No this is not an article about JFK or MLK, but long before that. The speech that changed the world came in a California courtroom in 1875, by a man named William Wirt Pendergast. In an attempt to save one of the most historically significant photographers of all time from a murder conviction, Mr. Pendergast made a closing argument that would not only change a life but the generations that followed.
Sociology and technology as we know it today began in California in the middle to the end of the 19th century, and a most influential and peculiar photographer named Eadweard Muybridge what at the center of much of it. Muybridge’s life was littered with genus and tragedy. Never having much of a connection with other people he found a sense of validity and stability in photography. The scientific community made great bounds in studies of human an animal locomotion thanks to his life’s work, which can also be directly tied to the inception of the motion picture. But his most revolutionary achievements and the benefits we reap from them today almost never happened, as what was possibly the most calculated shot of his lifetime was with a Smith and Wesson No 2 revolver to another mans heart.
Born in Kingston upon Thames, England in 1830, Muybridge emigrated to San Fransico in the United States where he became at bookseller with his brother. In 1860 he suffered head trauma after hitting his head on a tree in a stagecoach accident while returning from a trip to England. It was around this time that Eaweard showed an interest in photography learning the wet-plate collodion process. It is unclear whether it was his trip to England or his effects of his accident that sparked his interest in photography.
He had various success in the field including several job for the US Government photographing the lighthouses of California, Railroads, and the Modoc Indian War. It was in 1868 that his pictures of the Yosemite Valley made him world famous. In 1872 an 43 year old Muybridge married Flora Shalcross Stone, 21. Early into the marriage she gained an Admirer (common at the time for women to have admirers) Major Harry Larkyns. Muybrdige thought Flora and Harry’s relationship was exceedingly inappropriate, and eventually sent Flora to live with her mother in Oregon in an attempt to stop the affair..
In 1872 Muybridge was approached by a former governor of the sate and entrepreneur Leland Stanford. Stanford went on to become one of ‘The Big Four’, the name given to the four business men responsible for building the Central Pacific Railroad. He also founded Stanford University in 1885. Muybridge was commissioned by Stanford (to settle a bet among friends) to develop a system for high speed photography, determining if at any point during a horses gallop all feet were off the ground, a common debate at horse races in the day. Paintings thought history had never depicted a horse fully aloft. It was the consensus that at least one of a horses legs was always on the ground even in full gallop, and at the speed of which a horses legs are moving while in full gallop, it was impossible tell with the naked eye.
Later that year Muybridge devised a successful system for instantaneous photography, with his results concluding that all four legs of a horse are off at the ground at a given point in its gallop. This breakthrough in the invention of instantaneous photography through him into an eve brighter spotlight, as well as put one of the most powerful men of the day in his corner.
Muybridge captured the world's first high speed photo 5 years before the famed George Eastman Kodak began the study of photography.
The Bastard Son & the Murder
One day in 1874 Muybridge went to visit his wife only to find that she wasn’t home. He found on her table a picture of their son Florado which he had never seen before. He picked up the photo and happened to turn it over. On the back was written “Little Harry”. Muybridge, enraged realizing his son was actually that of his wife’s lover, decided to halt the affair indefinitely. Muybridge boarded a train for an 80 mile journey Calistoga, California to confront the Major.
After dark on October 17th 1874, Muybridge made his way to a hotel at the Yellow Jacket Mine where Major Harry Larkyns was in the middle of a power game with some friends. He called for Larkyns and when he came to the door Muybridge remarked “Good evening Major. I have brought a message from my wife, take it.” Just as the last word came out of his mouth, he pulled out a Smith and Wesson No. 2 Six Shooter, shooting Larkyns through the heart, killing him. Muybridge was arrested and put to trial.
The Speech that Changed the World
It’s speculated that Leland Stanford paid for Muybridge’s lawyer Mr. Pendergast. Stanford surely saw Muybridge as an asset and possibly a friend. Muybridge plead “not guilty” due to insanity, blaming the head injury from a stagecoach accident. On the last day of the trial, Muybridge’s lawyer gave a closing argument to the jury that the San Francisco Chronicle (February 6, 1875) called: ‘… the most eloquent forensic efforts ever heard in the State.”
If there had to be a defining moment through all the chaos and highlights of Muybridge’s life that would make him or break him, I believe it was the closing argument by Mr. Pendergast to the Jury – the speech that changed the world.
“I cannot ask you to send this man forth to family and home—he has none . . . . But I do ask you to send him forth free—let him take up the thread of his broken life, and resume that profession on which his genius had shed so much luster—the profession which is now his only love. Let him go forth into the green fields, by the bright waters, through the beautiful valleys, and up and down the swelling coast, and in the active work of the magic of his art, he may gain ‘surcease of sorrow’ and pass on to his allotted end in comparative peace.”
“The peroration carried the audience away, and at the close they broke into a storm of applause…” San Francisco Chronicle (February 6, 1875). The jury shortly came back with a verdict of ‘not guilty, due to justifiable homicide’, which was not a option given to them as a verdict by the judge. Muybridged was released.
After the Trial
The University of Pennsylvania invited Muybridge to continue his research with their funds and facilities. Muybridge went on to dedicate the majority of his life to the study of human and animal locomotion through his photographic techniques and inventions. His life’s work provided knowledge for the scientific community in the field of kinesiology never before understood, and his development of high speed photography [and zoopraxiscope] enabled the first motion picture.
The impression left by Mr. Pendergast’s most powerful closing argument to those who heard it, seems to have to foreshadowed the impression Muybridge would leave on our modern world.
Modern photography, film & television; all of the inventions developed as a result of Muybridge’s work; the science & knowledge, the art & war that knowledge enabled; an ever-growing advancement of technology each compounded by the technology the preceded it, it’s incredible to think where we might be today if Muybridge had been imprisoned and his legacy stunted. In the words of another man most legendary in his field, American pianist George Winston:
“I like to be a good librarian… Our journeys [in life] are a lot shorter because somebody else did something, as long as they are they could be a lot longer if nobody else had done something to be a part of the information”
To learn more about Muybridge’s life and achievements, I recommend the book “River of Shadows” by Rebecca Solnit.