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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 April 2022
Toleration of suicide and the campaign to legalize euthanasia, this article shows, are historically separate developments. From the early 1880s to the 1900s the American press featured moral discussions of suicide alongside gloomy roll calls and expressions of anxiety about an alleged increase in suicide. Focusing on an extensive discussion in the San Francisco Call in 1896, the article shows that Robert G. Ingersoll’s liberal individualist toleration of suicide clearly resonated with many Americans at the time. I trace the rise of suicide from private tragedy to public issue in the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no crossover with euthanasia and no call whatever for assistance with suicide, despite the frequent employment of the plight of the terminally ill in the discussion. Finally, the article shows that those who called for euthanasia thought of it as a human utility and not a right.
1. “Whether “tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
2. “Is it Ever Right to Speed the Departing Sick? Prominent Men in Several Professions Voice Their Sentiments on the Advisability of Shortening the Pains of the Dying,” New-York Tribune, January 21, 1906, 2.
3. “Is it Ever Right to Speed the Departing Sick?” Bizarrely, Jacob Appel uses this article to bolster his claim that the “diversity of national opinion” about euthanasia “was epitomized in a symposium on the subject that appeared in the New York Tribune.” He cites three prominent men who advocated euthanasia rather than the 22 against any loosening of the law. Appel also asserts that, at the time, “[t]he concern of these notables is entirely about the potential for abuse; they make no mention of natural law, religious teachings, or absolute principles” (632). But, as the passages in the text indicate, this is certainly not the case.
4. The American Association of Suicidology recently published a statement entitled “‘Suicide’ Is Not the Same as ‘Physician Aid in Dying.’” American Association of Suicidology, “Statement of the American Association of Suicidology: ‘Suicide’ Is Not the Same as ‘Physician Aid in Dying,’” 2017, https://ohiooptions.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/AAS-PAD-Statement-Approved-10.30.17-ed-10-30-17.pdf (accessed November 30, 2020). See Zach Moss, “Assisted Dying, Not Assisted Suicide,” Campaign for Dignity in Dying (blog), April 10, 2013, https://www.dignityindying.org.uk/blog-post/assisted-dying-not-assisted-suicide/ (accessed November 24, 2020). For a useful discussion of the terms, see Phoebe Friesen, “Medically Assisted Dying and Suicide: How are They Different and How are They Similar?” The Hastings Center Report 50, no. 1 (January/February 2020): 32–43.
5. In looking for lessons about the present from discussions in the past, his article echoes the approach of Martin Pernick who, in his fascinating study of the promotion of euthanasia in medical movies in the early twentieth century, compares euthanasia in the first decades of the twentieth century with its appearance more recently. Martin S. Pernick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
6. “Whether “tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune …”
7. See the campaigning organization Death with Dignity’s stories, which feature people dying of terrible diseases. (https://www.deathwithdignity.org/news/2019/08/new-death-with-dignity-stories/). All jurisdictions in the United States that allow any kind of assisted death restrict it to the terminally ill with a prognosis of six months or less to live. Many proponents of legalized assisted dying do so on the grounds that those with six months to live or less will be suffering unbearably. Martin Gunderson and David J. Mayo, “Restricting Physician-Assisted Death to the Terminally Ill, The Hastings Center Report 30, no. 6 (November–December 2000): 17–23; E. J. Cassell and B. A. Rich, “Intractable End-of-Life Suffering and the Ethics of Palliative Sedation,” Pain Medicine 11, (2010): 435–38.
8. The term “assisted dying” is often used interchangeably with medical aid in dying, assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide (PAS), physician-assisted dying, physician-assisted death, assisted death, and aid in dying. These terms all imply, in the American states where it is legal, a patient self-administering a deadly dose of barbiturates prescribed by a physician.
9. Many scholars see little difference between situations where the patient takes the final action and where the physician administers the deadly dose (see, for example, Ewan C. Goligher, E. Wesley Ely, Daniel P. Sulmasy, Jan Bakker, John Raphael, Angelo E. Volandes, Bhavesh M. Patel, et al., “Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Intensive Care Unit: A Dialogue on Core Ethical Issues,” Critical Care Medicine 45, no. 2 (February 2017): 149–55; Margaret Pabst Battin, “Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide,” in Ending Life: Ethics and the Way We Die (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 17–46). Others see substantive moral distinctions between them (Kevin Yuill, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
10. Ian Dowbiggin, who has written what is so far the best history of euthanasia, identifies Robert G. Ingersoll, discussed below, as the “first to defend a right to euthanasia.” Though Ingersoll defended the right to suicide of those being “slowly devoured by cancer,” and though Dowbiggin is right to note that this justification “differs little from justifications of euthanasia many years later when changes in technology supposedly made active euthanasia an urgent necessity,” Ingersoll neither mentioned nor called for euthanasia. Ian Dowbiggin, A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 10, 12. Jacob Appel conflates the two in his discussion of the 1906 euthanasia controversy in “A Duty to Kill? A Duty to Die? Rethinking the Euthanasia Controversy of 1906,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 614. See also Stephen Louis Kuepper, “Euthanasia in America, 1890—1960: The Controversy, the Movement, and the Law” (PhD diss., Rutgers, 1981); Neil Gorsuch in The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Ezekiel Emanuel in “The History of Euthanasia,” Annals of Internal Medicine 121, no. 10 (November 1994); N. D. A. Kemp, Merciful Release: The History of the British Euthanasia Movement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002); and Richard Weikhart, “Does Science Sanction Euthanasia or Physician-Assisted Suicide?” The Human Life Review 42, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 30–36, who speak of assisted suicide when it did not yet exist, even as a concept. “Kathleen M. Brian, in Morbid Propensities: Suicide, Sympathy, and the Making of American Eugenics,” identifies changing attitudes to suicide with the development of eugenics, conflating the liberty argument for suicide propounded by Robert G. Ingersoll and the eugenic argument made for euthanasia. (PhD diss., The Faculty of The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences of The George Washington University).
11. Appel, “A Duty to Kill?” 614.
12. The term “social Darwinism” owes its currency and many of its connotations to Richard Hofstadter’s influential “Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915.” However, Hofstadter, although critical of the laissez faire individualist ethos of the late nineteenth century, also criticized what he termed “Darwinian collectivism” for its connections with racism, eugenics, and imperialism. For a useful discussion of the two dimensions of Hofstadter’s thought, see Thomas C, Leonard, “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71, no. 1 (2009): 37–51.
13. E. H. Colson, “Agrees With Ingersoll,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
14. Dr Gustave Eisen, “Thinks Suicide Should Be Encouraged,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
15. See Taylor, Michael W., The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (London: Continuun, 2007).Google Scholar
17. Sheila McLean, Assisted Dying: Reflections on the Need for Law Reform (London: Routledge, 2007).
See Kevin Yuill, “The Unfreedom of Assisted Suicide: How The Right to Die Undermines Autonomy,” Ethics, Medicine and Public Health 1, no. 4 (2015), http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jemep.2015.10.003.
18. Jacoby, Susan, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005), 151.Google Scholar
21. Silkenat, David, Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 31.Google Scholar
22. Chelsea Whyte, “US Suicide Rate at Its Highest since the End of the Second World War,” New Scientist 20, (June 2019), https://www.newscientist.com/article/2207007-us-suicide-rate-at-its-highest-since-the-end-of-the-second-world-war/. Historical rates of suicide are notoriously difficult to measure because of the reluctance of many coroners to record deaths as suicide. However, this correlates with British suicide rates, which appear to have risen during the early years of the 1890s, receded, and then peaked in 1905 (Kyla Thomas and David Gunnel, “Suicide in England and Wales 1861–2007: A Time-Trends Analysis,” International Journal of Epidemiology 39, no. 6 (December 2010): 1464–1475), suggesting that the discussion of suicide emerged for reasons other than a dramatic increase.
23. “Agrees with Ingersoll,” San Francisco Call, August 2, 1896, 17.
24. Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 2. Jacoby mistakenly lists Oklahoma as another state into which Ingersoll did not venture (Oklahoma achieved statehood some eight years after Ingersoll’s death).
25. The well-known iteration of the harm principle comes from John Stuart Mills’s classic text, On Liberty (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1865): “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (8).
26. Ingersoll, Robert, The Works of Robert Ingersoll 12 vols. (New York: Dresden Publishing Co., 1900), 11: 365.Google Scholar
27. Ingersoll, The Works of Robert Ingersoll, 9: 135–38.
28. Those biographies that fail to mention it at all include Jacoby, The Great Agnostic; Orvin Larson, Robert Ingersoll: A Biography (New York: The Citadel Press, 1962); C. H. Cramer, Royal Bob: The Life of Robert G. Ingersoll (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952); Joseph McCabe, Robert G. Ingersoll: Benevolent Agnostic (Girard, KA: Haldeman-Julius, 1927); Mark A. Plummer, Robert G. Ingersoll: Peoria’s Pagan Politician (Macomb, IL: Western Illinois, 1984). Herman E. Kittridge’s Ingersoll: A Biographical Appreciation (1911; repr., New York: Freethinker Library, 2009) mentions the exchange of views very briefly.
29. Dowbiggin, A Merciful End, 35–38.
30. Ingersoll’s famous “Christmas Sermon” was printed in the Evening Telegram on December 19, 1891, prompting the Rev. Dr. J. M. Buckley, editor of the Christian Advocate, the recognized organ of the Methodist Church, to call for the public to boycott the Evening Telegram for publishing it. Reverend L. A. Lambert wrote a 216-page book dedicated to the 361-word sermon (L. A. Lambert, Ingersoll’s Christmas Sermon (New York: D. H. Macbride & Company, 1898). See also Ingersoll’s defenses of his sermon against clerical wrath: Robert Ingersoll, The Works of Robert Ingersoll, 7: 267–355.
31. Robert Ingersoll, Is Suicide a Sin? The Works of Robert Ingersoll, 7, 375.
32. Samuel Strahan, Suicide and Insanity: A Psychological and Sociological Study (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1893). Barrister and physician Strahan’s influential text noted of suicide, “The absence of this fundamental instinct (of self-preservation) is the irrefragable proof of unfitness to live” (30).
33. Robert Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin?” The Works of Robert Ingersoll, 7, 376. See also, “On Suicide,” Speeches and Writings File, 1864-1900, Box 29, Reel 20-21, Robert Green Ingersoll Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (hereafter Ingersoll Papers).
34. Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin?” The Works of Robert Ingersoll, 7, 378.
35. Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin?” The Works of Robert Ingersoll, 7, 378.
36. Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin?” The Works of Robert Ingersoll, 7, 382.
37. “Ingersoll Answers His Critics,” The Courier (Lincoln, NE), September 2, 1894, 6.
38. No title, The Courier, September 29, 1894.
39. William Sheran, “Answering Ingersoll,” New Ulm Review, August 22, 1894, 1.
40. “Ingersoll on Suicide,” The Columbian (Bloomsberg, PA), September 21, 1894, 8.
41. “Mr DC Logan A Christian Suicides in Lexington,” Blue-Grass Blade, January 13, 1895, 3.
42. “Ingersoll on Suicide,” The True Northerner, November 16, 1894, 3.
43. Raymond de L’Epee, “Its Triumph Is in Death: Satanic Journalism Has Had Its Double …,” New York Times, August 26, 1894, 17. On May 4, 1886, near Haymarket Square in Chicago, a bomb was thrown into a company of policemen sent to disperse a meeting protesting police action against striking workmen, killing one policeman on the spot and wounding many more. In the ensuing riot, eight officers and an undetermined number of private citizens were killed and wounded. An elaborate trial of eight “anarchists” followed; all eight were convicted and seven were condemned to death. One killed himself the day before the execution, and the remaining four were hanged on November 11, 1887. See Bernard A. Kogan, The Chicago Haymarket Riot: Anarchy on Trial (Boston, MA: D. C. Heath and Co., 1959).
44. “Remedy For Degeneracy: Dr. Silverman Takes Issue with Max Nordau…,” New York Times, Nov 25, 1895, 10.
45. Ingersoll was mentioned, for instance, when suicides occurred. See, for example, “Disciples of Ingersoll: Two Commercial Travelers and a Politician Shuffle Off the Mortal Coil,” The Washington Post, October 8, 1894, 7. Also, “Took Ingersoll’s Advice: Sigmund Schneidler Got Rid of Life’s Woes by …,” The Washington Post, June 13, 1895, 1. There was, in fact, nothing to tie the two suicides to Ingersoll. The Reverend Alexander McKay-Smith defended Ingersoll on the basis of free speech rather than ringing support for his points. Randolph H. McKim, “Clergy and Ingersoll: Rev. Blagden’s Protest and Rev. Mackay-Smith”s …,” The Washington Post, December 20, 1894, 9.
46. “Epidemic of Suicides: Congressman Morse Says that Ingersoll’s Book Is the Main Cause,” The Washington Post, January 26, 1897, 9.
47. Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin?” Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, 7, 376–84.
48. Ingersoll’s final paragraph in his pamphlet notes, “Those who attempt suicide should not be punished. If they are insane should, if possible be restored to reason; if sane, they should be reasoned with, calmed and assisted.” But it is fairly clear in the context of pity, “assisted” refers to rendering of assistance for problems of life. (“Is Suicide a Sin?” Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, 384).
49. “Suicide and Sanity,” Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, 421.
50. See Enrico (published as Henry) Morselli, Suicide: An Essay on Comparative Moral Statistics (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882); William Wynn Westcott, Suicide: Its History, Literature, Jurisprudence, Causation and Prevention (London: H. K. Lewis, 1885); and S. A. K. Strahan, Suicide and Insanity: A Physiological and Sociological Study (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1893). All three were widely reviewed in American journals.
51. See, for example, “Theories of Suicides,” The Washington Post, April 27, 1889, 4; Samuel Yorke At Lee, “Is Suicide a Sin?” The North American Review 150, no. 399 (February 1890): 275–79; “Suicides and Murders: The Terrible Lists Continue to Increase throughout the Country,” Chicago Daily Tribune December 31, 1893; “Some Curiosities of Suicide: The Causes That Lead to It and the Laws Made against It,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 26, 1892, 16. All noted the “alarming incidence of suicide.”
52. Emile Durkheim, On Suicide, trans. Robin Buss (NY: Penguin, 2006).
53. “How and When,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
54. “Is Suicide Wrong?” The Herald, June 11, 1896, 4.
55. Lewis Jones, “Is it Wrong to Commit Suicide?” The Herald, June 23, 1896, 5. See also Allen Griffiths, “Theosophy and Suicide,” The Herald, June 18, 1896, 3; George W. Carpenter, “Thoughts on Suicide,” The Herald, June 15, 1896, 4; Theo Hirst, “The Risk of Suicide,” The Herald, June 29, 1896, 2.
56. Mollie E. Connors, “It is Braver to Live,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
57. Dr. N. S. Ravlin, “From a Spiritualist,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
58. James S. Reynolds, “If a Good Thing,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
59. Reverend Joseph Worcester, “More Prevalent Than We Think,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
60. Mrs. Dr. Louis Schlesinger, “Might Be Justifiable,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
61. Captain I. W. Lees, “It All Depends,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
62. Ravlin, “From a Spiritualist.”
63. William H. Beatty, “A Man”s Life s His Own,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
64. Dr. Gustave Eisen, “Thinks Suicide Should Be Encouraged,” San Francisco Call, Sunday, August 2, 1896, 17.
65. Williams, Samuel D., “Euthanasia” in Essays of the Birmingham Speculative Club (London: William Morley, 1874), 210–37, 216, 230.Google Scholar
66. Lionel Tollemache, “The Cure for Incurables,” in Stones of Stumbling (London: William Rice, 1893), 1–31 (originally published in the Fortnightly Review, February 1873, 2, 4).
67. Annie Besant, “Euthanasia” in My Path to Atheism (London: Freethought Publishing Co., 1885): 143–56, 156.
68. F. E. Hitchcock, “Annual Oration: Euthanasia,” Transactions of the Maine Medical Society 10, (1889): 30–43.
69. Williams, “Euthanasia,” Tollemache, Stones of Stumbling, 17, Besant, My Path to Atheism, 144.
71. Author’s translation of “Nous avons déjà vu que le suicide est, en général, en raison directe de l’instruction et de la civilisation…,” 61n.
72. Plaut, Eric A. and Anderson, Kevin, eds., Marx on Suicide (Evanstown, Ohio: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 47.Google Scholar
73. Olive Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 242.
74. “Suicide,” New York Times, September 15, 1872, 4.
75. Washington v. Glucksberg, 711–12.
76. S. B. Livingston, “Suicide and Reactionary Legislation in New York,” Counsellor 4, no. 4 (January 1895), 91.
77. An American edition was published in 1882 as Henry Morselli, Suicide: An Essay in Comparative Moral Statistics (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1882).
78. Morselli, Suicide, vi.
79. Morselli, Suicide, 13.
80. John Weaver, Sadly Troubled History: The Meanings of Suicide in the Modern Age (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2009), 19; Anthony Giddens, “The Suicide Problem in French Sociology,” The British Journal of Sociology 16, no. 1 (March 1965): 4.
81. Strahan, Suicide and Insanity, 134.
82. William Mathews, “Civilization and Suicide,” The North American Review 152, no. 413 (April 1891): 470–84, 476.
83. Cited in Martin J. Wiener, Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law, and Policy in England, 1830-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 267. See also Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, an extensive survey of the issue in Britain.
84. “The Religion of Anarchy: A Creed of Individualism,” New York Tribune 15, no. 6 (June 1894): 518.
85. “Infidelity and Anarchy,” Herald of Gospel Liberty 78, no. 38 (September 23, 1886): 8.
86. Editor’s Outlook: “Dangers to the Public Peace,” The Chautauquan: A Weekly Newsmagazine 18, no. 3 (December 1893): 356.
87. Joseph Locke, Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 15.
88. Robert T. Handy, A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada (New York: Oxford University Press), 364–66.
89. William G. Mcloughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 151.
90. V. Y., “Suicide and the Law,” Liberty (Not the Daughter but the Mother of Order) 9, No. 33 (April 15, 1893): 3.
91. “Suicide and the Law: Efforts That Have Been Made to Prevent Self-Murders,” New York Times, March 14, 1893, 5.
92. “The Ethics of Suicide,” New York Times, August 30, 1894, 4.
93. Clark Bell, “Suicide and Legislation,” Medico-Legal Journal 44, no 1 (1888): 6.
94. Sumner Kenner, “The Criminal Liability of an Inciter or Abettor of Suicide,” Central Law Journal 61, (November 24, 1905): 406.
95. “Thou Shalt Not Kill: Should Civilization, in the Name of Mercy, Modify That Law of Humankind to Meet Cases Where Incurable Disease Makes Life a Hopeless Agony?” (A Sermon Given in Oakland by Reverend Dr. Wendt on August 9, 1896), San Francisco Call, August 15, 1896, 16.
96. Gustave Eisen, “Thinks it merciful,” San Francisco Call, August 15, 1896, 16.
97. Rev. Dr. Stebbins, “Against it,” San Francisco Call, August 15, 1896, 16.
98. “Response by Reverend Small,” San Francisco Call, August 24, 1896, 9.
99. “Would slay criminals, insane, incurably ill, and degenerates. For the good of the race. Famous women physicians offer some startling ideas,” Seattle Star, August 24, 1905, 3.
100. “Would Chloroform Poverty’s Babies,” The Minneapolis Journal, January 6, 1906, 2.
101. “Prolonging Life,” The San Francisco Call, January 14, 1906, 26
102. Prolonging Life, 26.
103. “Would kill the injured,” The Saint Paul Globe, December 13, 1903, 24.
104. “Slaying the Sick,” The Bowbells Tribune, April 13, 1906, 2. Emphasis added.
105. “Euthanasia,” The Spectator: Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, May 1902, 138.
106. “Is it Ever Right to Speed the Departing Sick?”
107. Jacoby, Freethinkers, 151. Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies, 1906 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1910), 21, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1900/bulletins/demographic/103-religious-bodies.pdf.
108. “Secretary Said to Be a Medium: People of Albany Insist Bertha Berner, like her Murdered Mistress, is a Convert to Spiritualism,” The San Francisco Call, March 6, 1905, 2.
109. “Is it Ever Right to Speed the Departing Sick?”
110. Pernick, The Black Stork, 22.
111. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers, 116.
112. Edward A. Ross, “The Causes of Race Superiority,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 18, America’s Race Problems. Addresses at the Fifth Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, April 12–13, 1901 (July, 1901), 67–89, 88.
113. Howard Brody and M. Wayne Cooper, “Binding and Hoche’s ‘Life Unworthy of Life’: A Historical and Ethical Analysis,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 57, no. 4 (Autumn 2014): 500–11, 505.
114. “Dr. Potter Backs ‘Mercy Killings’: Death Is Justified, He Holds, If …,” New York Times, February 3, 1936, 13. See also Dowbiggin, A Merciful End.
115. An exception is Szasz, Thomas, Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
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