Charles Domery – A Singular Glutton with an Inordinate Appetite

Charles Domery would devour almost anything, including cats, dogs, and rats, as well as candles and grass, and when eating animals, it was claimed that he ate a whole animal, everything but its skin, bones, and bowels. Such a ravenous and insatiable appetite is today known as polyphagia. However, in the nineteenth century, the Lincolnshire Chronicle stated:

“The number of people who suffer from ‘the wolf,’ or inordinate appetite for food, is amazing. The amount of food consumed is out of all proportion to the requirements of the body, and yet the individual presents no abnormal appearance, … but on the contrary looks thin and emaciated.”[1]

Domery was never described as emaciated, and, in fact, one description stated that in every respect he was healthy: “six feet three inches high, of a pale complexion, gray eyes, long brown hair, well made, but thin; his countenance rather pleasant.”[2] Apparently, Domery’s voracious appetite began when he was thirteen. He claimed that his father and eight brothers also had ravenous appetites, although not to the same degree or extent.

Charles Domery, also known as Charles Domerz, was a Polish soldier. He had such a stupendous appetite he deserted the Prussian Army for Napoleon Bonaparte‘s French Army to get more rations. People noted that he would “devour raw, and even live cats, rats, and dogs, besides bullock’s liver, tallow-candles, and the entrails of animals.”[3] French crew mates on the frigate Hoche were well aware of how much Domery could eat. They maintained that one time, after a crew mate’s leg was severed in a cannon blast, Domery attempted to eat it and would have finished it off if crew mates had not snatched it from him and thrown the leg overboard.

Napoleon Bonaparte published in 1814. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The English learned about Domery’s voracious appetite after they captured the French frigate the Hoche in February of 1799. Charles Domery, along with his crew mates, went to a Liverpool prison were his captors quickly discovered his rations never satisfied his appetite. This caused British doctors to conduct an experiment to determine exactly how much Domery ate.

On 17 September 1799, in the presences of Dr. J. Johnston and several others, the experiment began. The experiment was logged with the following report:

“[At four o’clock in the morning Domery dined] on four pounds of raw cow’s udder: at half-past nine o’clock … there were set before him five pounds of raw beef, and twelve tallow candles of one pound weight, together with one bottle or porter; these he finished by half-past ten o’clock. At one o’clock there was again put before him five more pounds of beef, one pound of candles, and 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 two o’clock … he had nearly finished the whole of the candles, and a great part of the beef … At a quarter past six when … he had devoured the whole, and declared he could eat more.”[4]

The experiment showed that in total Charles Domery ate 16 pounds of food and finished off 5 bottles of porter. It was also declared the way he attacked his food “resembled the voracity of a hungry wolf, tearing off and swallowing it with canine greediness.”[5]

Despite being allowed portions equal to ten inmates, Charles Domery was always hungry. To survive in prison, other prisoners took pity on him and gave him their portions. Prisoners, as well as his seamates on the Hoche, also readily noted that Domery preferred raw meat to cooked. One newspaper article noted that live cats, “dogs and rats equally suffered from his merciless jaws; and if much pinched by famine, the entrails of animals, indiscriminately became his prey.”[6]

Picard, a shipmate of Domery, commented that Domery was known for his strange feeding habits. Picard also claimed that “if bread or meat were scarce, [Domery] 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.”[7] But this did not mean Domery ate everything. Despite his voracious appetite, he supposedly disliked most vegetables. The only vegetables he would eat, which he devoured in great quantities, were raw potatoes and turnips.

One nineteenth article in an attempt to describe Charles Domery’s strange penchant for eating called it “Bulimia, or Canine Ravenous Fever.”[8] Today, we refer to it as polyphagia. It seems as if there are no known cases of polyphagia as severe as Domery’s. This has caused some people to believe Domery may have suffered from “a damaged amygdala or ventromedial nucleus.”[9] But no matter what caused Domery’s unusual appetite, his story made such an impression on Charles Dickens, Dickens wrote about him in 1852 stating:

“Now, it is my opinion, that a man like this, dining in public on the stage of Drury Lane, would draw much better than a mere tragedian, who chews unsubstantial words instead of wholesome beef.”[10]

Charles Dickens, Author's Collection

Charles Dickens. Author’s collection.

What exactly became of Domery, neither Dickens nor anyone else knows. One of the last mentions of Domery occurs while he was still in the Liverpool prison. Apparently, his French inmates constantly harassed and upbraided him because of his “Polish nativity, … [and] disloyalty to the republic.”[11] This continued for a time and supposedly he could no longer take it because according to one source:

“One day, these reiterated taunts stung him so keenly, … he hastily snatched up a knife, and in an extacy [sic] of zeal, cut two wide gashes in his bared arm, while, with his streaming blood, he wrote on the wall of his prison, Vive la republique.”[12]

References:

  • [1] “Curiosities of Appetite,” Lincolnshire Chronicle, Lincolnshire, England, September 1, 1899, p. 5.
  • [2] “Wednesday’s Mail,” in Staffordshire Advertise, April 5, 1800, p. 2.
  • [3] The British Encyclopedia, Volume 2, 1809.
  • [4] Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 15, 1800, p. 199.
  • [5] Curiosities of Biography; or Memoirs of Remarkable Men, 1845, p. 314.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 313.
  • [7] Granger, William, The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1802, p. 22.
  • [8] The Terrific Register, 1825, p. 738.
  • [9] Bondeson, Jan. The Two-Headed Boy, 2004, p. 313.
  • [10] Dickens, Charles, Household Words, Vol. 15, 1852, p. 127.
  • [11] Corry, John, etal., The History of Liverpool, 1810, p. 229.
  • [12] Ibid.

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