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What You Didn't Know About the Lincoln Assassination

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I'm reading Assassination Vacation right now, a book by Sarah Vowell about her trips across America to visit destinations involved with Presidential assassinations. My description doesn't do it justice, because it's fabulously funny and interesting all at the same time. This type of thing is right up my alley, anyway. A group of us are headed to Chicago for Lollapalooza in August and I'm already plotting out things I want to see on the road trip there "“ Al Capone's grave in Hillside, Ill., for one. I just wrote a post about gangsters for Neatorama and it has my curiosity up.


The thing about this book is that I've learned so much about history that I didn't learn in school "“ at least, I don't remember learning it in school. I suppose it's entirely plausible that I was taught it and either didn't retain it or was too busy writing notes to care about the Lincoln assassination plot. Anyway, I thought I'd share some of what I've learned so far.

The Lincoln Administration Assassination?

If everything went as planned, it wouldn't have been just the Lincoln Assassination "“ it would have been the Lincoln Administration Assassination. At the same time John Wilkes Booth was offing Lincoln, two accomplices were supposed to be doing the same to Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth thought he could also kill General U.S. Grant, who was supposed to have been attending Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with the Lincolns. Johnson's assassin chickened out and didn't even attempt; the Seward attempt was unsuccessful. He was stabbed a number of times but survived. U.S. and Julia Grant declined the Lincoln's invitation, so Henry Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris went in their place. Rathbone was a military officer and Harris was the daughter of U.S. Senator Ira Harris. In a weird side note, Rathbone's mother married Harris' father, making them step-siblings as well as husband and wife when they eventually tied the knot.

The Kidnapping Plot

jw-booth.jpgActually, before it was an assassination plot, it was a kidnapping plot. Booth wanted to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Southern Prisoners of War. In 1865, Booth spent about $4,000 of his own money to arrange the kidnapping. There are couple of reasons why the plot failed. At one point, Booth was lying in wait to kidnap Lincoln, but he didn't show up at the right time. Then, a couple of days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, Booth was in attendance when Lincoln gave a speech about giving black people the right to vote. Infuriated, Booth decided a mere kidnap attempt wouldn't do "“ assassination was the only answer.

His Name is Mudd

muddPeople will still debate this point today "“ did Dr. Samuel Mudd have a part in the assassination, or was he merely a doctor doing his duty? Here's the story: After shooting Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth jumped off the balcony to escape. The spur of his boot got caught in the flag hanging on the balcony and he fell to the stage rather ungracefully, breaking his leg.


He somehow managed to escape on horseback anyway, and went to Dr. Mudd's house in southern Maryland on his way to Virginia. Mudd set Booth's leg and even had a carpenter make him a pair of crutches. Mudd never contacted authorities, not even when he went to town the next day and saw the news of Lincoln's assassination (if he had not heard of it before then). A couple days later, he finally asked his cousin to tell the Cavalry what happened. Mudd was questioned and didn't tell the whole truth, thus making him suspicious. He said he had met Booth before, but only once, and only coincidentally. The truth was, the pair had met at least twice before the fateful night in April when Mudd fixed Booth's leg. The first time, Booth was scouting out the area "for real estate" and was introduced to Mudd. Some people believe he was there to recruit Mudd in the assassination plot. The second time, Booth, Mudd, and two other men who had roles in the murder had drinks together in Washington. Mudd accidentally (or not) forgot to mention the second meeting.

Mudd was convicted for being part of the conspiracy to murder Lincoln, and he served nearly four years at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles from Key West. After one escape attempt, Mudd was an outstanding prisoner who saved the lives of many inmates when Yellow Fever broke out at the Fort in 1867. When prison doctor died, Mudd took over his duties.

Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan wrote letters to the Mudd family during their administrations stating that Samuel Mudd had only been performing his duties as a doctor, and was clear of all suspicion.

John Wilkes Booth's Mummy

booth mummy
Most people believe that John Wilkes Booth died when soldiers caught up to him at the Garrett Farm in Virginia. When Booth refused to surrender, the barn he was hiding in was set on fire, and Booth was fatally shot in the neck. I guess the soldiers wanted to cover their bases. But of course, some people believe it wasn't really Booth in the barn. Supposedly, Booth escaped, and a look-alike died in his place. Here's how that story came about: In the 1870s, a man named Finis Bates became friends with a man named John St. Helen. St. Helen became very ill and thought he was on his deathbed. He confessed to Bates that he was John Wilkes Booth. St. Helen recovered and denied ever saying it, then skipped town. Then, roughly 30 years later, a man named David E. George died and had confessed to someone else that he was John Wilkes Booth. Bates traveled to Enid, Oklahoma, where George had died, to see if it was the same man he knew as John St. Helen. It was. The body was mummified, sold and toured for a while, including at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Its whereabouts today are unknown.

The Robert Todd Lincoln Curse

RTRobert Todd Lincoln might have been the kiss of death for Presidents. He wasn't actually at Ford's Theater when his father was shot, although he was invited to go. He was informed that the elder Lincoln had been shot and made it to his deathbed. A little more than 16 years later, in 1881, President James A. Garfield invited Robert Todd (Garfield's Secretary of War) to accompany him to his alma mater, Williams College, to give a speech. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau at the train station on his way to the speech, with Robert Todd standing right there. Fast-forward another 20 years and you'll find Robert Todd at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. You know who else was there? President McKinley and his assassin, Leon F. Czolgosz. Although Robert Todd didn't witness the shooting, he was definitely present when it happened. In Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell says that when Robert Todd was asked to attend some White House function later in life, he declined and grumbled, "If only they knew, they wouldn't want me there."

A few other tidbits about the Lincoln Assassination:

"¢ Later in life, Henry Rathbone lost his mind and tried to kill himself. Although that attempt failed, he succeeding in shooting his wife, Clara, before stabbing her to death. He went after his kids, too, but that didn't pan out. His son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, later represented Illinois in the U.S. Congress.

"¢ Like Robert Todd Lincoln, maybe Ford's Theater was cursed. The government bought the theater from owner John Ford, then gutted it to create an office building. In 1893, the inner structure of the building collapsed and killed 22 people. The building was then used as a warehouse for a bit, and then remained empty until it was reconstructed to look like the original theater. It reopened in 1968.

"¢ You can find one of John Wilkes Booth's legacies in Central Park. Well, a legacy of sorts. On November 25, 1864, Booth performed Julius Caesar with his two brothers at the Winter Garden Theater in New York. Proceeds from the play went to buy a statue of Shakespeare for Central Park, and it's still there today.
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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