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Morbid Road Trip: The Scattered Artifacts of Lincoln’s Assassination

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Almost every item even remotely connected to Lincoln’s assassination, death, and funeral later found its way into some special collection. Many wound up in the hands of museums, historical societies, or the government, and are available for public viewing. Many more in private collections occasionally get loaned out for display. If I ever convince my girlfriend to go on an Assassination Vacation-esque Lincoln road trip, here’s what’s on my must-see list:

The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets

It's not surprising that Washington, D.C., has the lion’s share of assassination artifacts. The Library of Congress has contemporary newspaper accounts of the assassination, a playbill from the performance of Our American Cousin which Lincoln saw at Ford’s Theatre, and the contents of his pockets that night. These include two pairs of glasses, a lens polisher, a pocketknife, a watch fob, his wallet and a linen handkerchief. The wallet contained a five-dollar Confederate note and a few newspaper clippings that mentioned him.

The pocketknife may or may not be the same one that was, according to Lincoln mythology, given to him by a man he met on the street. Claiming that he’d been instructed to give the knife to someone uglier than him, the man said that Lincoln was the first man he’d met that fit the bill.

Lincoln’s personal effects were given to his son Robert Todd after his death, and went to the library as part of a 1937 donation by Robert’s daughter, Mary Lincoln Isham, just before her death.

Lincoln's Top Hat

At the Smithsonian Institution, there’s the top hat Lincoln was wearing at Ford’s Theatre. After the assassination, the War Department collected many of Lincoln’s personal belongings from the theatre and preserved them. The hat made its way to the Patent Office and then the Smithsonian, where it was kept on a basement storage shelf until 1893. The Smithsonian’s directors didn’t want the hat displayed -- or even spoken of by staff -- any earlier because of the strong emotions still surrounding Lincoln’s murder.

Canvas Hoods the Conspirators Wore

The Smithsonian's Lincoln collection also includes several of the canvas hoods that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered be worn by the seven male assassination conspirators. The hoods were meant to isolate the men and prevent conversation during their incarceration. They were worn 24 hours a day, and had no openings for their eyes or ears and only a small hole that they could eat through.

A Drum From the Funeral

On display now as well are a drum and drumsticks that were used during Lincoln’s two-week-long funeral procession.

The Bullet That Killed Lincoln

Also in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Health and Medicine has three items preserved from Lincoln’s autopsy: the bullet that killed Lincoln, several skull fragments created by the shot, and the probe that was used to remove the bullet.

Booth's Diary

The last D.C. stop is Ford’s Theatre, which has a museum displaying a few of John Wilkes Booth’s possessions that had been kept as evidence by the government, and a number of items from the Presidential Box where Lincoln was shot. The collection includes one of Booth’s boots with its spur, a knife and sheath, a compass, the Derringer he used to shoot and kill Lincoln, and the diary he kept while on the lam.

The Flag Booth Tripped on and a Chair from the Crime Scene

The museum also has the dress coat that Lincoln wore to the theatre, the flag that decorated the Presidential Box (which Booth caught his spur on while escaping), and a chair from the box that might be the one Mary Todd Lincoln was sitting in. The chair had been taken by a worker after the theatre shut down and was kept in a family collection for more than a century before being donated to the museum.

The Carriage He Rode In On

Heading west, the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana, has the carriage in which Lincoln rode to Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination. The barouche model carriage, built in 1864 and engraved with Lincoln’s monogram, was given as a gift to the president by a group of New York merchants just before his second inauguration. After the president’s death, his son Robert Todd sold it to a New York physician named F.B. Brewer, who later sold it to the Studebaker brothers. The Studebaker collection has had it since 1889 and it was restored in 2008 by Pennsylvania-based conservators B.R. Howard and Associates.

Lincoln's Deathbed

The Chicago History Museum has Lincoln’s deathbed from the Petersen House, the boarding house across the street from the theatre where Lincoln was moved for treatment. The bed, small enough that Lincoln had to be laid on it diagonally, was sold at auction for $80 after the Petersens’ deaths, and then sold to a Chicago candy magnate. After his death, the museum purchased the bed and several other pieces of furniture from the Petersen House.

A Bloody Cloak

Their collection also includes a comb that Lincoln may have used the night he was shot, and a bloody cloak that Mary Todd Lincoln might have been wearing. The Chicago Historical Society has been hard at work verifying the authenticity of these items, and you can take a virtual tour of their forensics lab here. The museum also keeps a list of “Lincolnabilia” that’s in private collections.

A Souvenir from the Gallows

At the Kansas State Historical Society, one can find a crossbeam from the gallows used to execute four of the assassination conspirators: Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt.

The Thorax of John Wilkes Booth

The last stop is one of my favorite places in my adopted home town, the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. There, preserved in a jar on a shelf, is a lone fragment from Booth's autopsy: a piece of tissue probably cleaned off his cervical vertebrae and originally mistaken as part of his thorax.
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All right, history buffs and museum hounds -- I know this list is by no means complete. What other relics and artifacts am I missing, and where can I see them? Anyone out there have their own plans for an unconventional historical vacation?

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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