The phrase “I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant” doesn’t seem all that over-the-top when you hear the strange story of Charles Domery (aka Charles Domerz), a Polish soldier serving in the Prussian army during the late 18th century.
Details about Domery’s early life are scant, but he was reportedly born in the village of Benche in Prussian-occupied Poland around 1778. One of nine brothers, he shared an unusual trait with all his siblings—an inhuman, insatiable hunger. We don’t know what happened with his brothers, but we do have a record of his disturbing tale.
The outside world first learned of Domery’s frightening appetite when he was thirteen years old serving in the Prussian Army (Prussia controlled part of Poland at that time and enlisted Poles into its military). At the time, Prussia was fighting France in the War of the First Coalition. Starving because of food shortages in the army, Domery defected and entered a French town searching for sustenance. He surrendered to the local French commander who offered him a giant melon to eat. Domery devoured it, rind and all, before enlisting in the French military, which wasn’t ready for its new recruit.
Eating anything that moves
Over the course of his service in France, Domery reportedly ate 174 stray cats in one year because the army rations were not enough for him (I’ll stick with pierogi). Sometimes, he was so hungry that he ate the animals live, leaving only skin and bones. Dogs and rats endured the same fate, according to one of Domery’s comrades. Shockingly, despite preferring to eat the meat raw, Domery did not get sick. On the contrary, his appearance was described as “six feet three inches high, thin [with] a pale complexion, gray eyes and long brown hair.”
Disgusting as this was, it got worse. Once, when aboard a ship, food was scarce. It got so bad, Domery couldn’t even rely on catching an unlucky stray dog or cat for supper. During a battle, one of his comrade’s legs was shot off. Domery reportedly grabbed the dismembered leg and started munching on it before his shipmates wrested it away.
In 1799, Domery, then serving on the French frigate the Hoche, was captured and imprisoned by the British, who studied him and wrote an official medical account. While imprisoned, Domery fascinated his captors with his appetite and was eventually granted the rations of 10 men. This was not enough. He supplemented his diet by devouring the prison cat and at least 20 rats, in addition to several candles. Whenever a fellow prisoner refused to take his medicine, Domery graciously volunteered to take it for him, not for healing, but as food.
Stunned by what they observed, the British called in two doctors to run tests. At 4:00 a.m. on the morning of these tests, Domery was fed four pounds of raw cow udder, which he finished without issue. About five hours later, he was served five pounds of raw beef, 12 large candles and a bottle of porter. Again, he consumed all this without difficulty. Less than four hours later, he ate another five pounds of raw beef, one pound of candles and three large bottles of porter. No sweat.
The doctors reported that he was healthy throughout all the tests. While most other human beings would have probably been vomiting, Domery was reportedly in a good mood and went out for a smoke.
To this day, no one can explain Domery’s alien appetite. Although there is a medical condition called polyphagia in which sufferers have unusually large appetites, it is not known to be as severe as whatever Domery had. This has caused some experts to speculate whether he suffered from brain damage. Nobody knows what became of Domery after his imprisonment.
Strangely, despite his voracious appetite and ability to consume large quantities of raw and sometimes inedible or diseased objects, Domery hated vegetables.