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Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images

Giuseppe Dosi, Italy's Famed Detective and Master of Disguise

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Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images

Giuseppe Dosi has gone down in history as one of Italy's greatest detectives, a master of disguise who went undercover to solve the thorniest of crimes. Famous in Italian police circles for his pioneering efforts, Dosi has been getting wider attention recently thanks to the publication of a biography, the airing of a new documentary about him, and the digitization of some his papers, now in the Museum of the Liberation of Rome.

Born in 1891, Dosi’s first love was for the theater. He acted for two years and worked briefly behind the scenes, but he failed to make his career on the stage a success. Instead, he poured his love of performance into his job as a detective. His enthusiastic embrace of disguises became known as fregolismo detectivistico ("detectival transformism”) after the late 19th/early 20th century stage actor and quick-change artist Leopoldo Fregoli. Dosi himself had at least 17 confirmed disguises, including a femme fatale, two priests (one foreign, one Italian), a Galician banker, a German doctor, a Yugoslavian merchant, a nihilist, and a Czech World War I veteran with a bum leg. Five of them were fully fleshed-out identities complete with fake identity documents, background stories, and even their own penmanship.

Dosi’s impersonation of a Czech veteran completely fooled poet and would-be dictator Gabriele D'Annunzio, who in August of 1922 had mysteriously “fallen” out of a window and cracked his skull. Dosi went undercover to find out what had really happened—a politically sensitive investigation since D'Annunzio's greatest rival was one Benito Mussolini, who two months later would march on Rome with his Blackshirts and secure an appointment as the new Prime Minister of Italy.

Dosi discovered that D'Annunzio had been pushed, not by a political assassin, but by his volatile mistress. The case was quietly closed. D'Annunzio, who had dubbed his limping Czech guest the “liberator of butterflies and smiling rhymes” while unknowingly being investigated, called Dosi a "dirty cop" when he found out he was really a nimble Roman.

Actually, Dosi was the opposite of a dirty cop as we mean the phrase today. He was a man of resolute integrity, fearless in pursuit of the truth even when his bosses would have preferred he look the other way—and he paid a high price for it. In 1927, he took on a case that had bedeviled Rome for the previous three years. It was a horrific series of crimes, the rape of seven little girls and the murder of five of them, the youngest just three years old. The atrocities had been breathlessly reported in the national and local press, and the city was in turmoil. Mussolini saw the failure to solve the crimes as a major embarrassment because it made it seem like his law-and-order party could not deliver on its promises. He pressured Chief of Police Arturo Bocchini to arrest someone, and quickly.

So the police found someone. Sure, photographer Gino Girolimoni didn't match the description of a tall, middle-aged man with a bristling mustache and an imperfect command of the Italian language—he was average height, in his 30s, clean-shaven and Roman-born and raised—but he was a warm body, and between riled up public opinion and Mussolini breathing down their necks, that was enough for the police. They ginned up some blatantly fake evidence and arrested Girolimoni in 1927.

Dosi knew the evidence against Girolimoni was flimsy, and was convinced the real murderer was still out there. He reopened the case over the objections of his superiors, and quickly zeroed in on a more likely suspect: a British Anglican priest named Ralph Lyonel Brydges who had been caught in the act molesting a girl in Canada before decamping to Rome. In April of 1928, Dosi got a search warrant for Brydges’s room and found a note in a diary referencing the location of one of the murders, newspaper clippings about the crimes, and handkerchiefs identical to the ones used to strangle the little girls. Brydges had friends in high places, however, and diplomatic interference from Britain and Canada (his wife was the daughter of a very prominent Toronto politician) kept him out of jail. He was briefly committed for observation to the insane asylum Santa Maria della Pietà, only to be released and flee the country.

With the case against Girolimoni in shambles, the police quietly dropped the charges against him. But every newspaper in the country had splashed his name and face on their front pages as the "Monster of Rome" when he was arrested, while his release was covered only in cursory articles in the middle sections of just a few papers. He could no longer make a decent living because everyone thought he was a child rapist and murderer. He died in 1961, penniless and alone. Only a handful of friends showed up to his funeral. Dosi was one of them.

But when Dosi cleared Girolimoni's name, the authorities no longer had their patsy, and the only other suspect was far out of reach. Mussolini, who several years earlier had praised Dosi and recommended him for a promotion after the detective foiled an assassination plot against him, was deeply displeased by Dosi's dogged persistence. (A memoir Dosi wrote in the 1930s, which was critical of his superiors, didn’t help matters.) Dosi's police bosses, already antsy about him exposing their corruption and lies in setting up poor Girolimoni, again felt the pressure from the top to curb their man's hubris.

First they fired him. Then they just cut to the chase and arrested him. He was imprisoned in 1939 in Regina Coeli, a truly scary jail in Rome that during the Fascist period was packed with political prisoners. Apparently that wasn’t severe enough, because they moved him to Santa Maria della Pietà, where the police detective spent 17 months forcibly detained in the same psychiatric facility where Brydges—a certain child molester and possible serial child murderer—had spent only a few nights. Dosi was finally released in January 1941.

Before the end of the war, Dosi’s great courage and initiative would perform another historic service. On June 4, 1944, Allied troops under General Mark Clark liberated Rome. The Nazi occupiers beat a hasty retreat. A mob assembled at the notorious SS torture prison on Via Tasso to free the political prisoners and Jews who hadn't been murdered by the retreating Nazis. On the way out the door, the SS had set their papers on fire in the attempt to cover their tracks, and when the mob freed the prisoners, they tossed bunches of records out the window in a sort of riot of de-Nazifying the place.

Dosi, who lived on a neighboring street, showed up with a cart and took it upon himself to enter the burning building and save all the surviving records. He turned them over to the Allied Command, who appointed him a special investigator for two years. His testimony and the records he single-handedly saved from the flames, including the list of 75 Jews taken from Regina Coeli to their deaths in the monstrous Ardeatine massacre, would be crucial in the prosecution of numerous Nazi war criminals. In November of 1946, he rejoined the Italian police force as director of the Central Office of International Police.

Over the course of his long and storied career, Dosi applied his great energy and dedication to areas of police work that are now standard but were then considered newfangled. He wrote essays on scientific policing, was a vocal advocate for women police officers, promoted photographing and fingerprinting arrestees, and encouraged the preservation of cultural patrimony as well as cross-border law enforcement. He retired in 1956 with the title of Chief Inspector General. He also wrote several books about his detective work and lived a long life, dying in 1981 at the age of 90. He lived as he worked, pouring his tenacity, discernment, endless intellectual curiosity, and vision into everything he did. As he wrote [PDF in Italian ] in an article on police work in 1929:

In a sense, each of us is a born cop, for our own inherited psychophysiological constitution has at its disposal infinite new sources of knowledge. The difficult part can be to evaluate them precisely, to find them, link them, associate them, integrate them, to be able in the end to repeat in triumph the motto that a medieval sage wore engraved on an amulet: "Nil occultum quod non scietur." That is, we may not know something, but there is nothing truly hidden; with hard work, everything can be known.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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