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A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures

by Edward Ball

Pub Date: Jan. 22nd, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-385-52575-6
Publisher: Doubleday

National Book Award winner Ball (Writing/Yale Univ.; The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA, 2007, etc.) returns with a complex story about railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and the murdering man who for a time was his protégé, pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Muybridge, as he writes, altered the spelling of his name about as often as a bored high school student. He sometimes went by “Helios.” (One name he didn’t use, but would have fit, was Edweird.) Ball fractures conventional chronology like a dry twig, rearranging the pieces into an appealing display. He begins on January 16, 1880, the day that Muybridge first displayed for Stanford and his guests the moving pictures of a running horse on a device Muybridge called a zoogyroscope, a device that projected images on a revolving disc. Ball tells the stories of Stanford (who rose from grocer to railroad magnate), the multiple careers of Muybridge, the technology of moving images—and, of course, the murder. Muybridge married Flora Downs in 1870, but his photography business took him away for lengthy periods, and Flora, back home, had needs—which she satisfied with Harry Larkyns (whose story Ball also relates), a handsome womanizer whom the jealous husband shot in 1874. Muybridge went on trial, but a sympathetic jury found him not guilty—despite witnesses and his confession. Ball charts Muybridge’s subsequent return to favor with Stanford, who hired him to photograph his new San Francisco mansion and who endowed his research into the science of the motion picture. But they eventually fell out (two large egos), and Muybridge tumbled into obscurity after Thomas Edison’s technology eclipsed his own.

A skillfully written tale of technology and wealth, celebrity and murder and the nativity of today’s dominant art and entertainment medium.