10 False History 'Facts' Everyone Knows

Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear in a Fit of Madness
Vincent van Gogh painted this self portrait some time after fellow painter Paul Gauguin allegedly sliced off part of his ear during a bitter quarrel. Peter Barritt/SuperStock/Getty Images

Part of the allure of Vincent van Gogh's priceless impressionist paintings is the widely accepted belief that the 19th-century artist was stark raving bananas. Exhibit A: In a fit of madness, he lopped off his left ear with a razor blade and gifted the bloody auditory organ to a local French prostitute. Need proof? How about the famous van Gogh self-portrait with a bandaged ear?

But in 2009, a pair of German art historians busted the madman myth in a book titled "Pact of Silence," which claims that van Gogh's close friend and rival Paul Gauguin sliced off van Gogh's ear lobe with a fencing rapier [source: Kucharz]. The book asserts that Gauguin and van Gogh had a violent falling out in 1888, resulting in the ear-chopping incident. Both men vowed to keep the matter quiet, although Gauguin invented the prostitute story to make van Gogh look even crazier.

Van Gogh undeniably suffered from periodic fits and ultimately took his own life in a deep bout of depression, but was he certifiable? An American microbiologist diagnosed van Gogh a century after his death with Acute Intermittent Porphyria, which is a metabolic disorder, not a neurological disease [source: Browning].