A Brief History of Ear Mutilation

These days, if somebody says “ear mutilation,” the first thing you think about might be somebody who has a dozen too many piercings in his earlobe and tragus. But although Hammurabi made no mention of “an ear for an ear” in his legal code, there is nevertheless a long, if not particularly honorable, history of attacks on this extraneous flap of flesh. It’s not a phallic protuberance, like the nose–attacking it implies that you are going after the feminine aspects of your opponent. Or it can simply mean that you’re a savage dude. When Kevin Kline listens to an audiotape lesson on masculinity during In & Out, this is the advice he hears: “Be a man! Kick someone! Punch someone! Bite someone’s ear!”

Our earliest recorded incident of ear mutilation: When Jesus Christ was betrayed by Judas and arrested by a contingent of soldiers and priests, “[t]hen Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.” (John 18:10) This is one of the very few incidents in all four Gospels of the New Testament, although only in Luke 22:51 does Jesus re-earify Malchus: “But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.” From the very beginning, ear mutilation was an impotent gesture, an act of violence from a defeated man.

When he was thirty-five years old, Vincent Van Gogh had been consuming too much coffee, alcohol, and tobacco, and was going slowly mad. On December 23rd, 1888, he threatened Gaugin, who was his houseguest, with a razor; Gaugin calmed him down, but fearing for his safety, didn’t stay the night. That evening, Van Gogh sliced off his right earlobe, and went to his favorite whorehouse, giving the ear scrap to a prostitute named Rachel, telling her, “take good care of this.” The courtesans notified the gendarmes, who found him unconscious in his bed the next morning and hauled him off to the hospital. Merry Christmas! He probably would have died from lack of blood if they had not burst in, however. The results can be seen in the famous painting Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear.

In wartime, the ears of your enemy serve the same function as their scalps: they make handy trophies after you’ve killed them. If you’re looking for macabre jewelry, how can you do better than a necklace of ears from your dead opponents? Famous ear collectors: the Black Robe American Indians, who obtained them from the Christian missionaries who came to convert them, and the Viet Cong.

John Paul Getty III, the grandson of American oil billionaire J. Paul Getty I, was kidnapped in Rome in July 1973. His captors demanded 1.2 million pounds, and after three months, when the Getty family was not forthcoming with the cash, they sliced off the 17-year-old heir’s right ear and mailed it to an Rome newspaper, express post. Unfortunately, the Italian postal system being what it is, the package took nineteen days to deliver, and the ear arrived somewhat decomposed. A month later, the Getty family finally decided that JPG III wasn’t scamming them and coughed up the cash. He declined to get plastic surgery to replace the ear, preferring to keep the scar as a reminder of his ordeal. Musical footnote: on Aerosmith’s Rocks album, Steven Tyler cracks that he can make a silk purse out of J. Paul Getty’s ear.

In David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, Jeffrey (played by Kyle MacLachlan), walking home from a visit to his father in the hospital, finds a left ear in a grassy field, without a human body attached to it. We get to see the auditory organ in a loving close-up. Jeffrey brings it to a police detective. His reaction? “Yes, that’s a human ear, alright.” The ear turns out to be a bizarre MacGuffin, leading Jeffrey into the seamy underside of the whole small town of Lumberton. Eventually, we discover–almost incidentally–that it belongs to the kidnapped husband of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), and has been removed by Pabst-swilling sadist Frank (Dennis Hopper).

Mr. Blonde ties up a cop and tortures him with a razor, not for information but out of pure sadism, while Stealer’s Wheel “Stuck in the Middle With You” becomes the permanent soundtrack for earectomies. When Reservoir Dogs was released in 1992, this scene chased some audience members out of the theater. Little-known fact: in Tarantino’s original shooting script, this scene was filmed from the cop’s point of view. In other words, Mr. Blonde was supposed to come towards the camera with a knife, and then produce an ear from off-camera and dangle it before the eyes of the policeman (and us).

June ’97: In the third round of a heavyweight championship fight in Las Vegas, Mike Tyson leans forward and takes a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s right ear, spitting it out on the mat. After a warning, the fight is resumed; Tyson, unbelievably, does it again, trying for Holyfield’s left ear this time It’s not clear whether he was provoked by an inadvertant head-butt, or whether he just wanted to get disqualified. He is tossed from the fight, loses ten percent of his purse, and is levied with a suspension that he is still serving. The chunk from Holyfield’s right ear mysteriously disappears en route to the hospital, but has yet to turn up on the sports collectibles market. Some of the headlines from around the world: BITE OF THE CENTURY, DID TYSON BITE OFF MORE THAN HE CAN CHEW? and CHUMP CHOMPS CHAMP. The best joke: What did Tyson say to Van Gogh? “You gonna eat that?”

Rugby, a game for louts played by gentlemen? Tell it to London Scottish flanker Simon Fenn, who in October ’97 came out of a scrum with quite a bit less of his left ear than he had entered it with. “I immediately felt a bite and I could hear the tearing of the skin,” said Fenn. The match continued without even a red or yellow card issued against Bath, since the referee could not determine who had chomped on Fenn’s earlobe. At press time, investigations centered on Bath prop forward Kevin Yates were ongoing. This wasn’t the first rugby match where somebody got peckish mid-game: in 1994, South African prop Johan le Roux took a bite out of the ear belonging to All Blacks hooker Sean Fitzpatrick and was suspended for eighteen months.

By Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in slightly different form) in the December 1998 issue of Deluxe.