Excessive Eaters of the 18th Century
For some unfathomable reason the 18th century threw up a formidable clutch of prodigious eaters, and scholars have supplied many trustworthy accounts of these great polyphagi. For instance, Rev. Lysons, a habitué of London’s low life, [who visited] squalid, back-street monster-shows and collecting information about al he saw there, recorded in 1788 that “The Duke of Bedford [had] betted 1000 guineas with Lord Barrymore, that he does not eat a live Cat! It is said his Lordship grounds his chances upon having already made the experiment upon a Kitten.” The unusual bet attracted considerable public attention and several articles appeared under the headline ‘Cat Eating’. One authority on blood sports pointed out that it was “not without precedents in the annals of sporting.” He had himself witnessed an Irishman devouring five fox cubs for a bet of £50, whilst another said he had seen a Yorkshire shepherd eat a live cat to win a bet of two guineas.
A few entrepreneurial gluttons managed to transform the art of bizarre consumption into a profitable sideshow act, eating all manner foods for the entertainment of live audiences. Thomas Eclin, for example, performed such wonders in London in the mid-1700s. His feats included eating dogs and cats and leaping head first into the Thames when the weather was freezing cold. The 1770s saw the rise of ‘The Stone Eater’, who would invite doubters to his shows to witness him grind stones and pebbles between his powerful jaws, whilst claiming that his intestinal tract had become used to minerals as the principal source of nourishment after he was shipwrecked on an uninhabited island for 13 years.
Perhaps the most celebrated gluttons, however, are Charles Domery and Tarrare. Domery served with the Prussian Army in the War of the First Coalition, however, upon finding the rations were insufficient to satisfy his appetite he defected to the French Army in return for food. He is recorded as having eaten 174 cats in a year, and although he disliked vegetables, would eat 5 pounds of grass each day if he could not find other food. He once also attempted to eat the severed leg of a crewmember hit by cannon fire, before it was wrestled from him.
When Domery’s ship was captured and imprisoned by the British he remained hungry despite being put on ten times the rations of other inmates. He was subsequently experimented on: throughout a day he was fed a raw cow’s udder, which was eaten without hesitation; 4.6kg of raw beef; 24 large tallow candles; and four large bottles of porter. During the course of the experiment he did not defecate, urinate or vomit, his pulse remained regular and he did not change temperature.
Similarly, Tarrare was a French showman and soldier able to eat vast amounts. He was constantly hungry; his parents could not provide for him, and he was turned out of the family home as a teenager. He travelled France in the company of a band of thieves and prostitutes; swallowing corks, stones, live animals and whole apples. He then took this act to Paris where he worked as a street performer.
He also found military rations unable to satisfy his appetite, and would eat food from gutters and refuse heaps. Suffering from exhaustion through hunger, he was hospitalised and became the subject of experiments to test his eating capacity, in which, he ate a meal intended for 15 people in a single sitting, ate live cats, snakes, lizards and puppies, and swallowed an eel whole without chewing. Despite his unusual diet, he was of normal size and appearance. His army general decided to put Tarrare to use as a courier, swallowing documents and transporting them over enemy lines, however, Tarrare was captured upon his first mission and subjected to a horrific beating and mock execution.
Returning to the hospital following this, Tarrare was caught several times attempting to eat the bodies in the hospital mortuary. After some time, a toddler disappeared, and Tarrare was immediately suspected and banished from the hospital. After his death Tarrare’s body was found to be filled with pus; his liver and gallbladder were abnormally large, and his stomach was enormous, covered in ulcers, and filled most of his abdominal cavity. The cause of their appetites is not known and there have been no modern documented cases of polyphagia as extreme as Domery’s and Tarrare’s.
[Sources: Fortean Times | Charles Domery | Tarrare]