Charles Domery was a Polish man whose eating habits astounded three armies. Tarrare was a Frenchman who went from carnival act to spy to suspected murderer. What made these men so desperately hungry?
Top image via Fortean Times
Charles Domery was born Charles Domerz, in Poland, in 1778. He was a voracious eater, and his appetite only grew with time. When he was still young he joined the Prussian Army in a war against the French, but constantly complained about the lack of food. The Prussians put him on extra rations, but Domery found they couldn't compete with the French for culinary excellence. He switched sides for the food, but still believed he was starving. French officers reported Domery eating all available food, then all available cats, and then up to five pounds of grass per day.
The French lost him to the British. Not for the food, naturally. Rather, he was captured. The British put him on rations ten times larger than those given to any of his fellows, but still couldn't satisfy him, so they turned him over to their scientists to be experimented on. For food, the researchers gave him tens of pounds of meat per day, multiple bottles of wine, and for some reason two pound of candles. Domery obliged them by eating everything — including a raw cow's udder — and was so happy at finally getting a sufficient meal that he danced when he got back to his cell.
Tarrare, a French man who lived around the same time, had a darker story than Domery. Turned out by his parents, he roamed the countryside participating in freak shows during which he swallowed live animals and gulped down whole apples. During a war with Prussia, he became a courier, swallowing messages and walking them across the battle lines. One general caught on, and chained Tarrare to a toilet pot. Tarrare outsmarted him by eating his own leavings.
Tarrare also became an experimental subject. Doctors gave him various live animals to eat, which he willingly did. It was when they tried to cure him that things went south. He'd regularly escape from the hospital, eating offal behind butcher shops and fighting, killing, and eating animals. He was found eating discarded limbs and drinking blood. (Domery had a story like this. When a fellow soldier's leg was blasted off by cannon fire, he grabbed it and bit in. It had to be wrestled away from him.) Tarrare ate pet cats and dogs. And then one day, a 14-month-old child disappeared. Tarrare was never more than a suspect, but he was driven out of the hospital and died of tuberculosis a few years later.
One thing that's made clear is that both men preferred good human food when they could get it, but their hunger drove them to eat whatever they could get whenever they could get it. When viewed in that light, their condition resembles a horror movie. What would happen if every day, all day, you felt agonizing hunger? What would you do to assuage it, even for a moment?
There have been a few people in modern times who have been diagnoses with polyphagia — insatiable eating — but none felt hunger to the degree that the 18th century men did. Modern doctors wonder what it was that caused these men to be so desperately hungry. Hyperthyroidism can give sufferers a fast metabolism and extreme hunger. It's possible that that condition was at least partly at work in Tarrare, as he seemed to maintain a normal weight despite his prodigious intake of food. But it can't be the only explanation.
A couple of sections of the brain may provide some clues as to why people who have been fed still feel starved. When researchers destroyed a cat's amygdala, the center of emotions and motivation, the cat kept feeding and feeding until it became obese. A human man, who developed inflammatory cells on his hypothalamus - the part of the brain that deals with hormones throughout the body - suddenly became endlessly hungry and fed until he was obese. And a group of rats who had their hypothalamus stimulated fed voraciously after the stimulation. But simple stimulation didn't entirely work. Over time, the rats adjusted their feeding after stimulation until they were eating within normal levels.
So simple control isn't enough. No one with an electrode and a remote control can make you eat a severed leg. But kind of biological growth on those areas of the brain can. One biological accident could turn you into, essentially, a wendigo.