Among the vast manuscript collections of the British Library are seven large folio volumes full of press-cuttings, handbills and advertisements, collected by the clergyman Daniel Lysons in the late 18th century. The Rev Lysons was a habitué of London’s low life, visiting squalid, back-street monster-shows and collecting all the information he could about the quacks, mountebanks, jugglers and exhibitors of animals and human freaks for his huge scrapbooks.
Antiquaries and historians now recognize Lysons’ Collecteana as a valuable source of cultural history and, while studying them, I came across a startling newspaper cutting from the World, of March 13, 1788: “Amongst the curious Betts of the day, may be reckoned the following: The Duke of Bedford has 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 Cat is to be fed as Lord Barrymore may chose.”
The scholars of the past have supplied many more or less trustworthy accounts of the great eaters, or polyphagi, of olden times. According to the learned Vospicius, the Emperor Aurelius once amused himself by watching a peasant devouring in turn a roast sucking-pig, a roast sheep and a roast wild boar, all served with a generous supply of bread and wine; the man coped with this formidable task within one day’s time. In the year 1511, another gluttonous peasant performed before the court of the Emperor Maximilian: he ate a fatted calf raw, and started tearing a sheep’s carcass with his powerful jaws, before the courtiers interrupted this somewhat monotonous amusement, at the Emperor’s request. The Danish anatomist Caspar Bartholin once saw a student who could drink copious amounts of wine; at autopsy, the stomach of this individual was observed to be of enormous size. Helwigius claimed to have seen a man who could devour 90 lb (41kg) of food for his dinner, and Professor Martyn, of Cambridge University, had observed a boy who could consume 370 lb (168kg) of food in a week. A pig fattened on the boy’s vomit was sold at the market for a good price; probably its unusual diet was not disclosed to the unsuspecting buyer.
But what of Lord Bedford’s bet that Lord Barrymore could not eat a cat? Surely practices of the kind described by the ancients had not survived into 18th-century Britain? The unusual bet certainly attracted considerable public attention and several letters and articles appeared in the World 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, he wrote, at a racecourse near Kildare, witnessed an Irishman devouring five fox cubs for a bet of £50. Another said he had, in 1777, seen a Yorkshire shepherd eat a live black tom cat to win a bet of two guineas.
Richard Barry, the 7th Earl of Barrymore, was hardly out of his teens before he had established himself as one of the leading rakes of London. He may have been an inveterate hellraiser, said to have “wasted his fortune and his health among gamblers, pimps and players,” but in this case he began to get cold feet. He wrote to the editor of the World to say they had been mistaken in their report; he had only bet that he could find “a man who would eat a Cat.” Francis Russell, the 5th Duke of Bedford, was a wealthy magnate who shared Barrymore’s love of horse racing and gambling. The two noblemen, who were both courtiers to the extravagant Prince of Wales, had bet 500 guineas against 400 – sums exceeding the life earnings of a day labourer – and the Duke’s comments on hearing of Lord Barrymore’s unsporting volte-face have, perhaps unfortunately, been lost to posterity.
We simply don’t know whether Lord Barrymore ever found a cat-eater to bail him out out a similar wager – that a live cat was to be eaten at a public house in Windsor – was certainly made in January 1790. One of the correspondents of the Sporting Magazine was there to witness the disgusting proceedings. A nine-pound cat had been selected as the victim, and “the Man-monster… made a formidable attack on the head of his antagonist and, with repeated bites, soon deprived it of existence.” He then devoured his prey without even stripping off the skin, leaving only the bones “as memorials of [..] the degradation of human nature.”
According to the Public Advertiser of 3 February 1790 the notorious Cat-eater of Windsor had later “given another proof of his brutality – an instance too ferocious and sanguinary, almost to admit of public representation.” At a public house – perhaps the same one where he had eaten the cat – he had suddenly grabbed a bill-hook and hacked off one of his hands. It seems his only reason was “his total disinclination for work” and a sudden idea that the parish would provide for him.
For many years thereafter, lurid newspaper stories about men eating live cats abounded. In 1820, the philanthropist Henry Crowe – an early champion of animal’s rights – held this up as one of the worst outrages of all in his book Zoophilos, arguing that anyone who could eat a live cat for the amusement of others would feel “no qualms or compunction at adding even cannibalism to murder.” In fact, the cat-eater of Windsor was just one of a long line of prodigious eaters who had munched their way across Britain and into medical literature.
In early 17th century England, a glutton named Nicholas Wood (right), who was known as ‘the Great Eater of Kent’, performed at many country fairs and festivals. Wood was a native of the village of Harrietsham, near Maidstone, in Kent and in his youth had been employed as a servant of a local gentleman. The rumour of his prodigious appetite soon became widespread, though, and he became a local hero. Once, when invited by Sir Warham St Leger to his Kentish seat at Leeds Castle, he won a bet by eating a dinner intended for eight people. Another local gentleman, Sir William Sedley, laid an even more magnificent table for the Great Eater; it was the first time this celebrated glutton had faced defeat. After a valiant effort, Wood fell to the floor in a death-like trance, his stomach distended like a huge balloon. Fearing that the glutton would die, Sedley’s servants laid him down near the fireplace, and smeared his belly with fat to make it more readily distensible; the insensible man was then carried up to bed, many spectators fearing for his life.
The following day, the Great Eater revived, but his fickle benefactor decided to mock the once famous performer. Sedley’s stewards dragged him outside, and he was put in the stocks to be jeered by the populace. At the castle of Lord Wotton in Boughton Malherbe, Nicholas Wood got his own back; he won a bet by eating seven dozen rabbits, and was again celebrated by his friends for using his unique talents to score off those above him in society. Wood’s greatest misfortune occurred at the market of Lenham, where a cunning trickster named John Dale had made a bet that he could fill the Great Eater’s belly at the price of a mere two shillings. He accomplished this feat by soaking 12 one-penny loaves of bread in six pots of very strong ale; Wood fell asleep, and remained insensible for nine hours, after finishing only half of this rather alcoholic meal.
In 1630, Wood met the poet John Taylor, who at a country inn in Kent saw him win a bet by devouring a breakfast consisting of a leg of mutton, sixty eggs, three large pies and an enormous black pudding. This was all the food in the inn’s larder, but the Great Eater was still hungry. The waiter ran out to fetch a large duck, which Wood tore to pieces and ate, leaving only the beak and quills. Taylor was deeply impressed by this exhibition and poetically envisaged that the duck, which had, a mere minute ago, been peacefully swimming in the pond of the tavern, now “swomme in the whirlepole or pond of his mawe.”
Taylor paid Wood 20 shillings to visit him in London some time later. In the meantime, the shrewd poet had come up with a cunning plan to cash in on his new acquaintance. Wood had never performed in London, and his gluttonous orgies would be a novelty even for the blasé citizens of the Metropolis. After a grandiose advertising campaign, the Great Eater was to make his bow to the London audience at the Bankside bear-garden. At the first show, he would wolf a wheelbarrow full of tripe and at the second devour “as many puddings as would reach over the Thames.” At the subsequent shows, he would eat a fat calf worth 20 shillings, and then 20 sets of sheeps’ innards. Initially, Wood felt disposed to accept this plan, hoping, perhaps, to become a super-star of gourmandising. His ‘agent’ wrote a pamphlet to celebrate “the Admirable Teeth and Stomachs Exploits of Nicholas Wood” which was widely distributed among curious Londoners.
Taylor spared no superlatives to describe his artist’s enormous powers of digestion. His intestinal tract was a stall for oxen, a sty for hogs, a park for deer, a warren for rabbits, a pond for fishes, a storehouse for apples, and a dairy for milk and honey. His jaws were a mill of perpetual motion, and his capacious stomach the “rendez-vous or meeting place for the Beasts of the Fields, the Fowles of the Ayre, and Fishes of the Sea.” But when the day of the grand opening was imminent, the Great Eater became increasingly worried: he suffered from stage-fright and remembered, with horror and apprehension, the many distasteful and dangerous practical jokes he had encountered during his long and perilous career. The embarrassing anæsthesia in Lenham had not been forgotten and, shortly before leaving for London, he had lost all his teeth but one at the market of Ashford, after being tricked into eating a shoulder of mutton, bones and all. And so, one day, Nicholas Wood fled his lodgings in London, never to be heard of again. John Taylor, his prize attraction vanished, had to content himself with writing a long complimentary poem to ‘the Great Eater of Kent’.
Nicholas Wood’s exploits seem to have inspired a later generation of gluttons. In the early 1700s, a Bohemian became famous for his capacity to eat great amounts of raw meat. He performed widely in Germany and Austria, once breakfasting on a calf roasted whole. In 1709, the Bohemian glutton was advertised in a handbill (left), which depicts him seizing a puppy between his powerful jaws. He holds a large ham and a goblet of ale in his hands. At his feet lies a cat, happily unaware of the fate he had in store for it. Another feat of this disgusting performer was to crush a large stone between his powerful jaws.
An imbecile Irishman named Thomas Eclin performed similar wonders in London during the 1740s and 1750s. According to the newspapers, he was “remarkable for his Vivacity and Drollery in the low Way.” His feats included eating living dogs and cats and leaping head first into the Thames when the weather was freezing cold. Eclin was fond of drinking copious amounts of gin, and after his death from vomiting blood, the Daily Advertiser announced the sale of a drawing in his honour, depicting him “with the just Emblems of his Ambition: a Decanter and a Glass at his Elbow, and Pipe in his right Hand.”
Some years after Nicolas Wood had withdrawn from show business, an Irish soldier named Francis Battalia appeared in London. This individual had a unique talent: he could chew and swallow large plates full of stone and gravel. After his meal, he shook his body violently, making the stones rustle from the depths of his stomach. The advertisements told that as an infant, Battalia had refused all kinds of food until the wet-nurse mixed his gruel with small pebbles. He had subsequently, it was claimed, relied on the productions of the mineral kingdom for his daily nourishment, growing up to be a vigorous and active fellow, although of short stature. Francis Battalia’s performances were described in John Bulwer’s Anthropometamorphosis, and his portrait, by Hollar, was engraved and widely distributed (reproduced in FT45:38).
An artist resembling Battalia was performing in the late 1770s, under the short but self-explanatory stage-name ‘The Stone Eater’. This time, his partiality for hard-to-chew food was explained by the fact that he had, in 1761, been shipwrecked off the Norwegian coast. Sitting on an uninhabited, rocky islet, he had been munching gravel for 13 years before being saved by a passing ship. He claimed that his intestinal tract had become used to minerals as the principal source of nourishment. Those who doubted this were invited to his shows, where he ground stones and pebbles between his powerful jaws, with a horrible crunching sound.
‘The Stone Eater’ was much noticed by the medical establishment: the advertisements bragged that Sir Joseph Banks and the great John Hunter had been attracted by his unique accomplishments, but neither of these gentlemen described him in print. It is true, however, that Dr Munro wrote a short article about the Stone Eater in his Medical Commentaries. Soon, a rival stone eater appeared in London: this fellow called himself Siderophagus, and munched iron as well as he chewed pebbles. His wife was in the same line of business: under the stage-name Sarah Salamander, she drank aqua fortis and oil of vitriol as if it was beer. Another stone eater, either the original one or a usurper of that title, surfaced in 1788 and was still active in the early 1790s; he was immortalized by the comic poet Mr O’ Keefe:
Make room for a jolly Stone-eater,
For Stones of all kind I can crunch;
A nice bit of Marble is sweeter
To me than a Turtle or Haunch.
A Street that’s well pav’d is my larder -
A Stone you will say is hard meat,
But, neighbors, I think ‘tis much harder
Where I can get nothing to eat!
With my crackeldy mash, ha! ha!
London Bridge shall just serve for a
Don’t fear – I would make it a job:
The Monument next I will munch on,
For fear it would fall on my nob:
Ye Strand folks, as I am a sinner,
Two nuisances I will eat up;
Temple-Bar will make me a good dinner,
Because on St Clement’s I’ll sup.
There are many other instances of British gluttons – often not performers but simply those who accepted wagers to consume prodigious amounts of food and drink. This unsavoury amusement seems to have been particularly relished in the countryside, and survived well into the 19th century.
According to the World newspaper of 11 March 11 1790, a man at Stillington in Lancashire drank five quarts of ale, and then masticated and swallowed the earthen mug; he did not have long to enjoy winning his bet, since he died two days later, probably of intestinal obstruction caused by the fragments of the mug. The Times of 26 August 1824, reported another melancholy event: a man from Jersey ate six raw eggs mixed with half a pint of gin. As the wager was renewed, at a higher amount each time, he repeated this performance three times. With two pints of gin within him, he tore into a quantity of raw bacon, and drank two large glasses of brandy. Then he “felt indisposed”, went home and died. Another glutton, William Webber, undertook to 'eat' a 10lb (4.5kg) roast pig, served with two quartern loaves and a quantity of potatoes. Having ‘cleared’ an eight lb (3.6kg) pig on Christmas Eve the year before, he began in a capital manner, drinking beer and smoking his pipe in between the generous helpings, but had to give up, according to the Times of 3 March 1840, with a pound and a half of meat still on the table before him.
While Britain produced some notable polyphagi, it was, ironically, the French – for all their reputation in matters of fine cuisine – who seem to have produced the most disgusting gourmands. For instance, a contemporary of the English stone-eater was a French glutton named M. Dufour. At one of his shows, in 1792, he ate a specially composed banquet before a large and admiring house. As hors d'oeuvres, he had soup of asps boiled in simmering oil, with thistles and burdocks as a salad. Then, he ate dishes of tortoise, bat, rat and mole; the main course was roast owl served in a sauce of glowing brimstone. For dessert, he supped on toads decorated with flies, crickets, spiders and caterpillars. As an encore, M. Dufour swallow the still burning candles on the table, and washed them down with a flaming glass of brandy. Finally, he swallowed the oil lamp, the flames glowing from his wide mouth when he made his bow to the enraptured audience.
Another gallic glutton was Charles Domery, an ordinary soldier, captured in February 1799 on the French ship Hoche when it was taken by the Royal Navy off the coast of Ireland. He amazed his guards with his voracious appetite; still hungry after receiving double rations, he constantly begged food from other prisoners and did not refuse the dead cats and rats delivered to him as presents by the curious jailors. While at an army camp outside Paris, Domery had eaten 174 cats in the course of a year. Dogs and rats equally suffered from his merciless jaws, and he also ate four or five pounds of grass each day, if bread and meat was scarce. He liked meat raw better than cooked or boiled, and a raw bullock’s liver was his favourite dish. In spite of his gluttonous habits, Charles Domery was of normal build and stature; although he was completely illiterate, the prison doctors considered him to be at least of average intelligence.
In September 1799, Dr Johnston, the Commissioner of Sick and Wounded Seamen, decided to perform an experiment to test the Frenchman’s preternatural appetite for even the most disgusting pieces of meat. At four o’clock in the morning, Charles Domery breakfasted on four lb (1.8kg) of raw cow’s udder, and at half past nine, Dr Johnston and Admiral Child had prepared a suitable luncheon for him, consisting of five lb (2.3kg) of raw beef, twelve large tallow candles, and a bottle of porter. At one o’clock, the glutton again devoured five lb of raw beef, one lb of candles and three large bottles of porter. At five o’clock, he returned to the prison; it was recorded that he was of particularly good cheer after his great feast: he danced, smoked his pipe, and drank another bottle of porter. The following morning, he awoke at four o’clock, eager for his breakfast.
Domery had a better-known colleague, a M Bijoux, who was a porter at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Fancying himself a great naturalist – he referred to himself as ‘the French Linnaeus’ – he invented an elaborate system of classifying animals by the appearance of their excrement and kept a large collection of fæcal matter in his private museum. Bijoux became known for his ability to eat the most disgusting objects without hesitation: once, he consumed the body of an old lion that had died of disease in its cage. His demise came after taking a bet that he could not devour nine lb (4kg) of hot bread within two minutes. After a frenzied start he won the bet but promptly fell down dead. The intestinal tract capable of digesting the King of Beasts thus had to capitulate before a mere pain riche!
In the early 1820s, another glutton, Jacques de Falaise, a denizen of Monmartre, became a time-honoured attraction at various sleazy taverns around Paris. During his act he swallowed eggs and walnuts whole; but these were merely hors doeuvres to the entrée of living sparrows, crawfish, mice, adders and eels. On one occasion, he nearly died after swallowing 50 five franc pieces for a wager. His eventual demise came when he hanged himself some years later; the autopsy showed that his stomach bore the scars of numerous injuries resulting from the sharp and corrosive substances he had swallowed.
Such unsavoury tales from the annals of polyphagy may seem hard to believe; but even they are surpassed by the exploits of the worst glutton of all time, a Frenchman known as Tarrare (see below). The story of Tarrare will raise a frisson of horror even in the most devoted student of the macabre: the bizarre antics of the French glutton are almost unbelievable, and one would at first be tempted to suspect that his biographer, Professor Percy, was guilty of exaggerating. This does not seem to be the case, however. George Didier, Baron Percy, was one of the leading military surgeons of his time; in his list of publications, the case report about Tarrare seems out of place among his surgical monographs. Tararre was widely famous among the Parisians, who delighted in the demented glutton’s macabre display of his powers of deglutition. It would even seem that a theatrical play was inspired by his singular career.
But the celebrated gluttons Tarrare and Charles Domery shared more than just their French nationality and had several characteristics in common. Neither, in spite of their singular behaviour, appeared insane to their contemporaries. Their bizarre eating habits began early – Domery’s at the age of 13, and Tarrare’s even earlier. Despite the quantity they swallowed, they were never known to vomit and did not gain in weight. Both had a preference for raw meat and could devour the most disgusting food with alacrity. Both Tarrare and Domery were observed to sweat profusely, particularly after a feast, and were continuously surrounded by nauseating body odour. At autopsy, it was noted that Tarrare’s habit of swallowing huge chunks of meat, apples and buns whole had caused a considerable widening of the gullet and stomach.
Several other historical polyphagi, like Jacques de Falaise (left) and Bijoux, showed distinct signs of mental illness even according to the criteria of their contemporaries. Others, like Thomas Eclin, were simple-minded individuals, forced to perform their disgusting and dangerous feats before the cruel populace. No case even moderately resembling Domery or Tarrare has been published in the annals of modern neurology, however, and it is thus impossible to determine their correct diagnosis.
Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, such prodigies of eating had not entirely vanished: ‘human ostriches’ appeared in sideshows and circuses, swallowing corks, glass, lemons and paraffin. among whom were the live frog swallowers like ‘English Jack’ and the Frenchman Louis Claude Delair, who performed as Mac Norton, the ‘Human Aquarium’. His final show – held in 1949, four years before his death – was typical; after rapidly drinking a huge amount of water, Delair swallowed six gold-fishes and 12 green frogs. To the astonishment of the audience, he then vomited them back, one by one, until they were all returned to the bowl. He bragged that during his 40-year career in show-business, he had never lost a single of his pets.
A step down the social ladder were the unskilled street performers who swallowed swords, stones, coal, live animals – indeed, anything that would attract an audience. A speciality of modern American sideshows is the ‘Geek’, a purported wild man who bit the heads off live rats and chickens to drink their blood. The traditional Geek was a rundown alcoholic, lured by a bottle of cheap whisky to perform the most degrading feats. Today, ‘humanitarian’ Geeks use rubber chickens in their shows. Perhaps it’s just as well; the gluttonous giants of the past would now be deemed very, very politically incorrect.
The man who fought dogs for carrion
In the unsavoury annals of polyphagy, the worst glutton of all time was the Frenchman known as Tarrare. It is not known if Tarrare was his real name or a nickname, but it has survived in such expressions as “Bom-bom tarare!” and “Tarrare bom-de-ay!” referring to powerful explosions or fanfares and, by inference Tarrare’s own prodigious flatulence.
Tarrare was born near Lyon and, as a child, was already noted for his enormous appetite. In his teens, he was turned out of the house by parents who could no longer feed him. For years, he wandered the French provinces in the company of robbers and whores and as an attention-getting act for an itinerant quack, swallowing stones, whole apples and live animals before the mountebank’s spiel about his wonder-drugs.
In 1788, he reached Paris, to earn a perilous living by means of similar performances in the streets of the French capital. During the revolutionary wars in France, Tarrare joined the army but was driven to desperation by his raging hunger. Exhausted, despite quadruple rations and habitual foraging among dustbins and gutters, he came to the attention of the military surgeons. Among their experiments, Tarrare was given a live cat, which he devoured after tearing its abdomen with his teeth and drinking its blood. He later vomited the fur and the skin. The doctors also fed him live puppies, snakes, lizards and other animals, and Tarrare refused nothing. Contrary to the imagined stereotype of a glutton, Tarrare was pale, thin and of medium height, and of apathetic temperament. His fair hair was uncommonly soft; his mouth enormously wide; and the enamel of the teeth much stained. He sweated profusely and was always surrounded by a malodorous stench which got even worse after his nauseating feasts. Professor Percy wrote that the methods utilized by “this filthy glutton” to make his rations last were too disgusting to be described in detail and “dogs and cats fled in terror at his aspect” as if they knew what fate he was preparing for them.
The French military were at a loss to know what to do with him until one doctor presented a bold, if preposterous, plan to General de Beauharnais. Dr Courville had persuaded Tarrare to swallow a wooden box with a document inside and recovered the box two days later from the hospital latrines. So Tarrare was officially employed as a courier-spy. His first mission was to take a document, internally, to a French colonel held captive by the Prussians in a fortress near Neustadt. Unfortunately, Tarrare, disguised as a German peasant, knew no German and he was arrested.
He managed to keep his secret while he was stripped and beaten, but after 24 (presumably, hungry) hours, he confessed and was chained to a bog-house until he delivered the message into their hands (so to speak). Fearing the worst, the French had sent a dummy message which was no use to the Prussians. He was beaten again before being released to make his way home.
Tarrare evaded further military service but ended up, nevertheless, in the military hospital under Professor Percy. Tormented by his appetite and the doctor’s bizarre attempts to cure him, he would stalk the dark back alleys of Paris where he fought street mongrels for the possession of disgusting carrion found in the gutters and refuse-heaps. Within the hospital, he sometimes skulked into the wards to drink the blood from patients being bled. Several times, he was kicked out of the morgue after taking liberties with the corpses. Eventually the inevitable scenario happened; a 14-month-old infant disappeared from a ward and Tarrare was blamed. The enraged doctors and porters chased him away and he was never seen at the hospital again.
Four years later, Professor Percy heard from the chief surgeon of the hospital in Versailles that Tarrare had been admitted to one of his wards. It was apparent to Professor Percy that Tarrare was badly ill, in the last stage of tuberculosis; he was struck by continuous, purulent diarrhoea, and died within a couple of days. The corpse putrefied uncommonly quickly, and even the surgeons of the hospital, who were used to dealing with rotting corpses, were unwilling to dissect him. At the autopsy, the rotting entrails were found to be bathed in pus; the liver very large; and the gall-bladder distended. The stomach was enormous, and filled the major part of the abdominal cavity. Tarrere’s gullet was uncommonly wide – probably from swallowing things whole – the surgeons could actually see a broad canal down to his stomach.