Elfreth’s Alley not the scene of the hitchBOT crime, residents say

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    Chester County artist Dan Mitchell stands by his hitchBOT tribute painting
where the robot is said to have been destroyed. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

    Chester County artist Dan Mitchell stands by his hitchBOT tribute painting where the robot is said to have been destroyed. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

    The site where the roving robot known as hitchBOT supposedly perished is close to Elfreth’s Alley, the country’s oldest residential street.

    As the Internet rages on about how exactly the bot was dismembered and by whom, residents of the narrow, cobble-stoned alley in Philadelphia’s Old City are ready to wish the craze goodbye.

    Ted and Sheri Watson, longtime residents of Elfreth’s Alley, are quick to make a point, if a somewhat pedantic one, about the hitchBOT case.

    “It was found on Second Street. The bench on Second Street. Not on Elfreth’s Alley,” said Ted Watson, an architect.

    They say the Colonial brick facades, old shutters, quaint lights and hitching posts for horses are fine to come look at, but they want visitors to know “we do not mistreat robots,” Ted Watson said.

    “That’s absolutely right,” added his wife, Sheri Watson, an interior designer.

    The Watsons are well-acquainted with tourists and other looky-loos pointing cameras and phones at the front of their home.

    Arriving in hordes, often wearing matching T-shirts and holding maps, tourists are a constant, almost a natural part of the scenery of Elfreth’s Alley.

    Occasionally, the Watsons said, the visitors can be a little disruptive and, other times, surprising.

    “They open the mail slot, they jiggle the latches on the shutters, pound on the glass,” Ted Watson said, quickly changing his tone.

    “No, they’re really generally very nice. The most frightening thing usually is: 40 Japanese standing outside your front door when you walk out.”

    While they don’t mind tourists asking about the alley or their 18th-century home, the last thing they want is to have to field questions about the robot incident.

    There’s where Chester County artist Dan Mitchell steps him. He made a big painting dedicated to hitchBOT and stood by it near the fateful bench on Second Street.

    “It’s got a lot of the primary colors – red, blue yellow – a lot of chrome paint, silver, hot pink. He’s a robot with four arms, spiral eyes, a disco ball on his belly. And he just likes to party and have a good time,” Mitchell said of his “party bot” canvas that has a bubbly vibe despite its inspiration’s apparent demise.

    “This is huge in the robot community that hitchBOT got messed up like this, and we’re out here to support it and show that we care,” Mitchell said.

    Then a police officer stopped his cruiser to chat with Mitchell.

    “He said, ‘Oh is this the place where the robot got mugged?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, it is,’ and he said: ‘Are you gonna light some candles for him?’ And I said, ‘probably tonight, we’ll have a little memorial for him.'”

    The blurry pranksters

    Since “surveillance footage” was released on Monday, all evidence points to the video purporting to show a man destroying hitchBOT as fake.

    Philadelphia video bloggers Jesse Wellens and Ed Bassmaster, known for their Internet pranks, were the last two to interact with hitchBOT. Supposedly, they left the hitchhiking bot on a Second Street bench during the wee hours on Saturday.

    Then came the grainy footage depicting a man kicking and pulling at something that’s on the bench but can’t be seen. The thing is, owners of the Clay Study on North Second Street, the only place the footage could have been filmed given the recording angle, say they have no security cameras.

    Furthermore, Elfreth’s Alley residents say they’ve never had cameras. Even if they did, the devices wouldn’t be positioned anywhere near the bench.

    On top of that, Matt Novak from Gizmodo points out that the video “looks amateurishly staged, poorly acted, and has clearly been given artificial grain and distortion. Security footage hasn’t looked like this since the 1990s, bros.”

    At this point, observers of the whole hitchBOT saga are waiting for Wellens and Bassmaster to make an announcement, perhaps that they staged the entire robot slaughter and have taken the android hostage as a publicity stunt.

    Or maybe just playing on how many news organizations were duped by the fabricated video Wellens disseminated. It seems like the latter could be in the works based on a recent tweet from Wellens asking his followers to send him videos of news accounts describing his “surveillance” footage.

    A user on Reddit has several theories. Whatever the hoax is, it’s sure to supply a publicity boost to the pranksters. 

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