The mysterious fate of Boston Corbett

What happened to the man who shot John Wilkes Booth?

Boston Corbett

Boston Corbett, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

One of the lingering mysteries of the Lincoln assassination concerns Boston Corbett, the man who shot John Wilkes Booth. In 1888, Corbett disappeared into thin air. Michael W. Kauffman, a Lincoln assassination scholar, joins us today with a guest post  on this strange and historical case. Kauffman wrote American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies and contributed a chapter to The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century.

Welcome Michael W. Kauffman!


A historical disappearance

Boston Corbett’s disappearance is one of many mysteries connected to the Lincoln assassination, and it’s one that will probably never be solved. Corbett was last seen in the town of Neodesha, Kansas, where he had gone to visit a friend named Richard Thatcher, whom he had known when both were prisoners of war at Andersonville during the Civil War.

 Boston Corbett after the Civil War

Corbett had drifted from one job to another after the war, dogged by the feeling that he would fall victim to revenge at the hands of John Wilkes Booth’s friends. Celebrity hadn’t suited him well. After a brief and unsuccessful career as a lecturer, he became a minister of the gospel. He was probably a bit too intense for most parishioners, and before long he headed west and took up residence on a grant of land in Cloud County, Kansas. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and in time he came to be regarded as a public menace and a danger to society. But mindful of his status as a national hero, officials in Cloud County came up with a novel way of getting rid of Corbett while appearing to pay him an honor: they arranged to make him an assistant doorkeeper to the state legislature in Topeka! (Keep in mind, they did this because they considered him dangerous.)

Corbett lands in an asylum

It wasn’t long before Boston Corbett wore out his welcome in Topeka. He took offense to some remarks and drew his revolvers in the state house. The men in the white coats came to get him, and after a brief hearing, he was committed to the State Asylum for the Insane.

Apparently, Corbett felt the institution had little to offer, and he availed himself of the first opportunity to escape. He disappeared in short order, and made his way to Neodesha, in the southeast part of the state. There his old war buddy, Thatcher, extended a warm welcome and an invitation to stay a while. But after making some noises about heading for Mexico, Corbett disappeared into the wilderness, and as far as is known, he was never seen again.

Various theories about Boston Corbett

The western frontier was vast and forbidding, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what might have happened to Boston Corbett as he made his way south. Starvation, hostile Indians, marauders, and dangerous animals were only a few of the hazards any traveler would have to face in the Old West. Travelling alone was especially dangerous, and the odds of survival in the wilderness were extremely poor. Wild animals would have left little trace of anyone who died in such a vast expanse.

All of which is to say that it probably surprised no one when Corbett failed to materialize in Mexico or anywhere else in subsequent years. Though there were pretenders — most notably a patent medicine salesman in Enid, Oklahoma who was imprisoned for fraudulently claiming Corbett’s pension — the real Boston Corbett was never seen for certain again.

Great Hinckley Fire

But there were stories that suggested otherwise. In September of 1894, a forest fire consumed more than 200,000 acres around the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, and among the more than 400 fatalities was a man identified as Thomas Corbett. That was actually Boston Corbett’s given name, and it didn’t take long for rumors to take root about the death of Lincoln’s avenger in the Great Hinckley Fire. But in truth, this was never more than a rumor, based solely on the name of a man who seemed to be a stranger to the people of Hinckley. Attempts to connect that stranger to the killer of John Wilkes Booth have fallen flat for lack of evidence.

But as a wise old friend once told me, mysteries are a good thing. They give us something to talk about and to keep us interested. If you can supply all the answers, everyone will just get bored and move on to another topic. Nevertheless, if anyone can shed more light on the fate of Boston Corbett, I’d be delighted to hear about it.

Michael W. Kauffman

Author Michael W. Kauffman (Owings) has written a book about John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Assasination titled “American Brutus”. Photo by: J. Henson, courtesy of Michael Kauffman.


Thank you, Michael W. Kauffman!

Which theory do you think is most likely?

If you want to read more about the Lincoln assassination, check out my interview of Michael W. Kauffman.

Michael W. Kauffman also offered a blurb for the back cover of my book, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee:

Death of an Assassin is not only a startling historical discovery but a poignant tale of heroism and redemption. With a marvelous eye for detail, Ann Marie Ackermann has navigated through long-forgotten records on both sides of the Atlantic to unearth a new and complex kind of hero – a brutish, vengeful man who, perhaps out of remorse, was anxious to start a new life and redeem himself in his adopted home. It’s a great story, bolstered by solid research and told by one who is uniquely qualified to bring it to the public.

Click on the link above to order the book.

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Milestones in the History of the Forensic Autopsy

 

A 19th-century autopsy

Anatomy of the heart; And she had a heart! 1890. Enrique Simonet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The history of the forensic autopsy is peppered with names you’d probably recognize. Julius Caesar. Paul Revere. Although you may have not heard of Emperor Charles V himself, you’ve certainly heard of the Holy Roman Empire. And if you’ve read Antonio Garrido’s blockbuster, The Corpse Reader, you know another name: Cí Song.

These people formed important building blocks in the history of the forensic autopsy – now a critical evidentiary tool in murder investigations.

Julius Caesar’s autopsy

First determination of which wound was fatal

The death of Julius Caesar occasioned the first recorded autopsy.

The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, ca. 1805 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When a group of Roman senators assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC, they stabbed Caesar 23 times. But only one wound proved fatal. That was the result of the world’s first recorded autopsy report.

A physician named Antistius examined Caesar’s body. Caesar had stab wounds everywhere – in the face, belly, groin, and arms. Antistius determined one of the two stab wounds to Caesar’s chest had sliced his heart and caused his death.

Today, a medical examiner’s conclusion of which wounds prove fatal play a critical evidentiary role. Prosecutors must prove causation in a murder case – that the defendant’s acts, and not some other factor, caused the victim’s death.

Cí Song and the Hsi Yüan Lu

First surviving textbook on autopsies

Cí Song wrote the Hsi Yüan Lu – “Instructions to Coroners” early 13th-century China. It remained the primary text there for centuries, anchoring its place in the history of the forensic autopsy. A fascinating novel about Cí Song’s life, The Corpse Reader, tells about his rise to the most prominent forensic pathologist of medieval Chinese history.

Cí Song once solved a murder case by analyzing the victim’s wounds. The shape of the cuts indicated the murderer had used a sickle. Song then asked all the farmers to turn in their sickles and noticed that flies were attracted to one of them. It had the scent of blood on it and its owner confessed.

You might call that the world’s first line up. But the witnesses were flies.

Emperor Charles V

First law requiring autopsies in murder cases

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s ground-breaking criminal code of 1532, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, was the first German law that required autopsies in cases of unnatural deaths. That law still applied in 1835 when Mayor Heinrich Rieber, the victim in my book, was murdered in Bönnigheim.

The Carolina didn’t lay down any procedures for autopsies. It only required an external examination of the body and that a physician conduct them. Nevertheless, the new law was an important signpost in the history of the forensic autopsy because it gave a nod to the crucial role physical evidence can play in a murder case.

Rudolf Virchow

First Standardization in the history of the forensic autopsy

Standardization of autopsies first began after 1876 when the German physician Rudolf Virchow – considered the father of modern pathology – published his treatise on autopsy techniques. Prior to Virchow’s time, autopsies followed no regular method. Physicians haphazardly dissected to pursue their own theories of the case. And that limited discoveries. Virchow’s procedures required pathologists to cover more ground – and hence find more clues.

Paul Revere's dental identification of a body was a milestone in the history of the forensic autopsy

Paul Revere’s dentistry tools. By Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine (ncp1331) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Revere

First dental identification

He wasn’t just the horseman in the midnight ride. Paul Revere also rode into the history of the forensic autopsy as America’s first forensic dentist. The silversmith worked on the side as an amateur dentist, creating dentures from animal teeth.

Revere’s friend Dr. Joseph Warren went missing in action after Bunker Hill. Months later, 114 corpses were exhumed from a mass grave of patriots killed in action and examined in the hopes they could be identified. Revere recognized his friend from the set of dentures he’d created from a hippopotamus tusk. He hadn’t been identified after the battle because a musket ball to his face obliterated his facial features. Revere’s identification allowed Warren to receive a hero’s funeral.

Today forensic dentistry plays a crucial role in the identification of bodies. But remember, an American patriot was the first. Dr. Vincent Di Maio and Ron Franscell discuss the case in their great book, Morgue: A Life in Death.

Can you name any other watershed moments in the history of the forensic autopsy?

Literature on point:

Sydney Smith, “The History and Development of Forensic Medicine.” British Medical Journal (March 24, 1951), 599-607.

RJ Parker, Forensic Analysis and DNA in Criminal Investigations (2015).

Vincent Di Maio & Ron Franscell, Morgue: A Life in Death (Picador, 2016).

Tales from the Practice of Medicine: Ancient Chinese Forensic Medicine,” Pure Insight (March 17, 2003).

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Cat Warren on Der Geruch des Todes (The Scent of Death)

Geruch des Todes: Dogs can pick up on the scent of death.

Geruch des Todes: Dogs can pick up on the scent of death. Photo from Pixabay.

Two years ago I interviewed Cat Warren, a cadaver dog handler and author of the New York Times bestselling What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World. She gave my readers advice about whether their dogs might make good cadaver dogs.

Her bestseller has now been translated into German and will appear in October 2017. My German readers can watch out for the title Der Geruch des Todes: Einsätze eines Leichenspürhundes (Kynos Verlag; “The Scent of Death: A Cadaver Dog in Action”). To celebrate the launch of the German book, I’ve posed Cat some new questions to follow up on her fascinating career.

Welcome, Cat Warren!

The German translation of Cat Warren's bestseller: Der Geruch des Todes.

Geruch des Todes (The Scent of Death): Cat Warren’s bestseller will now be available in German. Courtesy of Kynos Verlag.

There are no volunteer cadaver dog handlers in Germany. By law, a cadaver dog handler must be a police officer. For the Germans interested in reading Der Geruch des Todes, could you explain how the American volunteer system works?

It’s mostly about law enforcement budgets here in the United States. The fact is, cadaver dogs aren’t needed every day in the same way a patrol dog is needed every day. One of the founders of the field, Andy Rebmann, started the first cadaver dog program in the late 1970s with the Connecticut State Police. That program has survived up through the present. Other programs spun off from Andy’s founder effect—Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine.  And a couple of large cities, New York and Chicago, have cadaver dogs and handlers.  I’m also seeing a resurgence of law enforcement cadaver dogs across the United States. That’s hugely anecdotal, I know. But several additional law enforcement agencies here in North Carolina have gotten cadaver dogs, just in the past five years.

And a case that got national attention here in the United States in late July had law enforcement cadaver dogs on the scene. In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, two cousins murdered four young men and buried them with a back hoe on a remote country farm. The cadaver dogs were able to pinpoint where three of the victims were buried, 12 ½ feet deep (Here’s a link to what I think is the best story about it: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/pennsylvania/articles/2017-07-22/finding-bodies-a-well-trained-dog-cant-be-replaced).

Several larger police departments in the United States have cadaver dog and handler teams, and some small ones scattered across the country — especially sheriff departments — partly because their work can tend to be more rural and cadaver dogs can be so helpful in searches in rural areas. But many law enforcement departments depend on volunteers for this function. A good volunteer dog-and-handler team can produce some excellent results. Those relationships between law enforcement and cadaver dog teams are often informal. But if you look at a disaster such as Hurricane Harvey here in the United States, which is still unfolding, you’ll see that cadaver dogs will play an important role in helping recover victims. The majority of those dog teams will be volunteers.

Cat Warren training her cadaver dog, Jaco.

Cat Warren training her cadaver dog, Jaco. Photo courtesy of Ben Salama.

Der Geruch des Todes has several audiences: law enforcement dog handlers, volunteer search and rescue dog handlers, and curious dog owners. What does your book offer to each of them?

I want my book to appeal to a diverse set of readers: that includes not only dog handlers and dog lovers, but people who love science, mystery, and history. To me, what is fascinating about working with dogs goes well beyond the idea of having your best friend at your side. Sure, that’s part of it. I love dogs. I love to be with them. I spend a fair amount of time cuddling Jaco, our current German shepherd, when I want to relax on the couch. But working with scent-detection dogs immediately moves me into the realm of thinking about crime, legal issues, the search environment, the challenges of rigorous training — and even understanding the science behind scent. So the questions that engaged me when I was researching the book took me beyond cold, wet noses and wagging tails.

What’s the typical kind of case you get called out to work on?

At the moment, I’m not deploying a dog. I have a wonderful German shepherd who is in training, and is certified to work, but I want him to have a national certification before I deploy him. It’s important that one be able to prove in court that you have a dependable, consistent, rigorously trained dog. It’s lucky that I love to train, as well as to do actual searches. I think most working dog people do, as that’s how you spend the majority of your time: training.

During the 8 years that I deployed Solo, who is the subject of Der Geruch des Todes, we worked on a mixture of cases, from people who were missing with evidence that it was homicide, to Alzheimer patients, to cases where people suspected of a crime were missing and presumed dead.

Jaco tracking down "den Geruch des Todes."

Jaco tracking down “den Geruch des Todes.” Photo courtesy of Ben Salama.

 

Have you ever felt frightened during a search?

Yes. It’s inevitable. That being said, it’s important to not allow that fear to travel down the leash, where the dog picks up on it. Usually, I was only frightened for myself because the suspect was not yet in custody, and we were working in areas that were remote. Another time, we were working in an area where a farmer threatened to shoot the dogs if he saw them, though we had permission to search in the area. That made the fine hairs on the back of my neck prickle. Often, though, I’ll be worried because I want to make sure my dog isn’t harmed. Sometimes, it’s as simple as searching alongside a busy road, and making sure the dog doesn’t dash into traffic. Or working in an area where there are other physical dangers. Bad stuff can happen quickly on searches. It’s the dog’s job to use his nose, and it’s my job to make sure the area is covered, and the dog is safe while he’s concentrating on following scent.

Thank you Cat Warren, and please give Jaco a hug from me.

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Murder of Ambrose Madison, Grandfather of President James Madison

President James Madison was the grandson of Ambrose Madison

President James Madison, by John Vanderlyn (1775–1852) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A slow, lingering death in 1732 made its mark not only in Virginia criminal history, but presidential history as well. The first documented murder in the Orange County, Virginia region was of the grandfather of a U.S. president. But it may not have been a murder at all. The strange death of Ambrose Madison presents a mystery that you might be able to help solve today.

Strange death of Ambrose Madison

Ambrose Madison, the paternal grandfather of President James Madison, was an early landholder in present-day Orange County. He owned several slaves, and they took the blame when Madison began feeling ill around June or July of 1732. He made out his will on July 31, and on August 27, succumbed to his illness. No records of his birth date still exist, but he was at least 36 years old when he died. James Madison Sr., the president’s father, was just nine years old when his father passed.

The poisoning charge

Shortly before Ambrose Madison’s death, two of his slaves, Turk and Dido, along with a neighbor’s slave, Pompey, were cited for “Suspition of Poysoning.” Because the court records have been lost, we don’t know any details about Madison’s symptoms, the type of poison, or evidence for the slaves’ involvement. If the slaves did indeed poison Ambrose Madison, they didn’t use enough or a type to kill him outright. The substance must have been sufficient to damage his organs enough to lead to his slow demise over a period of a couple of months.

The Virginia court tried and convicted Turk, Dido, and Pompey on September 6. Pompey was executed by hanging the next day; Turk and Dido received a whipping. The court deemed their involvement was insufficient to warrant the death penalty.

Was it murder or not?

Ann L. Miller, an Orange County historian, put this case under a magnifying glass in her book, The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison. She examined subsequent cases in which slaves allegedly poisoned their masters.

The other poisoning cases

In the fifteen years following Ambrose Madison’s death, Miller found three other cases in Orange County. On August 19, 1746, a slave named Eve allegedly poisoned the milk of her master, Peter Montague.  He died in December. Eve was convicted and executed.

On August 1, 1748, a slave named Letty allegedly poisoned the “Water, Bread & Meat” of Richard Sims, who died in January after five months’ illness. She was also accused of poisoning fellow slave, Simon, owned by John Grymes, on September 31, 1748, by serving him toxic “Cyder, Water, Bread & Meat.” He died the following April. Letty pleaded not guilty and was acquitted.

The golden thread

Miller points out that all four poisoning cases have similar features: The plantations of the poison victims were all located within eleven miles of each other. All the victims suffered lingering deaths over the period of several months. And the dates of the poisonings were all in summer or early autumn.

Might that point to a botanical cause and natural deaths? Miller raises the question and asks what type of toxic plants grow (or are most potent) in Northern Virginia during those months.

Might white snakeroot have caused the death of Ambrose Madison?

White snakeroot. Sten Porse, Ageratina altissima (2006), Creative Commons.

Milk sickness

The poisonings remind me of the “milk sickness” that killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, in Indiana. White snakeroot plants (Ageratina altissima) containing the poison tremetol killed both the cows that consumed them and the people who drank their milk. White snakeroot does grow in Virginia. But milk sickness victims usually die within a couple of weeks, not months.

Might Virginia have another toxic plant that could have caused these deaths? How common is white snakeroot in Orange County? If you have any knowledge of botany or Virginia flora, I’d love to hear your theories.

Literature on point:

Ann L. Miller, The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison (Orange, Virginia: Orange County Historical Society, 1995)

Douglas B. Chambers,  Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia  (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi: 2005)

Virginia Botanical Association, “Ageratina altissima,” Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)

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Coldest Murder Cases Ever Solved

cold cases

Image by Castleski, courtesy of Shutterstock.

What have been the coldest cases ever solved?

A craveonline article by K. Thor Jensen, “The Longest Cold Cases in History that were Eventually Solved” lists several. At the top of the list stands the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, Illinois. She disappeared on a winter day and her corpse was found a year later. Investigators exhumed her body in 2011 for DNA testing, and amazingly they found DNA that matched to a former suspect. He was arrested and charged in 2012, 55 years after the murder.

In second place for the coldest cases ever solved comes the double murder of two policemen in 1957. They pulled over a car for running a red light in El Segundo, California. The driver shot them both. Advances in fingerprinting technology enabled law enforcement to identify a suspect in 2002, who pled guilty. Forty-five years had passed between the murders and conviction.

A record-breaking cold case from Germany

The case that’s the subject of my book would come in third place on the craveonline list: 37 years between the murder and solution. And it just might hold the record for the 19th century for the coldest cases, back when murders were even harder to solve. It also became 19th-century Germany’s only murder case solved in the United States outside of a confession.

An unknown assassin gunned down the mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, in 1835, but without any solid leads, the investigation went cold in 1837. A tip from Washington, DC solved the case in 1872. An immigrant from Bönnigheim wrote it. The German prosecutor was able to close the investigation after a forester found corroborating evidence in the archives.

The American letter

The letter that cracked one of the coldest cases ever solved

Frederick Rupp to the City of Bönnigheim, April 29, 1872. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg, E319 Bü 146, with permission

Here you get a preview — the first page of the letter and a translation. It’s written in an old German handwriting called Kurrentschrift, so even if you know German, you might find it hard to read. Don’t worry — there are no spoilers here, because the author first named the assassin on the second page. If you want to know how the letter continues, you’ll need to purchase the book.

Washington, D.C. 29 April 1872

To the highly honored, praiseworthy Mayor
And city council in Bönnigheim, District Authority of Besigheim
Kingdom of Württemberg!

Most Honorable Gentlemen!

I consider it my duty to inform you that after many years and some discrete research, I have finally learned who the heinous murderer of our highly esteemed but unfortunate Mayor Rieber was. [Rieber] was, as far as I remember, shot by a heinous murderer in the autumn of 1834 [corrected to 1835], in the night at 9:45 pm, as he came home from his brother’s inn, the Waldhorn, where he had eaten – he lived next to the palace – while he was opening his door. They offered a huge reward for arresting the murderer, but the entire investigation was fruitless, and as far as I can still remember, several upright citizens, who were innocent, as it now appears, came under suspicion. In order to remove that suspicion from those miserable families, I see it as my sacred duty to report everything to you exactly as I discovered it recently by coincidence.

Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee

My book tells the story of amazing German-American case and its connection to Robert E. Lee. It’s publication date is today – September 1, 2017, and it has received some great reviews. Take a look at it here on Amazon.

Praise for Death of an Assassin

Death of an Assassin book cover

Death of an Assassin book cover, courtesy of Kent State University Press.

“Death of Assassin is an entertaining look at very human characters in a world on the edge of radical change.” — Robert Davis, New York Journal of Books

“An engaging piece of history.” — Tim Gebhart

“Death of an Assassin is not only a startling historical discovery but a poignant tale of heroism and redemption. With a marvelous eye for detail, Ann Marie Ackermann has navigated through long-forgotten records on both sides of the Atlantic to unearth a new and complex kind of hero — a brutish, vengeful man who, perhaps out of remorse, was anxious to start a new life and redeem himself in his adopted home. It’s a great story, bolstered by solid research and told by one who is uniquely qualified to bring it to the public.” — Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies

“Ann Marie Ackermann has marvelously weaved a story of diverse themes into a single fabric of historical research and investigation. Written in a conversational style and drawing the reader into the web of mystery produces a story of high interest and adventure.” — Anthony Waskie, assistant professor, Temple University, author of Philadelphia and the Civil War

“An Edgar-worthy true crime masterpiece of astonishing investigative skill and irresistible narrative flow. I know the term “must read” is overused, but I’m going to use it again — Ann Marie Ackermann’s new book is a must read!” — Burl Barer, NYT-best-selling author of Murder in the Family and Man Overboard

“A page-turner of historical scholarship, Death of an Assassin takes a little known German cold case murder from 1835 and turns it into an intriguing mystery. Using a style reminiscent of Case Closed, author Ann Marie Ackermann puts you in Bonnigheim when the assassin pulls the trigger and later Mexico, where the fleeing assassin engulfs Robert E. Lee in tragedy, long before Lee ever heard the canon near Appomattox Court House.” — Fred Rosen, author of Murdering the President: Alexander Graham Bell and the Race to Save James Garfield

“In her excellent work, Death of an Assassin, Ann Marie Ackermann has penned a fascinating account of a long-ago murder; a murder that should have remained tucked away somewhere in the dark archived files of history, never again to see the light of day. Thankfully for us, however, the author has not only rescued this strange tale from obscurity, but has brought to light a story that begins with the murder in Germany, and ends up in the pre-Civil War America of Robert E. Lee, where the killer begins an eventful new life.

“With a sharp eye for detail, Ackermann painstakingly reconstructs the lives of the participants from long-hidden facts, and then, having breathed life back into them, paints a vivid literary picture throughout the pages of her riveting book. It’s a tale that will pull you in from the very first page.” — Kevin M. Sullivan, author of The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History and Custer’s Road to Disaster: The Path to Little Bighorn

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