Ball went on to write three more books about race and scandal, although none really measured up to the first. “The Sweet Hell Inside” told the story of the Harleston family, a clan of high-living, “high-yellow” African Americans begotten by a white gentleman and his slave; “Peninsula of Lies” was about Dawn Langley Hall, a Charleston society matron who began life in England as a boy, married a black male mechanic and claimed to have birthed a baby girl; and, lastly, “The Genetic Strand,” which documented a hunt through Ball family DNA for evidence of black or Native American ancestors. Tricked out as suspense stories, these books were heavily researched, laden with information and weighed down by an irrepressible urge to leave no stone unturned, no side story untold.
Now, Ball turns his interest in history’s strange bedfellows to a commingling of a different kind. Drawing on his early career as a film and art critic, he gives us the remarkable story of the alliance between the eccentric inventor of the motion picture and the mogul who built the nation’s rails. It is a story that, for all its whirling parts and divagations, tells us a great deal about the crossroads of money and art in America.
Throughout life, Edward Muybridge — a.k.a. Eadweard, “Helios,” Ted Muggeridge, Muygridge or E.J. Muggridge — changed his name as often as a giddy teenager. He was born in Kingston, a suburb of London, in 1830, lived in the United States for half a century and returned to die on the very patch where he’d begun. In the interim, he singlehandedly transformed photography, established a technique for panorama, captured the glow of waterfalls on still film, parsed the movements of a racing horse and invented the zoopraxiscope: the first motion picture projector in history.
He was an odd man, entirely sui generis. “Solitary, peripatetic,” Ball writes, “Muybridge lived like a castaway, deracinated and drifting. . . . In New York, [he was] a salesman of books and art. After ten years, he would renounce this life and become an inventor, and after that an artist.” But a constant itch to redefine himself would be his rule. In time, he passed through many versions: murderer, fugitive, photographer of bizarre nudes and then — serendipitously — society’s golden boy, a celebrated, world-famous scientist. As mercurial as the time into which he was born, he would start in an era of carrier pigeons and end at the apex of the industrial age.