Right Now in Stuff You Missed in History Class

On Christmas Eve 1888, little-known Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh stumbled into a brothel and opened up his bloody hand to present a piece of his own ear to a prostitute, Rachel, with the words "Keep this object carefully." Most people remember hearing that Van Gogh sliced off his own ear, even if they don't remember he was a painter. But now, some academics are challenging the assertion that this was an act of self-mutilation. According to Telegraph, art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans now claim that fellow painter and recent roommate Paul Gauguin cut off Van Gogh's ear with a sword in a fight. This claim doesn't seem totally out of the blue. According to this book on Van Gogh, Gauguin is known to have been involved in the ear incident.

In 2008, British psychologists conducted a study about facial scars; specifically, they wanted to know whether men and women were more attracted to people who had them. They found that men didn't really have a preference, but women were notably more attracted to men who had facial scars. However, they only foresaw themselves in short-term relationships with the scarred men. SYMHC listener Jack wrote to us about dueling scars. He mentioned that they're featured pretty prominently on the faces of German soldiers in movies about World Wars I and II. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, German military laws permitted men to wage duels of honor until World War I. In 1936, the Nazi regime legalized the practice once more. This type of duel has roots in the German university system, where mensur (student duels) prepared young men to rank among the social elite later in life. The dueling scar, also called schmiss or renommierschmiss (bragging scar), was considered a mark of honor. Young fraternity men proved their valor in these duels, which were considered an essential rite of passage into high society for government officials, doctors and professors.

For today's installment of fan mail Monday, podcast listener SooWan asks us to investigate the infamous legend of Pope Joan. According to the legend, the Catholic Church once instituted a pontiff who was not only female, but very pregnant. Talk about breaking the glass ceiling. But, is there anything to this legend? Unlike the fishy Catholic myth I investigated a little while back, this one has many seemingly legitimate (and very old) sources. In fact, back in the 14th and 15th centuries, most everyone believed in the legitimacy of the myth, according to New Advent. Encyclopedia Britannica points to the 13th-century French Dominican Stephen of Bourbon as one of the earliest references. In his version, a nameless, pregnant woman was elected pope around 1100. After giving birth during a procession, the people stoned her to death.

Gandhi's Salt March

When the British Empire controlled India, it used legislation like the salt tax to control the population. Learn how Gandhi's non-violent salt march triggered a wave of protest leading to Indian independence in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

The latest SYMHC podcasts made available to you, our devoted listeners, were about ancient Egyptian feminists and whether the Dutch really traded Manhattan for nutmeg. In the podcast about ancient Egypt, we discussed whether evidence such as a healthy handful of female rulers, property rights for women and Herodotus' observations of women trading in the marketplace while men toiled away at home added up to the grand conclusion that this was the first feminist culture. And we concluded that no, it was not. Life in ancient Egypt was pretty wonderful if you were a wealthy woman. If you were a lower-class citizen, you were not afforded these same progressive rights. This quick conclusion made for a less than riveting podcast, in my opinion, but the one about Manhattan surely made up for it. We've had a couple of SYMHC listeners request a podcast about New Netherland, and after a half-dozen changes to the title to make the topic more palatable, we finally came up with this gem: Did the Dutch really trade Manhattan for nutmeg?

History is riddled with instances of deadly epidemics -- which is why health officials have started to look backward to find the right tactics to take with the Swine Flu. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for instance, has recruited the help of Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian and pediatrician at the University of Michigan, reports CNN. Markel has studied the flu epidemic of 1918 to see which nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) work best in such situations. Markel found that NPIs such as closing down schools, limiting public gatherings and isolating infected patients worked wonders in slowing down the spread of the disease in the 1918 epidemic. Of course, the ideal response to an epidemic is to find a vaccine as quickly as possible -- not just slow it down. However, Markel points out that, historically, slowing down an epidemic buys time for health officials to find a vaccine.

Who isn't talking about Barack Obama's first 100 days? Everyone has a recap, and everyone's putting his or her own unique spin on it. Given the nature of this blog, I also feel inclined to chime in. Jane and I have been working on an article and a podcast about the Tuskegee Airmen. (Trust me, this is going somewhere.) If you don't know much about them, they were African-American pilots who fought in World War II -- the first generation of African-Americans to fly planes in a war. Here's where the story gets complicated. They were fighting in a war that was helping to combat discrimination and the persecution of Jews, yet they were members of a segregated military. I won't give the whole story away (you've got to listen to the podcast for all the details), but the Tuskegee Airmen proved their skill and valor to such an extent that President Harry Truman ended up passing Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military. By virtue of Executive Order 9981, the military was made a place of equal opportunity for people of any race, color, religion or national origin. Yet, people can still be excluded from serving in the military on the basis of their sexual orientation. Sixteen years ago, during his first week in office, former President Bill Clinton tried to repeal an executive order that banned gays and lesbians from the military. He succeeded only in passing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which allowed gays and lesbians into the military on the premise that no one would ask about their sexual orientation and that they shouldn't tell anyone about it.

You've probably already heard about Arlen Specter's recent announcement that he's switching over to the Democratic party after five terms in the Senate as a Republican. In response, Time has put up an interesting list of the top 10 political defections in U.S. history. I was struck by the two presidents on the list: Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Teddy Roosevelt had already had two terms in office (after becoming president upon McKinley's assassination), when he decided to run for a third. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he became disenchanted with his hand-picked successor, William Taft. A few years into Taft's term, Roosevelt ran against the incumbent president for the Republican nomination and lost. This prompted Roosevelt to create a third party -- the Progressive Party, which was better known as the Bull Moose Party. Although he got more votes than Taft, Woodrow Wilson won handily.

What's new for spring? You could open the pages of Vogue -- or your favorite George Eliot novel. Victorian-era infectious diseases are back, ladies and gentlemen. This scoop comes courtesy of HowStuffWorks.com's resident health editor, Katie Lambert. Swine flu is getting the lion's share of media attention, but as The Independent reports, the plucky traveler and resident Londoner should also beware of mumps, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and typhoid. These are the stats, per London shadow minister Justine Greening: In London in 2008, there were 393 cases of mumps, 252 cases of whooping cough, 501 cases of scarlet fever and 127 cases of typhoid fever. Mumps and scarlet fever cases have increased by more than 150 percent, while diagnoses of whooping cough have quadrupled. Diseases like these spread quickly and savagely in Victorian England. And it's no wonder. With cramped living quarters and poor sanitation, disease could be transmitted through water, food and from human contact. But in the 21st century, we have access to antibiotics and vaccines, as well as cleaner living environs. So what gives?

If you're a big fan of the movie "The Great Escape" like I am, you might know that it's based on a true story. It took place at the German prisoner of war (POW) camp Stalag Luft III. The BBC reports today that Alex Lees, one of the last surviving POWs from the camp who aided the infamous escape, has just died. Lees was not one of the attempted escapees, but he played a pivotal role in preparing the escape tunnels. While the tunnels were being dug, the POWs needed a place to surreptitiously dump the sand. As a gardener, Lees was able to hide the sand in Red Cross boxes and then rake it into the top soil in the tomato garden. After doing some research on the escape, I've found that the real story is even more fascinating than the Hollywood version.

It's hard to believe that anyone would trade the thriving island of Manhattan for a spice, but history is full of surprises. Find out why -- and how -- the Dutch traded Manhattan for nutmeg in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

The 2008 European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS) found that the Roma -- Gypsies -- identified as the most discriminated against minority group in Europe. The significance of this report is reflected in a recent New York Times article titled "As Economic Turmoil Mounts, So Do Attacks on Hungary's Gypsies." As Times reporter Nicholas Kulish suggests, there's a correlation between the faltering world economy and the violence against the Roma. Kulish states that seven Roma in Hungary were murdered in the past year, and at least 30 attacks have been launched against Roma homes. Some acts of violence have been attributed to local police and the military; some violence is being waged by right-wing political parties who claim the Roma are a social and economic burden. This is a persistent stereotype that typifies discriminatory attitudes toward the Roma. But why does it persist? Perhaps due to the history of the Roma culture. According to the Smithsonian Institution, many diverse groups of Gypsies who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century (including some from Hungary) supported themselves with smithery trades, baking, crafting handmade furniture and baskets; still others ran menagerie, entertained as musicians and told fortunes.

For the past 10 months, a man who calls himself King Arthur has been staging a sit-in outside the famous Stonehenge site. He has been protesting the limited public access to the historic site. Ever since 1977, Stonehenge has been roped off, and visitors aren't allowed to get up close to the stones except for special occasions such as the solstices. But, Pendragon might have to cut his protest short. According to Telegraph, the Wiltshire County Council has issued him an eviction notice. The pagan Pendragon was born John Rothwell, but changed his name to King Arthur Pendragon in 1976. He is a senior druid who considers Stonehenge sacred as an important place of worship. He says the fence that encloses the sacred site "holds it in a stranglehold like a snared animal" according to the Daily Mail.

When Herodotus explored Egypt, he was startled by the contradictory gender roles -- women were doing tasks the Greeks restricted to males. Does this mean the Egyptians were the first feminists? Learn more in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

SYMHC listener Beka sent us a request for more information about les filles du roi, or the king's daughters. As far as I can tell, this is a pretty exclusive group today, not unlike the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). If you can prove your direct genealogical connection to a member of les filles du roi, you're eligible for membership in La Société des Filles du roi et soldats du Carignan, Inc. So who were les filles du roi? In 17th-century New France (comprised of Canada, Acadia, Newfoundland and Louisiana), France had a boomingly successful fur trade. Fur profits almost entirely funded the forts and settlements that were erected in New France. It was a hunter's paradise, but one thing was missing: women. When the colony was young, men flooded in to establish the shipping and trading posts. By 1663, the population of New France was just 3,000 -- occupying about 1 percent of the colony.

A recent discovery having to do with Benjamin Franklin gave me the perfect excuse to satisfy a request from podcast fan Chris for us to cover more early American history topics. Incidentally, a friend of mine, also named Chris, has encouraged me to blog about the awesomeness that is Franklin. So, it must be fate that I write about the famous Founding Father today. In 1757, Benjamin Franklin traveled to London as a representative of the Pennsylvania assembly to prove to the British that he and the assembly had been loyal to the crown during the French and Indian War. As evidence, he brought with him what he later called in his autobiography a "Quire Book of Letters." This was a collection of letters to, from and about Franklin concerning his part in the "wagon affair" with British General Braddock. Although historians knew of their existence, until now, the details of these letters have been lost to history.

This week's podcasts were about two topics Jane and I hold near and dear. Jane can't get enough of the East India Company, and I'm just wild about South Carolina history (my roots!). Not to spoil any surprises, but there's another podcast coming soon about the Dutch East India Company. And we've gotten a very important listener correction regarding the East India Company. Michael wrote to us that the EIC was not -- as we mentioned in the podcast -- the first joint-stock company in history. That distinction goes to the Dutch East India Company (VOC). According to Richard Woodman's "The History of the Ship," the VOC "became the role model for other nations" -- including Britain. Perhaps the EIC was the first chartered joint-stock corporation? I'm having a little trouble with this one. It's no surprise that everyone wants to claim first, so various sources claim that the British came first while others cite the Dutch. Perhaps you, kind and intelligent reader, can weigh in.

I was born and raised a Redskins fan, and so I've been hearing arguments about the team's name ever since I was a kid. Is naming a sports team after American Indians an homage or an insult to their culture? The University of North Dakota is grappling with this question right now. Its sports teams use the name "Fighting Sioux," and this has been stirring up controversy lately. A few other schools, like the University of Minnesota, are protesting the name by refusing to play UND. The NCAA also objects to the name, considering it "hostile and abusive." Not only that, but the Summit League athletic conference wants the school to settle the controversy before it admits the school, according to the AP. One active supporter of the nickname, Eunice Davidson, is a descendant of Sioux American Indians and is so proud of the name that she gathered signatures in support of it.

When I play trivia, the pressure is on. I'm the go-to girl for history questions, and when I don't know the answer, I let down my team and tarnish the good SYMHC name. So last night, I breathed a sigh of relief when I got this question right: What innovation did Woodrow Wilson call a symbol of "the arrogance of wealth"? Answer: the automobile. Why such a vitriolic condemnation of the car, Woodrow? A New York Times article dated March 4, 1906, put it in perspective. What Wilson (who was president of Princeton University at the time) said was, "Nothing has spread Socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of automobiles. To the countryman they are a picture of arrogance of wealth with all its independence and carelessness."

What do you do when the Nazis are coming? Go to Portugal, apparently. That was the plan for the Vatican when Germans were coming with the intent on kidnapping the pope, according to Telegraph. In September 1943, the Allies had secured an armistice with Italy, but the Germans occupied Rome. Hitler had his eyes on the pope as well, however, as he ordered General Karl Otto Wolff to infiltrate and occupy the Vatican. Wolff was supposed to secure the treasures and archives there and take the pope, Pius XII. The pope had been criticizing Nazi policies, especially the treatment of the Jews. Because the pope, as the head of the Catholic Church, held a lot of sway with European Catholics, Hitler wanted to stifle this criticism. Pius knew he was in danger, and so he came up with a plan for what the church officials should do if he was arrested.