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7 Black Widows and 16 Dead Husbands

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We consider it natural for a wife and mother to feed her family to ensure their health. That's why we are so horrified when the food leads to death. Last week we looked at the cases of six women who poisoned their husbands and often other family members for personal gain. Here are the stories of seven more black widows.

1. Amy Archer-Gilligan

Amy Archer-Gilligan ran a nursing home in Connecticut from 1907 to 1917. When her first husband and business partner James Archer died in 1910, Archer-Gilligan was the beneficiary of a substantial recently-purchased life insurance policy. She married Michael Gilligan in 1913. Three months later, he was dead. Meanwhile, too many people were dying in the nursing home, particularly those who had recently paid for their care with a lump sum. A complaint from a relative led to a police investigation, which led to exhumations. Both of Archer-Gilligan's husbands and several patients tested positive for arsenic. Archer-Gilligan was tried on only one count of murder and found guilty in 1917. She was sentenced to death, but a new trial was granted to determine whether Amy-Archer was insane. That trial led to a life sentence, but she was later sent to a mental institution where she lived until her death in 1962. Archer-Gilligan's number of victims could be anywhere between five and 48. Her story inspired the play Arsenic and Old Lace.

2. Daisy de Melker

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Daisy Louisa de Melker was the second woman ever to be hanged for her crimes in South Africa. She married Alfred Cowle in 1909. Three of their five children died in infancy. Cowle died in 1923 and left de Melker a substantial inheritance. Three yers later, de Melker married Robert Sproat, who died in 1927 after a painful illness that resembled Cowle's. De Melker once again collected a fortune in inheritance. In 1931, Daisy married Sydney Clarence de Melker, who, like her first two husbands, was a plumber. In 1932, de Melker's 20-year old son Rhodes Cowle died after drinking coffee his mother had prepared. William Sproat, the brother of de Melker's second husband, became suspicious and demanded an investigation. Rhodes Cowle's body was found to contain arsenic. James Webster, who had become sick after drinking some of Cowle's coffee but survived, also tested positive for arsenic. William Cowle and Robert Sproat, de Melker's first and second husbands, were exhumed and strychnine was found in the decomposed tissues. De Melker was charged with three murders but found guilty of only one, that of her son, due to the testimony of the chemist she bought the arsenic from. She was hanged in December of 1932.

3. Mary Ann Cotton

260maryanncottonMary Ann Cotton had three husbands and twelve children who died of ambiguous gastric illnesses between 1852 and 1872. The third of her four husbands survived, and her 13th and last child was born as she awaited trial. Several stepchildren and lovers also died of the same symptoms, but Cotton avoided suspicion by constantly moving to different towns around England. The first sign of trouble for Cotton came in 1872 when she predicted the death of her 10-year-old stepson Charles Edward Cotton to an official who was asked to find the boy employment, even though the child appeared healthy. The official happened to also be the parish coroner. When Charles Edward Cotton died suddenly a few days later, Cotton's first errand was to collect on his life insurance. Told that she needed a death certificate, Cotton went to the child's doctor, who refused to sign because the coroner had alerted police about the conversation he'd had with Cotton. Besides, the doctor had seen the child only the day before and noticed no illness. An examination of the body found evidence of arsenic. Two other bodies from the family were exhumed and were also found to contain arsenic. Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty of the death of her stepson and was promptly hanged. Her story was made into a nursery rhyme.

Mary Ann Cotton,
She's dead and she's rotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin' black puddens a penny a pair.

4. Marie Besnard

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Marie Joséphine Philippine Davaillaud (pictured center) was called the "Queen of Poisoners" in France. Her first husband, a cousin, died in 1927. Besnard married Léon Besnard the next year. The couple moved in with Léon's parents, who both died separately within months. Léon's sister, who shared in the inheritance, died soon after. Marie Besnard's father also died during the period. Two boarders (a married couple) also died and left the Besnards their estate. Several other relatives who died named the Besnards as their heirs, including Marie's mother. Both Besnards, by now very wealthy, took lovers into their home. Léon became suspicious that his wife was trying to kill him, and said so to his paramour. He died in 1947. Marie Besnard, who inherited all the accumulated wealth, was finally a suspect. Leon's body tested positive for arsenic. Other bodies were exhumed, tested for arsenic poisoning, and Besnard was charged with 13 counts of murder. Her first trial in 1952 included eleven murders, but ended in a mistrial. The second trial in 1954 also was declared a mistrial. Besnard was acquitted during her third trial in 1961, and died in 1980.

5. Ottilie Gburek/Tillie Klimek

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Chicago resident Tillie Klimek was a psychic. She began predicting the deaths of neighborhood dogs in 1911 with startling accuracy. In 1914 she predicted the death of her husband of 29 years, John Mitkiewitz. Astonishingly, Mitkiewitz died three weeks later! Klimek collected his life insurance money and went to a matchmaker. Her second husband John Ruskowski died only three months later, just as Klimek predicted. The same thing happened to husband number three, Joe Guszkowski. Husband number four, Frank Kupczyk lasted four years. Klimek also foresaw the death of a neighbor woman who raised suspicions about Klimek's husbands. Klimek predicted the death of three children belonging to a family she had trouble with as well -and sure enough, the children all died. Husband Kupczyk died in 1920. The widow was remarried to Anton Klimek, husband number five, in 1921. Soon after a new life insurance policy went into effect, family members visited the Klimek home and found Anton sick in bed. When his stomach was pumped, the food Klimek has eaten was found to contain arsenic. Tillie was arrested and confessed to the attempted murder of Anton Klimek. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the deaths of her other suspected victims were not investigated. Her sentence carried the stipulation that Klimek was never to be allowed to cook for other prison inmates.

6. Stacey Castor

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History is full of black widows, but they are not a bygone relic. The only difference in 21st century husband killers is that, with improved communications and forensic techniques, they are likely to be caught sooner than their predecessors. Even the most modern instances seem eerily familiar, such as the case of Stacey Castor. In 2005, Castor's second husband David Castor died from what at first looked like a suicide. Investigators found he had ingested ethylene glycol, which is found in antifreeze. Suspecting his wife, they exhumed the body of Castor's first husband, Michael Wallace, who died in 2000 of a heart attack. Chemical analysis showed that his body contained ethylene glycol as well. This threw more suspicion on Stacey Castor, but she had a backup plan. She arranged evidence to point the finger at her own daughter, Ashley! Castor accused her teenage daughter of killing both her father and her stepfather, despite the fact that Ashley was only eleven years old when Michael Wallace died. In 2007, Ashley Wallace was hospitalized for an overdose of prescription pills and vodka.There was a suicide note in which she confessed to the murder of her stepfather. The only problem was that Ashley survived to testify against her mother at her 2009 trial. Castor faces 25 years to life for the murder of David Castor and the attempted murder of Ashley Wallace. She has yet to be charged with the murder of Michael Wallace.

7. Wendi Mae Davidson

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Wendi Davidson reported her husband, Staff Sgt. Michael Leslie Severance missing from his home in San Angelo, Texas in January of 2005. The next day, she filed for divorce. Not long after, she confided to her brother that she had found Severance dead and hid the body because she assumed another family member had killed him. Police found the body in a fish pond a few weeks later and arrested Davidson for tampering with evidence. Severence's body had been weighted down with cinder blocks and stabbed 41 times, but that wasn't the cause of death. He had been killed with pentobarbital, a drug that was readily available to Davidson, who was a veterinarian. Wendi Davidson pleaded no contest at her trial in 2006 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

See also: Who Not to Marry: 6 Black Widows and 5 Classic Poisons and the People Who Used Them.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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