1. The Train (September 16, 1890) THE TRAIN September 16, 1890
The train to Paris, which had been expected at 2:37 p.m., pulled in five minutes behind schedule.
Albert Le Prince didn’t see his younger brother, Louis, very often anymore. Louis had moved away from France over twenty years ago—and if that wasn’t enough, lately he had been consumed by his work on a mysterious moving picture machine. Now Louis had come to visit, delighting Albert’s four children. The children were still grieving their mother, who had died just three and a half years earlier, a week before her thirty-eighth birthday. Louis had a way with young people. He took them—three girls and one, the youngest, a boy—on long walks through the parks of Dijon, enchanting them with descriptions of New York City, where his wife and children lived—the restless metropolis that was growing bigger day by day, overtaking London as the largest city in the world; a city of mansions built by bankers hoarding their fortunes and of tenements bursting with immigrants seeking their own; a city Thomas Edison had spent the last decade filling with electrical light. Dijon, by comparison, seemed tame, so provincial it may as well have existed in a different reality. He told them stories of his own five children, all about the same ages as their cousins, who were waiting for him in that city. On evenings when Albert was detained at work, Louis sat with them at home, entertaining them and giving them English lessons, correcting their pronunciation and suggesting books for them to read. His lists of recommendations were endless, from fiction to textbooks. Uncle Louis had a curiosity about the world, about the way things worked, about chemistry and engineering and art. He shared that curiosity with them as if it grew more bountiful for being spread around, and it did. Marie, writing later of spending time with her uncle, described it as a delight.1
The visit, however, was brief: three days. It would be Louis’s last for the foreseeable future. His moving picture device, Louis confided to Albert, was all but finished. As soon as he was back in Leeds, in the north of England, where he had been working on the invention, he would return to the United States with it, this time for good. His assistants in Leeds had packed up the machines in special padded traveling cases; his wife had rented a historic mansion in uptown Manhattan, as a venue from which to unveil to the world this most modern of inventions. Nearly all the arrangements had already been made.
Louis and Albert were less comfortable together than Louis was with his nieces and nephew. When the middle-aged brothers spoke—“not,” Marie wrote of her father, “as much as he wished to do”2
—the conversation was often about money, of which neither brother had much at hand, Louis having spent the best part of a decade experimenting in animated photography, Albert adapting to life as a widower and single father. Louis was sure the motion picture device would change all of this. It was the kind of creation, according to him, that could alter the course of humankind. Imagine being able to experience the life of a person from the opposite side of the planet: to see how he existed, and to understand the rhythms of his world. Imagine doing so not through the pages of a book, but as if you had been transported instantly into that faraway place, and it existed vividly in front of your eyes, with all its sights and sounds. Imagine such a tool being used in education, entertainment, science, and diplomacy. Was that not certain to revolutionize the human experience, as drastically as the railroad and telephone had?
Louis spoke of these possibilities often. He believed in them with a fire he had never felt for anything else.
Albert—older, more levelheaded; a man who made money constructing necessary buildings—may have had his doubts.
The weekend passed; Monday arrived. On Tuesday the sixteenth, a sweltering day, Louis awaited the afternoon express back to Paris, from where he would make his way—via Brittany, London, Leeds, and Liverpool—back to America.
Later, after it had become clear that September 16, 1890, was one of the defining days of his life, Albert traced the steps he had taken that Tuesday. He replayed every word said and every gesture made. He told his sister-in-law—Louis’s wife—about walking him to the platform, and, he said, told the police every detail as well.
The train station at Dijon was less than a kilometer away from Albert’s home on rue Berbisey in the city center, a strip of elegant white stone town houses belonging to the city’s merchants and politicians. Albert’s was one of the smaller, more modest buildings, its ground-floor windows opening right out to the sidewalk.
Under a kilometer, from there to the station: fifteen minutes by foot, substantially less by horse-drawn carriage, past the twin towers and central spire of the gothic Cathédrale Sainte-Bénigne rising over the town. It was just after midday and the streets were busy. Until the railway had come to the city in the 1850s, Dijon had been on the decline: long home to royalty and nobility, seat of the influential fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Duchy of Burgundy, much of it was destroyed in 1789 by revolutionaries and rioters. For sixty years its infrastructure sat unrenewed, its streets grew filthy, swaths of its surrounding countryside wasted away unused. Dijon was, Victor Hugo wrote in 1839, “melancholy and sweet,”3
proud but lethargic, gallant but impoverished.
Then the steam train came, connecting Dijon to Paris to the north and Marseille to the south and to dozens of towns and hamlets in between. Now, from the beating heart of the terminal in the center of town, tracks branched out in all directions like arteries, pumping life into the municipality. The streets around the depot filled with shops and restaurants, and suburbs spread outside the city’s ancient walls to accommodate a growing population. This was Dijon as Louis and Albert saw it that day: vibrant and entrepreneurial, fast urbanizing and industrializing.
Louis, Albert, and Albert’s children arrived at the paved forecourt outside the train station. Le Prince originally intended to travel on the morning train, but after Albert was detained by a professional appointment, Louis had chosen to wait so he could properly say his goodbyes. As Albert later related it, they had reconvened at midday, settling the matters they had not managed to discuss in the previous three days, mostly about a family inheritance to be divided between the two of them; and then “all the family went to the station with [Louis]; 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.”4
Louis was meeting friends in Paris, with whom he would sail back to England, by night ferry to Britain’s southern coast, then by rail to Leeds. It was Tuesday; by Friday Louis Le Prince planned to be aboard a steamer pulling out of Liverpool with its bow aimed at New York.
As the locomotive pulled in, they made their goodbyes. If Louis’s embrace with his brother was particularly effusive—or, on the contrary, unusually restrained—Albert did not record it in any retellings of the day. Louis collected his luggage and boarded the train. Albert later said he had seen him do so. His daughter, twenty-one-year-old Marie, confirmed it.
In Paris, Mr. Richard Wilson, banker of Leeds, Yorkshire, and his wife waited for Louis Le Prince.
Wilson and Le Prince had been friends for nearly twenty years. They were members of the same institutions, Richard was Louis’s banker, and he owned several pieces of Louis’s art. They had traveled to France together and then gone their separate ways: Richard and his wife to sightsee, Louis to meet his brother in Dijon. They had agreed to meet again in Paris for the journey back to England.
But Louis did not appear.
At some point that night or the next day, unable or unwilling to delay their return home any longer, the Wilsons made their own way back to Calais. Wilson did not appear to feel undue concern. Perhaps he assumed Louis had decided to stay in Dijon a little longer, whether by choice or by obligation. Le Prince was usually a courteous man, and while he could have used either the telegraph or one of the new telephones, by now installed in every French rail station, to give Wilson advance warning of this change of plans, it wasn’t uncommon, in those early days of long-distance communication, for this sort of thing to happen. Someone was delayed, something unforeseen had come up, you would simply see them a few days later than expected.
So the Wilsons boarded the ferry alone, presuming Louis was still with Albert in Burgundy. It would be weeks before anyone realized Louis Le Prince was, in fact, gone. Somehow, somewhere between Dijon and Paris, he had vanished.