August 20, 2019 Nobody in France had seen anything like it. The boy, Tarrare, could eat whatever he wanted, in enormous quantities, and never felt full or put on weight. Tarrare was just hungry. He was hungry all the time. And as he wandered Paris, eating anything he pleased, he would, in turn, be swallowed up by forces great and sinister.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
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Music on this week’s episode:
David Szesztay – Above Us 2*
Kevin MacLeod – Enchanted Journey*
Oskar Schuster – Sneeuwland*
Robert Farmer – Turn the old; return to them*
Jahzzar – Guilty*
Scott Holmes – Close To The Distance*
*modified for the podcast.
‘Mesdames et messieurs, I know what you want!’ cried the young man to the passing pedestrians on the Paris streets. ‘You want to watch me eat an entire snake whole!’
‘No! Oh god, no, we don’t want this!’
Later, in hospital, the young man rested, having been prescribed an intense course of laxatives to purge the dark things happening in his intestines and colon. The house surgeon, a Monsieur Giraud, came by to check on him.
‘Well, here’s what we’ve found in you so far,’ he said. ‘A snake. A collection of wine corks. Stones. A basket of apples, both the apples and the actual basket. And then, just… beef... so, so much beef. I don’t understand how you were able to eat all of this without dying, but the good news is, you will make a full recovery.’
‘Ah, thank God,’ said the man. ‘But, look, I don’t have much in the way of what you call “money”. But, if you want, as payment for saving my life, I shall do for you something very special. I will eat your watch.’
Well, to this, the doctor could only say… no, thank you.
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. This week’s episode: L’Arme X.
The young man was known only as ‘Tarrare’, and his tragedy was that he was born in 1772, far too soon for anyone to understand him.
Tarrare was hungry. Tarrare was hungry all the time.
Even as a boy, in a village near Lyon, his appetite was out of control. He’d look at what his parents put on the dinner table and say, ‘Why do you torture me with a child’s portion? This is seriously insufficient for my needs!’ Tarrare could eat his entire body weight in any meat you cared to name, and still cry, ‘More, more, more!’ He would wolf down anything—didn’t even have to be food. And yet he was always quite a slender boy.
No one could explain him, and unfortunately, no one could afford him either. When he was a teenager, his parents kicked him out of the house.
All Tarrare could think to do was capitalise on his medical abnormality. He became a street performer, and travelled all over France in the hope that people would pay money to watch him eat strange food in vast quantities. But his timing wasn’t great. The tastes of the French public back then ran more towards “doing the French Revolution” than “paying a teen to eat hammers.”
And after his line of work put him in the hospital, Tarrare decided to seek more secure and less degrading employment. He joined the army. How many other choices did he have?
It was 1792, and France had just declared war on the Austrian Habsburgs. Very soon, Tarrare and his fellow soldiers were plunged into direct combat, defending France’s borders at the River Rhine from the Prussian army. The stakes were high, but Tarrare had bigger problems.
He’d figured that the army was one place he wouldn’t have to worry about where his next meal was coming from. The food was okay, but these rations, they weren’t enough! ‘Why do you torture me with a child’s portion?’ he’d complain in the mess hall, but the army cooks weren’t having it. So, Tarrare the soldier was constantly hungry and miserable. He scrounged and foraged for what he could and bartered and pleaded with his compatriots for a little piece of their share.
‘How can you eat all this food and stay so thin, Tarrare?’ they asked.
‘Jealous?’ he smirked, slurping a rat out of the gutter and into his gullet.
It was weird, and everyone noticed. Tarrare’s lifestyle hadn’t been sustainable at home in Lyon or on the streets of Paris, and it sure wasn’t on the frontlines. He was ordered to a military hospital at Soultz-Haut-Rhin, where his condition would be studied and, hopefully, understood.
Tarrare was examined by a Doctor Courville, and the Baron Percy, the army’s surgeon-in-chief.
‘We’re just going to run a few experiments,’ Percy told Tarrare. ‘You are what we call “une anomalie médicale”, which is French for, “a medical anomaly”.’
Courville and Percy watched in disbelief as Tarrare ate fifteen main courses in a single sitting without demonstrating any physical exertion, or even much emotion. He would eat snakes, lizards, and entire eels without blinking an eye.
‘Okay, but will you eat this?’ Courville dared Tarrare, presenting him with a terrified cat.
‘I guess,’ he said, and ripped into it like it was a drumstick.
They’d never seen anything like Tarrare. With each outrageous meal, his stomach distended and shrunk like rolling ocean waves in a storm. He didn’t put on any weight but, unsurprisingly, he smelled terrible.
After some time, Baron Percy had his conclusion.
‘His condition is truly odd,’ Percy said to Courville, ‘and little about it is clear to me, except this: He is a very sick man. However, what disturbs more than his sickness is the failure of both medicine and society to reckon with it. The fault lies with us. We have forced him to seek employment as a carnival freak, where he’s made a figure of fun, because we have afforded him no other choice. His present situation damns us all. He is a human being, deserving of dignity, equality, brotherhood. Now that he has come to us it is our moral obligation as men of medicine, and men of this earth, to treat our brother, to help him with open arms and open hearts.’
‘Hm, quite. I was thinking,’ Courville said, ‘that we should turn him into a weapon. Oh Percy, don’t you see? Tarrare’s strange… talent… if properly weaponised, could win this war for us!’
‘Courville, no! That’s really offensive.’
So Courville went over Percy’s head, to Alexandre de Beauharnais, the General-in-Chief of the Army of the Rhine. Courville urged Beauharnais to look upon Tarrare as a great gift to the French army, for he could be moulded into the perfect spy! Think of it: The boy could eat secret messages—properly protected, of course—and carry them over enemy lines completely undetected. And then it would be just a small matter to retrieve them. The Prussians would never see it coming, and if they did, they’d be revolted.
‘Ah! Tres bien,’ Beauharnais said, which was French for, ‘Let’s see what this boy can eat!’
Courville ran a test. He asked if Tarrare wouldn’t mind eating a wooden box with a message inside. Tarrare, of course, didn’t mind eating anything. And when he excreted the box, the message was intact. Success! Beauharnais was thrilled, and couldn’t wait until all the commanders got a load of it. He arranged a demonstration for them, in which Tarrare ate fourteen kilograms of bull liver.
‘General,’ they said, ‘why have you made us watch a boy eat too much liver?’
‘Because this isn’t a boy,’ Beauharnais smiled. ‘This is your next Super Spy.’
‘Ah, of course, now it makes perfect sense!’ they applauded.
It’s hard to know how Tarrare felt about his change of role. Once again, he was defined by his hunger. His vast appetite was beyond his control, and it followed him everywhere. On the other hand, at least he would be using his stomach for theoretically nobler purposes than eating the city’s street vermin for the amusement of people who detested the sight of him.
Tarrare’s first assignment was to make contact with an important French colonel whom the Prussians had captured and were holding over the border in Neustadt. He was to enter enemy territory disguised as a German peasant, find the colonel, and give him a secret message. ‘Needless to say,’ said Beauharnais, passing him a box. ‘this message is of great military significance.’
‘OK,’ said Tarrare, and ate it.
He left the French camp dressed in peasant garb, without weapons. He crossed over into the German town of Landau, trying very hard not to draw attention to himself, or the secrets in his stomach.
As he passed through Landau, some German villagers gave him a cautious nod.
‘Bonjour! I mean… um... what was the thing you just said?’
The people of Landau thought it pretty suspicious that this purported German peasant couldn’t speak any German. They contacted the Prussian army, who captured Tarrare on the outskirts of town.
The soldiers questioned Tarrare, who didn’t say a thing. He had sensitive military intelligence in his small intestine. The fate of the nation was at stake here! The soldiers subjected him to a strip-search, which of course turned up nothing. They beat and whipped the soles of his feet, but brave Tarrare still refused to speak.
He was hauled off to prison where he did his best to stay silent. But after a full twenty-four hours of torture and beatings, he gave in. ‘I’ll talk, I’ll talk,’ he said in his deep shame.
The soldiers brought him to the local general, a man called Zoegli. Zoegli stood over him with his arms crossed as Tarrare told his story.
‘You see, I can eat a whole lot. Like, loads. So, the French army made me eat a secret message and carry it here across enemy lines, so that I could… poo it out.’
‘Who the fuck do you think I am?!’ Zoegli raged. ‘Do you think this is a joke? Lie to me one more time and I’ll hang you myself!’
‘No, no, no, I swear!’ begged Tarrare. ‘The message is of great military significance! Alexandre de Beauharnais told me that himself! Oh please, I know it’s gross, but it’ll be worth it, I promise!’
Zoegli decided it was worth the chance. He had Tarrare chained to a toilet, and the men waited for the message to emerge.
It took six hours, but eventually Tarrare produced a wooden box into the toilet bowl. He couldn’t look as the Prussian soldiers handed it to General Zoegli.
‘I can’t believe it,’ Zoegli said. ‘You really were telling the truth. Now, let’s see what secrets you held.’
He opened the box and unfurled the paper inside.
It read: THIS MESSAGE IS A TEST OF OUR NEW SPY SYSTEM. HOLLER BACK IF YOU GET IT.
‘Holler back?’ Zoegli screamed. ‘Holler back?! This is crap! This is nothing!’
He was livid. He had Tarrare thrown out on the street, just as the boy’s own parents had done, not so long ago.
Tarrare returned to the military hospital at Soultz-Haut-Rhin, and found his old doctor, Baron Percy. ‘Please help me,’ he said. ‘Do something, anything. I can’t live this way.’
‘Of course,’ Percy said. ‘Of course, my brother.’
At Soultz-Haut-Rhin, Tarrare submitted willingly to various experimental treatments by the Baron Percy. In the search for a cure to his insatiable hunger, Percy prescribed courses of vinegar. It didn’t work. Laudanum. Didn’t work. Soft-boiled eggs. Didn’t work: Tarrare was still hungry. Tarrare was hungry all the time.
So hungry that he would regularly sneak out of the hospital to scrounge anything he could from the city streets. Percy knew he did it, and he didn’t like it, but when he had Tarrare confined to the hospital… things started to mysteriously disappear.
Including, at one point, a fourteen-month-old child. Gone from the hospital. Without a trace.
‘Your dude obviously ate that kid!’ the other doctors accused Percy.
Percy broached the accusation with Tarrare, who denied it absolutely. ‘I did not eat a child! What do you all think of me?! Jesus, I'm not a monster!’
‘Well, he says he didn't do it,’ Percy offered.
‘Uh, what else could possibly have happened? This is literally the thing that he does! Do something about him, or we will!’
‘I swear, I didn’t do it!’ Tarrare pleaded. ‘Doctor, you’re my brother, you must believe me.’
‘I can’t protect you this time, Tarrare!’ he cried. ‘This world, it will never understand you! You’ll have to run! You must run, and never stop running!’
And so, Tarrare ran from the hospital, pursued by its angry, wailing staff. He ran, deeper and deeper into the pitch black of the French night, in whose shadows he hoped to one day finally find a place of safety.
But he didn't. Tarrare died a few years later, due to problems stemming from his poor diet. On the autopsy table, the doctors opened him up and found his bloated and confusing organs arranged as in a surrealist diorama—leaving poor Tarrare as much of a mystery to medical science in death as he was in life.
These days, there's an old riddle we tell to amuse our children: ‘What is always hungry, but never full’? Now, you know the answer: Tarrare.
But if you’re being asked under exam conditions, you should put down, ‘fire’.
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net where you’ll also find a full transcript of this story. Follow us on Twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: Christian & Christopher.