Rocks and Puppies for Dinner: History's Most Monstrous Gluttons

Meet the three ravenous men who could eat almost anything—including, in one case, a wooden box full of secret documents.

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Most of us overeat at Thanksgiving, either because we can’t control our appetites or just because, come on, Thanksgiving food is delicious. But no matter how much mashed potato and turkey you manage to guzzle this year, you can take comfort in knowing that compared to some of history’s biggest pigs, what you ate was barely an appetizer.

Emperor Vitellius

Ancient Rome is often associated with excess, from the violence of its sports (gladiatorial combat and chariot racing) to the insanity of some of its rulers (such as Caligula, who appointed his horse to the Senate, or Nero, who murdered his own mother). But when it came to excessive gluttony, there were none who could hold a candle to Emperor Vitellius.

Coming to power during the disastrous struggle for the throne that followed Nero’s suicide in 69 AD—known as “the year of the four emperors”—Vitellius was only in power for a short time, but he more than made up for it with the enormous amount he ate. Infamous for his wasteful ways and endless banquets, he seemed to live only for the act of stuffing his considerable face.

“It would be useless to go into the details of such a banquet as that which was placed before the guests of Cæsar. Wild boar, pasties, goats, every kind of shell-fish, thrushes, beccaficoes, vegetables of all descriptions, and poultry, were removed to make way for the pheasant, the guinea-hen, the capon, venison, ducks, woodcocks, and turtle-doves,” wrote George Whyte-Melville in his book, The Gladiators. “Everything that could creep, fly, or swim, and could boast a delicate flavor when cooked, was pressed into the service of the emperor.”

It’s a common misconception that the Romans created a special room in which to throw up their food, so as to make room for them to eat more—the term “vomitorium” actually refers to the entrances and exits of a Roman amphitheater (the passages that would “vomit out” large numbers of people). But the belief that the Romans indulged in this practice at all stemmed from the unbelievable greed of Vitellius, and on that score, it’s possible the rumors are true. As per Whyte-Melville: “The disgusting story is even told that the imperial glutton was in the habit of taking an emetic to empty his stomach, that he might begin a fresh course of gluttony.”

The populace, appropriately, soon became sick to their stomachs of the vile hog that ruled them. Following another in a series of violent uprisings and invasions, Vitellius was dragged through the streets before being beaten to death by a mob.

Nicholas Woods

Nicholas Woods amply lived up to his given nickname, “The Great Eater of Kent.” A man of gargantuan appetite who lived in England during the early 16th Century, his ability to cram food down his gullet made him something of a celebrity. He was particularly popular with the aristocracy, who would compete to see who could finally satiate the ravenous beast before them.

Woods put on many memorable performances. On one occasion, he is said to have consumed a breakfast consisting of 60 eggs, an entire leg of mutton, three huge pies, a whole duck and a gigantic black pudding (a form of blood sausage). While a guest of Sir William Sedley, Woods ate so much that he passed out at the table: Fearing his grossly distended belly would burst open, his host smeared the unconscious gastronome’s stomach with lard and had him carried to bed.

Despite a promising showbiz career beckoning in London, Woods grew mistrustful of performing after falling victim to several pranks—one of which was carried out by the very same Sir William Sedley, who locked Woods in the stocks outside his castle the morning after his fainting defeat. Suffering increasingly from stage fright as the night of his big theatrical debut approached, Woods vanished from his lodgings one night and was never heard from again.

Tarrare

There are monstrous gluttons, and then there is Tarrare. A Frenchman born near Lyon in the late 1700s, his hunger was so great that the two previous entries on this list merely had the munchies by comparison. Tarrare began his life of overeating early: So early, in fact, that his parents threw him out when they realized they could no longer afford to feed him. This was no mere second helping of dessert, either—according to the 1839 book Popular Physiology, by his teens, Tarrare could eat a quarter of a bull, devouring his own body weight in beef in one day.

Left to fend for himself, he joined with a roving gang of thieves, pickpockets and street performers. It was the latter role that saw some initial success for the hungry Gaul, as people would gather to witness the revolting sight of the large teenager devouring entire baskets of apples, rocks, and numerous live animals, including puppies, cats and his personal tasty favorite, snakes.

By the time of the War of the First Coalition in 1792, Tarrare was pressed into service, but found himself unable to survive on his assigned rations. Admitted to a military hospital suffering from exhaustion, he confounded the doctors with his endless need to eat, on one occasion devouring a meal intended for 15 men. Sensing an opportunity for subterfuge, Tarrare was put to work as a spy once it was discovered that he could swallow a wooden box full of documents whole, and excrete it intact—an act that was rewarded with a wheelbarrow full of raw bull’s lungs and liver, which he ate in a single sitting. This role was short lived, however, as the clueless gourmand was captured on his very first mission and sent home in shame.

Tarrare lived out most of the rest of his short life in the military hospital, but was chased away after a 14-month-old child went missing, with staff suspecting the worst. Their grim accusations were not unfounded: Tarrare, as ever unable to sate his hunger, had repeatedly been found gnawing on dead bodies in the morgue. He fled, and later died of tuberculosis at the age of 22. An autopsy found that his vast, ulcer-covered stomach filled almost his entire abdominal cavity.