Solving the Mystery of E. Leroy – ÉMILE LEROY, photographer in Mexico

Our latest Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson adventure started when Sherlock decided we were going to solve the mystery of E. Leroy, the author of an album composed of prints of landscapes and city views all over Mexico, such as Durango, Veracruz, Zacatecas, Guadalupe, Aguascalientes and many others.

Church of Guadalupe. Photo by the BNF.

Church of Guadalupe. Photo by the BNF.

A few years back a couple of albums signed by E. Leroy, dated around the 1860s, surfaced in the photo world. We only know of two copies in existence. One is at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris and the other was sold in auction in 2003 to a private bidder. A few other albums must have been tear apart as individual prints appear regularly on the market.

We know very little of Leroy except that he is said to have been a soldier with the French army during the Second French Intervention in Mexico between 1861 and 1867. This theory is supported firstly by the date on the title page, “Quelques vues du Mexique. 1864-67”.

Quelques vues du Mexique. 1864-67. Photo by the BNF.

Quelques vues du Mexique. 1864-67. Photo by the BNF.

Secondly by the appearance of French soldiers on at least five of the thirty-eight prints.

La Cruz, Querétaro. Photo by the BNF.

La Cruz, Querétaro. Photo by the BNF.

French soldier in La Cruz, Querétaro. Photo by the BNF.

French soldier in La Cruz, Querétaro. Photo by the BNF.

And lastly, by two images taken in two different cemeteries commemorating fallen soldiers with the epitaphs written in French dated 1864 and 1865.

Epitaph written in French for fallen soldiers in 1864. Arroyo Zarco, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

Epitaph written in French for fallen soldiers in 1864. Arroyo Zarco, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

Epitaph written in French for fallen soldiers in 1864. Arroyo Zarco, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

Epitaph written in French for fallen soldiers in 1864. Arroyo Zarco, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

Epitaph written in French for fallen soldiers in 1865. El Parral, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

Epitaph written in French for fallen soldiers in 1865. El Parral, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

Epitaph written in French for fallen soldiers in 1865.  El Parral, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

Epitaph written in French for fallen soldiers in 1865. El Parral, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

One more suggestion that the photographer was a soldier is shown by the techniques used to take the pictures. By the mid 1860s, Leroy was still using paper negatives, which were quite obsolete at the time. The reason for this is because they were lighter to carry than glass negatives while traveling long distances.

Using the evidence to conclude he was most likely a soldier, the next logical step to take was to visit The Historical Service of the Army archives at Château de Vincennes. There we would search all the E. Leroy’s we could find that might have gone to Mexico.

In the ten plus pages of Leroys and Le Roys, there were only nine whose name started with an E. That made our job quite easy.

E. Leroy

Names of E. Leroy’s on the army books found at Château de Vincennes.

To zero-in on the exact E. Leroy we were looking for, it was imperative to know which French Divisions were active in Mexico during 1861-1867 and match them with our nine soldiers.

Only three names fit our bill:

  • Émile Eugène Le Roy, Lieutenant, 1è chasseurs à pied.

  • Eugène François Le Roy, S/Lieutenant, 81è régiments d’infanterie de ligne.

  • Edmond Theódore Leroy, Adj. 3è classe, Corps Tal Génie.

At the very last moment however, we decided to add one last name to our list of army records for further investigation. Even though the 10è Chasseurs division was never in Mexico, this fourth E. Leroy’s dates matched the ones we were looking for and his career had possibilities of traveling.

  • Émile François Leroy, Vétérinaire. 10è Chasseurs.

Four dossiers in total. Three were rapidly discarded. Émile Eugène was born in 1870, and there is no army paperwork dated before 1870 for either Edmond Théodore or Eugène François. This left us only with Émile François.

Émile François was born in Lorient, France, on May 9th, 1832 and died on December 8th, 1867. He became a veterinarian after attending L’École Veterinaire d’Alfort, where he had to study chemistry. We believe it was these chemistry classes that bestowed him the knowledge to understand the early process of photography.

In December 1858, four months after graduation, he joined the army as an intern for the École de Cavalerie and later became a veterinarian aide for the 5eme Escadron des Equipages. He mostly resided in Lorient with the exception of a short stay in Italy during a campaign in 1859. In 1861 he applied for a job at the Régiment d’Artillerie Marine et Colonies because he wanted to visit and work at the colonies. Based on several recommendations letters from Generals he worked with, we know Leroy was a very intelligent, capable, hard working and honorable.

Acueduct of Chapultepec

Acueduct of Chapultepec, Mexico. Photo by the BNF.

In 1862 he was dispatched for the marine artillery service, and on May 7 of that same year he left for the colonies. Unfortunately, his records mention that the army did not receive his état de service for 1863 to 1865, so we did not find any information on his whereabouts since when he left to the colonies to his death in Lorient in 1867. This leads us to believe they might have gotten lost between Mexico and France.

Speaking to record specialists at Château de Vincennes they say that even if a soldier changes from the army to the marine, he will only have one dossier. Hence, the only place those files would be at, if they exist, is in the dossier we found.

Being a veterinarian in the colonies he probably had more time than other soldiers to travel around the country with his photography equipment.

Was Emile François Leroy the E. Leroy? Based on the evidence we found he seems the most likely, but there are still gaps in the story that we were not able, and may never be able to fill.

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5 thoughts on “Solving the Mystery of E. Leroy – ÉMILE LEROY, photographer in Mexico

  1. Pingback: Louis Edouard Roussel, Mexico 1862-1865 | Early Latin American Photography

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