Music: The killer who shot the flying horse
Free Press Music Columnist
With the announcement this week that Paramount will no longer distribute its motion pictures on celluloid, many folks are writing film’s obituary.
At this historic moment, Craven finds himself looking back to the medium’s earliest days. In particular, he’s been thinking a lot about the inventor and artist who pioneered motion pictures more than 130 years ago, a daredevil who sent shock waves through the worlds of art and science, who grappled with mental illness — and who admitted to shooting another man dead in cold blood and got away with it.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the railroad magnate (and racing enthusiast) Leland Stanford sought to prove his belief that horses do indeed lift all four legs off the ground simultaneously when they run. This had been a subject of debate for decades, not just among zoologists but also among artists.
Painters had for years depicted the galloping horse in what had come to be known as “the hobby horse” position — with its front hooves extended in front of it, and its back hooves trailing behind its torso. Some had already realized such a gait is anatomically impossible, but there was still heated argument over whether something as big as a horse could be momentarily suspended in the air without direct support.
Stanford (who, some years later, founded the university which still bears his name) believed it was possible, and in 1872 he hired a tall, eccentric photographer to prove it. The man born as Edward James Muggeridge had changed his name many times before finally settling on “Edweard Muybridge,” and had already lived a wild life by the time his path crossed Stanford’s.
In 1860, at the age of 30, Muybridge (then a bookseller) had been nearly killed in a stagecoach accident in Texas, in which he was ejected from the coach and struck his head on a rock. Those who knew him said Muybridge was never the same after his accident. In the 12 years since then, Muybridge had changed his career to photographer and established a reputation as a volatile, odd man who risked his life without a thought to secure breathtaking nature photographs in the still undeveloped wilderness areas of Yosemite, Calif., and Alaska.
While Muybridge was conducting photographic studies for Stanford, his private life was in turmoil. The same year he was employed by Stanford, he married a woman half his age, who promptly bore him a son. But Muybridge became convinced the boy wasn’t his, and soon discovered his wife had been conducting an affair with a drama critic named Major Harry Larkyns. In 1874, he walked up to Larkyns’ house, and introduced himself thusly: “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife.” He then pulled out a pistol and shot Larkyns dead.
Muybridge admitted to authorities that he shot the critic, but plead not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury in the trial dismissed the insanity plea, but found Muybridge not guilty anyway, deciding the murder was “justifiable homicide.”
Four years later, Muybridge set up a long row of 12 still cameras, each one triggered by a wire that ran across a racetrack, and proved that horses do indeed “fly” for a brief moment when trotting or galloping. In so doing, the admitted killer helped create a new medium which would entertain and educate people for almost a century and a half.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.
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