He’s one of the most pivotal figures in the development of cinema, but until recently few people understood the contribution Louis Le Prince made to the moving image. Why? Put simply, a series of tragedies that seem plucked from a British police procedural and whispers of a ‘Le Prince family curse’.
Born in Metz, France in 1841, his father was often away with the French Army and Le Prince spent much of his youth hanging out in Louis Daguerre’s studio. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Daguerre was one of the pioneers of photography and their relationship inspired many of Le Prince’s later interests: art, physics and chemistry. Having studied all three at university, the Frenchman moved to Leeds where he met, fell in love with, and married English artist Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Whitley.
The pair founded a successful applied arts school before moving to New York, where Le Prince managed a small clique of French artists who specialised in wide, sweeping, panoramic paintings. This is where he first got the idea to come up with a device that could replicate the scope of the paintings by capturing the moving image, with Le Prince building what is considered the first film camera. It utilised 16 different lenses to capture motion, albeit not always successfully at first. He patented his invention, then refined his innovation into a single lens camera and used it to film the first motion pictures: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) and Leeds Bridge (1888). This was years before the Lumière brothers would have private screenings of their first motion pictures in 1895, followed by public screenings like The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1896), which made them millionaires. And long before American inventor Thomas Edison had even built a working camera.
It was a highly competitive time, with Le Prince, the Lumières and Edison just three of the names pushing to get patents over the line – and first – with dozens of other inventors and corporations racing to establish themselves as the pioneer of moving image. It’s this environment that’s said to have contributed to Le Prince’s mysterious disappearance. Finally, content with his creation, Le Prince had the first public exhibition of his work and his motion pictures scheduled in New York during September, 1890. Yet he never made it, disappearing just days beforehand, never to be seen again and baffling authorities and film theorists for over 100 years.
Following the death of his mother, he had travelled to Dijon, France to visit his family and spend time with his brother, Albert. Having dropped him at the train station with all of the material for his presentation and a suitcase said to be containing his latest patents, Albert waved him off … only for Le Prince never to arrive at his destination in Paris, where friends were waiting for him. French authorities and Scotland Yard launched an investigation immediately, but not a single passenger on the train reported seeing Le Prince onboard. Given he was six-foot-four and sported distinctive mutton chops, he wasn’t a man who easily slipped by unnoticed. This led to speculation that he never boarded the train at all and was, in fact, murdered by his brother for his portion of their mother’s inheritance. Family members disputed this, with the brothers said to have had a close, loving relationship – as documented in letters – and Albert contributing to fund the search for Le Prince.
The popular theory – and most salacious – is that one of Le Prince’s competitors was responsible for his disappearance and probable murder. Enter stage left, Thomas Edison. The filmmaker’s widow – Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Whitley - was the most publicly outspoken supporter of this rumour. Edison was extremely competitive and egotistical, with a track record of taking credit for many of his employee’s inventions. Kidnapping and murder, however, was a significant claim.
Whitley believed that Edison had kidnapped Le Prince so he could claim credit for his cameras and was holding him somewhere in America. A patent lawsuit in the US – one of many Edison engaged in – was thought to be a crucial moment for the family, with Whitley believing that if Le Prince was acknowledged in court as the true inventor of motion pictures, Edison would release their loved one, alive and well. So strong was their belief in this theory, Le Prince’s oldest son Adolphe took a year off studying at Columbia University to travel the world collecting enough evidence so that he could testify for the defense – American Mutoscope Company – against Edison, who was claiming that he was the inventor of the motion picture camera and not Le Prince. Adolphe proved this by producing his grandmother’s death certificate, as Le Prince’s mother-in-law Sarah Whitley died on October 24 1888, but appeared in Roundhay Garden Scene, which meant the film and the camera Le Prince invented to shoot it existed before her death.
And yes, before Edison’s Kinetoscope was officially invented in 1891.
Once it was known in court that Le Prince was the true originator of the motion picture, his relatives expected him to be released by Edison and the inventor’s scheme unveiled. Obviously, that didn’t happen because a) American Mutoscope Company lost the case and b) it’s unlikely Le Prince was being held by Edison in the first place. Although this court decision was overturned a year later, it did serve some purpose for the Le Prince family: it gave his name and work a platform it hadn’t previously had. Tragically, just three years later, Adolphe’s battered body was discovered under suspicious circumstances during a duck shoot on Fire Island, New York in 1901. He was just 29.
Perhaps the wildest theory is that Le Prince didn’t disappear at all: rather, he chose to vanish. The motive for this would be to benefit his family financially, given Le Prince was said to be on the verge of bankruptcy. Although further examination of his books showed his business was in good shape.
Another rumour was that his disappearance pertained to his sexuality, with French journalist Léo Sauvage claiming to have been shown a note by the director of the Dijon municipal library in the 1970s that said Le Prince died in America in 1898 after moving to Chicago. However, there is little evidence to support either of these theories and because of that, they’re often quickly discounted.
In 2003, a new hypothesis gained traction. During research of the Paris police archives, a photograph of an 1890 drowning victim bared an uncanny resemblance to Le Prince due to his facial hair. Yet his trademark moustache and mutton chops weren’t enough to confirm his identity, with the the deceased too short to be Le Prince given the filmmaker’s well-known height.
Whatever happened to Le Prince, he was officially declared dead by authorities in 1897. For the most part, his work went largely unacknowledged among the wider public. However, thanks to the continued efforts of his family and the city of Leeds in Northern England, where he’s considered a local legend, his work has been recognised in recent years. In 1930, there was a bronze memorial plaque unveiled in Le Prince’s honour and he was featured in the 1966 Jacques Deslandes documentary The Comparative History of Cinema. In France, an appreciation society was founded - L'Association des Amis de Le Prince – and in 1989 a British telemovie, The Missing Reel, dramatised elements of Le Prince’s life. Before the release of his groundbreaking anime Ghost In The Shell, Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Oshii paid tribute to Le Prince and several other ‘forgotten’ figures of film in Talking Head (1992). Perhaps most poignant of all, in September 2016 a documentary about Le Prince from Leeds filmmaker David Wilkinson, The First Film, played at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York. This was 126 years after Le Prince was set to screen his first films in the very same building.
– Maria Lewis