Episode 09 of the podcast: The Lost Colony got me thinking about other mysterious disappearances throughout our history. There’s just something so intriguing about a person or people simply disappearing into thin air. Without answers, all we are left with is our imagination; leaving plenty of room for morbid possibilities. When people suddenly vanish without a trace we generally don’t imagine them on a beach somewhere, sipping a margarita, living their best life. It’s safe to assume in most cases something has gone very, very wrong.
One such case is that of French inventor Louis Le Prince, who disappeared from a moving train on Sept. 16, 1890. If you are unfamiliar with Le Prince, don’t worry, you are not alone. It wasn’t until recently that his contributions to history were brought to light. Le Prince is now recognized as the true father of cinematography, a title previously held by an inventor you may be a little more familiar with, a Sir Thomas Edison.
Le Prince shot the world’s first moving picture with a single lens camera in Leeds, England in 1888, years before Edison’s work with the Kinetoscope. Although his brilliance and lasting effect on the way we live is undeniable, Edison did have a nasty habit of not giving credit where it was due. The phonograph and the x-ray are two more advances widely credited to Edison in the States that were based on existing designs by European inventors. His involvement in this case becomes a little more interesting later in the story.
On the date in question, Le Prince began his ill-fated trip at the Dijon station with his brother Albert, who would later confirm seeing Louis board the Paris-bound train. He had business to attend to in Paris, after which he planned on joining his family in New York. He was excited to show his wife the moving pictures he had captured in England and to begin the patenting process for his creation.
The journey was an express trip with no stops along the way. There were no reports of unusual behavior or untimely exits from any of the other commuters, yet when they arrived in Paris, there was no sign of Le Prince having ever been on the train. Friends waiting for him at the station found neither Louis nor his luggage after a thorough search of the premises.
Le Prince’s family, along with the French Police and London’s Scotland Yard performed extensive searches for Louis, but to no avail. No body and no clues were found at either train station or along the route to Paris. Le Prince’s disappearance remains a mystery to this day, though there have been theories.
Suicide had been proposed as a possible explanation, but Louis’s recent successes and plans to meet his family in New York don’t leave much room for motive. On top of that, it would have taken extremely careful planning to execute a complete disappearance, leaving nothing behind and no body.
If Le Prince didn’t remove himself from this mortal coil, we are left with the more likely scenario of foul play. There is a possible suspect in Louis’s brother Albert, being the last person to see him alive. Perhaps Le Prince never got on the train in the first place. Albert could have murdered his brother and simply lied about seeing him off at the Dijon station. Like the suicide theory however, this possibility lacks much in the way of motive.
Another theory involves our friend Thomas Edison, and includes some heretofore absent motive. You may recall before his disappearance Le Prince planned on traveling to New York to unveil his groundbreaking work with moving pictures. As we know, that trip never occurred, and instead it was Edison who patented what the world believed to be the first moving picture. Given Edison’s propensity for claiming other’s ideas as his own, the timing of Le Prince’s disappearance starts to look a little too coincidental.
These suspicions were not lost on Le Prince’s family, who brought litigation against Edison, sparking a war over his patent of the moving picture camera. Adolph Le Prince, Louis’s eldest son was called upon as a witness in these trials. He had worked closely with his father and his family believed he could shed light on Louis’s achievements, securing his legacy as the inventor of the device in question. Unfortunately, the case was awarded to Edison, and in yet another odd coincidence, Adolph was found dead while hunting ducks outside New York before an appeal could be made.
Since the trials and tribulations faced by the Le Prince family in the wake of Louis’s disappearance, it seems credit is finally being given where it is due. As historical details are brought to light, Le Prince is being recognized more and more as the true father of cinematography. We may never know for sure what happened on Sept. 16, 1890, but with his legacy now finding its place in our history, perhaps the spirit of Louis Le Prince can finally rest easy.
Sources: Did Thomas Edison Steal Inventions by Doug MacGowan
The Mystery of Louis Le Prince, The Father of Cinematography by Kieron Casey