Monday, January 19, 2015
The Sinister Disappearance of a Film Pioneer
Louis Le Prince (1841-1890?) is not only one of the most undeservedly obscure people of the modern era, he is also at the center of one of the 19th century’s most intriguing disappearances.
It is a bit of a shock to learn that Le Prince, not Thomas Edison, shot the first moving images on film. In October of 1888, Le Prince filmed two brief moving pictures, “Roundhay Garden Scene,” and “Leeds Bridge,” using a single-lens camera he had developed and George Eastman’s paper film.
So, why has this man never gotten the acclaim he deserved? This is because, on September 16, 1890, he disappeared while traveling on a train from Dijon, France, to Paris. His luggage, stored in a separate compartment, were also never seen again. He vanished before he could stage a planned demonstration of his invention in New York that would have publicized his achievement. As a result, when competing inventors such as Edison and the Lumière brothers developed the ability to create similar films, they were the ones to receive the fame as motion picture pioneers.
Over the years, there have been many theories to explain Le Prince’s disappearance. Many years later, his grand-nephew claimed he killed himself because of financial difficulties caused by many years of investing in his experiments. However, surely his pride in his recent inventions—ones that he knew would likely prove to be very profitable indeed—gave him a powerful motive to live. People have been known to commit suicide for no obvious reason, but this is still a very implausible theory.
An adaptation of this allegation was devised by film historian Jacques Deslandes. He proposed that Le Prince staged his own disappearance because he was nearly bankrupt. A journalist named Leo Sauvage also proposed Le Prince voluntarily vanished. He suggested (on no known factual grounds,) that the inventor was gay, which would had alienated him from his relatives. However, there is not a trace of evidence supporting the idea Le Prince willingly abandoned his life. By all accounts, he was a decent person and a loving husband and father, who had no motive to play such a cruel stunt on his family.
Another yarn has it that Le Prince was murdered for his share of an inheritance by his own brother, who was the last person known to see the inventor alive. This speculation is also generally disregarded due to a complete lack of proof.
And now we turn to the most startling theory: Was Le Prince killed over his landmark invention—and possibly at the instigation of his greatest rival, Thomas Edison, a wealthy man who was as powerful as he was unscrupulous?
Certainly, the timing of Le Prince’s disappearance is suspicious. If he had succeeded with his plans for displaying his films in public, it would have been an obvious blow to any rivals in that field. Months after Le Prince vanished, Edison patented his own film equipment—instruments that bore a decided resemblance to his missing competitor’s work—and he thereupon insisted that he, and no one else, deserved credit for inventing the motion-picture camera. There is another connection between Edison and Le Prince that, in light of the latter’s disappearance, has a sinister aspect: The law partners of Clarence Seward and William Guthrie were prominent patent attorneys. They had been friends of Le Prince, and were among the very few people who knew all the details of his experiments with motion pictures. By the time Le Prince vanished, their firm was working for Thomas Edison. (There is evidence that, even before Le Prince was somehow erased from the scene, there was what can only be described as a widespread legal conspiracy to deny him credit for his invention.) When, after Le Prince’s disappearance, his family sought legal help, lawyers usually wound up either ignoring or sabotaging them.
There were other signs that something very strange indeed was going on. Around the time Le Prince vanished, his wife Lizzie, who was innocently awaiting his arrival at the home they were renting in New York, received a visit from a stranger who gave his name as “Mr. Rose.” He was very anxious to see her husband. When he was told Le Prince was not there, he left in evident agitation. Sometime later, he returned disguised as a milkman—a façade Lizzie easily saw through—and again asked about the inventor. When Lizzie indicated she recognized him, and threatened to summon the police, he fled. No one has any idea who this man was, and why he was so anxious to see Le Prince.
A further complication for the family was the fact that they were unable to take legal action defending the priority of Le Prince’s cameras against those of his rivals until he was officially declared dead—which under American law, took seven years. During all that time, Le Prince’s relatives were forced to sit on the sidelines while Edison and others gained credit for inventions they knew he had pioneered. In that sense, Le Prince’s disappearance was far more useful to his rivals than his immediate, unquestioned death would have been.
For what it’s worth, Le Prince’s family, particularly his wife, believed he had been deliberately killed, and that Edison was probably responsible. And the family had not seen the last of their tragedies. In 1898, Le Prince’s son Adolphe, who had been his father’s assistant, testified in a lawsuit the American Mutoscope Company was fighting with Edison. The company wished to use proof of Le Prince’s discoveries to discredit Edison’s claims to have invented the motion picture camera. Mutoscope lost the case, ending the Le Prince family’s hopes for Louis gaining proper recognition for his work. (They eventually won on appeal, but Le Prince’s achievements remained largely overlooked.) Eerily, shortly after the initial negative verdict was announced, Adolphe was found shot dead while out duck hunting. Was it suicide? An accident? Or was Lizzie Le Prince correct in her belief that Adolphe was murdered because he had too much knowledge about his father’s work for the likes of certain important men?
Christopher Rawlence's book “The Missing Reel” is the most in-depth study to date of Le Prince and his puzzling fate. The author does not endorse the “Edison-did-it” theory, (the very idea clearly unnerved him,) but he does not entirely discount it, either. Rawlence admitted that his research taught him that Edison was “ruthlessly corrupt…resorting to lying, intimidation and dubious business practices when it came to asserting his power.” Rawlence’s own book proves that, if anything, he was under-emphasizing both Edison’s power and his corruption.
A nice example of the methods used by Edison’s team involved an obscure inventor named Thomas Armat. He had created a motion picture projector that was superior to Edison’s flailing kinetoscope. In 1896, Raff & Gammon’s Kinetoscope Company, approached this potential rival with a deal. “No matter how good a machine should be invented by another,” they wrote Armat, “and no matter how satisfactory or superior the results might be, yet we find that the greatest majority of parties who desire to invest in such have been waiting for the Edison machine and would never be satisfied with anything else…While Mr. Edison has no desire to pose as inventor of the machine, we think we can arrange with him for the use of his name to such an extent as may be necessary for the best results.”
In other words, Edison—already a powerful brand name—would “temporarily” present Armat’s camera to the world, and once “the respective rewards” had been reaped, the true inventor would be given his deserved credit.
Armat trustingly agreed, selling Edison his patent. And the Edison empire well and truly stabbed him in the back. They publicly presented the camera, which they named “the vitascope,” as “Mr. Edison’s latest,” and “Thomas A. Edison’s Latest Marvel.” And, until the Edison Company eventually abandoned the vitascope for their newly-developed Projectoscope, an Edison invention it publicly remained. Similarly ugly stories--most famously, his nasty propaganda war against Nikola Tesla and alternating currents--abound in Edison's career. The "great American hero" was, in short, a double-barreled bastard.
As I said above, whatever Le Prince’s financial status may have been, it hard to believe he would take his own life right when his years of effort and sacrifice to achieve what had become his life’s work were on the verge of paying off. An accidental death also seems highly unlikely.
That leaves us with foul play. The theory that the inventor was killed in order to get him out of the way may sound like something from a bad novel, but it cannot be ignored. The birth of the film industry was just as viciously competitive and conscienceless as Hollywood is today, full of spies, conspiracy, and dirty dealings. A stray murder here and there in order to accomplish what certain types of people see as the “greater good” of furthering their own interests is hardly uncommon. If Le Prince was slain, Edison is the most obvious suspect, but he is hardly the only possible one. The truth about Le Prince’s end will likely never be known, but his wife was not necessarily deluded in her belief that her husband and son had lost their lives because of their pioneering scientific work.
The only bright spot in this story is that in recent years, Le Prince has received a certain amount of the credit he deserves. Among film historians, he, and not Edison, is known as the “Father of cinematography.”
[Note: There is a strange footnote to the Le Prince mystery: In 2003, a researcher found in the Paris police archives a photo of an 1890 drowning victim. Some believe this unidentified corpse was the missing Louis Le Prince. If that guess is correct, it still would fail to explain what had happened to him—or his luggage.]