Monday Mystery: The Disappearance of Louis Le Prince

One crisp fall day, a man named Louis Le Prince paid a visit to his in-laws, Joseph and Sarah Whitley, at their home, an estate named Oakwood Grange. While there, he shot a brief home movie of his family perambulating in their garden. The camera he used was a single-lens model of his own design, using a perforated reel of Edison photographic paper. The year was 1888. The snippet, known as "Roundhay Garden Scene", is believed to be the oldest piece of motion picture film still in existence.

Le Prince had discovered a love of photography while still a child, working in the lab of his father's friend Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. A circuitous route through art school in Paris and post-grad chemistry in Leipzig ultimately took him to England, where he was employed by a firm in Leeds, and ultimately married to the artistically-gifted sister of a colleague, Elizabeth (née Whitley). He continued to tinker with new cameras and new designs through a stint as a representative of the Leeds firm in the US, his return to England, and travels back to his native France.

Finally, in 1890, Le Prince had developed what he considered a revolutionary new camera. He spoke excitedly of it during a visit to his brother Albert in Dijon, and of plans to return to the UK to patent the device, and then to the US to promote it.

Albert dropped him at the train station in Dijon on September 16, 1890, to catch the train to Paris. Louis Le Prince was never seen again.

Most accounts say he was seen "boarding" the Dijon-Paris train, but I'm uncertain whether this just refers to his brother sending him off. No one else admitted to seeing him at the station. When his friends met the train in Paris, he was nowhere to be seen. No one recalled spotting him on board. His luggage was never found. He had simply vanished without a trace.

A number of theories have been advanced, ranging from suicide to voluntary disappearance to outright murder. One source claims that he was "asked" to disappear due to « convenances familiale », a circumlocution which they translated as the allegation that Le Prince was homosexual and the family found it embarrassing. No one has ever tendered any supporting evidence for this, nor for the pursuant claim that he moved to Chicago and died there in 1898. Others claim he committed suicide because his business was failing (it wasn't), or because of financial irregularities (none were ever found). The possibility has been raised that his brother, last to see him and the only one to verify he made it to the train station in Dijon, might have killed him, but if so, no one has any idea as to the motive.

The most sensationalist theory posits that Thomas Edison had Le Prince murdered, to prevent him from patenting his revolutionary new camera. Edison, for those of you who don't know, was a ruthless asshole. He was noted for running rivals out of business with any means at his disposal, ranging from blackmail to sabotage to just sending large men around the neighborhood to make sure nobody bought any motion picture machines that weren't Edison's. Plenty of people have accused Edison of killing their careers, although to my knowledge nobody has previously accused him of just killing people, full stop.

There is an article that claims a grad student found a journal of Edison's that contains what amounts to an admission that he had Le Prince killed, but I doubt the ever-loving fuck out of this thing: I can find no trace of "Alexis Bedford" (the grad student, noted by pronoun as male, supposedly studying chemistry and photography), "Charlene Edmonds" (the librarian who supposedly verified that the journal he found was part of the historical collection), or "Robert E Myre" (the historian that Bedford supposedly took the journal to for verification that it was Edison's). The article alleges that Bedford found the evidence in the "New York library", which is not a thing that exists -- the New York public library system is the largest state library system in the US, and any real article would have noted the branch -- and refers to the school where Bedford was studying as the "University of New York", which isn't a thing either. It appears under the "Opinions"  banner, so presumably it got no fact-checking.

Perhaps the most reasonable piece of "new" evidence that has been turned up is a photograph in the archives of the Paris police, discovered in 2003, of a man who drowned in 1890 and is said to strongly resemble Le Prince. Even if it is, that still leaves a great many questions unanswered. Paris is not physically that big; if the Paris police have the photo, that means he must have been drowned somewhere nearby, i.e., probably the Seine. That means Le Prince must have made it to Paris -- why, then, did no one but his brother see him at the station in Dijon, and no one at all spot him on the train itself? He had friends waiting for him at the station; how did they miss him when he disembarked? What happened to his luggage?

In 1898, Edison filed suit against the American Mutoscope Company, contending that he (Edison) was the sole inventor of the motion picture process and entitled to all royalties on things pertaining thereto. (Remember: Asshole.) Le Prince's eldest son Adolphe was called as a witness, in hopes that his testimony would prove that Edison was not the sole inventor of movies. Adolphe was not allowed to present his father's cameras to the court as evidence; Edison subsequently won the suit.