In 1827, a slave named Ambrose escaped from his owner Berryman Burger. Like most runaways, Ambrose did not make the dangerous trek north but remained in the area, a practice called ‘lying out.’ In most cases, such slaves kept a low profile, living off the land or from scraps gleaned from friends and compatriots in the quarter. Ambrose, however, took a different path, waging guerrilla war against slavery and local slaveholders. Over the course of more than a year he broke into barns, slaughtered hogs and poultry, pillaged smokehouses, burned outbuildings, destroyed cotton, and generally behaved like a local Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and returning to his fellow slaves. Within months, Ambrose had induced other runaways to join him, and he was regarded by local planters as a “desperate character ... capable of any act of villainy” who should be killed on sight.

Early in the morning of September 24, 1828, a local white man, Kirkland Harmon, surprised Ambrose in his camp and gunned him down as he rose. Ambrose winced as the buckshot “enter[ed] his back loins & hips,” and he bled out on the ground. His one-man rebellion was effectively over. Without the coroner’s inquest convened over his body, however, we would know nothing of his rebellion; the record of his death is the only record we have of his life. How many Ambroses were there? It is hard to know. To its credit, Ambrose’s band picked up his mantle and continued to operate in the area as a plague to local planters.

I was not surprised to learn that such local resistance was quashed and that slaves like Ambrose were routinely murdered. I was surprised to learn how often the coroner responded. In her WPA interview, the former slave Mittie Freeman remembered the coroner as “that fellow that comes running fast when somebody gets killed,” and the coroner is mentioned in quite a few of the most famous slave narratives, including those by Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown. The coroner was often the only magistrate mentioned because he was the only ‘outside’ law the slaves ever saw. We will never know precisely how many enslavers murdered their slaves and effortlessly covered it up. But in cases where the murderer was someone other than the enslaver, or where the enslaver failed to cover it up, there usually was an investigation, at the very least because property had been destroyed, and someone expected compensation.

“Laws ... against the murder or torturing of slaves are about as well observed as might be laws enacted by wolves against sheep-murder.”

Reflecting on the South he was forced to flee because of his Unionism, John Aughey noted: “Of course the laws which exist in every state against the murder or torturing of slaves are about as well observed as might be laws enacted by wolves against sheep-murder.” But in the coroners’ inquest there was actually a subtle game of community standards going on. Standing over the body of a slave and surveying the grim damage, a coroner’s jury was often perfectly comfortable recommending that a white be indicted. And at coroner’s inquests slaves were allowed to testify. The actual jury nullification came later, in the courtroom, when the mangled body was not actually present and the murderer was let off. But by then he had been held up to public scrutiny; his judgment and decency had been questioned publicly and legally. It is less than justice, but it is not nothing, a fact which slaves themselves recognized. When the coroner came a-runnin’, many slaves thought he might bring justice with him from some far off, saner place. And in his own Narrative, Frederick Douglass tells the story of an unnamed slave girl whose mistress “pounded in her skull” with a piece of firewood because she allowed a baby to cry uncontrollably and wake the household. “I will not say that this murder most foul produced no sensation. It did produce a sensation. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Mrs. Hicks, but incredible to tell, for some reason or other, that warrant was never served, and she not only escaped condign punishment, but the pain and mortification as well of being arraigned before a court of justice.” It is hard to believe that for all he’d seen of the institution of slavery, Douglass still thought it capable of any justice at all.

What does not make it into many of the slave narratives, including Douglass’s, is the violence that existed within the slave community. Enslavement does not magically transform all who endure it into savvy, self-sustaining freedom-fighters. If we are going to grant the enslaved their full humanity we must grant that, like any other group of people, they occasionally fought, fornicated, and got into petty disputes that sometimes took a murderous turn. To be sure, as historian Steven Hahn has noted, the slave quarter produced one of the most radical and transformative politics ever seen in America, a politics that produced Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass and finally brought down a $3.5 billion dollar interest. But in coroners reports we get a glimpse of the violence that existed within the slave community that we knew had to be there. Thus did the enslaved of the Haile plantation turn their children over to Tamer, the enslaved nurse, on their way out to the fields, little knowing that she liked to punish the children by tying them too close to a fire, a practice that was only discovered when she finally cooked one of them to death. Or take the case of an enslaved man named Dick who became so jealous that he pulled a log from a fire and murdered the man who was staying in the cabin of a woman he wanted to sleep with.

Today, the typical homicide in the United States involves one man shooting another, and this is equally true in the CSI:Dixie database. Comparatively speaking, the CSI:D sample has a higher percentage of male victims and a lower percentage of gun use. Today firearms are used in 68% of American homicides; in the CSI:D sample guns are used 52% of the time. Today 77% of homicide victims are male; in the CSI:D sample 88% are male (and virtually all of the perpetrators are men). Put bluntly, in the nineteenth century south, violent death was a more exclusively male province, and Death had more faces.

Interestingly, though, in the CSI:D database virtually none of the gun-related homicides are related to robbery. Most are the product of the highly combustible combination of anger and alcohol. The last words of J. Edward Sims were typical: “Shoot you damed cowardly son of a Bitch.” Or take this poignant exchange:

Tom Rutland (firing): “I will kill you, you son of a bitch.”

William Padgett (bleeding): “You have already.”

In the strange alchemy of the male brain, friends became mortal enemies in an instant, often over trivialities. “How in the hell did you Gap up My ax?” Gus Settler demanded to know of Allen Holmes in March 1882. I hardly know what a gapped-up axe looks like, but I do know that returning a borrowed tool in less than satisfactory condition is no grounds for murder. Settler disagreed and shot Holmes dead.


Life in the Faulknerian world of CSI:D was especially cheap for children. Catherine Berry, a domestic in the R. C. Poole household, was told that she would be terminated if she was indeed pregnant. In an awful feat of endurance, she continued with her chores until, doubled over with pain, she snuck away to give birth in the potato shed. Reeling from the loss of blood, she still managed to strangle the baby and fling it into the Pacolet River, where it washed up at the feet of some fishermen. When Peggy Bedenbaugh felt her first contractions, she went out to a corner of the yard, gave birth in a hole, and covered the baby over with dirt. Luly Collins threw her baby down a well. Nancy Owens swept hers under a brush pile. All had denied for months that they were in the “family way”; all had killed the evidence; all were indicted for murder.

Or take the case of Jane Arnold. On September 7, 1857, Brazeal Cox and his wife found sixteen-year-old Jane Arnold stretched out on the ground with a baby beside her, bleeding from its umbilical cord. When Arnold became aware of the couple she called out to Mrs. Cox, who wrapped the dying infant in Arnold’s apron and took it into the Arnold home. Mrs. Cox then returned and asked the girl why she hadn’t given birth indoors. Because her daddy was “doging” her, she said, and had cast her from the house. “She seemed to be grieving,” Cox told the coroner in a model of understatement, “but [I] don’t know what for, whether on the part of her dead child or the abuse of her father.”

“She seemed to be grieving, but [I] don’t know what for, whether on the part of her dead child or the abuse of her father.”

Three years later, at four in the morning, a shivering Jane Arnold knocked at the door of a neighboring farm. She was cold and unkempt, but she couldn’t make up her mind to stay. Instead she returned to the abandoned schoolhouse where she had taken her latest baby, born in the middle of the road, to die of exposure.

The coroners’ office reveals a world where men force women into sex and women pay the price for it, in embarrassing pregnancies, social stigma, and the occasionally desperate attempt to cover up the evidence. In 1829 a fire in Thomas Welsh’s smoke-house revealed a small cubby in which a full term child had been secreted in a jar of lime. It is impossible to know whether this was an infanticide or a child who had been stillborn. Regardless the mother was covering up something. Occasionally that something was an interracial liaison. More often it was simply a pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Many of the cases reveal that the women had been trying for some time to induce an abortion. ‘Home remedies’ for pregnancy mentioned in the CSI:D sample include savin powder mixed with turpentine, red bark bay tea, and the ashes of dried corn cobs. In this sense some of the infanticides might be considered extremely late-term abortions. One unnamed mother, for instance, gave birth to a stillborn child who bore unmistakable marks of abuse en utero. M. Lipscomb was found doubled over a fence having apparently bled out in a botched, self-induced abortion.

Almost sadder is the number of women who were held to account for the ‘murder’ of infants who had most likely died of crib death or SIDS. Often sent back to the cotton field within days of giving birth, enslaved mothers were understandably exhausted, and they often slept with their infants so they could breast feed in a haze and go back to sleep. When they occasionally awoke to dead babies, they were unfortunately as susceptible as their doctors and enslavers to believe that they had smothered their children in their sleep, a phenomenon which only enhanced their reputation as uncaring and unnatural mothers.

NEXT: Suicide


Murder Cases Tried in South Carolina, 1887-1900

Year Number of Homicides Tried Not Guilty Verdicts Guilty Verdicts Cases Dismissed or Continued Percentage Found Guilty
1887 79 54 11 14 13.9%
1888 117 61 36 20 30.1%
1889 120 69 30 21 25.0%
1890 incomplete returns - - - -
1891 151 76 46 29 30.0%
1892 incomplete returns - - - -
1893 incomplete returns - - - -
1894 incomplete returns - - - -
1895 210 112 67 31 31.9%
1896 201 110 67 24 33.3%
1897 215 120 64 31 29.7%
1898 248 105 96 47 44.0%
1899 205 83 97 35 47.3%
1900 224 127 71 26 31.7%

Credit: John Hammond Moore, Carnival of Blood: Dueling, Lynching, and Murder in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), pp. 130-131, taken from Reports and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina

Homicide Inquests

Displaying 251 - 300 of 642
Namesort ascending Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Lewis Moore November 30, 1891 at the plantation of Robert Smith, Edgefield County, SC pocket knife

upon their oaths do say that one Lewis Moore . . .came to his death from wounds in right arm inflicted with pocket knife in the hands of Robert Bauknight (Col)

Lewis Hall in Fairfield County, South Carolina, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Lewis Hall was killed on the 9th day of January 1883, in Fairfield County in what manner and with what instrument unknown to the Jurors

Lewis Green free man of color September 17, 1859 at the Williamston Hotel, Anderson County, SC arsenic

do say that the said Lewis Green came to his death by poisioning with arsnick at the Williamston Hotel. . . on the night of the seventeenth day of September. . . the said poison being administered at the said Hotel somewhere about the thirteenth day of September...the medium of a certain sponge cake or pudding by some person or persons unknown

Lewis Bartie July 26, 1864 at Mount Zion Church, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

upon there oaths do say that the said Lewis Bartie the deceased came to his death. . .by a wound received from a Double Barrel shot gun in the hands of James Green

Lewis negro man, boy March 14, 1861 at Charles Hammonds Brickyard, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oats do say that the said Lewis did come to his death. . .By the discharge of a pistol on Sunday the tenth ist in hands of Benja[?] Glanton

Lewis slave March 27, 1865 at or near the residence of [?] Gossett, Spartanburg County, SC

that he came to his from a gun shot wound through the neck passing out at his jaw and the said show was from a gun in the hands of some person unknown

Levi H. McDaniel March 9, 1859 at or near the 17 mile Post on the Scotts Ferry Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .the deceased came to his death by a Pistol shot in the left side near the region of the heart fired from the hands of one James H. Jones

Leroy Boan May 22, 1934 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths, do say: He came to his death by Gun shot wound in the hand of Brutus Cagle

Leonard Dixon October 27, 1934 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that Leonard Dixon received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Frank DeBerry on the 26 day of October 1934, and that form such mortal wound deceased died in South Carolina on October 26-1934.

Leonard Clark July 3, 1946 at Jefferson, SC, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Leonard Clark received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 Pistol in the hands of Bill Sowell

Lee Ryan September 27, 1877 at the plantation of Abram F Broadwater, Edgefield County, SC iron instrument

upon their Oaths do say that the said Lee Ryan came to his death from wounds inflicted upon the head by some Iron Instrument in the hands of Some one to the Jury unknown and that Alice Ryan was an accessory to the Crime

Larken Bramblett June 8, 1838 at the House of Newton Bramblett, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that Hiram Holcombe of the state and District aforesaid, on yesterday evening the 7th Inst. Betweeen sundown & dark, did feloniously, voluntarily and of his own malice aforethough with a certain shot gun shoot and wound the said Larken Bramblett in the breast neck and head, of which said mortal wounds the aforesaid Larken Bramlett then and there instantly died, and so the said Hiram Holcombe, then and there feloniously killed and murdered the said Larken Bramblett, against the peace of this State.

Lankin Suber February 22, 1884 at the Vance Place, Laurens County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Lankin Suber came to his death on the 21st day of February AD 1884 by cuts from a knife in the hands of Frank Jamison and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths do say That the aforesaid Frank Jamison in manner and form aforesaid Lankin Suber then and there feloniously did Kill against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid.

L. Roy Lavender June 9, 1838 at Lucey Lavenders, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that one James Sessions[?] feloniously voulantary and of his own malice aforethought made an assault uppon the said L.R. Lavender with a [?] dirk knife made of Iron and Steel of the value of $1.25 [?] Mortal Wound . . . which Mortal Wound by the Stab of Said Knife the said L.R. Lavender came to his death.

L. F. Pinson December 17, 1890 at the Residence of Jabe Pinson, Laurens County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say, That the said L.F. Pinson came to his death by a blow inflicted on the head with a rock at the hands of Coleman Nelson

Kitty April 27, 1865 at David Owens's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That they have thoroughly Examined the body of the decd Kitty and find no marks of violence on the body sufficient to cause death, and so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid do Say that the deceased came to her death by some cause unknown to them...

Kenneth M. Douglas October 17, 1946 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Kenneth M. Douglas received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 32 Pistol in the hands of M. Stuart Funderburk

Keal Johnson colourd man October 20, 1866 at J.M. Proctors Residence, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there Oaths do say that he came to his death. . .by a Pistol shot from the hands of G.J. Smith entering the left side of the mouth and came out at the back side of his head

Julius Metskie June 27, 1887 at Valley Falls, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Julius Metskie came to his death by a gun shot would inflicted in the head by George S. Turner at Valley Falls

Julia Van June 20, 1892 at the plantation of Mr Joe Thurmond, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Rial Williams Killed the said Julia Van by misfortune and contrary to his will

Julia Mundy June 17, 1881 at Jas H Banknight, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Julia Mundy Came to her death from a pistol shot and fired by Josh Mundy her husband and made one mortal wound in the Right breast of her

Julia Long November 22, 1883 at the residence of David Long, Anderson County, SC shovel

do say that the deceased Julia Long came to her death by natural causes.

Joshua Hammond Jr. September 6, 1849 at a place belonging to John Bauskett[?] on little horse creek, Edgefield County, SC fence rail

upon their oaths do say that the said Joshua Hammond Jr came to his death by Sunday[?] blows inflicted by the hands of John Green Jr & Julius Green with a gun[?] & fence rail and that John Green senior was aiding and abetting at the time at a place on the Hamburg Road belonging to John Baushkett[?] on little horse creek now occupied by Benjamin Davis

Joseph W. Glover September 2, 1844 at Charles Comptys[?] Hotel, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the he came to his death by the discharge of a pistol in the hands of Lovett Gomillion loaded with [?] Bullets which load of shot entered the said Joseph W Glovers body a little above the nipple on the right side of the breast . . .said pistol was discharged by said Gomillion in a street fight between himself and said Glover in self defence

Joseph Riddle April 10, 1856 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Riddle came to his death by a wound or stab with some cutting instrument inflicted just under the left ear by some hand to this jury unknown

Joseph Hughes July 25, 1853 at the house of James A. Price, Union County, SC stick or board

upon their oaths do say that James A. Price did . . .at his own house in the said District with a club, stick or board hit the said Joseph Hughes over the head inflicting three severe wounds in the forehead and bruising the head nearly all over

Joseph Butler October 8, 1836 at John H. Byrds, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said Robert Campbell of Laurens District & state afod. Not having the fear of God before his Eyes but being moved and seduced by the devil on the 1st day of October in the year 1836 with force and arms at John H. Byrds in the district aforesaid in and upon the said Joseph Butler then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State feloniously, voluntarily and of his own malice aforethough made an assault; and that the aforesaid Robert Campbell then and there with a certain knife made of Iron... of the Value of Fifty cents which he the said Robert Campbell then and there held in his right hand, the aforesaid Joseph Butler, in and upon the left part of the belly of the said Joseph Butler a littlebelow the navel of the said Joseph Butler then and there feloniously struck and pierced with the knife aforesaid in and upon the aforesaid part of the belly a lttle below the navel of the said Joseph Butler a mortal wound the breadth of one Inch and a half and the depth sufficient to let out his bowels which said mortal wound the aforesaid Joseph Butler after lingering until the eighth day died...

Joseph Burgess boy October 16, 1824 at the premises of Mrs. Hales[?], Union County, SC gun

say upon their oaths the said Joseph Burgess in manner and form came to his death by a stroke or blows withs with a gun across his right ear and the back part of his head. Supposed to have been effected from every circumstance in our view by George McKnight

Jor.[?] Seabrook JUST TESTIMONY, Fairfield County, SC pistol
Johnson Peterson March 9, 1892 at Deny[?] S.C., Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do Say - that this Jury of inquest believes that the Said Johnson Peterson Came to his death ... by a gun Shot wound Said wound being Made as we believe by a pistol in the hands of Pickens Smith

Johnson Johnsons infant June 18, 1875 at Roberts Tuckers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That it was the child of Henretta Johnson that rivers found dead in the woods near the Robert Tucker House and that from appearance that it was the propper time for it to be deliverd and if the child was not murderd She intendedto murder it and it was don on or about the 11 of June 1875[.]

John Wyatt May 25, 1834 at House of Harry Gant[?], Union County, SC

do say upon thare oaths than one Ellis Fowler [?] of said District not having god before his eyes but Being moved and Seduced by the Instirgation of the devil . . .shoot the [?] and give to the said John Wyatt . . .one mortal wound of the breast

John Wilson July 26, 1817 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC stake

do say upon their oaths & affirmations that the said John Wilson decsd. Son John came to his death on the twenty sixth day of July in the year aforesaid by a stroke or strokes with a part of a fence rail or stake on the forehead of the said John above the left Eye and the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths and affirmations aforesaid do say that from the Evidence... before them that a certain John Wilson decsd. son of James then and there with the fence rail or stake aforesaid did Kill and murder against the peace of the said state.

John Williams August 21, 1898 at S H Nicholson, Edgefield County, SC stick

on their Oaths do say, that the aforesaid John Williams came to his death by a blow with a stick in the hand of Ed Brooks

John Webb March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the aforesaid John Webb came to his death by Gun Shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hands of Robert Coile[?], Dan Coward Hill Howard, and R L Burnett as principals, Milledge Reece and A.J. Corley as accessories

John W. Meeks May 4, 1872 at Brown & Rice's Mill, Anderson County, SC

do say that. . .the said John W. Meeks was killed by gun-shot wound, and violent battery with gun on the back of his neck

John W. Buchanan July 18, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say that John W. Buchanan received in _____ County a mortal wound by Rock in the hands of Ed. Mack, Jr.

John South September 30, 1818 at Allen Clarks, Laurens County, SC stone

doth say on their oathes - after the Exammination of the body of said John South they found the head of the said John South cut and his mouth mashd. Or broken by a stroke made their on - and from Information the said stroke was made by Richard Manning with a stone which we believe to be the Cause of Death of said John South deceased.

John Simmons March 21, 1810 at John Simmons, Laurens County, SC rifle

do say upon their oaths that on the 20th day of March 1810 that about a half mile from his house the said John Simmons was cild [sic] by a Rifle ball shot by John Hall by his own confession which said ball went through the write [sic] arm and into his write [sic] side of him the said John Simmons said was the Cause of his Death but we believe that it was innocently - Done by him the said John Hall and not in mallice [sic]...

John Rowland August 22, 1825 at the Presbyterian Church known by the name of the Ebenezer meeting house, Fairfield County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that one John Brown, late of the district aforesaid, on the 4th day of June 1825, did commit a violent assault on the said John Rowland by the infliction of two greivous and dangerous wounds on the body of the said John Rowland John Rowland died, on the 19th instant, then and there feloniously killed and murdered the said John Rowland against the peace of the said state.

John Roe September 11, 1868 at William Elliott's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Roe was killed ... by a gun shot on the right side of the back & that the said gun was fired by William Elliott & that he was excusable in firing the said gun at & killing the said Roe

John Rhodes July 13, 1853 at Feathery Bay, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Although it appears that the said John Rhodes has been missing ever since the day before Fall Court 1852, yet there is no proof to them that the said John Rhodes has ever been murdered

John R. McMillan March 5, 1879 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that aforsaid John McMillin came to his death in Winnsboro on the 4 day of March 1879. from a wound by pistol received on the 16 of Feb 1879. in the hand of some person to the jurors unknown[.]

John Pitts June 11, 1842 at Elias Ford's, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

by their oaths do say that the said John Pitts was willfully and feloniously shot by Elias Ford with a long shotgun loaded with powder & large shot and ball somewhere near the residence of Elias Ford

John Pettigrew January 17, 1843 at the Irish buying ground, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that on the 27th day of last December one Bennett Dozier of Kershaw District did wound with a knife the deceased John Pettigrew of Kershaw District so as to cause his, John Pettigrew's death on Sunday the first day of January

John Pedeu[Peden?] February 11, 1851 at the house of John S. Pedeu[?], Greenville County, SC rifle

upon their oaths do say. . . came to his death. . . in consequence of a wound received on the sixth instance from a rifle ball

John Peagles November 30, 1846 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said John Peagles came ot his death from a pistol shot fired by the hands of Wm. B. Hamilton

John Nickle October 30, 1853 at the House of David Owens, Laurens County, SC whip

upon their oaths do say That after having the body of the Decd. John Nickle exposed & after examining the body & all the circumstances that the sd. John Nickle came to his death from a severe whipping inflicted upon the body of the sd. Decd. On the 24th of October Inst (Monday) about 3 or oclk in the afternoon by William Hazle of the state & District aforesaid and that the said whipping as proven by witnesses examined & as exhibited upon the body as exposed to the undersigned, was inflicted... willfully by the sd. William Hazel against the peace the humanity & dignity of the same State aforesd. This Inquest concur in the opinion that as before stated that as the sd. Decd. John Nickle was but a youth - he being about six years of age - his health at the time of the infliction of the whipping as before state being feeble, & suffering with disease are of opinion that the diseased health of the boy & the whipping as a secondary cause...

John Moore November 19, 1880 Greenville County, SC
John McKinny September 26, 1894 at W P. Lipfords[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that. . . John Mckenny. . .came to his death by gun shot wound in the hands of Jessie Bostie and Edmon Jones and others unknown

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