A head injury, a murder and an insanity plea connect a pioneer of motion photography to early Fort Smith
On July 19, 1860, the eastbound Overland stage from San Francisco, in the 17th day of its journey, departed Ridley's Station in the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, after sundown to make a dash to Fort Smith.
Ridley's, or Mountain Station as it was also called, was located about 10 miles southeast of Wilburton, Okla., approximately 70 miles from Fort Smith. The stagecoach carried seven passengers, a driver and Mr. Stout, an employee of the Overland Co. As the horses came to the brow of a mountain, the driver applied the brakes and found he had none. Out of control, the stagecoach plunged downhill, left the road and struck a large tree, disintegrating the wooden coach on impact. A drover named McKay, returning home to Cassville, Mo., died at the scene. Everyone else aboard was seriously injured. It is not recorded how long the injured waited for help to arrive.
Three days later, the eight survivors arrived in Fort Smith at 10:30 a.m., according to a New York Times article. The newspaper story said it had received the information via the new telegraph line that had begun operating just a few days before from an office on North 2nd Street.
Mr. Stout was suffering from internal injuries, a severe cut on his face and his nose was flattened. Other passengers, after being attended by local doctors, would wait at John Rogers’ hotel for the next stage. One passenger had been unconscious since the moment of the accident.
The unconscious man is the focus of this story. Assuming he had talked with his fellow passengers, they might have been able to tell the doctor that he was a 30-year-old Englishman who operated a successful book store in San Francisco.
Though he was born Edward James Muggeridge, by 1860 he was calling himself Edward Muygridge. Having missed a boat in San Francisco, Muygridge chose to make a 25-day stagecoach trip across the country to New York. His intention was to return to England to purchase antiquarian books, which sold well on the West Coast.
It is not known how many days Muygridge lay unconscious in Fort Smith. But he later said he woke up with no memory of the accident, suffering from confusion and double vision and continued to suffer spells or seizures for a long time.
A fellow passenger related that just before the stagecoach struck the tree, Muygridge had pulled out his pocketknife and was attempting to cut open the canvas covering the rear of the stage in order to make his escape. When the stagecoach struck the tree, it threw Muygridge headlong into a large boulder, resulting in a small cut on the top of his head.
It is thought that Muygridge remained in Fort Smith for three months before he was able to travel to St. Louis for more medical treatment. From there, he took a train to New York where a prominent doctor told him he was permanently injured.
Muygridge returned to England where Sir William Gull, the queen's personal physician, attended him. Not much is known about the next five years of his life.
A new name, a new trade - photography
In 1866, Muygridge returned to San Francisco and took up photography under another new name, Eadweard J. Muybridge. His first success was photographing the grand mansions going up in San Francisco. At that time, he adopted yet another name, Helios, and fashioned a mobile photography wagon he christened the Flying Studio.
In 1867, he drove the Flying Studio into the Yosemite Valley, taking a series of photographs that would illustrate an 1868 book titled Yosemite: Its Wonders and Its Beauties. It was his first taste of fame, but more would come. He was proclaimed to be the nation's leading photographer of scenic spaces, lighthouses and military installations.
The 1860 stagecoach wreck and the unconscious stranger brought to Fort Smith probably wouldn't be remembered today except for three things that would happen in the life of Muybridge.
A marriage and a famous wager
In 1872, at the age of 42, he married a recently divorced 21-year-old woman named Flora Stone. The same year, former California Gov. Leland Stanford, whose first love was horses, got into an argument with another rich member of the horsey set over the way horses propel themselves down a racetrack. Stanford bet his friend $25,000 that a horse will, at some point during a trot or gallop, have all four feet off the ground. He turned to his photographer friend, Muybridge, to figure out how to prove his point and win the bet.
After much experimentation and with a pile of Stanford's money, Muybridge set up a series of 12 cameras fitted with fast lenses of his own invention. In May 1872, he photographed Stanford's horse, Occident, trotting past the bank of cameras. The horse’s chest broke thin strings stretched across the track, which tripped the cameras’ shutters.
These first 12, rather crude images proved a horse does, indeed, lift all four feet off the ground as it runs. Stanford won his bet and a seed for a new kind of motion photography was planted in the mind of Muybridge.
A shocking murder
The third event in his life and the reason his small connection to Fort Smith is remembered today is because in 1874, Muybridge murdered handsome Harry Larkyns, his wife's lover and possibly the father of the child she was carrying.
A maid had shown him love letters between his wife and Larkyns and a photograph of his newborn son with the inscription “Little Harry” written on the back in his wife's handwriting.
Muybridge located Larkyns at a mining camp outside Calistoga, Calif. He greeted Larkyns by saying, “Good evening, Major. My name is Muybridge. Here is the answer to the message you sent my wife.” He then shot Larkyns dead, turned over his weapon to the men in the mine shack and calmly awaited his fate.
He was held in a Napa jail for three months until trial in February 1875. His lawyers at first attempted to use the 1860 stagecoach accident as proof in an insanity plea. For several days, Muybridge recalled that event and his stay in Fort Smith as friends testified he was a different person after the accident – nervous, moody, prone to odd ideas and instant rages. In the end, the insanity plea was dropped but Muybridge was acquitted due to the abundant evidence of Larkyns’ guilt in seducing Flora, who died a fallen woman later that year at 24.
After his acquittal, Muybridge took a long tour photographing South America. He returned to the States and continued his experiments in motion photography, making many studies of animals in motion. He toured major cities, giving demonstrations with a primitive projector of his own design he named a Zoopraxiscope.
Today, Thomas Edison is known as the Father of Motion Pictures, but because of Eadweard Muybridge’s earlier work on motion photography, he's known as a Godfather of Motion Pictures.
Muybridge left the United States in 1894 and died in the city of his birth, Kingston upon Thames, on May 8, 1904.
Contributing writer Joe Wasson is an avid researcher of Fort Smith history who most recently wrote the information and gathered the images for 12 new historical plaques and related videos installed in downtown Fort Smith.