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Chews Wisely

Dernière mise à jour : 3 mars 2021

Oh my friends, this is a story you really want to miss. So, please shut your laptop, put your phone down, and don’t even think about reading any further.

You’re still here I see. Ok, well, you were warned.

Daniel Lambert was born in 1770, at his parents' house in Blue Boar Lane, Leicester, to a very comfortable family in the employment of Harry Grey, the 4th Earl of Stamford.

Two years later, a man called Tarrare came into the world. As far as we know, he was born to a peasant family somewhere near Lyon, though the exact date eludes us. We don’t even know his full name, just Tarrare, and that’ll do just fine.

While Lambert grew into a fine strong fellow, with a keen love of the sporting life, like hunting otter, fishing for salmon, shooting hare and cony, racing fast horses, and breeding talented dogs, Tarrare was forced out of his home by his parents, who despaired of his upkeep, and saw no way of feeding the teenager for even one more day.

While Lambert ate healthily but not to extremes, yet seemed to put on weight by breathing, Tarrare’s appetite was utterly without limit, and his eating habits truly repulsive, and yet he added no weight to his emasculated body.

By the age of twenty-one, we find Lambert living comfortably, and succeeding his father as a well-liked and fair gaol keeper in Leicester, at the Bridewell gaol.

In contrast, Tararre was living a somewhat unconventional life.

Ejected from his home, the young man, whose appearance at first glance was ordinary, found himself alone and in want of a place to live, and eat. It seems a band of thieves, conmen, and ladies of the night, provided the answer. The group would tour France like a theatre company, the only difference being that while the show was going on, the thieves were pickpocketing the audience.

That show included Tarrare, their star attraction, a man who could eat anything.

Within a few years of arriving in Leicester, Lambert's weight reached a massive two-hundred kilograms, and he dedicated himself to fitness and healthy activities in a bid to reduce his bulk, once walking eleven kilometers at a clip and outpacing his companions. His weight did come with huge strength, and he was able to carry two-hundred-and-fifty kilograms with ease. He was also incredibly agile and flexible, and continued to teach swimming, and “was able to stay afloat with two grown men sitting on his back”.

Meanwhile, Tarrare’s life was taking a different path.

Part of the appeal of his act with the band of thieves was to eat what was thrown at him, which he did, without flinching, ravenously consuming strange items like corks and stones, and more obvious food like apples, though he ate an entire basket of them in one go. On one occasion Tarrare ate something that didn’t agree with his digestive system, and he was hospitalized briefly, while powerful laxatives helped disperse the object, whatever it was.

Trouble for Lambert started with his inability to earn a living. The traditional gaols were closing in favor of forced labor, and although he was given an annuity for his exceptional service at the Bridewell gaol, he was left without a job. And while the amount wasn’t insubstantial, it was insufficient to cover his living expenses. He was also unable to work because of his huge girth, and he became unemployable, depressed, and somewhat reclusive as a result.

Tarrare, conversely slim, was joining the Armée révolutionnaire française, where he was given four times the usual soldiers food ration, which didn’t come close to alleviating his desperate hunger.

And, I warn you again, turn back now, or live with the truth.

As a result, Tarrare would devour anything he could get his hands on. He would constantly eat other soldiers rations in exchange for jobs, and scavenge food waste from the dungheaps and middens around the camp and behind the mess, and even break into the apothecary to munch on poultices. But he still managed to deteriorate physically through hunger.

Though terribly shy, Lambert soon realized that putting himself on display to be gawked at was the only way to solidify a decent income, and so he moved, in 1806, in a specially-built carriage, to London and 53 Piccadilly, where he charged a shilling, around five dollars in 2020 equivalent, for an audience.

By all accounts, this venture went very well, with Lambert received with much respect, as he shared his knowledge of sport and animal husbandry with as many as four-hundred guests a day. It was almost viewed as de rigueur to attend his house, and many of the upper classes of London did so, with absolutely no stigma attached to his size or weight.

Before Lambert got even close to London, Tarrare was being experimented on in the army hospital for his strange affliction, by doctors Courville and Percy.

First, he was given a fairly ordinary meal for fifteen people, and he ate the lot, including two huge meat pies, and many gallons of milk. Further offerings though, were not so appetizing, at least for us.

Last warning, my hungry friends. Don't read on.

He was given a live cat.

And this he tore open with his teeth, drank its blood, and ate all of it except its bones, before vomiting up the fur and skin. Having made short shrift of the cat, Tarrare was given lizards and puppies, which suffered the same fate, and snakes, which proved to be a particular favorite. He then swallowed an eel, whole and alive, without even chewing.

Lambert’s appearance, of course, was actually quite dapper. He’d begun to earn a substantial amount from the London work, and he is painted dressed well in very large but very suitable clothing, for a man of his time. He was not in any other way unusual, other than his size, which, when coaxed into being weighed by friends, was found to be three-hundred-and-twenty kilograms, and thus more than the previous ‘heaviest man’, Edward Bright, the ‘Fat Man of Maldon’, who weighed two-hundred-and-seventy-nine.

Tarrare’s though, was, on closer inspection, a little odd. Descriptions of his appearance are fairly consistent, including unusually soft hair and an incredibly wide mouth, which, when opened, extended like a snake’s jaw, and able to accommodate twelve eggs in one go, and his cheeks were wrinkled and loose. His mouth exhibited two other oddities, a set of badly-stained teeth, and almost no lips at all. Further, his skin would fall loosely around his abdomen when he hadn’t eaten, and balloon out like a huge ball when he had. And always, he was hot to the touch and constantly sweaty.

This must've been incredibly uncomfortable, although he isn’t recorded as really saying much other than always being hungry.

Maybe worst of all, though, for him as much as those around, was the smell, which was so bad, that “he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces”, and it was even worse after he’d eaten, when vapors would rise from him as he belched noisily. And after eating, he almost always had chronic diarrhea, said to be “fetid beyond all conception”.

I did warn you.

Back in London, Lambert had come to the attention of medical professionals, who were eager to examine him and determine what was causing his excessive weight gain. What they found, in short, was nothing at all.

He appeared to have no medical issues, he slept a full eight hours every night, never snored, and woke alert every day. He could walk and sing without breathlessness, and ate and drank normally. He did not partake of alcohol, and other than some thickened skin on his legs, which was to be expected, he really had no health problems whatsoever.

Tarrare, however, did.

After a failed and fruitless attempt by French generals to have him swallow a box with a secret message, sneak cross enemy lines and ‘deliver’ the communique, which ended in capture and the horror of a mock execution, Tarrare agreed to treatment to try to solve his condition.

Doctor Percy’s laudanum prescription, and then wine vinegar, tobacco pills, and soft-boiled eggs, all failed to provide relief, and Tarrare was often found scavenging offal outside butcher’s shops or fighting stray dogs over gutter-carrion and intestines. He was caught slurping from patients undergoing bloodletting, and feasting on corpses in the hospital mortuary.

While Tarrare continued to try medicaments to staunch his hunger, Lambert returned to his native Leicester with a good sum of money in his vast pocket, to take-up again his favorite pastimes. He came back a distinguished gentleman, and the city was “glad to see our old friend, Mr. Daniel Lambert, in apparent high health and spirits".

He interspersed various fundraising tours with greyhound racing, another visit to London, dog breeding and trading, a brief tour of East Anglia, and a final stop in Stamford, where he intended to display his substantial body to the Lincolnshire locals.

After waking on June 21, 1809, he promptly dropped dead, having woken at his usual time and appearing in very fine health.

Lambert’s busy life-end contrasted starkly with Tarrare’s, whose doctors still could find no cure for his insatiable appetite, unbounded penchant for live or recently-expired meat, and who was still cooped up in the military hospital.

But not for long. Because when a fourteen-month-old child disappeared from the hospital, never to be seen again, Tarrare was suspected, and, in-between odorous belches and a distended stomach, he was chased out of the institution and away forever.

It was four years later that Percy was called to administer to Tarrare in a Versailles hospital, where he lay weak and bedridden, having swallowed, so he said, a golden fork, which had sat in his intestine for several years. Tarrare hoped Percy could remove the fork, but that seemed both unlikely, and as Tarrare presented with advanced tuberculosis, unhelpful.

After a month of uncontrolled, oozing diarrhea, Tarrare died.

Lambert’s body wasn’t subject to an autopsy, but the most likely cause of his demise was a sudden pulmonary embolism. His body putrefied quickly, and he was buried in St Martin’s Church in Stamford, where today his sizable gravestone stands testimony to his prodigious size and generous character.

But you're not being let off that easily, because there was an autopsy, albeit a short one, of Tarrare’s corpse. While the hospital doctors refused to even go near the body, one doctor named Tessier, did venture an exploration of this anomalous man.

On inspection, doctors found that Tarrare’s gullet was abnormally wide, and when they pulled his jaw open they could see right down into his stomach. His body was filled with pus, and his stomach covered with ulcerating and weeping sores, while filling almost the entirety of his abdominal cavity.

They closed Tarrare up quickly after that because of the horrendous stench emanating from him, and no record of a headstone, or even a burial, is known.

Lambert, though, was honored with pub names and porcelain effigies, his clothes were treasured and sold for high prices at auction, and his walking cane is displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral. Charles Dickens mentioned him in Nicholas Nickleby, and William Makepeace Thackeray talks about him in Vanity Fair, and his name entered the English lexicon as a way to describe something extremely large. And, there was even a Daniel Lambert Day in Leicester, where they got to honor their most celebrated native son.

But there were no such accolades for Tarrare, whose tormented life was certainly no picnic.

photo by Jan Kopriva

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