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Eye for an Eye: The Punishments of 8 Political Assassins

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© Brendan Smialowski/Reuters/Corbis

John Hinckley is in the news this week as a judge considers whether the man who shot President Reagan should be able to live as an outpatient. Here's a look at the fates of various people who were more successful at taking down world leaders.

1. Balthasar Gerard

Gerard, a Catholic Frenchman, assassinated William I of Orange, the leader of the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule in 1584. Gerard's attempts to flee the scene didn't work, and the authorities gruesomely tortured him for days. Gerard's captors hung heavy stones from his toes, crushed his feet, and branded and broiled his skin.

As unpleasant as that sounds, it was just the prelude to Gerard's actual sentence that had been prescribed by the local magistrates. His right hand was burned off with a red-hot iron before he was disemboweled alive and had his heart removed and thrown in his face. This sentence might be the definition of "overkill."

2. Francois Ravaillac

Raivallac fatally stabbed King Henry IV of France in 1610, allegedly because he had received a vision instructing him to help convert the whole country to Catholicism. He was saved from lynching immediately after the assassination, but in retrospect Ravaillac probably should have taken his chances with the mob rather than face his cruel official punishment. After having molten metals and boiling oil poured on his body, his four limbs were chained to four horses, which were driven in opposite directions until he was ripped apart.

3. Charles Guiteau

cgIt takes a special kind of nut to become an assassin, but Charles Guiteau, the failed civil servant who shot James Garfield, was crazy by even these lofty standards. He maintained that "the doctors killed Garfield; I just shot him," and planned to run for the presidency when he was released from jail.


Unfortunately for Guiteau, the legal system didn't share his opinion on the real culprit in Garfield's death. He was hanged in June 1882 after reading some truly bizarre last words. If you want to get a look at Guiteau, though, you still can. A piece of his brain is on display at Philadelphia's amazing Mutter Museum. If you don't want to make a special trip to see a piece of just one presidential assassin, they've also got a preserved growth removed from John Wilkes Booth.

4. John Wilkes Booth

Speaking of Booth, he didn't fare too well, either. Although he managed to escape from Ford's Theater and spent 12 days on the lam, the authorities eventually caught up to Booth as he hid out in a Virginia tobacco barn. The soldiers torched the barn and then shot Booth through the spine.

Booth didn't rest in much peace. His body was first buried in a storage room at a penitentiary before being moved to a warehouse. In 1869 his corpse was exhumed again and moved to the Booth family plot at a Baltimore cemetery.

Since Booth's death, theories have swirled that maybe the soldiers shot the wrong man as the real assassin got away, and every so often historians attempt to exhume the body yet again to verify the corpse's identity.

5. Leon Czolgosz

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Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated William McKinley in 1901, rode a quick trial and conviction straight to the electric chair at New York's Auburn State Prison just 45 days after firing the fatal shot. After Czolgosz took his jolts of electricity, authorities doused his body with sulfuric acid to disintegrate the remains.

6. Gavrilo Princip

The Yugoslav nationalist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, helped kick off World War I, was too young to be hanged for his crimes. Princip twice attempted suicide in prison, but neither worked. (His cyanide was too weak to fatally poison him, and he couldn't get a shot off when he attempted to shoot himself.)

Just because the authorities couldn't kill Princip meant they treated him well, though. He was held in a squalid prison in what is now the Czech Republic and died of tuberculosis in 1918. He weighed less than 90 pounds when he died.

7. Yigal Amir

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Amir, the assassin responsible for the 1995 murder of Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin, received a life sentence plus 14 years for his crimes. After spending several years in solitary confinement, Amir married old acquaintance Larissa Trembovler and has since fathered a son thanks to conjugal visits.

8. Oliver Cromwell

You've got to hand it to the English monarchy; they're as inventive as they are grisly when it comes to punishing regicide. After the restoration of the monarchy to power in 1660, the royal family wanted to punish Cromwell for his part in the execution of King Charles I. There was a slight hitch, though; at that point Cromwell had been dead for two years.

A little thing like already being dead wasn't going to spare Cromwell from an execution, though. Authorities exhumed his body and hanged it in a posthumous execution in 1661. (Two of his co-conspirators got the same treatment.) After the hanging, Cromwell's body was chucked into a pit, but his severed head remained on public display on a pole for another 24 years. After that, the head changed hands several times over the course of the next three centuries before finally being buried in 1960.

This article originally appeared in 2009.

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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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