1891: Four to save the electric chair

3 comments July 7th, 2011 Headsman

After its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New York’s pioneering electric chair.

Having grotesquely botched its maiden execution of William Kemmler, there was a considerable sentiment to retire the electric chair immediately.

The second round of “electrocutions” — 19th century papers still put this then-neologism in quotes — were closely watched as an acidelectric test of the chair’s staying-power. If these men burned to death, slowly and horribly, as Kemmler had, that might have been it. And had New York reverted to hanging or moved on to lethal injection,* the chair’s subsequent adoption by other states and its journey into the iconic popular culture would likely have been aborted.

But, they fixed up the chair, tested it on some more large animals, and moved the electrode combination from head+spine to head+leg … and voila!

There was nothing about the executions of the horrible nature that shocked the country when Kemmler was made the first victim of the law. If the testimony of a score of witnesses is to be believed, the executions demonstrated the use of electricity for public executions to be practical whether or not it is humane. While the Kemmler butchery, with all its terrible details cannot be forgotten, against that one awful failure the advocates of the law now point with unconcealed pride to four “successes.”

New York Times, July 8, 1891

“Unconcealed” pride would be an interesting choice for these advocates, since these prophets of brave new death technology had themselves feared a calamitous failure of their apparatus as much as anybody — well, as much as anybody except the condemned.

Consequently,

every witness of the execution was made to pledge himself in writing never to reveal any detail of it unless requested to do so by the authorities. No newspaper representative was admitted. As THE TIMES has repeatedly stated, it was the intention of the advocates of the law to keep the public from knowing anything about these executions … Therefore, Gov. Hill** and his henchman, Warden Brown, made up their minds that these experiments with the law should not go before the public as anything else than successes, and they packed the jury accordingly with picked men.

The Times dilates considerably in this vein; ever the helpful courtier, it is concerned principally that the state’s orchestrated public relations campaign would have had more credibility had the successful executions been witnessed by third parties who have newspapers to sell. You know?

But … if only the state’s handpicked friendly witnesses were allowed to see what went down, do we actually know that it wasn’t another dog’s breakfast? The July 8, 1891 London Times — for the executions had a global audience — cobbled together a less reassuring wire report.

There are, however, many conflicting statements current as to what actually occurred, and it is extremely difficult to discriminate as to which are true and which are false … Dr. Daniels, one of the witnesses of the executions this morning, said, in an interview this afternoon, that he might tell a great deal about the affair if he were not bound to silence. He added that the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case, there having been two shocks given to each of the condemned men. The truth, Dr. Daniels said, would make a thrilling story.

Wait, what!?

If Dr. Daniels actually said anything like that, someone got this electric chair proponent rewrite (pdf) pretty quickly.

I was misquoted. I simply said that if I were at liberty to give a detailed account of the scenes in the death chamber the public would no doubt be interested in knowing that the executions had been a pronounced success.

You could totally see how the guy would say “pronounced success”, and this British rag would hear, “the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case.” Separated by a common language and all that.

For the record, the chair salvaged itself upon these unfortunates:

  • James Slocum (a former minor league baseball player†), for murdering his wife
  • Levy Smiler, for murdering his mistress
  • Joseph Wood, for murdering a fellow-laborer
  • Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese seaman, for murdering one of his comrades

History has all but forgotten them … save that their deaths were officially ruled a great technological triumph, sufficient to rescue “the chair” from abortive 19th century penal cul-de-sac and set it on its way to becoming a pop culture icon.

* The modern-seeming method of lethal injection was actually one of the options vetted to replace the rope in the 1880s.

** Hill at this time was flirting with a presidential run, which ultimately didn’t happen: he won a Senate seat instead.

Thanks to @LisaWinston for the tip to Slocum’s sports career.

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1951: The Lonely Hearts killers, tortured by love

1 comment March 8th, 2010 Headsman

“Who would give a law to lovers? Love is unto itself a higher law. ”

Boethius

On this date in 1951, the made-for-tabloids killer couple Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were electrocuted at New York’s Sing Sing prison for murder.

He was a toupeed middle-aged lothario with a knack for conning personal ad denizens. She was a lovelorn obese single mother* with a serious dark side. Together — through a chance meeting through the personals — they became the Lonely Hearts Killers.

Martha Beck started off as just another of Raymond Fernandez’s targets: charm them, promise engagement or undergo a faux-wedding, and then rob them. He’d pulled this off a few times before; he might have even killed at least one of them.

But something clicked when he met Martha.

Or rather, Martha made it click.

Fernandez did the love ’em and leave ’em routine with Martha, whom he soon realized was penniless. But their passionate hotel rendezvous had been spied by the local bluenoses, who promptly got Martha fired for her indiscretions. She showed up unannounced at Fernandez’s door, and pushed her way right into his life.

Ere long, they were cohabiting — lurid media accounts would later savor their “abnormal sexual practices” and their, er, lifestyle relationship. She caused near-riots among the crush of spectators at their circus trial when she got into specifics of freaky stuff like voodoo fetish play.

“A request from Mr. Fernandez to me is a command,” Martha testified. Since this was so — though the power dynamic between them really seems to have run in the other direction — she willingly joined in Mr. Fernandez’s scam, posing as his “sister” when he went to meet and charm his next mark.

Once such assets as could be had were signed over, the pigeon was disposed of: often, they’d just make the “honeymoon” so unbearable that the target got the picture and left, so humiliated she wouldn’t dare come forward with the story.

And sometimes — nobody seems to know exactly how many times — Raymond and Martha killed together.

Martha (whose own sob story of ostracism and childhood neglect is really quite sad) supplied much of the vengeful energy that impelled the murders. One of their victims was a woman Beck attacked in a jealous rage when Fernandez actually slept with her. (The “sister” would often impose on the sleeping arrangements to obstruct consummation.)

The Lonely Hearts Killers’ crime spree is thoroughly covered elsewhere. It carried them to Michigan, a non-death penalty state where they were arrested. There, they confessed in a ploy to draw a local sentence and avoid execution.

Michigan instead extradited them to New York to stand trial in a sweltering courtroom and on every Gotham newspaper’s daily headlines for the murder of a Long Island widow. That confession given in Michigan helped seal their fate in New York.

Though separated from one another on death row (but they kept up the treacly correspondence), Martha and Raymond were joined in death.

On International Women’s Day of 1951, both were executed in New York’s electric chair, along with two unconnected, run-of-the-mill murderers.

My story is a love story. But only those tortured by love can know what I mean … in the history of the world, how many crimes have been attributed to love?

-Martha Beck

Given the newspaper ink spilled over these two, it’s no surprise that they’ve inspired plenty of subsequent writers and directors. The Honeymoon Killers (review) is a creepy 1970 classic, with a couple of latter-day imitators.

* She abandoned her two kids to the Salvation Army when she hitched her wagon to Fernandez.

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1939: Three Men For Murder, But Not Isidore Zimmerman

1 comment January 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Isidore “Beansy” Zimmerman spent the day preparing for death in New York’s electric chair … but was spared by an 11th-hour clemency from New York Governor Herbert Lehman.

Here’s the scene, as laid in the anti-death penalty tome of wrongful convictions In Spite of Innocence:

As dawn broke over Sing Sing Prison, Beansy Zimmerman had every reason to think it would be his last day.

Zimmerman numbly went through the pre-execution rituals. The last meal (choose whatever you want), and music (you get to choose that, too) played on the wind-up phonograph. The barber shaves your scalp so the electrodes can fit snugly against your bare skin. The tailor slits one of your trouser legs for another electrode. Officials treat you with unaccustomed politeness. A final family visit — how do you say good-bye when you know it is forever? What should your last words be? Beansy’s mother stayed away, unable to face such finality.

Two hours before execution, Gov. Lehman commuted his sentence.

In this blog, we lay aside each story day by day, but for those affected, it’s rarely so easy — which is why the mothers of the five men condemned today put in their personal clemency appeals to the governor.

For Zimmerman and a fellow “accomplice” named Philip Chaleff whose respective roles in a robbery/murder were doubted, it had the desired effect. (Dominick Guariglia, Arthur Friedman and Joseph O’Loughlin weren’t so lucky.)

Chaleff, a diabetic being kept alive just for execution, soon succumbed. For Zimmerman, the execution that did not happen was to define the rest of his 66 years. He was alive, but to what end?

“I wasn’t dead, no,” he remembered. “But every day from now on they’d bury me a little more.”

Zimmerman fought, by becoming a skilled jailhouse lawyer and in 1962 finally winning exoneration from the New York Supreme Court, which held that the testimony against him had been perjured with the connivance of the prosecutor.

He’d spent nearly a quarter-century in prison. Now, he was just another ex-con scrabbling after dead-end employment.

For years thereafter, Zimmerman fought for a special bill that would allow him to sue the Empire State for wrongful imprisonment, finally winning approval in 1981.

His suit asked for $10 million. The judge reckoned Zimmerman’s time and trouble were worth a tenth of that.

Expenses deducted, Zimmerman walked away with $660,000 — that, and sweet vindication.

Fourteen weeks later, he dropped dead of a heart attack.

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1928: Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray

10 comments January 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1928, a suburban femme fatale and the corset salesman who had murdered her husband were electrocuted at Sing Sing prison.

“A cheap crime involving cheap people,” one writer called it.

“Ruthless Ruth,” as the press inevitably called her, was on the wrong side of 30 and married to a wet blanket on the wrong side of 40 from whom she couldn’t even get away during the day because they worked for the same boating magazine.

The banal hell of the bourgeoisie.

Ruth had a banal solution: commence affair with handsome, limp-willed corset salesman (also married) from New Jersey.

Given a large enough metropolis with a large enough pool of adulterous data points, it must be statistically inexorable that a certain proportion will resolve the love triangle by throttling the cuckold with a wire.

But only that remorseless calculator in the sky can compute why these two, of all those thousands, were the ones not to run off together, or let the affair fizzle, or just continue to rendezvous indefinitely into the future. They certainly weren’t constitutionally cut out for crime; they set up the room in a poor simulacrum of a robbery, and told of a couple of unknown Italians* who’d broke in and done poor Albert Snyder to death.

For their poor judgment and for the speedy collapse of their crummy alibi, journalism owes them a debt of gratitude.

The execution of a woman was quite sensational; Ruth Snyder was to be the first electrocuted since 1899.

For the occasion, The New York Daily News hired a Chicago Tribune journalist to witness the execution … and at the moment the current struck, Tom Howard hoisted his pant leg and secretly snapped with a one-use camera one of the most indelible images the death chamber offered the 20th century, to be splashed in a few hours’ time on the Daily News‘ cover under the headline

DEAD!

The Snyder-Gray adulterous melodrama and its violent conclusion inspired novelist James Cain‘s Double Indemnity, and the noir film of the same title with Barbara Stanwyck as the black widow at the center of the web.

It also inspired the state of New York to begin searching official witnesses to its electrocutions.

* Blame-the-Italians here is a Roaring Twenties Queens version of fingering the black man. The murder was committed in May 1927, just as the Sacco and Vanzetti case was approaching its climax.

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1903: William Ennis, wife-murdering cop

Add comment December 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1903, a nine-year veteran of the Brooklyn police became the first member of the thin blue line to die in the electric chair.

Then 31-year-old William Ennis had gunned down his estranged wife (and, not fatally, his mother-in-law) early the preceding year, and his attempt to claim insanity at trial was rejected as shamming.

This slice of New York color is the second story in this New York Times column reporting the day after the crime.

While in a frenzy of rage, as a result of heavy drinking and brooding over family troubles, William H. Ennis, a policeman attached to the Adams Street Station, Brooklyn, early yesterday morning broke into the hime [sic] of Mrs. Alice Gorman, his mother-in-law, in Canarsie, wounded her seriously with a bullet from his revolver, and then shot and killed his wife, who was living there.

He then rushed from the house and ran along the railroad tracks to East New York, two miles distant, where he was found asleep in a room in a hotel by the police several hours later. …

Two weeks ago Mrs. Ennis had her husband in court on a charge of non-support, and he was ordered to pay her a weekly stipend. At that time Ennis declared that he would “rot in jail” before he would pay his wife any money unless she left her mother’s house and returned to live with him. …

Early on Saturday morning he reported sick at Adams Street Station and was excused from duty. It was learned that he came to Manhattan and in the evening was arrested at Forty-second Street and First Avenue for intoxication and disorderly conduct, but at the East Thirty-fifth Street Station was allowed to go when it was found that he was a policeman.

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1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, “the first victims of American fascism”

June 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in Sing Sing’s electric chair as Soviet spies.

Divisive since it was handed down — or more precisely, since a famous article in London’s Guardian challenged the verdict and helped elevate it into a latter-day Dreyfus case — the Rosenbergs‘ sentence has inspired so much acrimony over several generations that merely to observe the date is to invite a debate capable of eminently more heat than light.

Where to begin with a case so towering in the recent cultural milieu?

A textbook might say that Julius and Ethel were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Russians, that they maintained their innocence and their defenders carried that flame years after their deaths, and that intelligence files opened after the Cold War — notably the Venona project — apparently confirmed that Julius was a spy after all, though Ethel seems to have been little more than an approving bystander and Julius, come to think of it, never had anything so worthwhile as atomic secrets to share with Moscow. This information (which does have its own skeptics, albeit a small minority) undermines the maximal “absolute innocence” position that this day’s victims always asserted, but it’s a curious leap to take it as vindicating the legal outcome.

“My husband and I must be vindicated by history; we are the first victims of American fascism.”

Half a century on, juridical guilt or innocence seems distinctly secondary in the lasting importance of the Rosenberg trial, the two-year battle to save them, and their potent symbolic afterlives.

The Rosenbergs are the only stateside judicial executions for espionage since the Civil War.* That is a remarkable distinction, after all; so, how comes it that it is held by — to state the case against them in its strongest imaginable terms — two enthusiastic but bush-league players, and not by the likes of Aldrich Ames? How was it that a judge with a largely center-liberal career on the bench would read them a sentence of death hysterically accusing these Lower East Siders of causing the Korean War?

[Y]our conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.

I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation’s security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gains must cease.

It is here in the age of McCarthyism, in the shadow of the USSR’s balance-altering A-bomb test in 1949, that the Rosenbergs stand in sharpest relief — not because of “guilt” or “innocence”, but as the ne plus ultra of that era’s range of social discipline.

A few years before, the United States and the Soviet Union had made common cause against Hitler in World War II, the United States pumping war materiel to Russians bearing the brunt of the fighting.

No longer operative.

The Communist Party USA enjoyed membership rolls pushing six figures; other socialist parties and movements had found niches in American life in the interwar years.

As the Great War gave way to the Cold War, the great powers remained nominal allies (that’s the reason the Rosenbergs weren’t tried for treason), but shifted rapidly into conflict. The American polity organized to expel the red menace by rendering it foreign and criminal — ideological rigging for the forty years’ imperial contest ahead. Loyalty oaths, blacklists, the House Un-American Activities Committee … in the whole of the self-conscious construction of communism as “contagion”, the power and willingness of the state to kill Julius and Ethel Rosenberg formed the tip of the spear, and an ugly contrast to that same state’s solicitous handling of Nazi scientists then developing the vehicles to deliver atomic technology to Moscow in mushroom cloud form.

Though different in many particulars, the thrust will be familiar to any sentient denizen of post-9/11 America: the extreme penalty enforces a wall between the suspect and abject (but tolerated) loyal liberal and the enemy left. Depend upon Ann Coulter for the most brutal articulation:

We need to execute people like John Walker [the American-born soldier captured fighting for the Taliban in 2001] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.

Like most symbols, the Rosenbergs came by their exaltation by accident; at the strictly personal level, their deaths are nearly operatic performances of human stubbornness and bureaucratic inertia. Investigators rolling up a spy ring** were looking for confessions and names to keep the indictments coming.

Julius refused to provide either, so his wife was arrested for leverage against him on the reasoning that he would confess to protect her. The gambit failed: both prisoner and hostage remained obstinate. The government’s bluff had been called, and it ruthlessly executed its threat.

Had the two really been responsible for starting a war, execution would hardly begin to cover the bill — yet to the very foot of the chair, the condemned, and Julius especially for the sake of his wife, were pressed with offers of mercy for confessing and “naming names”.

Abjure or expire: show trial logic.

[audio:Julius_and_Ethel_Rosenberg.mp3]

An Execution in the Family

Given names to name, the personal mystery of their silence — the ultimate heroism or folly or tragedy or transcendence — only deepens the resonance of their fate both for contemporaries and posterity, the poignance of their orphaned children’s subsequent path, the contrast with Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who has since admitted to perjuring testimony against Ethel in order to shield his own wife. (Greenglass says the Rosenbergs died from the “stupidity” of not copping a deal of their own.)

Even before Julius and Ethel went to the chair this date,† they had become the emblem of a paranoid age. In the days following, Sartre savaged the United States for trying “to stop scientific progress by a human sacrifice”:

Your country is sick with fear. You’re afraid of everything: the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans. You’re afraid of each other. You’re afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.

Decades later, the shadows haven’t faded altogether. In playwright Tony Kushner’s imagination, the spirit of Ethel stalks her real-life prosecutor, closeted McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn, as he succumbs to AIDS in the 1980’s.‡

Rosenberg resources — and vitriol — are in plentiful supply online and off. A good starting point on the case is this page at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Be sure to check the tale of a last-ditch legal maneuver that almost succeeded.

* There is one partial exception in the unusual case of six German saboteurs electrocuted in Washington, D.C., during World War II on a charge sheet that included espionage. The hearing was held by a military commission and only one of the six was an American citizen, so it was far from the regular judicial process — if one can call it that — the Rosenbergs faced.

** Originating in the investigation of Klaus Fuchs, the man who actually did what Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of doing — passing atomic secrets to Moscow — although with debatable ultimate effect for the Soviets’ research. Fuchs served nine-plus years in a British prison and was released to East Germany; more than a few were galled at the difference between his sentence and the Rosenbergs’.

Stateside, George Koval was another spy far more valuable to Moscow in the nuclear race than were the Rosenbergs. Koval got away clean and died in Moscow in 2006.

† Julius first, then Ethel. Her execution was botched; repeated shocks were required to kill her.

‡ Cohn’s posthumous autobiography did acknowledge illegally rigging the Rosenberg trial, as his Kushner character does.

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1934: Three inept murderers (with a fourth to come)

3 comments June 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1934, three members of a quartet that had — eventually, with Keystone Cops ineptitude — killed a vagrant in an insurance scam during the Great Depression were electrocuted at Sing Sing.

Mike Malloy, the victim of Daniel Kriesberg, Anthony Marino and Frank Pasqua (and Joseph Murphy, whose execution this day was stayed, but who followed his collaborators to the chair on July 5 of that same year), has chiseled out a weirdly Bunyanesque footnote of Americana as “the man who wouldn’t die.”*

The troubles the would-be murderers had getting rid of the 50-year-old drunk after they conned him into signing less than $2,000 worth of insurance papers are outright black comedy. The New York Daily News remembered this noteworthy homicide last year. Yes, it’s murder, but it happened 75 years ago. Go ahead and laugh.

After several weeks of feeding Malloy free liquor [in an attempt to have him drink to death], Marino noted that it was starting to cost him money. More distressing was Malloy’s health: His pallor had lifted and spirits soared courtesy of the free booze. More active measures would be required to hasten Malloy’s demise.

Murphy, a former chemist, told Malloy that some “new stuff” had come in. Malloy drank it, commented on how smooth it tasted and then collapsed to the floor. They dragged him to the back room and anticipated that they would need to pay off a physician for a “hush job” death certificate.

One hour later, a refreshed Malloy bounded back to the bar with a mighty thirst, unaffected by the alcohol Murphy had laced with car antifreeze.

Over the next few days the gang spiked Malloy’s drinks with stronger doses of antifreeze, then turpentine and, finally, horse liniment with rat poison. Malloy kept beaming and kept drinking, soaking up the good times spent with his new friends. The crew decided a switch to food would best hasten Malloy’s death.

Marino served him raw oysters – soaked in wood alcohol. After downing two dozen, Malloy was so enthused by the cuisine that he encouraged Marino to open up a restaurant. The next course included an entrée of rotten sardines mixed with tin shavings. Same result.

Next, the plotters got Malloy stupefied and escorted him to Claremont Park, stripped off his coat, and in the middle of winter opened his shirt and poured 5 gallons of water on him before dumping him into a snowbank. If poisoned liquor and food couldn’t kill Malloy, then the cold blasts of a New York winter would.

Or so they thought. The next evening, Malloy showed up at the speakeasy wearing a new suit. He had really tied one on the night before, he explained, and wound up nearly naked in the park. Fortunately, the police had found him and a welfare organization outfitted him with new clothes.

Exasperated, the gang hired a cab driver, Harry Green, and offered him $150 to run Malloy down with his vehicle. On Jan. 30, 1933, a nearly unconsciously drunk Malloy was driven from Marino’s to Pelham Parkway. Murphy stood him up in the middle of the roadway, and Green backed up his taxi two full blocks to build up enough speed to complete the job. Somehow, Malloy stumbled to safety. They then took Malloy to Gun Hill Road. This time, Green hit him.

The gang gleefully retreated to Marino’s and again waited for an announcement of Malloy’s demise. For days nothing appeared in the newspapers.

Where was he? Malloy was recovering in the hospital under a different name, having sustained a fractured skull, a concussion and a broken shoulder. The indestructible barfly returned several weeks later to the speakeasy and announced he had an awful thirst. The boys’ jaws dropped.

Now desperate, they contacted a professional hit man, but his $500 fee was too expensive. They then shanghaied another drunk, Joe Murray, stupefied him with liquor and stuffed his coat pocket with Malloy’s ID and ran him over with a cab. Murray, a substitute for Malloy in every way, recovered from his injuries after two months in Lincoln Hospital. The only way to knock off Malloy, the gang determined, was murder, clean and simple.

They finally had to stuff a rubber hose down his maw and gas him through it.

Astonishingly, this blockheaded crew came within a fingernail’s breadth of getting away with it, just as they’d gotten away with their innumerable attempted murders** — evidence, really, of just how overrated an achievement the “perfect crime” is. A little baksheesh for a death certificate with a fake cause-of-death, a quick trip to the pauper’s cemetery, and they had already set about collecting the insurance policies before anyone got suspicious.

With four shiftless conspirators and at least two other people who’d been let in on the plot, though, once the sniffing started, their goose was cooked. Soon enough, so were the killers. And it only took the state of New York one try apiece.

* The young Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories television show dramatized this implausible story. Why The X-Files never made use of it, no one can say.

** The Daily News reckons it at six; a 1934 New York Times piece counted 10. The investigation suggested that they’d actually done someone else for insurance before, using the winter exposure method that Malloy survived.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,New York,Pelf,USA,Why

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