How Abraham Lincoln Argued a Murder Trial

This week we're running a series of posts by Matt Soniak about Abraham Lincoln's foray into forensic meteorology. If you missed the first or second installments of the series, check them out.

May 3, 1858. Cass County, Illinois.

The Circuit Court of Cass County convened on Monday May 3rd, 1858, to begin Armstrong’s trial. Abraham Lincoln arrived in Beardstown, the county seat and site of the courthouse, on Thursday the 6th, only to find that the star witness for the People, Charles Allen, was missing.

Lincoln asked around among Armstrong’s friends and discovered that they had made an agreement with Allen. He would stay at a hotel in the nearby town of Virginia for the duration of the trial and not testify. In exchange, Armstrong’s friends would pay his living expenses. Lincoln explained to them that if Allen didn’t appear, the case would be continued and Duff Armstrong would have to wait in jail for the trial to be rescheduled. Realizing their error, two of Armstrong’s cousins hitched up their wagon and went to retrieve Allen that night. The next morning, the trial began.

Hugh Fullerton, the State’s Attorney, prosecuted the case. A private attorney named Collier, who’d been employed by Metzker’s brother, assisted him. William Walker, the senior member of the firm of Walker & Lacey, who had defended Armstong’s friend Norris the year before, assisted Lincoln.

During the early parts of the trial Collier more or less had the run of the show as he offered what appeared to be a solid case. Lincoln only sparingly cross-examined Collier’s witnesses, called few of his own, and spoke up occasionally only to double-check a few dates and place names. That is, until Charles Allen took the stand.

Allen testified that he'd seen Armstrong strike Metzker with the blow that killed him. On cross-examination, Lincoln pressed Allen for more details. How far away had he been standing? About 150 feet from the victim. What time was it? Approximately 11:00 pm. How could he be sure the assailant was Armstrong if it was the middle of the night and he was a good distance away from the action? “By the light of the moon,” Allen testified. He said it had been shining high in the sky and provided more than enough light. Throughout his questioning, Lincoln kept going back to these details and had Allen repeat himself several times about the moon.

Lincoln purchased an 1857 almanac from a nearby drug store and asked that it be entered into evidence. The judge allowed it, and Lincoln turned to the almanac’s August calendar. He showed the jury the pages and explained that on the night of the assault, the moon was in the first quarter and had set at three minutes after midnight. At the time Metzker claimed to have seen the attack, 11:00 p.m., the moon would have been riding low on the horizon and not directly overhead. (It is popularly believed, probably because it's been dramatized over the years, that the almanac showed there was no moon that night. In reality, it simply showed that its position in the sky did not match Allen’s description.)

When Lincoln read the facts from the almanac, laughter rose from the spectators and even some of the jurors. The moon, low on the horizon an hour before setting, probably still could have provided enough light for Allen to see the assault, but Lincoln had shifted the jury's attention away from the moon’s brightness and to its location. In the process, he revealed Allen’s mistake on this, casting doubt on the witness' testimony.

A juror recalled years later that “the jury thought Allen was telling the truth. I know that he impressed me that way, but his evidence with reference to the moon was so far from the facts that it destroyed his evidence with the jury.”

Lincoln did not rely solely on the almanac to defend Armstrong, though. He also had a doctor testify that the blow Norris struck to the back of Metzker’s head could have caused the wound on the front. Lincoln also gave a full-on performance during his closing arguments. The day the attorneys made their final remarks, it was hot in the courthouse. As Lincoln rose from his chair to speak, he took off his coat, vest and necktie. As he talked and paced in front of the jury box, his home-made knitted suspenders slipped off of one shoulder, falling to the side, where Lincoln let it sway until he was finished talking. Looking like a backcountry bumpkin, Lincoln spoke at length about his relationship with the Armstrong family and how much they meant to him, going so far as to plead for the life of the son of his old friends.

The jury deliberated for one hour, took only one ballot and delivered a unanimous acquittal. After the verdict was delivered, Lincoln reportedly shook hands with Armstrong, led him to his mother, and told him to care for her and try to be as good a man as his father. Then, he walked out of the courthouse and went back home to prepare for his Senate campaign.

Check back tomorrow for the story's conclusion and the repercussions of the trial in Lincoln's political career.

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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.