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Armchair Field Trip: The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast

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"Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one."

With a great little ditty like that, how could I not stop by the Lizzie Borden house when I visited Boston/Providence last weekend? Thanks to your fabulous suggestions, it made the list of things to do on our little extended weekend vacation.

I felt kind of bad about dragging my friends to a maybe-haunted house where a possible psychopath might have killed her parents, especially since we only had a couple of days in the area (and the Boston-Providence area is obviously not lacking in things to do). But it turns out that I wasn't the only one itching to see it "“ our lovely hosts Sam and Kylie had been meaning to get there ever since they moved to the area. By the way, if I mentioned her in the story, Kylie wanted to me to note that she is a great dancer. Just so you know.

Anyway, now I had justification, so we took off on Sunday morning (is that sacrilegious?) and made it to Fall River around noon. For those of you unfamiliar with the infamy of Fall River and Lizzie Borden, here's the abbreviated story:

the parents

On a 100+ degree August afternoon, Andrew Borden and his wife Abby were brutally hacked to death with an axe in their own home. And when I say brutal, I mean brutal: they each received about a dozen blows each; Andrew's wounds were so severe that his skull caved in on one side and his nose was severed.

Lizzie, Andrew's youngest daughter (Abby was her step-mom), was accused but ultimately acquitted. It's still debated as to whether Lizzie committed these heinous crimes or was simply the victim of unfortunate coincidences, but I'll tell you what I learned on the tour and let you decide for yourself.

Maybe the maid did it

The maid, Bridget Sullivan, was not treated so well by the Borbridgetdens. First of all, they insisted on calling her Maggie because that was the previous maid's name and they couldn't be bothered to remember hers. Second, her lodgings were pretty poor, considering how rich the Bordens were (by today's standards they would be millionaires). Despite his wealth, Andrew Borden was notoriously cheap and even had the hot water shut off when he bought the house he was killed in. Third, the morning of the murders, Bridget was supposed to be washing the windows outside (on the hottest day of the year, mind you) but asked Abby if she could do them later as she was feeling ill. Abby told her absolutely not and sent her out to do her chores anyway. Bridget disappeared after the murders and it was rumored that the Borden sisters helped her move back to Ireland. She later turned up in Montana where she remained until her death. One story says that right before she died in 1948, Bridget summoned a friend to her deathbed and said she wanted to confess something. The friend was too late, though, and Bridget died before she was able to "“ what? Confess that she was the murderess? Implicate Lizzie? Guess we'll never know.

Criminal investigation processes have really changed

The autopsies of Andrew and Abby Borden were conducted on the Borden's dining room table. Ugh. And everyone slept in their respective rooms the very same night of the murders; even guest Uncle John Morse, whose bed Abby Borden was making when she was killed. So he slept right next to the huge bloodstain on the floor where Abby's body laid until it was discovered. Talk about disrupting evidence!

Another fact I found strange is that police interrupted the burial of the Bordens to inform everyone that the Doctor wanted another autopsy. Thus, the heads of Abby and Andrew (above, respectively) were removed from the bodies. Andrew's was never returned, so to this day he's hanging out in Oak Grove cemetery like poor Yorick. The actual skulls (not just pictures) were rather dramatically unveiled at the trial, which caused Lizzie to promptly faint.

Also, when Lizzie was charged, she was charged with not one, not two, but three counts of murder: one for her dad, one for her step-mom, and one for the couple together.

Psychic or shrewd?

Either Lizzie had psychic abilities or she was trying to direct attention away from herself in advance, because the day before the murders she told her friend Alice Russell that she had a feeling something bad was going to happen. She said she just couldn't shake it and she was concerned about her father's well being. Hmm. The day after the Bordens' funeral, Alice was also the one who discovered Lizzie burning one of her dresses in the kitchen stove. When Alice asked what was going on, Lizzie told her that the old dress had paint all over it so she was just disposing of it.

Following up the trial of the century

"Lizzie Borden: you've been acquitted of brutally murdering your father and your stepmother and have successfully been ostracized from the entire town! What will you do next?" Since Disneyworld wasn't around in 1892, Lizzie followed up the murders a bit differently. She and her sister took the money they received from their father's will and bought a mansion in the elite part of town. She started calling herself "Lizbeth" after that, perhaps to distance herself from the murders or perhaps to make herself sound more sophisticated since she was now living in such a fashionable district. Lizzie named the mansion "Maplecroft" and even had the name carved into the steps of the house.


In 1904, Lizzie became friends with actress Nance O'Neil. Emma didn't approve of Lizzie's lifestyle because she was having raucous parties with actors and actresses"¦ and there was speculation that Lizzie and Nance were having an affair. Around this time, Emma moved out of Maplecroft and she and Lizzie never spoke again. Lizzie died on June 1, 1927, from complications of a gall bladder surgery. Emma died nine days later when she fell down the stairs of her house.

The Aftermath

Sooo, following the tour of the house, we simply had to go to the gravesite. It was pretty easy to find as Fall River is rather small. Plus, they must get a lot of visitors because there are arrows painted on the road of the cemetery leading to the Borden plots.

There was an Ouija board set up in front of Lizbeth's grave, which was really just prime for a photo op. In hindsight, I think this was probably disrespectful, because after my friend Lisa and I took the picture, I slipped in some mud and tumbled down a muddy incline about 10 steps away from the Borden family marker. Sorry, Lizzie, I apologize. I guess I'm just lucky there wasn't an axe lurking in the mud.


I've rattled on enough here, but you can go here for more pictures and more details. So, what do you think? Was Lizzie the culprit or just a victim? Has anyone ever actually stayed at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast?

Previously on mental_floss...

"¢ Stacy's visits to The Corn Palace, The Grassy Knoll and The Texas State Fair
"¢ Jason's trips to Old Faithful (not that Old Faithful) and Utah
"¢ Ransom's honeymoon in Portugal

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]