Updated: Feb 3, 2021
Louisa Spillman delves into whether Thomas Edison was behind the disappearance of his competitor, Louis Le Prince. Would Edison do whatever it takes to become the father of film?
In September 1890, Louis Le Prince boarded a train to publicly unveil the world’s first motion picture camera, but he never arrived. In fact, Prince was never seen again.
Instead, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope was publicly demonstrated in 1893, and the rest is history. The popularity of films skyrocketed, and today moving pictures are unavoidable in everyday life. Thomas Edison is a household name.
One of Prince’s surviving films, The Roundhay Garden Scene, shows footage of four family members and friends playing in the gardens of Roundhay Cottage in October 1888. It is only two seconds long - they shamble awkwardly in shot, and one star, Sarah Whitley, clutches her skirt and glances shyly towards the camera. Without realising, Whitley had cemented Le Prince’s legacy, as she would pass away only ten days later. Her appearance proves that Le Prince filmed a scene before Edison. Toni Booth, assistant curator at the National Media Museum in Bradford, said the following about Le Prince’s camera, “As a piece of moving image recording live action – yes, I would say he is the first to do that.”
Lizzie Le Prince, Prince’s widow, blamed Edison for the vanishing, although evidence for this is lacking. The Le Prince family was unable to publicise his motion picture camera until he was announced dead in 1897, which allowed Edison to wrongfully claim the title of being the first inventor in the eyes of the public, and some find this timing suspicious.
One commonly cited journal article claims an entry discovered in Edison’s notebook in 2008 states, “It has been done. Prince is no more. … I flinched when he told me. Murder is not my thing.” The claim continues that historian, Robert E Meyer of New York University, verified the writing was by Edison. However, a search reveals that Meyer has never published a single research paper, or even been mentioned on the New York University website, which includes both a current and retired faculty page. The notebook has no presence outside the article. It has not been verified. There is no evidence that Meyer or the notebook exist, and most believe it is a hoax.
Further arguments against Edison include his disputes with Prince’s son, Adolphe. When Edison sued the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company for infringing his Kinetoscope copyright, Adolphe took a year from his studies to collect evidence to argue that Edison could not claim a monopoly on the moving picture camera, since his father had created it first. This crucial trial lasted for almost a decade, but Adolphe was only able to testify for two years before being found dead on Fire Island from a gunshot wound. His death was labelled a hunting accident.
Many speculate Edison’s involvement with both Adolphe and Louis’ deaths, but there is no proof beyond circumstantial evidence for either of these.
Another theory posits that Albert Le Prince, Louis’ brother, was involved. Albert claimed Louis boarded the train to Paris, but no other passengers recalled seeing him. Other historians even suggest that the Le Prince family knew Louis was homosexual, and therefore urged him to fake his death, forcing him to live in Chicago until he passed in 1898. Le Prince’s great-great-granddaughter Laurie Snyder, however, asserts that this theory is “crazy”, and Le Prince had a “close, loving family”. Snyder also notes that the Le Prince family invested heavily into the search for Louis, because they wanted him to be found.
Snyder’s conclusion of what happened that night is less conspiratorial. News articles at the time mention thieves targeting lone travellers. Le Prince would have arrived in Paris late, at around 11pm, and may have walked towards his workshop or called a cab. In the dark of the night, the driver or other criminal took the opportunity to attack him and throw him in the Seine, taking his lost luggage. Notably, a police photo does exist of an unidentified man who drowned in 1890 and resembles Le Prince, which is one of the only physical pieces of evidence for any of these theories.
There is a lack of real evidence to discuss Louis Le Prince’s fate beyond suppositions, and tragically, Le Prince has slipped through the cracks of history. However, mystery aside, Le Prince’s contribution to the birth of cinematography is undeniable, and he should be remembered for his role as father of film.
From Issue 20