A notable event took place between the photographing of horse and house: a calculated, cold-blooded murder, perpetrated before a number of witnesses. Muybridge, convinced that he was being two-timed by his wife and that the son he thought his own was the child of a dapper ne’er-do-well, made his way to his cuckolder’s card table and shot a bullet into his heart. California being California, Muybridge got away with it. As Ball describes it:
“The Muybridge murder trial exhibited familiar parts — sex, betrayal, revenge — but a new element put them on everyone’s lips, the speed of the information. Daily reports from the courtroom went down the wires by telegraph, the story ricocheting around America not unlike the trains. . . . Stories were blazoned of the wild seducer . . . the beautiful and credulous wife . . . and the too-serious artist, Edward Muybridge. The admitted killer was sketched to be the saddest figure in the cast, a husband who paid the price for neglect.”
When Muybridge was acquitted, Stanford sought him out again. “Did the richest man in the West think twice before employing a killer?” Ball asks. “The Octopus [as the grasping Stanford was called] might have, had he lived somewhere else in America, but in California Muybridge’s social capital went up not down, after the trial. By the code of Western justice, the verdict of the individual and the law of the gun, Muybridge had avenged himself and . . . an atmosphere of dark supremacy hung around him. In summer 1876, Stanford hired the photographer again, with no regrets.”
The railroad tycoon, corrupt and filled with nothing so much as greed and untrammeled ambition, betrayed him a few years later, moving to lay claim on Muybridge’s invention by publishing his photographs with no credit whatsoever. In the end, Thomas Edison pulled a fast one on both of them. Then, as now, enterprising Americans in media or make-believe worlds — think Steve Jobs or Steven Spielberg — were fierce, unremitting competitors.
For all the natural attractions of this fascinating tale, Ball’s book is marred by his effort to stuff history into the sleeve of a detective story. What is most interesting about this book is hardly its trumped-up suspense. It is the making of an astonishing artist, the marvelous photographs that attest to his genius, the rousing good yarn — for all the stuttering chronology and authorial intrusions — at the nexus of industry and art. Maybe it’s time this faithful chronicler of discomfort got a little more comfortable with his storyline.
is a former editor of Book World. Her biography of South American liberator Simon Bolivar will be published this spring.