Anyone who has taken a film history class has learned about the Lumiére Brothers and Thomas Edison, who are recognized as some of the earliest pioneers of motion picture camera technology. However, there is another name that only ever crops up in a paragraph or two, despite having the most intriguing story of all: Louis Le Prince. Le Prince, who shot the earliest surviving motion picture and began to develop his camera years before the Lumiéres, was lost to history one day when he vanished without a trace.
In September 1890, Le Prince was on his way to demonstrate his single-lens camera in the U.S., the first time his technology and his short films would be displayed to the general public. He got on a train at Bourges, France on the 13th to visit his brother in Dijon, then boarded the September 16th train to Paris, where he would then make his way across the Atlantic. He never made it to Paris. When the train arrived, Le Prince was not onboard, despite many witnesses having seen him get on when it departed. His luggage was also missing. It was as if he’d never existed.
The strange thing is, though he was seen boarding the locomotive, nobody on the train at the time reported seeing him in their compartments. As far as anybody knew, he stepped off that platform and into thin air. Although Le Prince’s disappearance was investigated by his family, the Scotland Yard, and the French authorities, no body was ever found and he was declared dead in 1897, seven long years after his disappearance.
There are currently four leading theories about what could have possibly happened to Louis Le Prince.
#1 He committed suicide
Le Prince’s brother’s grandson, who’s surely an authority on the matter, insists that the man was almost bankrupt and wanted to off himself. However, the very historian he told that to has evidence that Le Prince’s business was doing well, so… on to the next theory.
#2 His family forced the disappearance because he was gay
Now, here’s a fun little theory floated out in a 1966 French film history book: Jacques Deslandes suggests that Le Prince faked his disappearance at the urging of his family, because they disapproved of his homosexuality. They think he fled to Chicago, where he died in 1898. Naturally, there’s not a single scrap of evidence to suggest that this is true.
#3 He accidentally drowned
In 2003, researchers came across a photograph of a French drowning victim that dated back to 1890, around the time of his disappearance. This is entirely possible, but it still doesn’t explain how his luggage disappeared or that there were somehow no witnesses to a man falling out of a train.
#4 He was murdered
Now, here’s the most interesting theory. Some historians have tossed out the idea that his brother killed him, or at least allowed him to kill himself. That would certainly be the most dramatic solution, but get this…
Maybe, just maybe, he was killed by Thomas Edison, or at least by someone under Edison’s command. Yes, that Thomas Edison, of light bulb fame. Edison has a long history of taking credit for other people’s inventions (see: Nikola Tesla) and he didn’t improve matters when he attempted to claim that he was the sole inventor of the process of cinematography, and thus entitled to royalties whenever people used motion picture cameras. Le Prince’s son Adolphe opposed this in court, but Edison won the case, though it would eventually be overturned a year later.
This seems innocuous enough (Edison trying to profit off a dubious patent was hardly anything new), but consider this. Had Le Prince completed his fateful train journey, it would have been mere weeks before he filed for a patent that would have obliterated Edison’s case. Again, the total lack of evidence prevents any concrete solutions (he could have been whisked away by a dragon for all we know), but his mysteriously thorough disappearance was certainly convenient for Edison.
But the story doesn’t conclude there. Le Prince’s death was just the beginning. Just two years after he testified against Edison, Adolphe was found shot to death while duck hunting in New York. He was 29 years old. Once again, no evidence pointed conclusively to any culprit, but it makes you think.
The people involved in this particular patent case against Edison both shuffled off this mortal coil in eyebrow-raising ways in a plot device that is so obviously fishy they wouldn’t even use it in a LAW AND ORDER episode. I’ve watched enough horror movies to know that when a string of people who have wronged someone wind up dead under mysterious circumstances, there might just be a vengeful killer on our hands.
It’s unlikely that history will ever reveal the answer to what happened to Mssr. Le Prince on that fateful day, but we definitely have a reason to take another look at the facts we think we know about a certain Thomas Alva Edison: Inventor. American icon. Murderer? The world may never know.