food before becoming a warm-up act for a touring stage show. His act involved eating a variety of strange objects such as corks, stones, screws and even live animals. “He seized a live cat with his teeth, eventrated it, sucked its blood, and ate it, leaving the bare skeleton only.”

 People witnessed him swallowing an entire basketful of apples or eggs one after the other and it was said that he had a particular taste for snake meat. 

One such fateful performance saw Tarrare collapse live on stage and after being rushed to the hospital with what was discovered to be an intestinal obstruction, Tarrare was treated with a course of laxatives.

An appreciative Tarrare then offered to consume the surgeon’s pocket watch and chain to demonstrate his talents. The unimpressed surgeon agreed under one condition – he would cut Tarrare open to retrieve them. Needless to say, Tarrare changed his mind.

Appearance and Medical Condition

During this time, Tarrare began to display some symptoms of an unknown medical condition. He would often complain of having an extreme thirst that could not be quenched. He also began to suffer from intense abdominal pains.

Despite his obscene appetite, he only weighed around 45 kg, had very little soft hair left and was timid and of a weak disposition. Tarrare also had an abnormally large mouth littered with stained teeth in which he could easily hold as many as a dozen eggs or apples.

Tarrare’s oesophagus was uncommonly wide, and when the huge jaws were forced open, the surgeons could see a broad canal down to the stomach. When not full, his stomach was so distended that he could wrap the skin around his waist as if it were a belt. When his belly was full, it would bloat like a huge balloon.

Tarrare. Sketches
The Man Who Ate a Child

If his stomach and mouth were not bad enough, Tarrare had a body odour issue. It was said that his stench was “to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces.” This odour would actually intensify after he had engorged himself on a meal.  His body was constantly hot and he sweated profusely.

Unsurprisingly, he suffered from chronic diarrhoea, but despite his enormous food intake, he did not suffer from vomiting, nor did he put on any weight. Besides his bizarre eating habits, those who knew or met Tarrare saw no signs of mental illness which could have contributed to his excessive appetite. 

Between 1788 and 1792, Tarrrare was admitted to various hospitals and examined by famous physicians who were unable to diagnose his condition but were able to determine that the man had a voracious appetite and was able to consume unnaturally large amounts of food in a short period of time. They also noted that Tarrare had a strange addiction to eating inedible objects, such as stones, nails, and even metal.

Experiments in the Army

At the start of the War of the First Coalition, Tarrare joined the French Revolutionary Army, but it was safe to say that army rations were not sufficient to satisfy his appetite.

Even after he was granted quadruple rations, he would still eat any and all rubbish that he found in the gutters, but his condition worsened and eventually, he was hospitalized due to exhaustion and hunger.  

In the hospital, he even went as far as to sneak into the apothecary room and eat the poultices – this was a type of ointment made by the medical staff used to treat an aching, inflamed, or painful part of the body.

The Depraved appetite of the man that could eat a corpse
Polyphagia. The Depraved appetite of the man that could eat a corpse

Eventually, the bizarre eating habits of Tarrare caught the attention of Dr Courville and Dr Pierre-François Percy, both surgeons within the hospital, who then used Tarrare for a number of experiments.

Dr Percy prepared a meal for fifteen men to test Tarrare’s limits, but he promptly consumed the food and went to sleep. The experiments, however, began to take a dark turn when he was fed live animals, including a cat, snakes, and lizards. He even slurped down an entire eel after first crushing its head with his teeth.

After several months of medical experimentation, the Army was keen for Tarrare to return to duty. Dr Courville spoke to several army generals and suggested that Tarrare’s eating skills be put to use and that he could be used as a courier transporting secret documents through enemy territory without risk of being found out when searched.

The World Worst Spy

After demonstrating his abilities before a gathering of the commanders of the Army of the Rhine by swallowing a box and 30 kg of raw bull’s lungs and liver, Tarrare became officially employed as a spy.

His mission was to infiltrate the Prussian army, and in order to do so, he had to consume large amounts of food in a short period of time. He was given a special bag filled with food and inedible objects that he would consume in order to maintain his cover. He was also given a daily ration of alcohol and tobacco, both of which he consumed in large amounts.

Tarrare’s mission was to carry a document across enemy lines and deliver it to a high-ranking prisoner of war in Prussia. How did he carry this document across enemy lines? It was placed in a box which he swallowed whole. Needless to say, his mission didn’t quite go to plan.

An abnormal-looking man with a huge mouth, stained teeth and a stomach that hung past his knees and who smelt as bad as rotting flesh caught the attention of quite a few people. Oh, he also couldn’t speak any German.

Eventually caught, he was beaten, tortured and even endured a mock execution before being returned to France. Traumatised by his ordeal, he could not continue his military career and began a desperate bid to find a cure for his condition.

The Man Who Ate a Child

Under the care of Dr Pierre-François Percy, Tarrare was put on a diet of Laudanum opiates (which was a mixture of opiates and alcohol) wine vinegar, tobacco pills, and soft-boiled eggs.

Unfortunately, this particular diet still saw Tarrare stalking the streets for scraps of food left out by butcher shops and slaughterhouses.

At the hospital, he was caught several drinking from patients undergoing bloodletting, and even attempting to eat cadavers from the hospital’s morgue. A few doctors believed that Tarrare was mentally ill and pushed for him to be transferred to a mental asylum, but Dr Percy was keen to continue experimenting on Tarrare and thus, he stayed at the military hospital.

Artist impression of Tarrare eating an infant
Artist’s impression of Tarrare eating an infant

A young 14-month-old toddler went missing from the hospital. The same hospital where Tarrare was caught devouring dead bodies and drinking the blood of patients being treated for bloodletting. He was suspect number one with people concluding he must have swiped the young child from the hospital ward and guzzled down its small body, like a snake consuming a small deer.

After being chased from the hospital by horrified and outraged nurses, Tarrare disappeared into the night never to be seen again, until four years later…

What Caused Tarrare’s Condition?

It’s easy to assume Tarrare was consumed by a mental illness that caused him to eat anything and everything (including human flesh and perhaps an entire baby) but nothing definitive was ever proven. He had an extreme case of polyphagia.

There were however a few interesting theories…


One such theory, documented by Doctor Pierre-François Percy, reasoned that Tarrare could have been suffering from ‘hyperthyroidism’ also known as an over-active thyroid. The symptoms of which can cause excess sweating, warm skin and weight loss.

Doctor Pierre-François Percy's original paper on Tarrare's medical history, Mémoire sur la polyphagie (1805)
Doctor Pierre-François Percy’s original paper on Tarrare’s medical history, Mémoire sur la Polyphagie (1805)
Damaged Hypothalamus

Another theory is that Tarrare suffered from a damaged hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that helps regulate your body’s temperature and is also responsible for causing the sensation of hunger. Considering Tarrare was constantly hot and sweaty and in dire need of huge quantities of food, it’s a diagnosis that sounds almost plausible.


A theory that was put forward by Dr Don Moore, who studied Dr Pierre-François Percy’s findings, has put forward a medical phenomenon known as ‘Pica’. Pica is an eating disorder that causes a person to crave items that are not considered food, such as soap, paper, soil and pebbles to name a few.


Another slightly disgusting theory is that Tarrare, due to his appetite for raw meat, caused him to acquire parasites such as tapeworms. A parasite uses its host to survive, feeding on the food they consume. This could explain why Tarrare never gained weight and was constantly hungry. A terrifying but sensible theory.

Hookworms are intestinal parasites that feed off their hosts.
Hookworms are intestinal parasites that feed off their hosts.


Tarrare eventually died in 1798, at the age of 26. To this day, there have been many speculations about the cause of his death. Some believe that he died from an infection caused by the inedible objects he had consumed, while others believe that he died from an unknown illness.

Dr Pierre-François Percy was notified by a hospital in Versailles that a patient wished to see him. The patient was Tarrare. Tarrare told Dr Pierre-François Percy that he had swallowed a golden fork and believed that is why he had taken ill, but Dr Pierre-François Percy recognised his symptoms and knew it was not caused by a golden fork.

Tarrare died from tuberculosis in 1798.

Once Tarrare had passed away an autopsy was conducted. Tarrare’s gullet was found to be abnormally wide when his mouth was opened, so wide that surgeons could see down his throat into his stomach. His body was filled with pus, his liver and gallbladder were swollen to obscene proportions and his stomach was filled with ulcers.

The gold fork was never found.

Gone But Not Forgotten

It would be easy for us to assume Tarrare was some kind of cannibalistic monster who devoured animals, corpses and even baby humans.

But he lived in a time when medical help was practically useless and the doctors he befriended were more interested in experimenting on him rather than trying to help him.

Cast out by his family at an early age and treated like a spectacle and with no medical help, it may be safe to say Tarrare’s life was always destined for a tragic ending.

Regardless of the cause of his death, Tarrare remains an intriguing figure in medical history. His extreme appetite and bizarre eating habits were unlike any other case ever documented. His medical condition was also a mystery that was never solved, and his story has been the subject of many books and movies.

Tarrare’s legacy lives on, and his story serves as a reminder of the importance of understanding and researching medical conditions, no matter how strange they may seem.

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