Louis Le Prince is well-known for being a key component in the invention of the early motion picture camera – with many people praising him as the “Father of Cinematography”.
But what many aren’t aware of is that Le Prince disappeared from a train in 1890, and was never seen again. A range of theories have been put forward as potential explanations for this.
This article takes a thorough look at this disappearance. At the end of the article, you’ll find a reader’s poll – which we invite you to vote on. This will give everyone an idea of the general feeling on which theory is the most accurate.
Le Prince was born in Metz, France, in 1841. After completing University, Le Prince moved to the United Kingdom. He soon began experimenting with photography.
Using his artistic skills, Le Prince was able to design a camera that used multiple lenses. The camera had flaws, but he attempted to improve it with a new design, which was lauded as being futuristic.
In 1888, Le Prince was granted a patent in the United States for a device which could perform as a motion picture camera and projector. Therefore, this acted in a similar, albeit less advanced, way to modern-day cinematography. Le Prince attempted to submit a similar patent in the United Kingdom.
In September 1890, Le Prince was due to exhibit his work at a public show in Manhattan, New York, United States. Just days prior to this, Le Prince disappeared.
Before heading out to the United States, Le Prince was visiting family in France. After doing so, he left on a train from Bourges to Paris, with his brother seeing him board the train.
However, when the train arrived in Paris, Le Prince was nowhere to be seen. A thorough search of the train did not find any clue of Le Prince’s whereabouts. He was soon reported as missing.
Le Prince was a rather high profile person, so the French Police – assisted by the British Police – contributed many resources in the effort to find him.
Interviews with family members and friends, searches of the train’s route and the areas around the tracks were all conducted. But there was no success.
Fingers were pointed in many directions. Le Prince was due to have his first public show imminently – so it was suspicious for many that he had suddenly disappeared.
But despite significant manpower and effort, there were never any signs of Le Prince. The Le Prince family contributed substantial money to the search, albeit to no avail.
As the weeks, months and then years passed by, hope slowly evaporated, resulting in the disappearance being unsolved, with the case going cold.
Le Prince was declared legally dead in 1897. It seemed a cruel fate for someone that made such great achievements to never have the adulation and admiration that they deserved.
However, in 2003, there was an unexpected update in the case, despite the trail being cold for over 100 years.
A photo from around the time of the disappearance emerged of a drowning person, who appeared to resemble Le Prince. The photo appeared in Police archives from France – but hasn’t been released to the public.
Sadly, the details are limited, but for some, it points towards the idea that Le Prince may have ended up in water at some point during the journey. Others have argued that the person in the photo was substantially shorter than Le Prince.
The world of cinema has progressed enormously in the years since Le Prince passed, with cinema and streaming services widespread. Inventor Thomas Edison was among those to pioneer its creation.
In Leeds, England, there is a plaque that commemorates his work. The plaque mentions that Le Prince filmed footage of a bridge in Leeds – which according to the plaque was “probably the world’s first successful moving pictures”.
Such is the nature of this disappearance, that there are numerous theories that have been put forward as an explanation for the event.
Now, we take a look at the evidence for these theories:
Theory One: Louis Le Prince took his own life
One theory is that Le Prince died by suicide. The rationale behind this is the speculation that Le Prince was on the verge of bankruptcy. In a desperate bid to escape his problems, Le Prince may have taken his own life.
It may not just have been financial problems, Le Prince could have feasibly been struggling with mental illness or another ailment that led him to consider taking his own life.
However, it is widely believed that Le Prince’s public display in New York would lead to him forming a lucrative business. This isn’t consistent with this theory – as he seemingly had much to live for.
This theory also begs the question over where his body is, and how he died – considering he was seen getting on the train, yet his body was not seen anywhere on the tracks or surrounding area.
But if it is correct, the body photographed in the water could feasibly have been that of Le Prince’s. If that photo is accurate, then this theory could be true.
Theory Two: Louis Le Prince was assassinated
A popular theory, under the circumstances, is that Le Prince was assassinated. Le Prince’s body could have been concealed by an assassin on the train, before being disposed of in a remote location out of sight.
It is known that at this time, there was significant competition to attain patents. Technology was advancing, and some of the best-known inventors were getting close to making a major breakthrough.
Therefore, Le Prince would be a threat to other inventors, including Thomas Edison. Some have theorised that Edison himself organised the assassination.
The timing of Le Prince’s disappearance – just before his important public show – would support this theory. It does seem logical that there was some form of foul play in this case.
Theory Three: The Le Prince family exiled Louis and he intentionally disappeared
Another theory revolves around the idea that the Le Prince family had exiled Louis, forcing him to go into hiding. The supposed reason was that Louis was homosexual.
There is no documented proof that Le Prince was homosexual – and most accounts say this is incorrect. But if it was true, such a thing was deemed unacceptable during the 1800s.
This theory has been criticised, but it is a possibility. It would explain why Le Prince was never seen again – as he may have chosen to live a quiet life, away from the spotlight.
However, it seems unlikely that a 49-year old man would kowtow to his family like this. He surely would have gone to New York anyway. Le Prince was also well-known by sight, which makes this theory more unlikely.
Moreover, the Le Prince family committed significant funds in the search to find him, which would be inconsistent with exiling him – weakening this theory.
Theory Four: Louis Le Prince was murdered by his brother
Another well-known theory suggests that Louis’ brother murdered Louis. Apparent motivations for this fratricide to have been committed include a fight over inheritance, jealousy, or other brotherly issues.
After all, Louis’ brother was the last person to see him alive. There is no certain proof that Le Prince definitely boarded the train. Could the brother have used this as a cover story?
It would certainly explain why Le Prince was never found – as the Police would have been looking in the wrong area.
But by most accounts, the Le Prince family were a close-knit unit. It isn’t known why Louis’ brother would commit such a heinous crime. But under the circumstances, this is a potential explanation for what happened.
Theory Five: Louis Le Prince was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time
One theory, put forward by Le Prince’s great-great-granddaughter Laurie Snyder, involves a rather logical situation, where Le Prince was tragically caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Le Prince is believed to have taken a train at a later time than expected. His compatriots that were expecting to meet him in Paris may have thought that Le Prince was not coming, after he didn’t appear on any of the earlier trains. They may have subsequently left.
If Le Prince did arrive later than expected, he may then have hailed a taxi to take him to his destination. It is possible that the taxi driver – taking advantage of the time of day and darkness – attacked Louis after taking him to a remote location.
The taxi driver may have done so to steal Louis’ belongings and money. There are articles from the late 1800s that suggest thieves were active in the area, and targeting those travelling alone. Sadly, Le Prince may have simply been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But Le Prince’s body was never found. He may have been thrown into the river – which would fit with the aforementioned photograph – but this still remains unlikely due to the size of the man in the photo. Overall though, it is a logical theory.
Having taken the above theories into consideration, you can vote on the theory that you believe is most accurate in the poll below:
It is unfortunate that Le Prince’s contributions to the world of cinema aren’t too well-known. Yet he has left behind a very strong legacy – as seen through the size of the media industry that he helped pioneer.
It is unknown what precisely happened to Le Prince. It is a shame that he vanished before his enormous talent could be entirely fulfilled.