In January 1896, the Lumière Brothers premiered their film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, known in the United States as Train Pulling Into a Station, a groundbreaking 50-second silent film. It’s become film legend that at the screening, the audience was so overwhelmed by the moving image of a life-sized train coming directly at them that people screamed and ran to the back of the room. But in fact, there had only been one horrified audience member: James Taft, an American businessman on vacation in Paris, so frightened by the footage of the train that he’d wailed in abject terror and shrieked, “God save me, I beg for mercy and entry to heaven,” as he ran away from the screen while the other moviegoers howled laughter at him.
“Says here in the Arts section you were scared like a child at that movie,” James’s business partner, Samuel Pep, said the following morning in the office. “Says you embarrassed yourself heartily and have become a laughingstock all across France. Le Bébé Américain they call you. The American Baby.”
“No,” James said, “that’s a mistake. That’s not true.” He was tired from the transatlantic voyage and wanted to put that terrible night behind him. “Let us get on with our work.”
“Says here you brought great shame to all of America. Made the nation look weak. Seems you’ve given the French fuel for their condescension.”
“I assure you,” James said sternly, “that report is a sensationalist fabrication. I am not afraid of movies and I am not afraid of trains. Give me that stack of mail and let me get on with my day processing orders.”
“Those aren’t orders, they’re cancellations. I arrived this morning to a pile of post from loyal customers cancelling their accounts. No one wants to do business with Le Bébé Américain.”
James balled his hand and pounded it on his desk. “It’s libel, god damn it.”
“Seventy-nine witnesses all confirmed what they saw: you, crying and apologizing to God for your many sins.”
James glared out the window of his immaculate office, looking down at the filthy street beneath him, pocked with rats and tramps. He knew that if he lost his customers, he’d be begging for pennies in those awful alleys. “I’m no coward,” he said. “And I’ll prove it. The train from St. Louis arrives at ten. Meet me at the station.”
Taft stood on the tracks at Union Station, facing forward with his knees bent like a boxer. Seven hundred spectators had gathered to watch the international embarrassment redeem himself and, by proxy, all of America.
Steam rose over the hill and the crowd cheered. The horn blared, the earth rumbled.
“Stop,” Samuel Pep called from the platform. “This is a real train. In France you saw a motion picture.”
“Shut up,” Taft said as the locomotive’s mean black grill rounded the bend and charged towards him. “I was there and you were not. None of you were there in that cinema. This is what it looked like. This here is a cinema and this is a motion picture and I am not afraid.”
“Get off the tracks,” Pep begged while the crowd cheered the thundering train.
Taft shook his head and smiled, staring forward. “I love movies,” he said. “I love the cinema and I am not afraid of it. I know the difference between real life and the magic of the silver scree–“
The two-hundred-ton train plowed into James Taft, grinding his bones and veins and intestines into a gruesome red paste.
Le Petit Parisien ran Taft’s obituary on its front page, under the headline La Crêpe Américaine, The American Crepe. They said the world’s first cinephile had been violently slaughtered by a train in Chicago. But they confirmed, based on the testimonies of hundreds of eye-witnesses, that he’d died a brave and courageous death.