Eels seem to have featured regularly in this blog, for some reason. First there was the physician who had a shocking experience with an electric eel, and more recently we’ve had the dubious tale of the boy with an eel in his stomach.
Here’s another story involving an ingested eel, and much more besides. In 1826 The London Medical Repository and Review reported the case of Jacques de Falaise, a French quarry worker from Montmartre. His career was unremarkable until the age of 62, when he suddenly developed a strange new habit.
Having had a fatiguing day, and being at supper with his fellow-workmen, their admiration was excited by the singular rapidity with which he caused repeated bumpers of some kind of drink which is not specified to disappear; and one of them told him jestingly, that he seemed as if he could swallow the canary-bird which was in a cage near them, and the property of the landlady of the inn. Strange to say, the man determined to try whether he could or not; and, in spite of the tears and entreaties of the landlady, he put the poor canary-bird into his mouth and swallowed him, feathers and all, in a moment, to the great astonishment of the whole company, himself included; for he told them he had no expectation of being able to swallow the bird, and was quite surprised to find it go down so easily. This feat was only the precursor of many similar ones, to the great terror of the birds about Montmartre.
The extraordinary bird-swallowing abilities of Jacques de Falaise soon became the talk of the town, and the manager of a Parisian theatre engaged him as a novelty act. In return for an annual salary of 400 francs (with food and clothing thrown in), he was asked to swallow anything the public gave him.
In his public career he swallowed birds, and cards, and flowers, and money: he was one day announced to swallow three hundred francs in five-franc pieces, a coin, as many of our readers well know, as large as an English crown-piece; but as the manager had agreed, that whatever Jacques swallowed was to become his property, he was not indulged with more than 150; after which the manager told the audience, that if they wished to see him swallow any more, they must contribute them: about twenty more pieces were thrown on the stage, and quickly followed the rest into the performer’s stomach; where their weight, and propensity to roll about, caused such distress to the poor fellow, that he was obliged to wear a bandage tight round him until the whole sum had fairly passed through the intestinal canal.
If tips form part of your normal remuneration, having to sieve your own faeces in order to obtain them seems a bit beyond the pale.
After this, he frequently swallowed frogs, crabs, eels, and even snakes; the crabs and eels, however, we are told, caused him particular inconvenience by their subsequent movements; and, on one occasion, an eel, which disapproved exceedingly of the unceremonious disposal of him, found his way back up the oesophagus, whilst poor Jacques was on the stage, and caused extreme pain by endeavouring to find a way through the posterior nares.
The posterior nares are openings at the back of the nasal cavity, at its junction with the throat.
At last the eel put its head rather near the performer’s teeth, upon which Jacques crushed it, and swallowed him again: after this unpleasant accident, be adopted the habit of crushing the heads of all the animals he swallowed, by a very rapid application of his molar teeth.
We are not surprised to learn, that after pursuing this business for some time, Jacques de Falaise became affected with gastroenteritis: he was admitted into the hospital Beaujou, and remained there some months.
An unusual form of occupational illness, probably the first such in the literature.
On being discharged, he returned to his trade of swallowing; but was soon more severely affected than before,— was re-admitted into the hospital, and had a long and painful convalescence. He now listened to the advice of his physicians, and, renouncing his dangerous avocation, was afterwards employed about the hospital until his death. He recovered his health and strength, but not his spirits; and at last, after spending a night in drinking, hanged himself.
A sad conclusion. In the hope of learning something useful to medical science, the doctors obtained permission to conduct a post mortem. Most of the organs looked healthy and in a normal condition – but not all:
The stomach was distended, its muscular structure much developed, and the pyloric orifice of unusual size. The mucous membrane of the ileum was partially destroyed; and there were large and numerous cicatrices [scars], the remains of former ulcers, in that of the coecum; the colon and rectum presented nothing remarkable.
All things considered, I think I prefer an occupation which does not entail swallowing coins and live eels.
Update: I now discover that a pamphlet about Jacques and his strange eating habits was published in Paris in 1820. It contains a rather splendid engraving of him in action, which I reproduce below.