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Hamilton's Dueling History, a Haunted Bar and the Bank That Owns the Pistols: Your Guide to the Hamilton-Burr Duel

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Image courtesy of Bill Coughlin/The Historical Marker Database

So, you want to impress your friends with your extensive knowledge of the Hamilton-Burr duel. First, you’ve got to somehow bring Alexander Hamilton and/or Aaron Burr into the conversation. In response, your listeners are going to think, and hopefully say, something about the famous duel, because that's the only thing most people know about either man. This is your cue. When you hear the word "duel," you'll be ready to drop some serious knowledge on their collective behinds. Here's what you need to know.

Beyond the fact that both were Founding Fathers, who, exactly, were Burr and Hamilton?

Alexander Hamilton was the very first Secretary of the Treasury, and the guy behind the Federalist Papers. Aaron Burr was, at the time of the duel (July 11, 1804), the third Vice President of the United States. Both were accomplished lawyers and military men.

What does the duel have in common with The Sopranos?

Besides guns? They both took place in New Jersey. The duel went down at the Heights of Weehawken, a spot that was frequently used for just such occasions. Because New York had recently outlawed dueling as a legitimate way of settling grievances, aspiring duelists would row across the Hudson River to the more understanding shores of Tony Soprano’s home state.

What the heck were they so agitated about that they were willing to die over it?

You know how sometimes you just really don’t like someone? That was the case here. The two men had been foes since at least 1791, when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law for a Senate seat. And it went downhill from there. Burr was a Democratic-Republican, and Hamilton was a Federalist, but that was just the tip of their iceberg of ill will. Their enmity devolved from political disagreement to gangsta rap style beef. For over a decade, the two used the press and mutual acquaintances (other Founding Fathers) to hurl insults and accusations at one another. In April of 1804, the Albany Register ran an article that stated Hamilton, while at a political dinner, expressed a “despicable opinion” of Burr. Not nice, but not worth killing over either, right? Burr thought it was. During the next months, the two wrote a series of incredibly polite sounding, hateful letters which boiled down to something like this:

Burr: What did you say?
Hamilton: I don’t remember.
Burr: You better remember.
Hamilton: Look, if you come up with something specific that I was supposed to have said, I’ll tell you whether I said it or not.
Burr: That’s it. I’m going to kill you.
Hamilton: Not if I kill you first.

How well did the two men know one another?

Pretty darn well, even beyond both being Founding Fathers, and the aforementioned ongoing hatred of one another. Four years before the duel, Hamilton and Burr had worked together as an early American version of OJ’s Dream Team in one of the most sensational trials of the era. In what must have been a very awkward working relationship, the pair defended Levi Weeks, a well-heeled young man accused of murdering his working stock girlfriend, Elma Sands, and throwing her body down a well. Despite a veritable mountain of evidence, the young man was acquitted after only five minutes of jury deliberation.

Just after the verdict was read, Elma’s enraged sister pointed at Hamilton and cursed him, saying, “if thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in heaven!” It took a few years, but Hamilton’s death was anything but natural.

So, in a nutshell, what went down at this duel? Which one died again?

The two men, each with his own entourage, took separate boats across the Hudson to the duel site. The details of their accounts differ in some respects, but all witnesses maintained that both men followed the highly ritualized Code Duello (the rules of dueling).


Hamilton fired first—into the air. Burr returned fire. Into Hamilton. He died the next day.


Did Hamilton intentionally throw away his fire? Likely. The night before the duel, he wrote an open letter titled Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr. In it, he wrote, “I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.” After the duel, the doctor who attended Hamilton quoted him as saying, “I did not intend to fire at him.”

What does Aaron Burr have in common with Dick Cheney?

Both were sitting Vice Presidents when they shot acquaintances. In 2006, Cheney shot his pal Harry Whittington in a hunting mishap. Neither Burr nor Cheney ever apologized for what he had done. (You know who did apologize? Harry Whittington.)

What do Hamilton and Burr have to do with a haunted Manhattan bar?

Remember Elma, the murder victim who’d been thrown down a well? Well, the remnants of that well still stand in the basement of Manhattan Bistro. Staff and patrons have repeatedly reported encountering Elma’s ghost.

How common were duels in early America?

Among upper class gentleman, not uncommon. However, they were rarely fatal. The rules provided lots of opportunities for either party to apologize along the way, and the flintlock pistols used were not very accurate and prone to misfire. Both Hamilton and Burr had been involved in non-fatal duels before their unfortunate match. Hamilton had taken part in ten completely shot-less duels, so there’s reason to think he didn’t expect either himself or Burr to be killed in theirs. However, Hamilton’s own son, Philip had been killed in a duel, so he definitely knew it was possible.

Wait – Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel? What’s the story there?

It seems the Hamiltons were a hot-headed clan. In 1801, a 27-year-old lawyer named George Eacker made an inflammatory speech criticizing Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton's son (19-year-old Philip Hamilton) and a friend confronted Eacker in his box at the theatre, engaging in what Eacker termed “hooliganish” behavior. Then Eacker called them “damned rascals.” Well, obviously you can’t just let something like that slide. Philip and his friend challenged Eacker to duel. Both Eacker and the friend escaped unscathed from their duel, but Philip was not as fortunate. He was killed in his encounter with the man who had dared to insult Hamilton's honor.

I’m not really up on Code Duello. Did each duelist bring his own gun, or what?

Image courtesy of the J.P. Morgan Chase Archives

According to Rule 16 of the code, the challenged (in this case, Hamilton) had the right to choose the weapons. Hamilton chose a set of dueling pistols owned by his brother-in-law, John Barker Church, who'd once participated in a shot-less duel with Burr. The Church weapons, as they came to be called, had a macabre history that Hamilton would’ve known well: they were the same pistols used in the duel that killed his son, Philip, three years earlier, also at Weehawken.

Funny story about those pistols: they remained in Church’s family until 1930, when his granddaughter sold them to The Bank of the Manhattan Co.—a bank founded by…wait for it…Aaron Burr! That bank eventually was one of the several that merged to become JP Morgan Chase & Co., and the pistols remain in the company's archives.

Were there any sort of consequences for Burr?

Yes and no. Murder charges were brought against him in both New York and New Jersey, and he avoided them by simply staying out of those states. He kept to Washington and completed his term as Vice President, but his political career was over. Though all charges against him were eventually dropped, his life was never the same after the duel.

Is there an easy way for me to remember who killed whom?

You bet there is, and it comes by way of the SNL Digital Short “Lazy Sunday.” The line goes like this: “You can call us Aaron Burr from the way we’re dropping Hamiltons.” Get it? Dropping Hamiltons ($10 bills). Now you’ll always remember.

Now you're equipped to delight your friends with your buckets o’ dueling knowledge. Good luck getting said friends to bring up Hamilton or Burr in the first place.

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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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