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Wikimedia Commons

8 Historic Accounts of Werewolves

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Wikimedia Commons

You can find stores of people transforming into werewolves in folklore, fiction, and pop culture—but there have been real people in various parts of the world who went down in history as lycanthropes. Here are a few of them.

1. PETER STUBBE // 1589

The only actual record of the case of Peter Stubbe (also spelled Stumpp or Stumpf), a.k.a. "the Werewolf of Bedburg," is a lurid pamphlet—supposedly a translation from some now-lost German original—that was circulated in London in 1590. According to the pamphlet (sic throughout), Stubbe—who "from his youth was greatly inclined to euill"—made a deal with the devil, requesting specifically to "woork his mallice on men, Women, and children, in the shape of some beast, wherby he might liue without dread or danger of life, and vnknowen to be the executor of any bloody enterprise, which he meant to commit." The devil gave him a belt, "which being put about him, he was straight transfourmed into the likenes of a gréedy deuouring Woolf,"

"strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkeled like vnto brandes of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharpe and cruell teeth, A huge body, and mightye pawes: And no sooner should he put off the same girdle, but presently he should appéere in his former shape, according to the pro∣portion of a man, as if he had neuer beene changed."

The pamphlet pegged Stubbe as a serial killer who murdered and sometimes ate his victims over a 25-year period. He was also accused of incest with his daughter as well as killing and eating his son. (Modern historians speculate that Stubbe was railroaded for political purposes, or to calm those who were terrified of the demons that were killing the townspeople.)

When he was captured, Stubbe told all about his deal with the devil and the magic belt that turned him into a wolf, confessing to murder, incest, and cannibalism. Stubbe's execution on October 31, 1589 in Bedburg, Germany was an exceptionally gruesome process: He was first lashed to a wheel, where the flesh was torn from his body with red-hot pincers; next, his arms and legs were broken; then, his head was chopped off; finally, his body was burned. Stubbe's girlfriend (a distant relative) and daughter, both accused of incest, were also tortured and then burned alive. After the executions, a wolf’s body was set up in public, its head replaced with Stubbe's, as a warning to anyone else contemplating lycanthropy.

2. JACQUES ROULET // 1598

What we known about Jacques Roulet—who was known as "The Werewolf of Angers" or "The Werewolf of Caud" after two French towns—comes to us via an 1865 account by Sabine Baring-Gould. The story goes like this: In 1598, the mutilated body of a teenage boy was discovered in the woods—and wolves were spotted nearby. Not far away, Roulet was found wounded and half-naked. After he was arrested and confessed to the murder, Roulet revealed that he was given a salve that transformed him into a wolf. The boy wasn't even his first kill, he said—he had murdered and eaten others. Unlike other cases, there appears to be no clear record of Roulet having been tortured into making a confession, and he did not confess to making a deal with the devil. Roulet was sentenced to death for murder, lycanthropy, and cannibalism, but after an appeal he was judged as mentally ill or "feeble-minded" and instead committed to an insane asylum and religious education for two years.

3. GILLES GARNIER // 1573

Circa 1572, in the town of Dole, France, several children went missing and were later found torn apart in the woods. That autumn (timeline and accounts vary), townspeople were charged with finding the werewolf responsible. In November, a hunting group witnessed a wild animal attack on a child, and someone recognized that the beast had features that resembled the local hermit, Gilles Garnier. A week later, when another child disappeared, Garnier and his wife were arrested. Fifty witnesses testified against Garnier, and he was put on the rack. He confessed to being a lycanthrope and to hunting, killing, and eating children who ventured into the woods, saying that he shared the meat with his wife. In January 1573, Garnier was burned at the stake. Modern speculation is that Garnier was guilty of murder and cannibalism (he likely found children easier to catch than wildlife), but the werewolf confession is attributed to either mental illness or torture.

4. AND 5. PIERRE BOURGOT AND MICHEL VERDUN // 1521

The Werewolves of Poligny were three men accused of lycanthropy in France in 1521. Someone was traveling through the area when they were attacked by a wolf. The traveler injured the wolf, then tracked it to Michel Verdun’s house, where Verdun was found dripping blood. He was arrested, and under torture not only confessed to being a werewolf, but implicated Pierre Bourgot and Philibert Montot. Bourgot in turn confessed, and told a tale of making a deal with three mysterious men dressed in black to protect his sheep. Bourgot said he only found out later that the deal entailed renouncing God and his baptism. He said in the years that followed, Michael Verdun gave him an ointment that turned him into a wolf, and together they killed at least two children. It's not clear whether Philibert Montot ever confessed, but he was executed along with the other two accused werewolves.

6. THE WOLF OF ANSBACH // 1685

One notorious werewolf case involved an actual wolf. In 1685, the Principality of Ansbach (now a district in Germany) was part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was plagued by a wolf that preyed on livestock—and eventually moved on to eating people. The citizens thought they were being terrorized by a werewolf, and they knew exactly who it was: Their unnamed, hated (and dead) mayor who had returned in the guise of a wolf. A hunting party with dogs drove the wolf into a well, where it was killed. Still believing it was a werewolf, the citizens chopped off the wolf's nose, dressed it in a man's clothing, added a human mask, and hung the body from a pole (you can see a drawing from the hanging here). The carcass was later installed in a local museum.

7. VSESLAV OF POLOTSK // 1044

Vseslav was the ruler of Polotsk, a region that is now part of Belarus, from 1044 to 1101 CE. History records him as a strong leader and warrior, but he was also said to be a sorcerer. (In fact, in Russian literature, he's called Vseslav the Sorcerer.) Soon after his death, he was referred to as a werewolf in folktales; this reputation was recorded in the Old Slavic poem "The Tale of Igor's Campaign," in which the prince was said to race from town to town as a wolf.

8. HANS THE WEREWOLF // 1651

Dozens of people were accused of supernatural crimes in a series of witch and werewolf trials that took place in 17th century Estonia. One 18-year-old named Hans was convicted of both lycanthropy and witchcraft. Though he denied making a pact with the devil, Hans admitted that he had been a werewolf for two years, and had become one of the beasts after he was bitten by a man dressed in black who was, of course, a werewolf himself. The court decided Hans must have made a satanic deal, which made him guilty of witchcraft as well. The teenager was put to death.

A version of this story appeared in 2011.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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