Murphy’s previous research experience was personal. Her greatest inquiry thus far had come years earlier when she traced back her Irish ancestry, compiling a database of each person in the family tree. She decided to apply the same approach to Arles, beginning with the individuals who resided in van Gogh’s neighborhood when the fateful ear-lopping occurred. To date, Murphy has gathered records on more than 15,000 people. They range from van Gogh’s cleaning lady to the town’s Protestant pastor.
But there was another problem: Arles today bears little resemblance to the Arles van Gogh knew. An Allied bombing of the French village during World War II was followed by an extensive rebuilding program. So Murphy and an advising architect combed through old maps, land registries, and rare early photographs, eventually reconstructing a detailed map of pre-war Arles.
These initial steps provided an essential foundation for the project. But the most fateful clue in Murphy’s inquiry was the discovery of a small slip of paper, not much bigger than her hand. She was led there by an unlikely string of documents that spanned continents—a trail that ended in Berkeley, California, where the archive of novelist Irving Stone can be found.
Stone authored Lust for Life, the 1934 fictionalized biography of van Gogh that cemented the painter’s celebrity status in the wider public’s imagination. In 1955, as the book was being adapted into a movie, LIFE magazine published an article noting that van Gogh had cut off his entire ear. A reader wrote back, contesting the assertion; the editors responded to that letter with a note of their own. In the note, which Murphy uncovered in an Amsterdam archive, the editors referenced a diagram drawn for Stone by one Félix Rey. Murphy recognized the name immediately: Rey was the first person to treat van Gogh when he arrived at the hospital in Arles. She reread the sentence again and again. “Oh my God,” she recalled thinking. “If that document still exists, I have to find it.”
In the course of her research, Murphy had already reached out to Stone’s archives, but they found nothing of interest. Bolstered by this new information, she asked again, this time with the details about the diagram. In an email, Stone’s archivist replied, “I find it pretty inconceivable that the material would be there.” But he agreed to take a second look.
Murphy awoke the next morning to an email in French from the archivist that read: “You won’t believe this, but I found the document you’re looking for!!!” Folded in half and tucked into a folder, the sheet from the doctor’s prescription pad featured two diagrams detailing exactly where van Gogh had sliced his ear. There it was. A definitive answer to a question that had confounded researchers and biographers for over a century. Murphy began to shake.