Joseph Smith/Legal issues/Trials/1826 court appearance for glasslooking

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    Joseph Smith appeared in court in 1826 for "glasslooking."

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Highlights in the Prophet’s Life 20 Mar. 1826: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a “disorderly person,” South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York. New York law defined a disorderly person as, among other things, a vagrant or a seeker of “lost goods.” The Prophet had been accused of both: the first charge was false and was made simply to cause trouble; Joseph’s use of a seer stone to see things that others could not see with the naked eye brought the second charge. Those who brought the charges were apparently concerned that Joseph might bilk his employer, Josiah Stowell, out of some money. Mr. Stowell’s testimony clearly said this was not so and that he trusted Joseph Smith.

—Anonymous, "Highlights in the Prophet’s Life," Ensign (Jun 1994), 24. off-site
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Questions


Joseph Smith appeared in court in 1826 for "glasslooking."

  1. What is the background to the court appearance?
  2. What was the 1826 "trial" of Joseph Smith?
  3. Why is the 1971 discovery of the Neely and De Zeng bills significant?
  4. Why do the critics think that this event discredits Joseph Smith?
  5. What does it actually tell us?
  6. Didn't Hugh Nibley claim that if the record of this court appearance existed that it would be "the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith?"

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Answer


Gordon Madsen summarized:

"The evidence thus far available about the 1826 trial before Justice Neely leads to the inescapable conclusion that Joseph Smith was acquitted." [1]

A review of all the relevant documents demonstrates that:

  1. The court hearing of 1826 was not a trial, it was an examination
  2. The hearing was likely initiated from religious concerns; i.e. people objected to Joseph's religious claims.
  3. There were seven witnesses.
  4. The witnesses' testimonies have not all been transmitted faithfully.
  5. Most witnesses testified that Joseph did possess a gift of sight

It was likely that the court hearing was initiated not so much from a concern about Joseph being a money digger, as concern that Joseph was having an influence on Josiah Stowell. Josiah Stowell was one of the first believers in Joseph Smith. His nephew was probably very concerned about that and was anxious to disrupt their relationship if possible. He did not succeed. The court hearing failed in its purpose, and was only resurrected decades later to accuse Joseph Smith of different crimes to a different people and culture.

Understanding the context of the case removes any threat it may have posed to Joseph's prophetic integrity.

Detailed Analysis

Background to the "trial"

In the spring of 1825 Josiah Stowell visited with Joseph Smith "on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye." [2] Josiah Stowell wanted Joseph to help him in his quest to find treasure in an ancient silver mine. Joseph was reluctant, but Stowell persuaded Joseph to come by offering high wages. According to trial documents, Stowell says Joseph, using a seer stone, "Looked through stone and described Josiah Stowell's house and out houses, while at Palmyra at Sampson Stowell's correctly, that he had told about a painted tree with a man's hand painted upon it by means of said stone." [3]

Joseph and his father traveled to southern New York in November of 1825. This was after the crops were harvested and Joseph had finished his visit to the Hill Cumorah that year. They participated with Stowell and the company of workers in digging for the mine for less than a month. Finally Joseph persuaded him to stop. "After laboring for the old gentleman about a month, without success, Joseph prevailed upon him to cease his operations." [4]

Joseph continued to work in the area for Stowell and others. He boarded at the home of Isaac Hale and met Emma Hale, who was one "treasure" he got out of the enterprise.

What is the 1826 "trial?"

In March of the next year, Stowell's sons or nephew (depending on which account you follow) brought charges against Joseph and he was taken before Justice Neely. The supposed trial record came from Miss Pearsall. "The record of the examination was torn from Neely's docket book by his niece, Emily Persall, and taken to Utah when she went to serve as a missionary under Episcopalian bishop Daniel S. Tuttle." [5] This will be identified as the Pearsall account although Neely possessed it after her death. It is interesting that the first published version of this record didn't appear until after Miss Pearsall had died.

William D. Purple took notes at the trial and tells us, "In February, 1826, the sons of Mr. Stowell, ...were greatly incensed against Smith, ...saw that the youthful seer had unlimited control over the illusions of their sire... They caused the arrest of Smith as a vagrant, without visible means of livelihood." [6]

Whereas the Pearsall account says: "Warrant issued upon oath of Peter G. Bridgman, [Josiah Stowell's nephew] who informed that one Joseph Smith of Bainbridge was a disorderly person and an imposter...brought before court March 20, 1826" [7]

So, we have what has been called "The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith", even though the records show that this wasn't actually a trial. For many years LDS scholars Francis Kirkham, Hugh Nibley and others expressed serious doubts that such a trial had even taken place.

Why are the 1971 discoveries important?

It was easy to cast doubt on the reality of the 1826 trial until the bills from Judge Albert Neely and Constable Philip De Zeng were found in 1971. These documents were removed from their purported site of discovery by Dr. Wesley Walters, a well-known anti-Mormon author.

Walters wrote, "Because the two 1826 bills had not only suffered from dampness, but had severe water damage as well, Mr. Poffarl hand-carried the documents to the Yale University's Beinecke Library, which has one of the best document preservation centers in the country." [8] The problem with this action is, once you have removed a document from a historical setting and then try to restore it to the same setting, you can't prove that you have not altered the document.

The actions of Walters and Poffarl compromised the documents. By having the documents removed and only returned under threat of a lawsuit by the County, it opened the possibility that they could be forged documents. They are generally considered to be authentic.

Why do the critics use this event?

Interestingly, critics of Joseph Smith's time ignored the 1826 trial.

  1. They didn't bring it up in another trial in the same area in 1830.
  2. It was not mentioned in any of the affidavits collected by Hurlbut in 1833, even though he was diligently looking for every piece of dirt he could find.
  3. Although the trial was briefly mentioned in 1831, it was not mentioned again in a published record for 46 years.

The attraction of this event for a later generation of critics, however, lies in the fact that:

  • Society had changed
  • Seer Stones were no longer acceptable
  • Treasure digging was considered abnormal
  • Spiritual gifts were reinterpreted as manifestations of the occult

Many people of the 1800s did not see any differences between what later generations would label as "magic" and religiously-driven activities recorded in the Bible—such as Joseph's silver cup (see Genesis 44:2,5) in which 'he divineth' (which was also practiced by the surrounding pagans and referred to as hydromancy),[9] or the rod of Aaron and its divinely-driven power (Exodus 7:9-12).

The Bible records that Jacob used rods to cause Laban's cattle to produce spotted, and speckled offspring (see Genesis 30:37-39) — one can only imagine what the critics would say should Joseph Smith have attempted such a thing!

In Joseph Smith's own day other Christian leaders were involved in practices which today's critics would call 'occultic.' Quinn, for instance, observes that in "1825, a Massachusetts magazine noted with approval that a local clergyman used a forked divining rod.... Similarly, a Methodist minister wrote twenty-three years later that a fellow clergymen in New Jersey had used a divining rod up to the 1830s to locate buried treasure and the 'spirits [that] keep guard over buried coin'...." [10]

It is important to realize that every statement about "magic" or the "occult" by LDS authors is a negative one. Joseph and his contemporaries would likely have shocked and dismayed to be charged with practicing "magic." For them, such beliefs were simply how the world worked. Someone might make use of a compass without understanding the principles of magnetism. This mysterious, but apparently effective, device was useful even if its underlying mechanism was not understood. In a similar way, activities of the early 1800s or Biblical times which later generations would view skeptically were simply thought of as part of how the world worked.

But, it is a huge leap from this realization to charging that Joseph and his followers believed they were drawing power from anything but a divine or proper source.

What does the 1826 trial tell us?

What records exist?

We have five records of the 1826 trial. And these were published in eight documents.

1. Apr. 9, 1831 - A W. Benton in Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate
2.Oct. 1835 - Oliver Cowdery in Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate
3.1842 letter from Joel K. Noble (not published until 1977)
4.Record torn from Judge Neely docket book by Miss Emily Pearsall (niece)

  • Feb. 1873 - Charles Marshall publishes in Frazer's Magazine (London)
  • Apr. 1873 - Frazer's article reprinted in Eclectic Magazine (N.Y.)
  • 1883 - Tuttle article in New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
  • Jan. 1886 - Christian Advocate vol. 2, no. 13 (Salt Lake City, UT)

5. May 3, 1877 - W. D. Purple Chenango Union

It may be that Purple saw the publication in the Eclectic Magazine and that is why he published his account a few years later. There are no complete overlaps in the accounts; we will look at the similarities and differences.

Finally, we have the bills by Judge Neely and Constable Da Zeng which provide some additional useful details.

Document provenance

We don't have the actual record that Miss Pearsall had, but the claimed trail of events leads as follows:

  1. Miss Pearsall tears the record from the docket book of her uncle Judge Neely
  2. She takes the record with her to Utah when she went to work with Bishop Tuttle.
  3. Miss Pearsall dies in 1872.
  4. Charles Marshall copies the record and has it published in Frazer's Magazine in 1873.
  5. Ownership falls to Tuttle after Miss Pearsall's death
  6. Tuttle published in 1883 Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia.
  7. Tuttle gave it to the Methodists who published it in 1886
  8. Then the record was lost.

It will be noticed with interest, that although Bishop Tuttle and others had access to the Pearsall account for several years it was not published until after her death. That combined with the fact that the torn leaves were never allowed to be examined, would cast some doubt on the completeness or accuracy of that which was published.

Do we have a court record?

We know that the supposed "court record" obtained by Miss Pearsall can't be a court record at all.

  1. Misdemeanor trials were not recorded, only felony trials.
  2. No witness signatures—they were required in an official record.
  3. It appears to be a pretrial hearing.
  4. Pretrial hearings cannot deliver guilty verdicts.

Why were the various records made?

This is the reason that the people stated for why they were putting forth this information.

  1. Benton: more complete history of their founder
  2. Cowdery: private character of our brother
  3. Noble: explain the character of the Mormons
  4. Marshal: preserve a piece of information about the prophet
  5. Purple: as a precursor of the advent of the wonder of the age, Mormonism
  6. Tuttle: [to show] In what light he appeared to others
  7. Judge Neely: to collect fees

Unsurprisingly, those who provided these accounts had an agenda. We are not looking at an event through the eyes of an unbiased observer, and most of that bias is directed against Joseph Smith.

Who brought the charges?

If we look at the individuals bringing the charges, we have the following: Benton (1831): The Public Cowdery (1835): very officious person Noble (1842): Civil authority Marshall (1873): Peter G. Bridgman Purple (1877): sons of Mr. Stowell Tuttle (1883): Peter G. Bridgman Judge Neely: The Public

Note that the agreement of Marshall and Tuttle is misleading because they are essentially quoting the same source.

Whether it was Josiah Stowell's sons or his nephew Peter G. Bridgman, it seems to be close family members. We don't know why Peter G. Bridgman brought the charges, but it could easily have been because he was worried that his uncle was accepting Joseph Smith in his religious claims. Josiah did join the church organized by Joseph Smith and stayed faithful his whole life. As for Peter Bridgman, "Within a month after the trial he was licensed as an exhorter by the Methodists and within three years had helped establish the West Bainbridge Methodist Church. Upon his death in 1872 his fellow ministers characterized him as 'an ardent Methodist and any attack upon either the doctrines or the polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church, within his field of labor, was sure to be repelled by him with a vigorous hand." [11]

Is it possible that the trial of Joseph Smith was just one of his first attempts to apply a "vigorous hand?"

What was the charge against Joseph Smith?

The charge is listed in the various accounts as:

  1. Benton (1831): a disorderly person
  2. Cowdery (1835): a disorderly person
  3. Noble (1842): under the Vagrant act
  4. Marshall (1873): a disorderly person and an imposter
  5. Purple (1877): a vagrant, without visible means of livelihood
  6. Tuttle (1882): a disorderly person and an imposter
  7. Judge Neely: a misdemeanor

Hugh Nibley indicated how it would be strange that he could be charged without visible means of livelihood, since he was being employed by Stowell and others.

The portion of the statute that would seem to apply was enacted by New York in 1813.

...all persons who not having wherewith to maintain themselves, live idle without employment, and also all persons who go about from door to door, or place themselves in the streets, highways or passages, to beg in the cities or towns where they respectively dwell, and all jugglers, and all persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or like crafty science, or pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found; ... shall be deemed and adjudged disorderly persons.

What is a juggler? It used to be that a person skilled in sleight of hand was called a juggler, whereas today we would call them a "sleight of hand magician." Thus, a "juggler" was a con man; someone using his 'stage magic' talents to defraud. [12]

But what if you weren't pretending to discover lost goods? What if you actually had a gift where you "could discern things invisible to the natural eye" Could you then be judged guilty of this statute?

How many witnesses testified?

As far as the number of witnesses we have the following:

  1. Benton (1831): not mentioned
  2. Cowdery (1835): not mentioned
  3. Marshall (1873): Five quoted, charges for seven witnesses
  4. Tuttle (1882): Six
  5. Purple (1877): Four
  6. Constable Philip De Zeng: Twelve

What is particularly interesting here is that Tuttle and Marshall are supposedly quoting from the same document. Marshall only quotes 5 witnesses, but at the end, the charges are listed for seven witnesses. The fee was 12-1/2 cents per witness. Eighty-seven and ½ cents divided by twelve ½ cents per witness, gives us seven witnesses. By combining the Purple and Pearsall accounts we can arrive at seven witnesses, and also a motive for not including all the witnesses or letting the record be examined. It is unknown why the constable would have listed twelve witnesses, unless that is the number he summoned to the proceedings. Seven would seem to be the correct number of those that testified.

What witness is excluded from some accounts?

Purple does add a witness that hadn't been included by Marshall or Tuttle: Joseph Smith, Sr. Maybe they didn't want to include the testimony of Joseph's father because his testimony was more religious in nature. He spoke of Joseph's "wonderful triumphs as a seer", that "both he and his son were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of filthy lucre," and "he trusted that the Son of Righteousness would some day illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him." It is easy to see why this testimony wouldn't be included in a record where you are trying to show that Joseph Smith was a person trying to acquire work as a money digger. Which might be the reason the Tuttle and Marshall omitted the Joseph Smith Sr. testimony.

What verdict was brought against Joseph?

  1. Benton: tried and condemned ... designedly allowed to escape
  2. Cowdery: honorably acquitted
  3. Noble: was condemned, took leg bail
  4. Marshall: guilty?
  5. Tuttle: guilty?
  6. Purple: discharged
  7. Constable De Zeng: not a trial

Noble's statement is hearsay, since there is no evidence that he actually attended this trial. Furthermore, his statement and Benton's statement can't be taken as an indication that Joseph was judged guilty. For example, in Joseph's 1830 trial he was acquitted. The court said that they "find nothing to condemn you, and therefore you are discharged." Then Mr Reid testifies, "They then proceeded to reprimand him severely, not because anything derogatory to his character in any shape had been proven against him by the host of witnesses that had testified during the trial." [13]

The verdict indicated by Marshall and Tuttle is questionable. It seems to be appended as an afterthought. Throughout the document Joseph is referred to as the "prisoner", then after the last testimony, we have one sentence in which he is named a defendant, "And thereupon the Court finds the defendant guilty." Here we have suddenly a declaratory statement that is completely out of character with the rest of the Pearsall document. Also, if this were actually a trial, Joseph wouldn't have testified against himself as the first witness.

The examination was not a trial

Wesley P. Walters has demonstrated that this is not a trial. The Constable's charges of "19 cents attached to the mittimus marks it as the pre-trial 'commitment for want of bail' ...and not the post-trial 'warrant of commitment, on conviction, twenty-five cents." [14]

In the Tanners' anti-Mormon Salt Lake City Messenger, they stated, "Wesley P. Walters had convincingly demonstrated to us that we were dealing with 'an examination.' In a New Conductor Generalis, 1819, page 142, we learn that in an 'examination' the accused is not put under oath but that the witnesses are'" [15]

In all cases but one the witnesses were "sworn", whereas Joseph was examined. Judge Neeley's charges actually uses that precise terminology, "in examination of above cause". Therefore, since this wasn't a trial, one cannot have a guilty verdict.

Summary of testimony

  • Joseph Smith, Jr.: In the Purple account he tells about finding his stone and he exhibits his stone. In the Pearsall record it talks about how Stowell came and got Joseph, "had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school;" He informed Stowell where to find treasures, and buried coins and that he did it for the previous three years. But Joseph did not solicit and declined having anything to do with the business.
  • Joseph Smith Sr.: This testimony is only in the Purple account. We discussed earlier how he felt this power showed that Joseph was a seer and that Joseph Sr. was mortified by the use of the sacred power and that he hoped that eventually it would get used correctly. Since this testimony puts Joseph in a positive light it is understandable why it wasn't included in the published versions of the Pearsall account.
  • Josiah Stowell: His employer's testimony in the Purple account has Josiah say that Joseph could see 50 feet below the surface, described many circumstances to confirm his words. He said, "do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief: I positively know it to be true."
We go to the Pearsall record, for a slightly different account of the Josiah Stowell testimony. It tells how Joseph "looked through stone, and described Josiah Stowel's house and out-houses while at Palmyra, at Simpson Stowel's, correctly; that he had told about a painted tree with a man's hand painted upon it, by means of said stone;" Josiah tells about Joseph's being employed part time. It also contains the part that "he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and professed the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone." He talked about finding something for Deacon Attelon that looked like gold ore. Josiah talked about Mr. Bacon burying some money and that Joseph described how there was a feather buried with the money. They found the feather but the money was gone. Josiah said that he "had been in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in prisoner's skill."
  • Horace Stowell: This testimony is only found in the Neely record. It is a short testimony that describes where a chest of dollars was buried in Winchester County and that Joseph marked the size of the chest with leaves on the ground.
  • Arad Stowell: This witness went to see Joseph and wanted Joseph to display his skill. He laid out a book on a cloth. While holding a white stone to a candle, he read the book. Arad said that he was disappointed and went away because to him it was obviously a deception, but he doesn't tell us why he thought it was a deception. It would have been nice if he had told us why he thought that. Was it just that he had his mind made up before he went to see Joseph?

There are only three testimonies that are duplicated in both the Purple and Pearsall accounts. They are Joseph Smith, Josiah Stowel and Jonathan Thompson. In the Purple account Thompson said that he could not remember finding anything of value. He stated that Joseph claimed there was a treasure protected by sacrifice and that they had to be armed by fasting and prayer. They struck the treasure with a shovel. One man placed his hand on the treasure, but it gradually sunk out of reach. Joseph believed there was a lack of faith or devotion that caused the failure. They talked about getting the blood from a lamb and sprinkling it around.

Interestingly, the same witness in the Pearsall record says that Joseph indicated where the treasure was. He looked in the hat and told them how it was situated. An Indian had been killed and buried with the treasure. So this detail matches with the Purple account. The treasure kept settling away. Then Joseph talked about salt that could be found in Bainbridge and described money that Thompson had lost 16 years ago. Joseph described the man that had taken it and what happened to the money. There is nothing mentioned about sacrificing sheep or not having sufficient faith and so forth. The Pearsall record is supposedly a more complete written record, but it doesn't have the bleeding sheep, or fasting and prayer that characterizes the Purple account.

Didn't Hugh Nibley claim that a record of this trial would be "the most damning evidence in existence" against Joseph Smith?

Hugh Nibley had serious doubts as to whether or not Joseph Smith was actually brought to trial in 1826, and he felt that the only real trial was in 1830. For the most part, Nibley felt that the "court record" didn't seem to be correct. The following quote is taken from Nibley's book "The Myth Makers:"

"if this court record is authentic it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith."

Since Wesley Walters has found some bills related to the trial, the critics now claim that the case is proven and that Nibley has proven their case for them. Nothing is further from the truth. First of all you need to look at the whole quote. Nibley was chastising Tuttle for not actually using the trial record that he had. He was questioning why he would do that if it was so important.

"You knew its immense value as a weapon against Joseph Smith if its authenticity could be established. And the only way to establish authenticity was to get hold of the record book from which the pages had been purportedly torn. After all, you had only Miss Pearsall's word for it that the book ever existed. Why didn't you immediately send he back to find the book or make every effort to get hold of I? Why didn't you "unearth" it, as they later said you did? . . . The authenticity of the record still rests entirely on the confidential testimony of Miss Pearsall to the Bishop. And who was Miss Pearsall? A zealous old maid, apparently: "a woman helper in our mission," who lived right in the Tuttle home and would do anything to assist her superior. The picture I get is that of a gossipy old housekeeper. If this court record is authentic, it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith. Why, then, [speaking to Tuttle] was it not republished in your article in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge after 1891? . . . in 1906 Bishop Tuttle published his Reminiscences of a Missionary Bishop in which he blasts the Mormons as hotly as ever. . . yet in the final summary of his life's experiences he never mentions the story of the court record - his one claim to immortal fame and the gratitude of the human race if it were true!" (Nibley "The Myth Makers", 246)

The Pearsall account, which has never been produced, claims that the defendant was found guilty. The real point at issue is not whether or not there was a trial, but whether or not a record existed proving Joseph guilty of deceit. A document proving such guilt has not been found.

Why was Joseph fined if he wasn't guilty?

The court did not assess a fine against Joseph. There were bills made out by Judge Neely and Constable DeZeng, but these were for costs. Those bills were directed to the County for payment of witnesses, etc., not to Joseph.

Notes


  1. Gordon A. Madsen, "Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting," Brigham Young University Studies 30 no. 2 (1990), 106.
  2. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 103.
  3. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 4:252–253.
  4. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 103.
  5. H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (Salt Lake City, Utah: Smith Research Associates [distributed by Signature Books], 1994), 227.
  6. Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols., (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing, 1959[1942]), 1:479. ASIN B000HMY138.
  7. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 4:248–249..
  8. Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials," The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 153.
  9. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 30 ( Index of claims )
  10. Quinn, 5
  11. Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials," The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 141–142.
  12. Note too D. Michael Quinn's efforts to distort the clear meaning of this statute as discussed in John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. off-site. See also FairMormon Answers link here.
  13. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:211. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  14. Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials," The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 140, note 36.
  15. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger 68 (July 1988): 9.



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