Skullduggery

172 years ago, Nat Turner led the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. The former mayor of Gary, Indiana, claimed to have Turner’s skull. Questions, anyone?

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This story appeared in the October 2003 issue and is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s celebration of longform journalism.Skullduggery

 

Over the years, the people of Gary have gotten used to the regular presence of the menacing and the macabre. This is a city, after all, where FedEx once refused to pick up packages after dark, a place where a popular T-shirt depicts a skull with a bullet hole below the words “Scary Gary.” It is a place where the police once put up billboards reminding people they were driving through the murder capital of the nation. “The town God forgot” is what one local newspaper columnist calls it.

These are not the kind of things that stir the hearts of civic boosters. But Gary has gotten wise; it has followed the trail of other Rust Belt reclamation projects. It has placed its bets on low culture and diminished expectations. It brought in casino boats, delivering gambling, jobs, and the faint halo of prosperity. It landed a Continental Basketball Association team. It welcomed minor-league baseball, even building a $45 million stadium to show off the club. All of which is just the beginning. Gary, city leaders say, has plans: for the lakefront, for the neighborhoods, for downtown.

But for all the progress, for all the talk of renaissance and rebirth, Gary still maintains an uncanny ability to go bizarre. When the city hosted the Miss USA pageant two years ago, it hung a giant banner promoting “Gary Style”—on the side of an abandoned hotel. When the local airport was looking for a new way to market itself, officials decided it needed a new name: the Gary/Chicago International Airport—despite the fact that the facility has no commercial airline service.

And on an October night in 2002, before a gala fundraiser for the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame, things got very weird. A quixotic project more than two decades in the works, the Hall of Fame has been the pet obsession of former Gary Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher, who has spent the better part of his post-political life begging, bullying, and cajoling public officials into giving him money for the museum. It hasn’t always been easy; for years, the Hall of Fame has been dogged by controversy over how its board of directors has spent the organization’s money. But that October night, Hatcher had plenty to celebrate. He’d wrangled Bill Cosby, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and National Urban League Executive Director Hugh B. Price into showing up for the party. And his museum, for once, looked like it was starting to come together: A parcel of land had been identified for the site, and the Gary city council had approved a multimillion-dollar grant to fund construction. Most importantly, Richard Hatcher finally had something concrete to show for 25 years of effort. At an invitation-only session with Cosby before most of the guests arrived, Hatcher unveiled the first artifact donated to the Hall of Fame, a significant—if grisly—piece of American history: Nat Turner’s skull.

 

Before Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, before the marches and the sit-ins, Nat Turner gave the country a wake-up call about the dynamics of race in America. Over a 24-hour period in August 1831, Turner led some 60 followers on a rampage through a swath of rural homesteads in Southampton County, Virginia, killing every white person the group came across. Though it wasn’t the country’s first slave uprising and wouldn’t be its last, it was by far the bloodiest. Armed with farm tools, swords, and muskets, the band murdered 57 people, mostly women and children.

The killings became a touchstone in the battle over slavery, destroying the myth of the “docile” slave and hardening the resolve of both opponents and defenders of the institution. In many important ways, it served as the first battle of the Civil War. “Whenever Americans have attempted to understand the meaning of the Southampton revolt,” writes Kenneth Greenberg, a history professor at Suffolk University who has written extensively about Turner, “they also have to grapple with the meaning of slavery and race relations in our society.”

That can be a tall order, especially because so little is known about the man who started the revolt. More than two centuries after Turner’s birth, his personality, his motives, and his goals remain mysterious. Greenberg calls him the “most-famous, least-known person in American History.”

The mysteries, however, aren’t limited to Turner’s life. Depending on who’s telling the tale, his corpse may have been buried, dissected, skinned, or kept for treasure. Today, 172 years after Turner’s death, the only thing anyone really knows for sure is that no one really knows what happened. Which is why so many people have so many questions for Richard Hatcher.

 

To understand how Nat Turner’s head may have made it from the Virginia countryside into Hatcher’s hands, it’s first necessary to understand Gary, a uniquely American place: planned, built, and exploited for the singular purpose of forging money from iron, coal, and heat.

The city was founded in 1906, when U.S. Steel Corporation began buying up thousands of acres of sand and swamp along the shore of Lake Michigan, 25 miles southeast of Chicago. The location was no accident. Gary—named after U.S. Steel’s chairman, Elbert H. Gary—lay halfway between the coal of West Virginia and the iron ore of Minnesota. By the time it was operational, in 1909, the Gary Works was the largest steel mill in the world.

The town rose in tandem with the mill. Even before a single brick was laid, the company had decided the shape of the city: how the streets should be plotted, how the houses should be built, how the government should be run. The population swelled. Eastern European immigrants came first, followed by blacks and Mexicans. And from its earliest day, Gary wasn’t one city but two. There was the city for the mill’s officers, foremen, and skilled laborers—a place of paved streets, green parks, and stately houses. And there was the city for everyone else—a lawless, fetid wasteland.

As the years passed, Gary’s fortunes mirrored each pitch and yaw of the steel industry. It boomed in the ’20s, sputtered during the Depression, and prospered again when America flexed its industrial muscle in the ’40s and ’50s. By 1960, the city claimed 178,000 residents, an increasing number of whom were blacks who had migrated from the South.

Richard Hatcher didn’t come from the South, and he didn’t come for the steel. He arrived in 1959 as one of the era’s rarest species: a young black lawyer. Born in Michigan City into a devout Baptist family, he grew up poor and ambitious. A talented athlete, he received a partial scholarship for track and football from Indiana University. After law school at Valparaiso, he moved to Gary, where he took a job as a deputy Lake County prosecutor and fell in with a group of young idealists intent on reforming Gary’s notoriously corrupt politics. “He was very methodical, very pragmatic,” says Alex Poinsette, who wrote a book, Black Power Gary Style, about Hatcher’s rise. “He doesn’t operate with his head in the clouds.” Indeed, Hatcher quickly realized that the only way to reform Gary politics was to run them. In 1963, he ran for a seat on the city council. Within a year, he was council president.

In 1967, after four years on the council, Hatcher announced his candidacy for mayor. The county’s white political establishment was less than thrilled. Young and brash, with little clout in the local Democratic party, Hatcher talked about ending Gary’s “plantation politics.” He might as well have announced himself as the Antichrist. When he beat the incumbent mayor in the Democratic primary that spring, the local party boss, John Krupa, declined to back him unless Hatcher gave the party a say in filling city jobs. Hatcher refused, and Krupa withdrew the party’s support. In desperation, Hatcher decided on an audacious plan. He took out advertisements—one in the Gary Post-Tribune and one in The New York Times—that pictured a white policeman clubbing a black man. The ads attempted to sway a national constituency, and they worked. Donations poured in from all over the country. Vice President Hubert Humphrey voiced his support. Bobby and Ted Kennedy held fundraisers. “People sent $2, $5, whatever, from around the country,” Hatcher would later recall. “I remember a lady from West Virginia sent two quarters wrapped in a piece of paper. She said, ‘I’m on welfare, but I feel you need this more than I do.’”

On November 8, 1967, Hatcher won by 1,865 votes. He was not only Gary’s first black mayor, but the first black mayor of a major American city (a distinction he shares with Carl Stokes, elected mayor of Cleveland the same day). “Today,” he said in his inaugural address, “we are witnessing a rebirth of Gary’s determination to take its rightful place among the great cities of our nation.”

 

The same year Hatcher was elected mayor, William Styron published the novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. A native Virginian, the author first learned about Turner while a teenager in the late ’30s. By the early ’60s, he had begun to sketch out a story. “I was living in a segregated society in which the black face, en masse, was that of compliance, subservience, docility,” Styron told Greenberg several years ago. “Beneath all this, of course, there was enormous discontent. A hundred years before, there had been this extraordinary revolution, this insurrection, and I wanted to find out about it. I wanted to discover what this insurrection was.”

He didn’t have far to go. Turner had spent his entire life in Southampton County, an isolated, rural area of southern Virginia not far from where Styron grew up. Born in 1800, Turner had learned to read and write at an early age, and he became known among locals as a preacher and healer. In his 20s, he began seeing visions that he took to be signs from God, commands to destroy slavery. “I heard a loud noise in the heavens and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened,” he would recall in a confession he gave after the insurrection. “Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight.”Nat Turner

That fight began on the night of August 21, 1831, when Turner and a band of six men set out for the home of Joseph Travis, Turner’s master. As Travis and his family lay sleeping, the band axed them in their beds. Over the next 24 hours, as more slaves and free blacks joined Turner’s group, the number of murders multiplied. At a rural school, they killed 10 children.

After local whites got wind of the rampage, the militia was called in, and most of the rebels were quickly killed or captured. Reprisals against innocent slaves and free blacks, however, continued for weeks. At one point, local whites killed and decapitated a slave and stuck his head on a post as a warning. A road in the county still pays homage to the incident: Blackhead Signpost Road.

Among the insurgents, only Turner remained at large, despite the promise of a sizeable reward for his capture. He eluded authorities for 70 days before a local farmer found him in the woods. He had been hiding less than a mile from the Travis homestead.

Styron, in an attempt to bring dimension to the horrors of slavery, composed his novel in the first person, through the eyes of Turner himself. Working at the zenith of the civil-rights movement, he considered the book an anti-slavery tome, an attempt to cast Turner as a symbol “of the need for freedom” that transcended race.

Not everyone saw it that way. Though a commercial and critical success, The Confessions of Nat Turner became a source of bitter controversy. Black intellectuals, incensed by the author’s appropriation of the slave experience, denounced the work. It didn’t help that Styron’s Turner is an aloof zealot driven by sexual desire for a white woman. The author was denounced for emasculating the slave rebel, turning him into a “Hamlet-like white intellectual in blackface.”

For all the controversy, however, the novel succeeded in one unexpected way: It elevated Turner’s profile at a time when both blacks and whites were reexamining the role of race in American society. “Even if I had created a book less valuable as literature,” Styron told Greenberg, “I think it would have been important that the book appeared, if only to rescue this man from obscurity and to give him public recognition.”

 

Richard Hatcher wasn’t simply reexamining the role of race in society, he was trying to redefine it, to create a new kind of city: dynamic, economically viable, racially integrated, a place that would “prove that urban America need not wallow in decay, that our cities can be revived and their people rejuvenated.”

But it was hard not to wallow. By the time Hatcher took office, Gary was nearly bankrupt. Organized crime operated with impunity. Corruption was rampant, and city government ran without a civil-service system. More than 80 percent of Gary’s housing was substandard; 40 percent had been condemned. Every silver lining had a cloud: Though U.S. Steel still employed thousands, it was also responsible for thousands of tons of pollution dumped on the city each year.

Things got worse. By the mid-’70s, foreign competition and domestic complacency had begun to take its toll on the steel industry. U.S. Steel slashed jobs in Gary. Unemployment rose. Crime proliferated. White residents began to flee. To stem the tide, the federal government flooded the city with money—for housing, for job training, for the war on poverty. A new train station, a new convention center, and a new bus station were built, yet Gary kept getting poorer, bleaker, and more dangerous. By the time the feds put the lid on the jar, when Ronald Reagan became president, the city was the byword for urban decay. It was Youngstown without the glitz.

By then, Hatcher had been in power for 20 years, and he invariably became the face of Gary’s decline, the man who’d been holding the reigns during the long ride to rot. He’d developed a reputation for being divisive and detached, he’d been criticized for concerning himself more with his national profile than the city’s problems, and a group of community leaders decided it was time for change. In 1987, they backed another candidate, Thomas Barnes, who defeated Hatcher in the mayoral primary. “Dick had gotten to a point where he was doing more on the national scene,” says state Senator Earline Rogers, one of the Gary leaders who backed Barnes. “I wanted somebody who was going to take care of the nuts and bolts of running the city.”

Despite his prominence as political pioneer, Hatcher’s legacy was dismal. Between 1970 and 1990, the city’s population had declined by 60,000. U.S. Steel had shed two-thirds of its local workforce. Gary’s downtown had emptied: In 1960, the city boasted 500 downtown businesses; 20 years later, there were fewer than 40. That legacy still echoes. On a hazy summer afternoon, much of the city looks deserted. Few cars drive up and down the wide boulevards; even fewer people are outside. New construction projects are limited to government buildings. Even the Burger King is boarded up.

Gary has ceased to be just a spot on the map; it’s become a sign of how bad things can get. Two years ago, when The Washington Post went looking for the armpit of America, it chose Battle Mountain, Nevada, even though Gary received more votes. “Probably 10 of the 210 nominations I got were for Gary,” reporter Gene Weingarten wrote. The problem: “Gary is not remotely funny. [It’s] a seriously troubled place.”

 

On November 11, 1831, six days after being convicted of conspiring to rebel and making insurrection, Nat Turner was taken from the Southampton County Courthouse to a nearby tree, fitted for a noose, and hanged. At the time, at least one newspaper reported that Turner “sold his body for dissection, and spent the money on ginger cakes.”

The remark was meant to be a crude jab at the dead man, but it proved no less bizarre than many of the stories that have sprung up about his body. “We can be certain something terrible happened,” notes Greenberg, “but the exact nature of that terrible something remains lost.”

The most vivid account of that possible something was published more than 100 years ago by William Drewry, the first historian to offer a detailed look at Turner’s revolt. Drewry, who interviewed locals who’d lived through the incident, reported that after Turner was killed, his body “was delivered to the doctors, who skinned it and made grease of the flesh.” One local citizen, he noted, had a money purse made of Turner’s skin.

Yet Drewry’s story is contradicted by other accounts. Frances Lawrence Webb, a woman who was born in 1868 and lived in Southampton County most of her life, wrote in her memoirs that after Turner’s hanging, his “headless body” was buried near the spot of his execution.

Which brings up the question of Turner s skull. In his account, Drewry reported that sometime after the body was “delivered to the doctors,” they “misplaced” Turners skeleton. Still, he noted that many in the area at the turn of the century could remember having seen a rather prominent part of Turner’s remains: “There are many citizens still living who have seen Nat’s skull,” Drewry wrote. “It was very peculiarly shaped, resembling the head of a sheep, and at least three-quarters of an inch thick.”

But Frances Webb offered another possibility. After the Civil War, she wrote, the skull was found in the possession of a local physician and became the property of the Provost Marshall, who ran Southampton County during Reconstruction. The marshall, according to Webb, gave the skull “as a precious relic, to one of the Northern Universities, where possibly it still remains.”

 

After his 1987 defeat, Richard Hatcher didn’t fade into retirement. He started his own consulting company. He went to Harvard for a fellowship. He began teaching courses at Valparaiso and IU Northwest. He attempted to engineer a political comeback, and he spoke out about the things he knows so well: urban affairs, politics, civil rights.

Mostly, though, he pushed and begged to get money for the project he’d dreamed about building since 1978: the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Though it was first envisioned as a museum to promote “public awareness and support civil rights,” plans for the Hall had over the years morphed into a high-tech “institute” that would draw people from all over the country. “Our facility will not be a museum,” Hatcher told The Times of Northwest Indiana in 2001. “There will be no other facility like ours. It will use technology that will range from virtual reality to robotics to holographies.”

Exactly what that meant was anybody’s guess—as was how the project would be financed. Though Hatcher had staged a number of fundraisers in the ’80s, by the end of the decade the Hall continued to exist only on paper. In the early 1990s, reporters from the Post-Tribune found that from 1985 through 1990, the Hall’s board spent $1 million, $20,000 more than it had actually taken in during the period. Hatcher refused to explain how the money had been spent. His reason? Discrimination. “I won’t play the game with anyone that wants to single us out but doesn’t ask other foundations or nonprofits for the same kind of information,” he told The Indianapolis Star.

Citing the bad publicity, Hatcher suspended fundraising throughout much of the ’90s. But in 2000, he announced it was time for one last push: He lobbied members of Congress, he went to the statehouse, he tried to woo the city and county. His efforts seemed to pay off. By the summer of 2002, he had received modest pledges from the federal government and the county. And last summer the Gary City Council approved $5 million for the project.

But the victory was short-lived. It wasn’t long before Gary’s mayor, Scott King, began arguing that the city council’s procedure for allocating the funds was illegal. When the city council overrode his veto of the legislation, King sued—and won. In response, Hatcher filed his own lawsuit, which is still pending. “I’m optimistic the Hall will become a reality,” says Douglas Grimes, Hatcher’s attorney and a member of the Hall of Fame board. “But the struggle to build the Civil Rights Hall of Fame has itself been a struggle for civil rights.”

 

In the weeks and months after Hatcher unveiled the donation of Turner’s skull, reporters, Internet obsessives, and Turner aficionados all over the country have raised a host of questions. “The story of the skull, it’s a metaphor for the story of Nat Turner,” says Scot French, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Virginia. “We want to get to who he was and how he became the person he became.”

One of the most controversial aspects of the story concerns the appropriateness of putting the skull on display. “To exhibit the remains of a historical figure in order to raise money is simply outrageous,” says Rudolph Lewis, editor of a website dedicated to Nat Turner. “When I heard about it, I thought it was a joke.” (Grimes, the Hall of Fame attorney, says no decision has been made on whether or not the Hall will display the skull—if, in fact, the museum ever gets off the ground.)

Even more problematic, however, is the issue of the skull’s authenticity. One of the few reporters Hatcher has spoken to since last October is Donna Britt, who grew up in Gary and now writes for The Washington Post. (For this story, Hatcher did not return phone calls to his home, his office at Valparaiso, or his number at IU Northwest.)

In a column she wrote last December, Britt related the story of how the skull ended up in Hatcher’s hands: Last summer, Cora and Franklin Breckenridge—longtime community and civil-rights activists who live in Elkhart—gave the skull to Hatcher, believing the Hall would someday be an appropriate place to display the artifact. Hatcher told Britt that his initial reaction was skeptical: “I said, ‘Frank, no one’s going to believe it’s Turner’s skull.’” But he went on to assure the reporter that the Breckenridges had authentication—which he claimed to have verified. There were, however, problems with Hatcher’s story.

The Breckenridges were not the skull’s original owners; it was given to them in early 2002 by a man named Bob Franklin, whose family had held it for years. A small, soft-spoken man who lives with his wife in a modest home in Elkhart, Franklin retired several years ago after working as the assistant superintendent of the city’s public-school system. He says the skull was handed down to him by his father, who had gotten it from his own father, Albert Gallatin Franklin, a physician who practiced in Richmond, Virginia, around the turn of the century. One of Albert Franklin’s patients had been a woman who claimed that her father was one of the physicians who attended to Turner’s body after the slave leader was executed. The doctor, the story goes, had given the skull to his daughter, who in turn gave it to Bob Franklin’s grandfather. Though Bob’s grandmother, who lived with his family for a time, occasionally mentioned the skull, the Franklins seldom talked about the relic; for years it gathered dust in a closet. Even so, Franklin says, “My father was adamant that it was the skull.”

In the early ’60s, Franklin started thinking about getting rid of the skeleton in the family closet. “I couldn’t just forget about” the skull, he says. “I wanted to find an appropriate place for it.” No one else in his family had much interest in keeping it, and he was sensitive to the awkwardness of a white man’s owning the body part of such a prominent black historical figure. When Styron’s book was published, Franklin wrote him a letter relating his family’s connection to Turner. Styron wrote back, noting that another man had written him with a similar story, but not offering any solutions to the problem of the skull. Every couple of years after that, Franklin attempted to contact people he thought might be able to help him. The Smithsonian told him it didn’t display human remains. Ditto the Anacostia Museum & Center for African American History and Culture. He called the Virginia Historical Society. He called Conner Prairie. He wrote to Virginia author Patricia Cornwell, whose mysteries feature a forensic pathologist heroine. He never got a response.

Then, in 2002, Franklin approached the Breckenridges, whom he had known for years. Cora Breckenridge had served on the Elkhart school board and the national board of the NAACP. Franklin Breckenridge was a former attorney who’d headed the Indiana NAACP. The couple took the skull, but since Britt’s column appeared in The Post, they have said that—contrary to Hatcher’s assertion—they never verified its authenticity. Neither did Franklin; indeed, one of the reasons he contacted so many museums over the years was to see if they would be willing to determine whether it was really Turner’s. “That was always one of my frustrations,” he says.

Hatcher’s vetting process for Turner’s skull is curious, to say the least, but his story has an even more vexing problem. At the same time it was supposedly sitting on Bob Franklin’s shelf, the skull was also supposedly bouncing around the city of Wooster, Ohio.

 

Wooster is a small town in north-central Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland. Home to The College of Wooster and Rubbermaid Home Products, it has a quaint downtown; an abundance of restored, postcard-perfect homes; and the distinct feel of a Rockwell painting. One of the area’s most famous institutions is Woo City, makers of obscenely good ice cream. The city looks as much like Gary as an oil derrick looks like an artichoke.

The two towns do have something in common, though. In 1902, a civil engineer from North Carolina named Joshua James Herring was visiting Wooster when a local resident told him about the fire that had destroyed the college the previous December. As Herring later told The Wayne County Democrat, “The citizen mentioned that among the few things saved was the skull of Nat Turner.”

It was a large skull, “of fine contour,” of a man 34 years old. According to the Democrat, it had arrived in Wooster in 1866. For years, it sat in the office of a local doctor, “where it was regarded as a rare object-lesson by his medical students, to view the phrenological skull developments of a man who had made his indelible mark in the annals of Virginia.” Sometime after it arrived in the city, the skull made its way to the museum collection in the east wing of the main building of The College of Wooster (then known as the University of Wooster).

Herring, who had grown up not far from Southampton County, had a hard time believing the story. To see for himself, he went to the office of Dr. H. N. Mateer, in downtown Wooster. There, Mateer showed Herring the skull, as well as a certificate signed in 1866 by Dr. James R. Parker, a Southampton County physician, authenticating that it was Turner’s. “I am glad to see it,” Herring told the newspaper. “I will write home about it [to Virginia] to verify what I have seen.”

Greenberg, the Suffolk University historian, has tracked down evidence that, amazingly, corroborates the account. In the papers of William Styron, he discovered a letter from a dentist who had written the author after the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner. As a boy, the dentist recalled, he had visited the biology building at The College of Wooster, where he found “all kinds of glass cases filled with all kinds of marine life preserved in pallid eternity.” Another display was more memorable—a human skull with a piece of paper placed across the forehead. “This is the skull of Nate Turner,” it read.

 

It is not hard to find Turner experts who have a hard time believing that either skull—the one currently in Gary or the one that ended up in Wooster—is authentic. As Greenberg has noted, it isn’t as though Southampton County suffered a dearth of skulls in the wake of the insurrection and iNat Turner Insurrectionts backlash. “Who knows how many skulls are out there?” concurs French, the University of Virginia professor.

One of the most skeptical voices is that of Bruce Turner, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Nat Turner. A history buff who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Bruce often makes the hour’s drive to Courtland, where many of the historical records about Nat are kept. There, in a dismal room in the back of the Southampton County Courthouse, with fluorescent lights buzzing overhead, he’ll pore over the trial transcripts or the will of Nat’s first master.

Over the years, he has become highly skeptical of the macabre tales about the fate of Nat’s body. “I doubt that anybody would have taken body parts as souvenirs,” he says. “That would be in direct opposition to what they wanted. The logical thing was to bury him and get it over with.” He is equally dismissive of the possibility that his forebear’s skull is somewhere in Gary with Richard Hatcher. “There is no proof that Nat ever left Southampton County,” he says. “Not when he was alive, and not when he was dead.”

Still, Bruce Turner knows there is only one way to settle the matter. So earlier this year, he contacted the Smithsonian Institution, asking if they could perform tests on the skull. “They could at least find out if it’s the right age, the right sex,” he says. “Then we would know.”

If the skull in Gary is Nat Turner’s, Bruce would like to see it returned to Virginia so that Nat could finally have a proper burial. He even knows the spot for a grave. The plot sits on a hillside next to a whitewashed church, surrounded by the rolling farms of Southampton County. Most of the gravestones are weather-beaten and worn, and the name Turner is carved into almost every one. “If it is him,” Bruce, looking around the graveyard, says of the skull, “wouldn’t this be a better place for him?”

But Bruce has little hope that he’ll ever see the skull. Several months ago he sent a letter to Richard Hatcher, explaining his proposition to the Smithsonian and suggesting that the two men get together to put the controversy to rest. He has yet to hear a response.

 

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