Throughout human history there have been countless cases of strange and baffling medical conditions that have defied explanation by the premier scientific minds of the day: Human beings with horns or stony growths upon their heads, or whole families with bodies covered head-to-toe in thick hair. In earlier eras, when even something now so well-understood as a case of conjoined twins garnered international attention and speculation, the unfortunate souls who exhibited these strange and fascinating physical traits were all too often subjected to lives of ridicule, being held up for examination not only by the comparatively primitive medical establishments of the day, but often in public spectacles for a callous and jeering crowd.
While medical science has made spectacular leaps in the last century, there are still many cases from this ill-informed period of human history that defy explanation, perhaps none more fascinating than the many historical cases of polyphagia, or excessive appetite and its resulting gluttony. Stories abound, especially from the 16th and 17th Centuries (when Europe’s collective fascination seemed fixed upon such disturbing entertainment) about men and women who could consume prodigious sums of the most disgusting food as a spectacle for crowds of spectators on the streets of London or Paris.
Newspapers of the day reference famous stone-eaters, men who could swallow frogs and fish only to regurgitate them alive and well, or vagrants compelled to gorge on live animals in exchange for a pittance. The following are five of the most shocking and fascinating cases of polyphagia throughout history. By the end you may think twice the next time you’re tempted to say you’re “starving” when dinner’s an hour late.
Founded in 1626 by Guy de la Brosse, physician to King Louis XIII, the Jardin des Plantes is an impressive botanical garden in Paris that remains to this day. In 1793 the garden was expanded to include a labyrinthine hedge maze as well as becoming home to the royal menagerie, a grand zoo that had until then been housed at the Versailles Palace.
In the early 1800s, a porter at this historical establishment was a budding young naturalist, M. Bijoux, who became renowned not for his attempts to develop a new classification system for animals (based on the nature of their feces), but for his grotesque appetite. Bijoux would eat disgusting quantities of raw and rancid meat at the drop of a hat, once even descending to eating the entire carcass of a diseased lion that had died in its cage at the hallowed institution.
Nicholas Wood, The Great Eater Of Kent
“Thou that putst down the malt below the wheat,
That dost not eat to live, but live to eat,
Thou that the sea-whale and land-wolf excells,
A foe to Bacchus, champion of god Bael’s:
I wish if any foreign foes intend
Our famous isle of Britain to offend,
That each of them had stomachs like to thee,
That of each others they devoured might be.”
An excerpt from poet John Taylor’s The Great Eater of Kent, this passage shows the impression that young glutton Nicholas Wood made on the imaginative minds of his time, becoming a local hero after rumors spread that he had, in his youth, devoured a whole hog.
A number of wealthy gentlemen of the area sought the company of Wood, laying out enormous banquets in an effort to satiate his endless hunger. On one such occasion his stomach was not up to the task, and he fell unconscious halfway through his feast, whereupon his host had servants smear his distended belly with lard as it swelled to the size of a giant balloon.
After recovering, his wealthy host had some fun at his expense, locking him in stocks to glory in his defeat. While this instilled in him a distaste for his wealthy patrons, he nonetheless continued his gluttonous escapades, eating seven dozen whole rabbits in a sitting supplied by another wealthy lord. However, after losing all but one of his teeth digging into a shoulder of mutton, he escaped from the showman’s life and was never heard from again.
A French soldier during the French Revolutionary Wars, Tarrare was a young man from Lyons who made his way on the streets of Paris eating hosts of inedible items. The crowds would gather round to see him eat whole bushels of apples, swallowing them whole one at a time, as well as corks, stones, and live mice.
However, when food became scarce and revolution broke out, Tarrare joined the French Revolutionary Army in the hopes of securing himself three square meals a day. When standard military rations weren’t enough to keep him on his feet, the young glutton, only about 19 at the time, was prescribed quadruple rations, but even that was not enough to keep him sated. Instead, Tarrare roamed the military hospital searching for garbage or dead animals to eat.
Before long, the hospital began testing Tarrare’s appetite, at one point rewarding him with a wheelbarrow full of raw bull’s livers, which he devoured without hesitation. When his doctors realized that perhaps his appetite could be put to military use, they enlisted him as a spy. Tarrare would swallow a top-secret document and carry it across enemy lines, under cover as a German labourer, to deliver his message to a captured General in Prussian territory.
Unfortunately, his commanders overlooked the crucial detail that Tarrare didn’t speak a word of German, and he was immediately captured and tortured, surrendering his secret after 30 hours without food.
When he was unceremoniously returned to the French ranks, he searched desperately for a cure for his insatiable appetite, without success. Still constantly ravenous, he became unable to turn down even the most disgusting nourishment, nibbling on dead bodies in the morgue until the hospital’s other patients began to fear they were sharing the halls with a monster. Tarrare was therefore the primary suspect when an infant disappeared from its hospital room, and the doctors and patients chased him from their midst.
Like Tarrare, the French soldier Charles Domery was an average looking fellow, slim and of average height, despite his voracious appetite. When his ship was captured by English forces off the coast of Ireland in 1799, his guards were amazed by his endless hunger, and brought him dead rats and cats which, to the delight of his captors, he would consume. His fellow captors told stories of his time in the military, particularly of a year when 174 live cats met their end at his merciless jaws, and when such fare was scarce, Domery would even eat up to five pounds of grass in a day.
In one particularly fascinating anecdote, the prisoners told of a naval battle aboard Domery’s ship during which a stray cannon ball severed a fellow soldier’s leg. Unable to contain himself, Domery leaped upon the severed appendage, gnawing on it under the horrified gaze of its former owner, until a disgusted compatriot wrenched it from his grasp and threw it to the sea.
Saving the best (or the worst) for last, we arrive at Antoine Langulet, a Frenchman from Paris who adored putrid meat more than any other fare. He would wander the streets at night collecting his filthy treasures and return to his hovel to feast. During the days he would approach butchers for the pleasure of dining on the carcasses of sick horses they had killed.
Langulet’s story took a turn for the worse when he discovered a new avenue to satisfy his macabre hunger: cemeteries. In the dead of night, this horrifying glutton would climb cemetery walls and unearth coffins to abscond with the contents of the crypt. He would take them to his home before beginning to feast, and it is said that the bodies’ rotten old intestines were his preferred delicacy. Eventually rumors spread that grave-robbers were at work in the cemetery, but when it was realized that the bodies themselves were the prize for these midnight pursuits, volunteers from the neighbourhood began guarding the site.
When a watchful guard spotted a gaunt figure hauling the body of a young girl from her grave, he pursued him even despite Langulet’s agile escape, with body in tow, over the cemetery wall. When his pursuer and the local authorities burst into the glutton’s hovel, they discovered him elbow-deep in the corpse, mid-feast. He admitted to his depraved appetite and claimed that, to him, it seemed quite natural. He even went so far as to volunteer that he had always yearned to feast on a living human body, especially that of a child, but that he could never muster the courage to perform the killing. In light of this disturbing revelation, he was locked up for life in a lunatic asylum.