Thursday, July 3, 2014

The strange life of Eadweard Muybridge

Today, I had intended to discuss the birth of movies in the 1890's.

I intended to start with the discovery that one could trick the eye into seeing motion from still pictures with the use of a phenakistoscope first developed in the early 1800's. (The sample is one of Eadweard Muybridge's from the Victorian age).

Eadweard Muybridge is credited with making the first movie. His efforts began in 1873 and culminated in 1878. He had a horse and it's rider run a track set up with trip wires, so that as the horse progressed, it would trigger a line of cameras to take a picture.

The poor horse had to snag wires 24 times in a distance of 20. That means every 21 inches  the horse hit another wire.

I feel bad for the horse and it's ankles.

But my main issue was with the guy's name. Eadweard Muybridge?  Seriously?  So I wander off to find out more about Eadweard the weird and decided to do a blog about him instead of focusing on movies.

Let's begin with his birth name:
Edward Muggeridge.

While the last name sounds like something out Harry Potter, at least Edward is spelled properly. 

But noooooooo says the strange thinking Eadweard. The proper spelling of his name should be Eadweard Muybridge and so he changed his name. But WHY would he do that?

Normal Edward emigrated to America when he was 25. By 1860 he was a successful bookseller in San Francisco. Wanting to acquire some books in England, he left his brother in charge of the store and intended to sail to England from a local port. Only he missed the boat, and instead got on a stage coach, intending to travel the entire away across the country and catch a boat to England from there.

This might be the original source of the saying:

His stage coach crashed in central Texas and Edward was thrown from the vehicle and his frontal lobe struck a rock. He was taken 150 miles to Fort Smith, Arkansas for medical care and remained for three months recuperating. He suffered from headaches, double vision. diminished taste and smell, and he had 'confused thinking'. Once well enough to travel, he continued to New York City where he continued recuperation for another year, before he felt well enough to return home to England.

The man who returned to England was a very different man than the son who left. As part of his recuperation efforts in England, he took up photography, which he excelled at. Soon he had secured two British patents related to his new work.

In 1867, Eadweard returned to America to photograph the Yosemite Valley. He now called himself Eadweard Muybridge, insisting that was how his ancestors spelled it.  A year later, he traveled to Alaska to photograph there. His works were well received.

In 1872, the governor of California, Leland Stanford, asked his help to settle an argument as to whether a trotting or galloping horse ever had all its legs off the ground at once. He captured a single negative of the horse with all feet off the ground proving Stanford correct. The Governor encouraged him (evidently with funding) to continue his efforts.

Riding high, Eadweard met a 21 year old divorcee (half his age) and married her.  Then he goes back to work and, I suspect, ignored her.

1873 he is credited with his first example of pictures-in-motion.

But then he learns his lovely wife, Flora, is pregnant and upon discovering a love letter from Major Harry Larkins, concludes the baby will not be his. He hunts down Larkins in Calistoga, introduces himself, "Good evening, Major. My name is Muybridge and here's the answer to the letter you sent my wife." 

He then shoots the man dead and makes no attempt to flee. When he's arrested and charged with murder, his friend, the governor arranges for his defense...and perhaps more.

His defense attorney insisted Muybridge was not sane at the time of the murder due to the coach injuries he'd incurred years before. But when Muybridge takes the stand, he counters he was as sane as any man and knew exactly what he was doing.

The jury dismissed the insanity claim, but also disregarded the Judge's instructions, and acquitted Muybridge on 'justifiable homicide'.

Jury tampering? Or did the male jurers simply believe that a man has a right to protect what is his?

Legally, Muybridge should have been found guilty of murder. But instead he was a free man. To get away from the press and outraged public, he went to Central America in what he called a 'working exile'.

While he was away, his wife tried to divorce him, but the first attempt was denied. Her second time, no doubt with a better lawyer, succeeded and she even got alimony. Unfortunately, three months later she became ill and died.

Poison? I wonder. Yes, Muybridge was off in Central America, but could someone else with connections have arranged for the death and a doctor to declared it a natural death. Who among his friends would have such power?????

Flora had placed her son, Florado, with a French couple, but somehow he ended up in a Catholic orphanage.

When Eadweard returned from Central America, he pulled his son from the Catholic orphanage and put him in a Protestant orphanage instead. And then had nothing more to do with the boy. Clearly Eadweard didn't believe the Florada was his. Even his name says as much. "You are all your mother and none of me."

Eadweard resumed his work with Stanford and in 1878, created the following motion picture.

His fame increased and he began traveling back & forth to England, giving speeches to sold out crowds.

Evidently, that didn't suit the governor, because he asked a horse expert, Stillman, to write a book based on Eadweard's film, failing to give Eadweard credit for his work. Later someone suggested perhaps the governor only thought of Eadweard as a hired hand. But given all the assistance he had previously received from the governor, I don't think that was true. The governor was upset with Eadmeand for some reason.

Perhaps he had failed to be properly grateful for all the help the governor had provided during his murder trial?

When Stillman's book was published, Britian's Royal Society of Arts, which had offered to fund Eadweard's future work, withdrew their support, believing Eadward had plagiarized the work of Stillman.

This prompted Eadweard to bring a suit against the Governor to gain credit for his work.  Not surprisingly, given the power of Stanford, the suit was dismissed out of hand.

However, Stillman's book did not sell very well, while Eadweard found funding elsewhere. Eventually, the Britian's Royal Society of Arts, recanted their accusation of plagiarism and invited him back to show his work.

I wonder if Eadweard found it hard to return after being treated so unfairly, or if he figured he was due bad karma after killing a man.

However, he evidently knew to give Stanford wide berth. When he returned to America, he stayed on the East Coast far away from his former friend and supporter. His new supporter was the University of Pennsylvania.

As for his legal son, Florado, the boy was put to work on a ranch where he remained becoming  a ranch hand and gardener. He's said to physically resemble Eadweard a great deal.

Honestly, Florado was probably better off without his parents. Neither seemed to have the makings of good people.


  1. Thanks for that, Liza. As an ex-photographer and film maker I knew about the chap, but not in such depth. :)

    1. Nor I, until his bizarre name got me curious about the fellow and I went diving into his life. He was supposed to be one line entry into movie making. Instead, he became the story.

  2. What an interesting story. The wonder I have is about his mental capacity after the head injury. I know that my mom had brain damage to her frontal lobe and eventually had hysteria and paranoia. I can't imagine this man was really in his right mind.

    1. Anyone who would change his name to Eadweard Muybridge is NOT sane.

  3. As they say, the truth is stranger than fiction. Great story - sounds like a tabloid headline ;) Tweeted.

    1. I believe it was tabloid fodder at the time.

  4. You always know the most interesting stuff!

    1. I don't normally expect this much drama from inventors.

  5. Crazy! This is a perfect example of what a knock to the head can do to you as well as how close insanity and genius fall together! Fascinating post.

  6. THanks Toni. It certainly distracted me from my original task.


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