Vincent van Gogh’s Death: Suicide or Homicide?

An Interview with Ron Franscell, Coauthor of the New Book, “Morgue: A Life in Death”

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portait.

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889. © Everett Art, with permission (via Shutterstock).

Vincent van Gogh’s death is one of greatest mysteries of the art world.

Historians can tell you this much for sure: The Dutch artist was staying in Auvers, France in July, 1890, and at nightfall one Sunday, he returned from painting outdoors. He was clutching his stomach and his paints and easel were gone.

The landlord rushed to van Gogh’s aid and discovered a gunshot in the painter’s abdomen. Despite medical attention, the wound became infected, and van Gogh died two days later.

In 1956, the landlord’s daughter published her memories of Vincent van Gogh’s death. The artist, she recalled, admitted to having injured himself. In the minds of art historians, suicide became the official cause of death.

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers researching Vincent van Gogh’s death stumbled across archival contradictions, eventually concluding someone had shot the artist. They published that theory in a book, Vincent van Gogh: A Life, in 2011. Revisionist history always meets with resistance, and this was no exception. Art historians balked.

To bolster their claims, the two authors turned to a world-renowned expert on gunshot wounds, Dr. Vincent Di Maio. He examined the historical record with the eye of a pathologist, and his conclusions might surprise you.

Dr. Di Maio teamed up with national bestselling author Ron Franscell to publish a collection of those cases that made Dr. Di Maio famous: the exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald, the controversial shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unmasking of a serial baby killer, and the true cause of Vincent van Gogh’s death.

Morgue: A Life in Death was published on May 17, 2016, and promises to be a good read. Ron Franscell joins us for an interview to pull back the curtains on an old French case.

Ron Franscell coauthored a new book that probes Vincent van Gogh's death.

Bestselling crime author Ron Franscell; with permission.

Ron, what are the strongest arguments that Vincent van Gogh was shot by another person?

Dr. Di Maio told van Gogh’s biographers the description and location of the wound are inconsistent with a self-inflicted gunshot in 1890.

As two attending doctors and other eyewitnesses described it, the clean, pea-sized wound showed no evidence of messy, obvious soot or powder stippling, which the black powder-filled civilian handgun cartridges of the time would have caused in any point-blank or close-up shot. Even his blouse and jacket would not have blocked all the super-hot particles and gases from the muzzle blast. Dr. Di Maio calculated that the pistol’s muzzle would have been AT LEAST 20 inches from van Gogh’s side when the shot was fired.

But equally important is the location: on or just below the bottom rib on the artist’s left side (about where your left elbow would touch your side if you stood with your arms straight-down by your side). Data showed that it is rare for a suicidal man to shoot himself in the torso, and even rarer for him to shoot himself in the low part of his side (not a direct shot to the heart). And the notion is far-fetched that a right-handed man would hold a gun at least 20 inches from his side with his left hand to fire a shot that he wished would kill him. (If you try to re-enact it, please be sure your gun is unloaded! But I think you’ll find that it is clumsy and damn near impossible.)

Supporting evidence also informs the scientific analysis. The gun was never found, even though many people searched for it. The artist’s painting equipment, left behind after his fatal wounding, was never found either. And it was known that while the troubled genius van Gogh sometimes mused about his own death in his letters, as a former clergyman he also believed suicide was an immoral act.

Dr. Di Maio’s conclusion: “It is my opinion that, in all medical probability, the wound incurred by van Gogh was not self-inflicted.”

Vincent van Gogh, Noon, or The Siesta.

Vincent van Gogh, Noon, or The Siesta, 1889-1890. © Everett Art, with permission (via Shutterstock).

Could we call Vincent van Gogh’s death a murder?

All murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murder. Certainly, Dr. Di Maio would call the manner of Vincent van Gogh’s death a “homicide.” There is, however, a distinct possibility it was an accidental shooting by someone else. There is not enough evidence—nor ever likely to be—to prove what really happened, but the forensic evidence suggests it was not an intentional shooting by van Gogh himself. Whether this homicide [the catch-all term for any killing of one human by another] was “murder” or “manslaughter”—both criminal forms of homicide that require intent or negligence—or merely an accident is unknown.

Why the myth of a suicide? And how did it hinder later investigation and research?

To be fair, van Gogh himself suggested that he alone was responsible, and he wasn’t exactly the celebrity that he is today. The investigation was cursory and, like today, the death of an addled, itinerant, penniless, and nearly homeless person wouldn’t mobilize the national police. As we sometimes still see in modern media, the real story gets lost as it is retold over time. Gossip becomes fact becomes history. In the village where it happened, a lot of people believed van Gogh had been shot by someone else, but over time, the story of a troubled genius saying goodbye to this cruel world became the superior narrative.

The resistance of many van Gogh curators to the homicide theory shows another reason why researchers and investigators would have had a difficult time pursuing it. They would have been pooh-poohed, ridiculed, and criticized—as the biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith were—by some of the keenest official sources on the artist’s life.

Black power

Black power, when ignited, explodes in a shower of sparks and smoke. Photo by Ann Marie Ackermann.

 A major part of Dr. Di Maio’s argument rests on the assumption that the weapon was loaded with black powder, which burns dirty and is more likely to leave behind powder burns. Smokeless nitrocellulose powder was developed in 1884. Even if the gun had been loaded with the newer, cleaner powder, wouldn’t it also leave powder burns at a close range?

Yes. Even in 2016, point-blank and intermediate-range gunshots leave powder tattooing, burns, and other expulsive evidence. In 1890, it would have been dirtier and more pronounced, even in the unlikely event that this old, balky pistol had been loaded with the “high tech” ammo of the day.

Dr. Di Mao’s response: “The first form of smokeless powder was invented in 1884 in France.  It was a military secret but by 1888 other countries were producing it.  It was first used in military rifles.”

Dr. Di Maio’s opinion was based solely on the appearance of the wound, as described by the attending doctors. Where a close-up shot would have shown definite powder tattooing (even in modern times), van Gogh’s very definitely did not. Dr. Di Maio reasons that in 1890 it would have been even more pronounced, for the reasons we write.

Modern, smokeless powder with a cleaner flame.

Modern, smokeless powder with a cleaner flame. Photo by Ann Marie Ackermann.

Who was René Secrétan? How did his statements affect the research into Vincent van Gogh’s death?

Rene was a village boy who delighted in hectoring, teasing, harassing, and pranking van Gogh, who was a slightly crazy, odd-acting, funny-dressing loner. Rene might have been the subject of one van Gogh drawing, but mostly their relationship was bully and victim.

In the 1950s, Rene gave an interview to a French paper about van Gogh. Although he didn’t say anything directly about the wounding, he described that old pistol as having a mind of its own. He said specifically that it would sometimes go off without any help from a trigger finger. Was he describing what happened when van Gogh was wounded? Had he seen it? Nobody knows. The reporter didn’t follow up and Rene died fairly soon afterward.

At least one witness later described seeing van Gogh on the fateful day with some local boys in a barnyard that was in the opposite direction of the fields where he claimed he’d been painting. It might have been misremembered, or it might not have been what he saw at all, but it intrigues us to think that maybe van Gogh didn’t tell the whole (or genuine) story about what he was doing when he was shot.

Again, because the gun, his easel, brushes, paints and other equipment were never found, the story accrues more mystery.

Are there any indications Secrétan wasn’t completely forthcoming?

See above. But 60 years after the fact, why talk about a balky gun?

Secrétan claimed to have learned of Vincent van Gogh’s from a Paris newspaper. Why would a Paris newspaper report the death of an unknown, derelict artist out in the country?

Historians have never been able to find any such mention in any newspaper, probably for the reasons you state: Vincent van Gogh was not a known person and his death simply would not have been news.

Vincent van Gogh’s death came just two years after the French pathologist Alexandre Lacassagne invented the field of forensic ballistics. Did the French police use that technique to match the bullet in van Gogh’s abdomen to a weapon?

The bullet was never removed, and the gun never found, so ballistic analysis—even in its primitive form—was never done. The bullet lies buried in van Gogh’s remains, but the gun has never been found, so even today, ballistic expert would be stymied.

Vincent van Gogh's grave.

Vincent van Gogh’s grave; Pixabay.

Did the painter suffer from a psychiatric illness? Did that play a role in Vincent van Gogh’s death? And could it have affected the veracity of his statements to the gendarmes before he died?

Yes. Vincent van Gogh had been institutionalized and even in his life was presumed to have mental illness. Today, we can inventory his symptoms and give them a better name, but at the time he was definitely considered “crazy” and “troubled.” Whether the gendarmes attributed his statements to being crazy or not, we cannot know. But we know he spoke to them, answered their questions fairly calmly, and they were satisfied that no further investigation was necessary.

One of the big surprises in your book is that there was more than one crime that affected Vincent van Gogh’s life. An argument with impressionist painter Paul Gauguin about a serial slasher precipitated the famous incident of van Gogh cutting off his ear. That was in 1888. Was the criminal they were arguing about the London Monster? He was active from 1888 to 1890.

No, it was reportedly the case of a prostitute killer named Luis Carlos Prado, who ultimately was beheaded for his crimes. The argument was apparently over an au courant artistic discussion about whether murder was simply a natural human instinct, or a primitive act. You can imagine where the former clergyman van Gogh came down on that.

Medical Examiner Vincent Di Maio, M.D.

Medical Examiner Vincent Di Maio, M.D.; photo courtesy of Ron Franscell.

Why does all this matter 125 years later?

One thread that ties MORGUE’s fascinating cases together was our tendency, as humans, to leap to conclusions. We often see events through the prism of our own biases and form everlasting conclusions, even before we have all the facts. It was true in the case of  Trayvon Martin (the book’s first chapter), the West Memphis Three, and other stories we tell in this book, including van Gogh (the last chapter).

From the book: “By and large, some in the art world resist the notion of a homicide, whether accidental or premeditated, because it’s neither dramatic nor poetic enough.  After all, painters, poets, and lonely lovers die so much more romantically if they drink from their own little poison vials, or cut their veins beneath a pale blue moon, or swim far out into the sea with no intention of swimming back. “

Many artists were so invested in the idea of a great (but overlooked-in-life) artist’s suicide that they didn’t want to hear a more plausible and less romantic alternative.

So one of the roles of forensic science is to deliver objective facts. It should tell us honestly and candidly what we must know as a society. Forensic evidence is the bedrock of justice. It doesn’t change its story or misremember what it saw. It doesn’t cower when a mob gathers on the courthouse steps. It doesn’t run away or go silent out of fear. It tells us honestly and candidly what we need to know as a society.

Nevertheless, even with history’s most powerful forensic tools, these stories show that popular opinion and scientific facts are frequently at odds, sometimes violently.

Morgue: A Life in Death

Morgue: A Life in Death probes the cause of Vincent van Gogh’s death.

Thank you, Ron, and good luck with your new book!

Do you find Dr. Di Maio’s arguments on Vincent van Gogh’s death convincing? Why or why not?

Literature on point:

Vincent Di Maio and Ron Franscell, Morgue: A Life in Death (St. Martin’s Press, 2016)

6 Comments

  1. Fiona Guy
    May 18, 2016

    This was a really interesting post, especially as this book is on my reading list and Van Gogh was indeed one of my favourite artists! Aside from his artwork he was such a curious character and I think his mental state for much of his life was definitely disturbed.

    His death I had always put down to suicide so the idea that it was in fact homicide, does make me think of his demise and final months in a different way. The evidence on the location of his wound and the chances of him, or anyone, being able to self-inflict such a wound does lean me towards the notion of foul play. I think the ear cutting incident after his arguement with Gauguin (another amazing artist) really lead to a quick assumption that he had killed himself. Fascinating stuff, thank you for posting this!

    • Ann Marie
      May 18, 2016

      Thanks, Fiona! This new research will make Vincent van Gogh’s death one of the greatest mysteries of the 19th century. He lived an unusual life and died an unusual death.

  2. Elaine Mansfield
    May 21, 2016

    I had no idea there was doubt about van Gogh’s death. Thanks for taking me on a little journey into mysterious worlds with an underground flavor. Too much absinthe?

    • Ann Marie
      May 21, 2016

      I didn’t either, Elaine, until recently. But apparently there have always been rumors in Auvers about a homicide, and the pathologist’s findings seem to back them up. Absinthe? I’d prefer a good mystery!

  3. Alan Scally
    May 22, 2016

    I had always read that Van Gogh was housed in a mental institution at the time of his death. From this post I gather he was staying at an inn or something like it. Is the story he was hospitalized widespread or am I just a space cadet?

    • Ann Marie
      May 23, 2016

      No, you aren’t a space cadet! Vincent van Gogh was hospitalized in an insane asylum in Saint-Rémy for a year prior to his death. He entered voluntarily in May of 1889 and was released only a few weeks prior to his death in May of 1990. Dr. Paul Gachet offered the painter a room in his inn in Auvers upon his release. Gachet was both a physician and an art enthusiast and promised to keep an eye on van Gogh’s health. While living for those few weeks in Auvers, van Gogh painted daily in the countryside, and it was during one of his afternoon painting excursions that this mysterious event occurred.

      I’ve heard that Paul Gachet’s old inn is open to the public. You can view the room in which van Gogh died.

      Thanks for commenting!

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