A Mysterious Train Ride to Eternity

Louis Le Prince became known as the grandfather of motion pictures. No one forgets the day he vanished off the earth.
Louis Le Prince became known as the grandfather of motion pictures. No one forgets the day he vanished off the earth.

MADAM MADELIENE LEFARGE glanced down at her funny little boy, Pierre. “Look, Pierre! Wave to Papa…”

Little Pierre’s eyes scanned the small gathering outside the velvet-framed window of their railway coach. He saw his grandfather and began hopping up and down. His stubby fingers wiggled and tried to wave. The man outside smiled broadly and waved back.

Madam LeFarge was a widow. Her husband had been killed in a military accident almost two years before. On this day, September 16, 1890, Madeliene and her young son were traveling from Dijon to Paris to visit a female relative for a fortnight, see some sights, and do some shopping. She was trying to make herself emerge from her bubble of grief. She situated her small valise as the train began to slowly roll, and watched as her father turned and walked slowly back to the station.

The young mother and her son had been so occupied with waving out the window that she had not noticed the man that had come to sit across the aisle from them. She noticed him now. He was nicely attired in a dark frock coat, cravat, and striped flannel trousers. Little Pierre bobbed forward and seemed to make a thorough inspection of the man, this interloper. The man could not prevent himself from smiling, almost laughing at this. He then made eye contact with the beautiful Madam LeFarge, tipped his hat and nodded.

On the journey to Paris, the man across the aisle read a Paris newspaper and seemed to occasionally make notes in a journal or account book. Madeliene tried to keep little Pierre occupied and quiet. She was grateful when he nodded off and finished the rest of the journey in dreamland. The rocking of the train was a catalyst, no doubt.

Madam LeFarge and her son enjoyed their visit with Aunt Francine. They returned to her father’s home where they now lived and she thought no more of their short adventure. She thought no more of it until some police detectives appeared at the door one day. Madeliene’s father invited them inside.

“Pardon me, are you Madeliene LeFarge?”

“Yes.” She felt herself going faint. “What are you calling about? May I ask?”

They did not answer her question, but instead asked another. “Did you travel by train from Dijon to Paris on September 16th? Do you recall?”

“September? Yes, I did. My young son was with me. We were visiting a relative. I may still have a remnant of my ticket.”

“This is very important, Madam. Do you remember a man sitting nearby you on the train? He was probably traveling by himself. He was a nice-enough looking fellow, age forty-nine. He had a rather full moustache—do you recall?”

She tried to visualize that day in her memory. “Yes, there was such a man across the aisle. My little boy, Pierre, found him something to stare at—but the man accepted this with good nature.”

One of the detectives showed her a photograph. “Is this the man? Can you remember?”

She took the photograph in her hand. “Yes, I believe this could be the man. May I ask what he has done?” Madeliene’s father stood off to the side. A scowl was forming on his face.

They did not answer. Again, they asked another question, instead. “Did he seem have a conversation with anyone?”

“No.”

“Did he seem to be sad, morose, or in a bad humor?”

“No. Not in any way.”

“As he was leaving the coach did you see him meet with anyone?”

“No. I was not focused on his activities, but I did not notice him talking with or meeting with anyone at all.”

The detectives left, almost in a puff of smoke it seemed. They did not explain themselves and they returned to question her on two more occasions. Her father could not hide his irritation at the intrusions. They had no idea why they were being intruded upon. They decided to keep their eyes on newspaper articles to see if they could figure it all out. At first there was nothing. Little by little tiny snippets began to appear. The snippets grew in size and began their gradual march to the front page.

Finally, there was a general appeal for public assistance. There was the same photograph of the man and he now had a name, Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince. He had vanished off the face of the earth and he had vanished on the very day of the train ride. He was a man of much promise: a chemist, an engineer, and an inventor. He was in a bad financial slump, it was true, but it was almost predictable that that situation would soon reverse. In fact he had a chance of making millions and he had good reason to know this.

The more Madeliene and her father read, the more they learned about Louis Le Prince. He was a Frenchman who also worked in the United Kingdom and the United States. In 1888 he had done some extraordinary work in Leeds, Yorkshire by filming moving picture sequences. They became known by the names, Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge.

Unveiling of Louis Le Prince tablet. The first ever reel of moving film.
Unveiling of Louis Le Prince tablet. The first ever reel of moving film.

On the day he disappeared, Le Prince had been to visit his brother in Dijon. He would soon be going to England to patent a new camera, then on to America to promote it, but he was working on several camera inventions at the time. No one saw him after he was seen boarding the Dijon-Paris Express.

Scotland Yard and the French police came up with four theories for his disappearance: 1) he committed the perfect suicide, shamed by his financial state, 2) he was assassinated by someone due to competition and patent wars over his many inventions, 3) his disappearance was ordered by his family due to embarrassment over financial troubles—he was asked to disappear without a trace and possibly he did, 4) a family member killed him to somehow get money.

Le Prince and his wife had earlier started their own school for applied art in Leeds and were well-known experts on fixing color photography on metal and pottery. They had been commissioned to do portraits of William Gladstone and Queen Victoria. Later, Louis invented and developed several different types of cameras including some that would take animated and motion pictures as early as 1886.

Many historians of film consider him the actual father of moving pictures.   Some film fans say his work preceded that of Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers by seven years. They never found Le Prince’s body, or, his luggage. Someone rooting around in Paris police archives in 2003 did find the photograph of a drowning victim that had a resemblance to Louis, but that is all there ever was and his vanishing is still a big mystery. He was officially declared dead in 1897. His widow and his son, Adolphe worked for years to make sure he got credit for his inventions.

From time to time, years after her train ride, Madeliene LeFarge caught herself wondering about Louis Le Prince. It haunted her. Would they ever discover what happened to the poor man? And she wondered once again on the night she was thrilled by the cinematic performance of French actress,

Jeanne d’Alcy, in Georges Melies’s Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb. She attended a screening at Melies’s Theatre Robert Houdin on another trip to Paris in 1902 and viewed it along with the film A Trip to the Moon. It was the first time she had been able to view such a thing—the world of Monsieur Le Prince—moving pictures!

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of stories about the unknown and unexplained.

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