Medical journals usually pride themselves on presenting cutting-edge research, but in 1851 The Medical Examiner reported a case which was already half a century old. It’s not clear what they thought it added to contemporary scholarship, but it’s certainly a good story.
Charles Demery, a native of Benche, on the frontiers of Poland, aged 21, was brought to the prison of Liverpool, in February, 1799, having been a soldier in the French service on board the Hoche, captured by the squadron under the command of Sir John B. Warren, off Ireland. He is one of nine brothers, who, with their father, have been remarkable for the voraciousness of their appetites. They were all placed early in the army — and the peculiar craving for food with this young man, began at thirteen years of age. He was allowed two rations in the army, and by his earnings or the indulgence of his comrades, procured an additional supply.
Having a large appetite is one thing; but it’s what this young man chose to eat that’s more extraordinary.
When in the camp, if bread or meat was scarce, he made up the deficiency by eating four or five pounds of grass daily — and in one year, devoured 174 cats (not their skins) dead or alive — and says he had several severe conflicts in the act of destroying them, by feeling the effects of their torments on his face and hands — sometimes he killed them before eating, but when very hungry he did not wait to perform this humane office.
Dogs and rats equally suffered from his merciless jaws — and if much pinched by famine, the entrails of animals indiscriminately become his prey… When the ship on board of which he was, had surrendered after an obstinate action, finding himself, as usual, hungry, and nothing else in his way but a man’s leg, which was shot off, lying before him, he attacked it greedily, and was feeding heartily, when a sailor snatched it from him, and threw it overboard.
Eating a human leg might be understandable, if the individual was in extremis and about to starve. But his dietary habits as a prisoner of war suggest that this was a matter of choice:
Since he came to this prison, he has eat one dead cat and about twenty rats. But what he delights most in, is raw meat, beef or mutton, of which though plentifully supplied by eating the rations of ten men daily, he complains he has not the same quantity, nor indulged in eating so much as he used to do, when in France. He often devours a bullock’s liver, raw, three pounds of candles and a few pounds of raw beef in one day, without tasting bread or vegetables, washing it down with water, if his allowance of beer is expended.
The author comments that when in hospital he liked to consume any leftover medicines that his comrades couldn’t stomach – apparently without any adverse effect on his own health. His captors decided to try an experiment:
Wishing fairly to try how much he actually could eat in one day, on the 7th of September, 1799, at 4 o’clock in the morning, he breakfasted on four pounds of raw cow’s udder — at half past 9, in presence of Dr. Johnston, commissioner of sick and wounded seaman, Admiral Child and his son, Mr. Foster agent for prisoners, and several respectable gentlemen, he exhibited his powers as follows: There was set before him five pounds of raw beef, and twelve tallow candles of a pound weight, and one bottle of porter — these he finished by half past 10 o’clock. At 1 o’clock there was again put before him, five pounds of beef, and one pound of candles, with three bottles of porter, at which time he was locked up in the room, and sentries placed at the windows to prevent his throwing away any of his provisions. At 2 o’clock, when I again saw him with two friends, he had nearly finished the whole of the candles and great part of the beef, but had neither evacuation by vomiting, stool, or urine; his skin was cool and poise regular, and in good spirits…
On recapitulating the whole consumption of this day, it stands thus : — raw cow’s udder, 4 lbs.; raw beef, 10; candles, 2. Total, 16 lbs. besides 5 bottles of porter.
The eagerness with which he attacks his beef when his stomach is not gorged, resembles the voracity of a hungry wolf, tearing off and swallowing them with canine greediness. When his throat is dry from continued exercise, he lubricates it by stripping the grease off the candle between his teeth, which he generally finished at three mouthsful, and wrapping the wick like a ball (string and all) sends it after at a swallow. He can, when no choice is left, make shift to dine on immense quantities of raw potatoes or turnips ; but from choice would never desire to taste bread or vegetables. He is in every respect healthy, his tongue clean, and his eyes lively.
His taste for candles reminds me of another omnivorous Frenchman, Michel Lotito – known as ‘Monsieur Mangetout’ for his habit of eating rubber, metal and plastic. He had a particular penchant for bicycles, although his most celebrated feat was consuming a Cessna aeroplane.
After he went to the prison, he danced, smoked his pipe, and drank a bottle of porter — and, by four next morning, he awoke with his usual ravenous appetite — which he quieted by a few pounds of raw beef.