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JonathanVonErich

The Disappearance of Louis Le Prince

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Relatively unknown today, Louis Le Prince is the inventor officially recognized as the first person to record motion images on film, giving birth to today's motion picture industry.

Background

Born in Metz, France on August 28th, 1841 he was an inventor with a background in photography and chemistry. In 1881 Louis moved to America and began experimenting with moving picture machines. His breakthrough came on October 14th, 1888 when he managed to record a moving piece of film. Lasting only 2.11 seconds, the scene captures Adolphe Le Prince (Louis’ son), Sarah Robinson Whitley (Louis’ mother-in-law), Joseph Whitley and Harriet Hartley walking around in a garden. By today’s standards it sounds like nothing exciting, but back then, who had seen such a thing before? Nobody. Several years before either Thomas Edison or the Lumière brothers, Le Prince had been granted patents on both a 16-lens device and a single-lens type.

Disappearance

On September 16, 1890 Louis Le Prince disappeared never to be seen again. Le Prince had promised he would rejoin his friends in Paris for a return journey to England. However he failed to arrive at the appointed time and was never seen again by his family or friends. The last sighting of him was onboard a train leaving the Dijon platform. No luggage nor corpse was found in the Dijon-Paris express nor along the railway. Though both French police and Scotland Yard carried out an exhaustive search for his body and luggage, neither was ever found and the case remains unsolved today. Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897.

There are 4 main theories about what could have happened to Louis Le Prince:

1. Suicide

Le Prince's brother's grandson told film historian Georges Potonniée that Le Prince wanted to commit suicide because he was on the verge of bankruptcy. He had already arranged his suicide and he managed for his own body and belongings never to be found. However, Potonniée noted that Le Prince's business was profitable and that he was proud of his inventions, and thus had no reason to commit suicide.

2. Assassinated for his creation

Christopher Rawlence pursues the assassination theory, along with other theories, and discusses the Le Prince family's suspicions of Edison over patents (the Equity 6928) in his 1990 book and documentary The Missing Reel. At the time that he vanished, Le Prince was about to patent his 1889 projector in the UK and then leave Europe for his scheduled New York official exhibition. His widow assumed foul play though no concrete evidence has ever emerged and Rawlence prefers the suicide theory. In 1898, Le Prince's elder son Adolphe, who had assisted his father in many of his experiments, was called as a witness for the American Mutoscope Company in their litigation with Edison [Equity 6928]. By citing Le Prince's achievements Mutuscope hoped to annul Edison's subsequent claims to have invented the moving picture camera. Le Prince's widow Lizzie and Adolphe hoped that this would gain recognition for Le Prince's achievement but when the case went against Mutoscope their hopes were dashed. Two years later Adolphe Le Prince was found dead while out duck shooting on Fire Island near New York.

3. Disappearance ordoned by the family

In 1966, Jacques Deslandes proposed a theory in Histoire comparée du cinéma, claiming that Le Prince voluntarily disappeared due to financial reasons (already shown to be false) and "familial conveniences". Journalist Léo Sauvage backed up that assertion, quoting a note shown to him by Pierre Gras, director of the Dijon municipal library, in 1977, that claimed Le Prince died in Chicago in 1898, having moved there at the family's request because he was homosexual. However there is no evidence to suggest that Le Prince was gay.

4. His brother killed him

In 1967, Jean Mitry proposed, in Histoire du cinéma, that Le Prince was killed. Mitry notes that if Le Prince truly wanted to disappear, he could have done so at any time prior to that. Thus, most likely he never even boarded the train in Dijon. He also questions that if the brother, who was confirmed to be the last person to see Le Prince alive, knew Le Prince was suicidal, why didn't he try to stop him, and why didn't he report this to the police before it was too late?

A New Lead ?

A photograph of a drowning victim from 1890 resembling Le Prince was discovered in 2003 during research in the Paris police archives. Sadly no more information about the picture is available right now, but some people believe this is solid proof that Le Prince was murdered.

More about Le Prince: http://staticmass.net/early-films-and-cinema/the-curious-case-of-louis-aime-augustin-le-prince/

Further reading: Among the Missing, by Jay Robert Nash ( 1978 )

Short documentary about Le Prince:

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Fascinating Jon! Good thread man!

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A fascinating story, one of my favourites!

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I've never heard of him jon but sounds like he was deep sixed for his patent.

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Out of the four main theories, I think #2 is by far the most likely.

I think Le Prince was murdered, but that there could have been another motive.

I agree that the timing of his disappearance offers a plausible motive.

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I agree that the second theory is the most likely, specially after his son was found dead as well. As regi said, the idea fits the case but the motives could have been different, even owing money can be a good enough reason for people to make others disappear. I don't think he'd commit suicide though. Very interesting case, thanks for posting Jon.

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Thanks for the replies guys. :)

Was Edison responsible for Le Prince's death ??

A few years ago Alexis Bedford, a graduate student at the University of New York, was researching the history of motion pictures in the archives of the New York Library. He was turning over some papers on Thomas Edison's work with lighting methods when he stumbled across a leatherbound book. The book would turn out to be one of many notebooks in which Edison was fond of jotting down ideas and test data. Reading the book, he found a very interesting entry dated September 20, 1890 allegedly by Edison's own hand which read:

" Eric called me today from Dijon. It has been done. Prince is no more. This is good news but I flinched when he told me. Murder is not my thing. I'm an inventor and my inventions for moving images can now move forward."

Case closed ? Difficult to say. Historian Robert E. Myre said that the notebook is authentic and that the entry was indeed written by Edison. However some people doubt that Edison, as brilliant as he was, would write about Le Prince's murder in his notebook when he was probably the more logical suspect even back then. The entire story is a little difficult to accept, and since the "discovery" was made ( 2006-2007 ) we don't have much evidences showing that it was really written by Edison. I'm trying to find more info about this.

More about the discovery of the notebook: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369702108701603

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Interesting. I couldn't find much on Edison being involved, but the whole notebook thing could be fake. Here a guy points out a few "holes" in that theory http://www.eriksherm...one-phoney.html

Amazing post dear LC, great job. :tu:

That's exactly why I decided not to include the notebook story in my opening post, I had serious doubts about it. Now it's clear to me that the story was probably a hoax. Now why would the author of the blog write a hoax about such an obscure case ?? I don't know, but seems like she created the story. Sad.

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Amazing post dear LC, great job. :tu:

That's exactly why I decided not to include the notebook story in my opening post, I had serious doubts about it. Now it's clear to me that the story was probably a hoax. Now why would the author of the blog write a hoax about such an obscure case ?? I don't know, but seems like she created the story. Sad.

Thanks! I guess some people just take all the attention they can get. It's an old case that sort of points towards murder depending on how you look at it. By conveniently placing a well known name as a possible suspect, she had the perfect recipe for a shocking story. It really does seem to be fake but I can't deny that at first it looked like a possible theory. It's sad indeed.

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So Le Prince allegedly took the Dijon-Paris Express around 14h30. His brother is the only known person who saw him board the train.

The Dijon-Paris Express was a popular ride, I'm sure somebody other than his brother would have seen Le Prince on the train and would have said something to the authorities. I think it's highly possible that the brother might have created the story, after all he's the only known person who saw Louis at the Train station on that day. If indeed somebody attacked or kidnapped or took Le Prince hostage on that train I'm sure somebody would have heard or seen something. The fact there's absolutely no witnesses is highly suspicious to me.

A lot of people believe Le Prince simply never boarded that train, and that he was abducted and/or killed elsewhere. Then why would his brother lie about this ?? Conspiracy ?? This case is mind-boggling.

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Posted (edited)

So Le Prince allegedly took the Dijon-Paris Express around 14h30. His brother is the only known person who saw him board the train.

The Dijon-Paris Express was a popular ride, I'm sure somebody other than his brother would have seen Le Prince on the train and would have said something to the authorities. I think it's highly possible that the brother might have created the story, after all he's the only known person who saw Louis at the Train station on that day. If indeed somebody attacked or kidnapped or took Le Prince hostage on that train I'm sure somebody would have heard or seen something. The fact there's absolutely no witnesses is highly suspicious to me.

A lot of people believe Le Prince simply never boarded that train, and that he was abducted and/or killed elsewhere. Then why would his brother lie about this ?? Conspiracy ?? This case is mind-boggling.

This is a very intriguing aspect because there's no substantiating evidence that Le Prince boarded the train. We only know that it was his intention to board the train, and that the brother said he did.

I'd sure be nice to know more about the visit and about the brother.

I don't consider myself well read on the case and I'm not knowledgeable about Le Prince's family, but from what I have read, I don't recall anything about the brother until the disappearance.

Edited by regi
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Very interesting case.. thanks for posting it...

After reading this I'm leaning toward a fatal accident (drowning?), or voluntary disappearance for whatever reason (don't particularly accept the 'gay' theory as a reason for him to commit suicide)...

While I don't think Edison was too broken up about his disappearance/death, I don't really think he had anything to do with it...

If he was the type of guy to 'off' his rivals, Nicola Tesla would have died a whole lot sooner than he did...

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Has anyone thought of looking up if Edison ( who was far from a saint [check Tesla/Edison relations]) had a relation named Eric?

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Has anyone thought of looking up if Edison ( who was far from a saint [check Tesla/Edison relations]) had a relation named Eric?

Very good Question, Paracelse. :)

The story about the notebook is most likely a hoax, but I agree that we should look into that.

I have found a site listing the chronology of Edison's family and there's no Eric. http://edison.rutgers.edu/famchron.htm

Of course this "Eric", if he ever existed ( I doubt it since the story is most likely a hoax ), could have been somebody who worked for Edison, not necessarily a relative or family member. But there's absolutely nothing proving that Edison was once associated to a man named Eric. From the information found on the blog shared earlier by LC I think it's clear that the notebook story is a hoax.

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The note might be a hoax and knowing Edison's background I do think he ordered the kill. The author of the note may not had any other means to let the world know

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The note might be a hoax and knowing Edison's background I do think he ordered the kill. The author of the note may not had any other means to let the world know

Well the entire story seems to be hoax, not only the note found in the notebook.

But you believe Edison was involved in Le Prince's death ?? Interesting. :yes:

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Edison mistreated all those who presented better patents than his, the way he destroyed Tesla's work tends to prove he wasn't the hero good boy attaboy presented in history books. OK so maybe I tend to be a conspiracy theorist on occasion but I've noticed that when enough circumstantial evidences are presnted there should be a case. Didn't Edison attempted to still Marconi's recording ideas?

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You are right, it's very well documented that most of the inventions attributed to Edison were nothing more than improvements of other people's ideas, basically that he stole people's ideas. The timing of Le Prince's death is intriguing, and it's logical to think that he might have been killed for his creation.

To me the key is still Le Prince's brother and his claim that Louis boarded the train. Was he telling the truth ?

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Edison wasn't the only competition. I think there were others who could have shared the same motive, including Edison's assistant.

Re: the brother, if he was lying, there could be only one logical reason for that, and it wasn't to cover a suicide.

I simply wouldn't believe that. I think that someone might cover a suicide to save a person's reputation, or to spare feelings within the family but that's after the fact, not before.

I think it's a ridiculous notion to consider, and that's while setting aside the fact that the explanation for suicide was bogus, so it's very bothersome that the brother's grandson would allegedly tell the film maker such a story.

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As the great, great granddaughter of Leprince (through his son Joseph), here are my two cents worth:

Louis and Albert (his brother) were very close. The suggestion of fratricide is ludicrous.

Louis was very excited about showing his new invention off at the Jumel Mansion in New York (this is supported by his letters to Lizzie in our family archives). He was also promised his share of a sizable inheritance by Albert (his purpose for going to Dijon). He was also a devoted family man. Suicide? Not likely.

His wife and family adored him. They never would have ordered his disappearance.

The Wizard of Menlo Park had better things to do than to order an assassination.

My theory: The photograph of the drowned man does indeed look VERY much like Leprince. His luggage was never found. I think he missed his friends at the station and in traveling to his residence, was intercepted by thieves, robbed and thrown into the Seine. I would be interested in the location of the Seine in relation to the train station.

The other mystery, of course is Adolph's death. This is where there may be an interesting twist.

Adolph left one morning to go pheasant hunting at Point O'Woods. He was found later with a gunshot to his head. Adolph had two brothers, Joseph (my great grandfather) and Fernand. About a year after Adolph died, Fernand chased the night watchmen from the beach at Point O'Woods ranting about "spirits being abroad". One of our family mysteries was "What ever happened to Fernand?" Last year, I found out that Fernand was committed to Middleton Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane and spent the rest of his days there.

My theory: Fernand accompanied Aldoph on the hunting expedition and accidently shot him. The family may have tried to cover this up due to the possible insuing scandal and to prevent Fernand from being put on trial for murder, but Fernand's guilt may have caused him to go insane. Again, pure conjecture and the stuff novels are made of.

In any case; fratricide-NO, murder for hire-NO, suicide-NO, disapperance ordered by the family-NO.

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Hi, Memphisbelle.

I think your suggestion that LePrince was a victim of thieves is certainly plausible, but the information is that LePrince failed to arrive at the station, not the friends, and surely, it was determined whether the train arrived early or the friends arrived late, which are the only two circumstances that I can think of in which LePrince might have decided to continue on alone.

I doubt that the drowned man was LePrince, primarily because it appears that positive identification was possible, yet wasn't.

Since so little is known about the circumstances of Adolph's death, I'd say it appears that it was either accidental or suicide.

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Hello Regi,

Thank you for your observations. The reason I am still pursuing the drowned man theory is that the body was pulled from the Seine the day LePrince went missing. His family was not in France, nor in Europe for that matter, to identify the corpse. It wasn't apparent that he was missing for several weeks as Mr. Mason assumed that Leprince had gone ahead to America and the family assumed that he was delayed in returning to New York. The fact is, no one was looking at the possibility of suicide or even foul play at this point. Did Lizzie ever see the photograph? It's not mentioned in her memoirs although several other details of the investigation, which was done through correspondence for several weeks were. One of the horrific things that she had to contend with was that neither Scotland Yard nor the New York police would investigate the disapperance initially unless she accused him of a crime (desertion, for example). I believe that Leprince DID arrive at the station. It's what happened after that that is the mystery.

Yes, the issue with Adolph is pure conjecture. I know that Fernand had been lucid enough to graduate from Columbia University shortly before Adolph's death. A letter he wrote to his fraternity in 1900 shows that his thought patterns were linear and direct. His madness seems to have come on quite suddenly. The family was very close knit and although it is possible that his brother's death on top of the disappearance of his father, (and his mother's insistance that this was murder) would be enough to set off a psychotic episode, one wonders if there was something more. Again, dime store novel fodder. What I would love to get my hands on is Adolph's autopsy report.

I'll dig through Lizzie's memoirs and his letters to see if there is anything that I may have overlooked that might give further clues about the disappearance.

Again, I think that patent wars and sibling rivalry are a little too off base, and in reading his letters to his family, he appears to be too involved with his plans to show his invention and too concerned with the well being of his family to be suicidal.

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Well, at some point, identification was possible because they had the photo and if the drowned man was clothed, then they had that to offer towards identification, also.

It would add to my skepticism if the drowned man had no injuries associated with assault.

From where I sit, since the brother was the last known person to see or speak with LePrince, he must be considered until ruled out.

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Hello Regi,

This is part of what I gleaned from Lizzie's memoirs and what was stated in a letter from Albert's daughter Marie to Leprince's daughter Marielle (Marie).

According to Marie's letter, "He spent with us three days. He looked quite well, and was so kind as to give us some lessons of English." She goes on to say, "Unfortunately, Papa was very busy these days and could not speak to him as much as he wished to do." Later, "He departed on Friday morning, 16th of September,intending to pass by Paris and embark in England. Since that, we had no letter and knew by Mr. John Whitley (Leprince's father-in-law) that he was neither in England nor in America; I see Papa is unquiet and sad, but I hope like you, my dear, you shall soon be together and happy".

Lizzie's memoirs go on to say: "On the day fixed for his leaving Dijon, his brother, a well known architect of that city, was called away and detained by a professional appointment, and to see him again my husband had to change his plan and leave by a later train.

All the family went to the station with him; he was in good spirits, and while waiting for the train laughingly showed his nieces the little trinkets he had purchased for his daughters as souvenirs of Paris.

In Paris, the Wilsons had made preparations for leaving France by the night boat for England, and continue their journey supposing the had been unexpectedly detained. "

So, you see that he did not arrive in Paris when his friends, the Wilsons, expected him. Because they had already bought tickets back to England for a specified voyage, they left without him. Everyone simply assumed that he was detained and would be along later. It was several weeks before anyone realized he was missing. It also appears that not only Albert, but his wife and young daughters accompanied him to the station.

Now, back to the photograph. As i stated before, not only does it bear a strong resemblance to him, it was taken of a man who was pulled out of the Seine the day Leprince arrived in Paris. I don't know what difference what he was wearing would have made. i know he wasn't carrying his driver's license in his wallet! Also, remember, no one was looking at foul play at this time. It was a missing person's report with the assumption that he was still alive.

Elsewhere in Lizzie's memoirs she states that when she examined the dossier of the search some six years after she reported him missing, the photograph of Leprince that was given Scotland Yard and the Paris "Bureau des Recherches Pour Familles" was a poor likeness and the account of his disappearance "meager". They had not, in fact, done much searching for him. She further discovered the M. Dougan, who had charge of the case.was no longer employed with the Bureau and his whereabouts were unknown. She also came upon several other stumbling blocks that seemed to indicate that far from "making an exhaustive search", neither Scotland Yard, nor the Paris Bureau had much interest in pursuing this case.

I know it is tempting to believe Albert or Edison had something to do with the disappearance (this is why I am speculating the Adolphe/Fernand scenario). However, there is no basis for their involvement. Just because no one saw him get off the train at Paris does it make Albert a suspect as apparently there were many witnesses to see him get on the train at Dijon.

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