The Dancing Plague, 1518

It baffles people now as it did then, when hundreds of people around 16th Century Strasbourg danced and danced till they could dance no more. Read about its potential cause and the remedies phycisians came up with

One Summer’s day in 1518 down a narrow street in Strasbourg, France an odd thing occurred; people turned to notice a woman dancing.

Why? No one had a clue but she continued ever more feverishly and without a break for four to six days.

More alarmingly within a week, 34 others joined in and within a month there were around 400 dancers, predominantly female.

This ‘Dancing Plague’, as it became known, took such a hold on them they couldn’t stop, not to eat or rest and many died from exhaustion, stroke or heart attacks. For a period, the plague was killing 15 people a day.

The crowd could not stop dancing until utter exhaustion forced them to collapse. (thepsychologist.bps.org.uk)

So what caused this bizarre behaviour? The most plausible explanation is that it was a psychogenic disorder — a physical illness that’s believed to arise from emotional or mental stressors. People were going through particularly tough times, even by Medieval standards, with the region riddled with starvation and disease and this accounted for them being exceptionally stressed.

Local physicians were sought out and advised that the afflicted shouldn’t stop until the dancing wore off. To this end the city authorities took over two guildhalls and a grain market, even building a stage for musicians to open, essentially, the world’s first-ever disco.

Yet, it was a disaster as the illness underwent a dramatic growth; performing dances in more public spaces allowed this psychic ‘contagion’ to spread.

One historian states that a marathon runner couldn’t have lasted the intense workout that these men and women did hundreds of years ago.

Phineas Gage, the Man Who Survived the Impossible When an Iron Bar Skewered His Brain

To survive was one-in-a-million, but to almost completely recover is incomprehensible. The side-effects, however, made him shunned by decent society

A moral man, Phineas Gage

Tamping powder down holes for his wage

Blew his special-made probe

Through his left frontal lobe

Now he drinks, swears, and flies in a rage.

(Anonymous limerick)

On September 13, 1848, an unbelievable medical marvel occurred.

A foreman named Phineas Gage was toiling at the head of a work-gang who were blast­ing rock to pre­par­e the road­bed to lay railroad track on the under-construction Rut­land & Bur­ling­ton Rail­road in Ver­mont, USA,

A fit, strong man, sound of mind, temperament and morality, Gage was 25 at the time and his employers described him as “the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ”.

Setting a blast entailed boring a hole deep into an out­crop of rock; adding blast­ing pow­der and a fuse; then using the tamping iron to pack (‘tamp’) sand, clay, or other material into the hole above the powder in order to contain the blast’s energy and direct it into surrounding rock.

A freak instance of fate then shattered Gage’s life forever.

He stood over his tamping iron as he worked when one of his men drew his attention.

Gage’s head was turned over his right shoulder and his mouth was open mid-speech when his life changed forever.

At that precise moment, his tamping iron sparked against the rock and ignited the explosive powder.

The iron bar, 1.25in (3.2 cm) thick, 3ft, 7in (1.1 m) long, and weighing 13.25lbs (6.0 kg)‍ shot out the hole like a cannonball and straight up into Gage’s cranium.

A diagram showing how the tapering iron skewered Gage’s cranium (en.wikipedia.org)

In a flash, the pointed, smooth, cylindrical bar skewered the foreman’s brain, entering the left side of Gage’s face in an upward direction, just forward of the angle of the lower jaw.

Continuing upward outside the upper jaw it possibly fractured the cheekbone, before passing behind the left eye, through the left side of the brain, then completely out the top of the skull through the frontal bone.​​

The tamping iron landed like a javelin point-first some 80 feet (25 m) away “smeared with blood and brain”.

Gage was thrown onto his back and convulsed violently for a few minutes. Instead of perishing, however, this incredibly robust fellow started to speak.

Within minutes and, with only little assistance, Gage walked over and sat upright on an oxcart for a ride back to town.

Within half an hour of the accident physician Edward Williams arrived to find Gage sitting outside his hotel and was greeted with perhaps the greatest understatement in medical history:

“When I drove up he said, “Doctor, here is business enough for you.” I first noticed the wound upon the head before I alighted from my carriage, the pulsations of the brain being very distinct… Mr. Gage, during the time I was examining this wound, was relating the manner in which he was injured to the bystanders.”

“I did not believe Mr. Gage’s statement at that time, but thought he was deceived. Mr. Gage persisted in saying that the bar went through his head. Mr. G. got up and vomited; the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain [through the exit hole at the top of the skull], which fell upon the floor.”

Another doctor by the name Harlow arrived later and related his shock at Gage’s injury:

“You will excuse me for remarking here, that the picture presented was, to one unaccustomed to military surgery, truly terrific; but the patient bore his sufferings with the most heroic firmness. He recognized me at once, and said he hoped he was not much hurt. He seemed to be perfectly conscious, but was getting exhausted from the hemorrhage. His person, and the bed on which he was laid, were literally one gore of blood.”

Convalescence and Recovery

Both physicians cleaned up the wound, bandaged it loosely for it to drain and applied a nightcap.

They also applied bandages to his arms which had been deeply burned by the blast, as had Gage’s face, and on that first evening on the long road of convalescence, Harlow noted: “Mind clear. Constant agitation of his legs, being alternately retracted and extended … Says he ‘does not care to see his friends, as he shall be at work in a few days.’”

Despite his own optimism, Gage’s convalescence was long, difficult, and uneven. Though recognizing his mother and uncle — summoned from Lebanon, New Hampshire, 30 miles (50 km) away‍ — ‌ on the morning after the accident, on the second day, he “lost control of his mind, and became decidedly delirious”

His condition ebbed and flowed over the coming days, and the fellow’s friends and family braced themselves for his inevitable passing with a coffin at the ready.

Yet, the moment never came.

One of the factors which saved Gage’s life was Dr Harlow’s experience with cerebral abscess, and the good doctor was compelled to drain eight ounces [250 ml] of excessively fetid, ill-conditioned pus and blood from the wound.

By the 24th day Gage “succeeded in raising himself up, and took one step to his chair”.

Despite all the odds, he was on the road to recovery.

“Disfigured, yet still handsome” (en.wikipedia.org)

After 10 weeks, Gage could return to his mother’s home, and by February the following year had recovered so extraordinarily, he could do light work around the farm.

In less than a year of an iron bar shooting through the man’s skull, he could do a good half-day’s work and his physical damage appeared restricted to mild memory loss and loss of use of his left eye.

“No Longer Gage”

Another factor to explain Gage’s survival was the fact the tamping bar skewered his Frontal Lobe and not more critical lobes of the brain. In simple terms, damage to the Frontal Lobe affects memory and planning, and psychological functions linked to morality and substance abuse, amongst others.

Out of all the parts of the brain to suffer a spiked bar fly through it, the Frontal Lobe is the best cerebral section to endure that injury.

Gage may have been the first case to prove that the brain determined personality based on his startling change of character as a result of his horrific accident.

Dr Harlow noted changes in Gage’s behaviour within three years of his accident, particularly in the first few months.

Although the man’s intelligence, and memory even, appeared fine his temperament and morality, in contrast, were completely scrambled.

Before the accident, Gage was known as hardworking, responsible, focused and popular with his men. Yet afterwards, Harlow noted: “He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not pre­vi­ous­ly his custom)”

And Harlow went on to describe how he could be extremely obstinate one moment then capricious and vacillating at others.

He stated: “A child in his intel­lec­tu­al capacity and man­i­fes­ta­tions, he has the animal passions of a strong man.

For a while, folks even came to avoid his company as he was described as “gross, coarse and vulgar to such a degree his [company] was intolerable to decent people.”

1851 report based on information from Harlow (en.wikpedia.org)

More salacious rumours that he became a wife-beating, psychopathic, degenerate layabout were gross exaggerations or outright lies, however. For starters, he wasn’t married.

Later Life

In November 1849, as the rumours and scepticism of his injury spread Gage was invited to Boston to present himself to the Boston Society for Medical Improvement, after Harvard University’s Professor of Surgery examined Gage’s cranium to establish that the unbelievable accident had actually happened.

Since he’d lost his old job, Gage toured around for three years exhibiting himself; appearing for example as one of ‘Two Wonders of the World’ at a Vermont exhibition alongside ‘General Washburn, the living dwarf skeleton’. But made a poor living from these exhibitions.

He managed to scrape enough money together to travel down to Chile in August ’52 to work as a long-distance stagecoach driver on the ValparaísoSantiago route.

He took with him the tamping bar he reacquired as his constant companion.

During this time of employment Gage managed to recover the responsibility and decency he’s once been known for, and demonstrated full mental faculties for which the job of stagecoach demanded, including forward planning, care for the horses and courtesy with the passengers, etc.

Yet, by 1859 the hardships of the job caused his health to decline again and he returned to recuperate in San Francisco with his mother and sister.

Despite recovering enough to begin working again, by February 1860, Gage began to suffer severe epileptic seizures and succumbed to them four months later.

He was 36 at the time.

Phineas Gage’s impossible survival of his accident is down to the fact the bar transitioned through less critical cerebral tissue; his fitness; and prompt, skilled medical attention.

But his almost complete physical, mental and psychological recovery make this a tale to be remembered.

In 1866 Harlow, who was by then a prominent physician, busi­ness­man, and civic leader in Massachusetts ​​somehow learned that Gage had died and, at Harlow’s request, the Gage’s family had his skull exhumed and delivered it to Harlow themselves.

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Derrick Bird and the Cumbrian Massacre

Why a friendly, sociable local killed 12 people was a mystery to most. Here, his life is scrutinised to expose how it unravelled before its fatal climax

A puzzling episode of Cumbrian history that bewilders locals to this very day. After an angry confrontation with some colleagues, a man named Derrick Bird shot dead his twin brother, his solicitor, then 10 mostly random victims as he sped 45 miles (72km) around West Cumbria before finally killing himself.

Yet, ‘Birdy’ as many affectionately referred to him, was well-liked, sociable and friendly up until that fateful day. Then something inside him snapped and his hidden demons took hold.

The Shooting Rampage

The route of Derrick Bird’s shooting slalom (murderpedia.org)

It was in West Cumbria this horror story played out. Sandwiched between the Irish Sea to the west and the Lake District to the east, West Cumbria is a tight-knit and quaint rural region. It was the kind of place with few strangers.

It was the last weekend of May in 2010 and Derrick was in the pub, as was his way, for a pint and joke or two before he headed off home. ‘Birdy’ was unusually drunk both that Friday and Saturday, however. One onlooker recalled that Derrick was “bouncing off the walls” and “that wasn’t Derrick”.

The next week on the 1st of June a low-level feud between Derrick and a few other taxi drivers, which many dismissed as banter, flared up when someone crossed a line in something they said to Birdy. A witness said Bird “shook his colleagues by the hands to say his goodbyes and said there’s going to be a rampage in this town tomorrow. They just laughed and didn’t take him seriously.

In the early hours of the next day, Bird drove to his twin-brother, David Bird’s, house, let himself in through the unlocked back door, crept upstairs and shot him 11 times with his rifle. Yet, someone recalled that just the week before Derrick and David had enjoyed a day at a scramble track “laughing their heads off like you’d expect warm brothers to do.”

By sunrise, he was seen washing his Citroen Picasso outside his house.

Then at 10:13am Derrick drove to his solicitor’s house. Attempting to leave home in his car, 60-year-old Kevin Commons found his driveway blocked by Bird’s car. Bird fired his shotgun at Commons and hit him in the shoulder. As he then staggered back up his drive, Bird shot him in the head.

From the ‘targeted phase’ of the shootings, what began now was the ‘rampage phase’ in which Derrick — armed with a 12-bore sawn-off shotgun and rifle — shot dead 10 more people.

Bird would call victims over to his car to ask the time before shooting them or he’d take potshots from distance, shooting a total of 21 people. With little rhyme nor reason, Bird cut down friend, foe and stranger alike

As an example, Bird returned to the taxi rank and executed one of his main antagonists, Darren Rewcastle, at point-blank range. Yet, Bird also shot three other drivers, including his good friend Paul Wilson whose cheek he grazed. Fortunately, the three survived.

Other locals came eyeball-to-eyeball with Bird but he let them be, such as Barry Moss, a cyclist who came face to face with Bird as he stood by the side of his taxi, having just murdered Susan Hughes as she walked home with her shopping.

He remembered “He just stared at me, and just had a very blank expression… he didn’t say or do anything really… Then he scurried into his car and drove off.

On Bird went, randomly shooting, killing and injuring some whilst letting others be.

The end came soon after midday; Bird’s car was running out of fuel as the Lake District’s fells (hills) and forest loomed up around him. Trying to pass another car, Bird skimmed a wall and damaged his tire.

This forced him to a stop and he abandoned the Picasso. Bird then headed into woodland with his rifle to kill himself in solitude.

Derrick Bird’s 12 victims, including David Bird, centre-left (bbc.com)

The Enigma

Make no mistake this crime ultimately showed Derrick Bird for what he was — a malicious and deranged gunman.

Yet, he was also an enigma.

A friendly man, Derrick was referred affectionately to as ‘Birdy’ (mirror.co.uk)

52-years-old and fair-haired, ‘Birdy’ was ‘quiet’ ‘friendly’ ‘sociable’, and time and time again referred to with warmth, even after his horrific crime.

This was a man who would pay his local greengrocer a pound for the 85p milk carton and would go out of his way to rustle up a couple of quid for the local church collection.

Derrick also had good reason to be content, having just become a new granddad by one of his two sons with whom he had a good relationship.

He was a taxi driver who worked hard through the Christmas period to pay for scuba-diving holidays in Thailand, he enjoyed motorsports and was very much a regular local.

And yes, he owned a twin-barrel shotgun and rifle, though gun ownership was not uncommon in this rugged corner of Britain.

He was so well regarded, people in the community when later interviewed almost refused to associate the Derrick they knew with the one who went haywire and attacked dozens of innocent people.

So, why did this innocuous member of the community blow up the way he did?

An examination of a number of events and developments in this 52-year-old’s life reveals a man who was actually grudgeful, highly anxious, depressed and who’d grown paranoid also.

Let’s look at what led to this horrific massacre.

Sellafield Job Resignation

The first nail in the coffin was hammered back in 1990.

Derrick had worked as a Joiner at the nearby Sellafield Nuclear Facility but resigned after he was accused of stealing wood from the powerplant.

Bird was subsequently convicted and given a twelve-month suspended sentence.

It’s funny that the idiom to ‘have a chip on one’s shoulder’ originates from 18th Century working practices in the British Royal Dockyards where shipwrights were allowed to remove surplus timber (chips) on their shoulders for firewood or building material, and this was a substantial perk of the job for the dock workers.

A later rule change made it only what they could carry under one arm which limited the amount of timber they could carry, so the shipwrights went on strike.

Ironically, this was the first of Derrick’s own chips on his shoulder for trying to remove timber, in turn.

His long-term partner at the time went on to recall how Derrick had also been really apprehensive about the prospect of going to prison, which was unfounded but would have ramifications later.

Assaulted by Fare Dodgers

18 years later, Derrick was brutally assaulted when he tried to stop some fare dodgers from doing a runner.. They knocked him to the ground, kicked his teeth in and cracked his head on the pavement.

People saw a change in Derrick after this traumatic episode. He became more anxious and started drinking more.

Taxman a-Knockin’

Derrick had committed tax evasion for a few years and his fears of a prison sentence came back to haunt him.

He consulted his solicitor, Kevin Commons, about the issue and Commons informed him that Bird had more than enough savings to cover the five-figure bill from the Inland Revenue, and that should’ve allayed his fears.

Yet, Derrick wasn’t convinced, despite repeated reassurances.

Even more strangely Derrick somehow got it into his head that Commons and his brother were in cahoots in a bizarre plot to bring him down.

Derrick’s Brother David

Regarding Derrick’s relationship with his twin brother David, family members were adamant that there was never a problem between the two, but David had once borrowed £25,000 from their now-deceased father which he never paid back.

Since then David had become considerably more financially successful than Derrick and, with his tax problems having emerged, Derrick, it seems, felt his brother owed him some of that £25,000 he’d have otherwise partly inherited. The presumption is there was some disagreement over this and the twins had argued fiercely the week previous to June the 2nd.

Ailing Mother

Derrick also lived and cared for his ailing mother whose health was now deteriorating, making her son depressed that she wasn’t long for this world.

Taxi Rank Tensions

Finally, taxicab competition had been increasing while the number of customers wasn’t, and Derrick was getting quietly irked that some of his colleagues sometimes jumped the queue and didn’t wait their turn for the next customer.

Banter is a big part of many work environments in a country famed for its humour, especially among men.

When there is mutual respect banter is fun, endearing and helps the workday pass less drudgingly. When the respect isn’t there, though, banter can be unpleasant if you’re not thick-skinned.

Although Birdy had many friends amongst the other taxi drivers of the area, jokes were made, and pranks were played, and Derrick, with his mounting insecurities, was increasingly on the wrong end of them.

Not long before that Summer, Derrick had sent £1000 to a Thai lady he met on one of his scuba diving holidays but the woman ended contact with him shortly after.

Derrick felt he had been made a fool out of and it’s not hard to imagine he got a lot of ‘flak’ for that from the other drivers.

One of deranged Derrick’s many victims (murderpedia.org)

Derrick and His Hidden Demons

Here then was the story of a man who hadn’t aged well.

Derrick Bird’s worries and grievances had been allowed to quietly fester among a stoic, thick-skinned rural community, typical of the English North.

Reading between the lines it seems Derrick felt his life had been on an inescapable slide for some time and his mother’s death plus the legal consequences of his tax-dodging were going to send it plunging.

Was he guilty of being an ‘entitled white male’? The fact Derrick failed to take responsibility for a number of his life choices, instead, projecting them as the fault of others, suggests that argument holds water.

Ultimately, Derrick lacked the empathy for his fellow humans to keep his inner demons in check. For that, one’s empathy for him should be kept firmly in check.

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Chris Foster, The Millionaire in So Much Debt, He Committed Familicide

The story of Chris Foster, the man who committed familicide rather than face the bailiffs

One of the most unsettling crimes you’ll ever read about; on the 26th of August 2008, Chris Foster murdered his wife and teenage daughter and set his house on fire before killing himself.

What went so wrong for the once-successful millionaire that he killed his family? Was he evil, or is our obsession with money the true root of this sad saga?

It was in Maesbrook village this tale unfolded, a tranquil, richly green locale in England where city slickers who make their fortunes on the mean streets of Birmingham retreat to enjoy the fruits of their labours. Expensive cars and grand houses are everywhere in this well-to-do Shropshire village, as a result.

Into this environment Chris Foster, with his wife Jill and daughter Kirstie, fitted right in.

Ulvashield – Chris’s Eureka Invention

Chris had been an ordinary salesman from Burnley until he had a eureka moment in 1988.

Inspired by the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion of that year, Chris seized upon an idea to invent a new oil rig sealant. By 1996 he had invented and patented a product he called ‘Ulvashield’ complete with a five-star safety rating.

Orders began pouring in and the fortunes of Chris’s newly formed company skyrocketed. Flush with success, it wasn’t long before he started living and dressing like the millionaire he’d become.

Millionaire Businessman

And he was clearly a very materialistic man. Chris dressed well and liked nice holidays. Soon after moving his family into the village, a fleet of cars came through the gateway of his new home, Osbaston House — Porcshes, an Aston Martin, and a 4X4 for Jill.

He bought horses for Kirstie and spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on a gun collection which he loved to shoot as an avid member of the local shooting club.

He always looked the part; a flash, successful millionaire.

But that was the first nail in his coffin; Chris spent money like it would never run out… Except soon it did.

Although the man was clearly smart in that he had invented a great product, that didn’t make him a great businessman. A judge later described Christopher as “bereft of the basic instincts of commercial morality” and “not to be trusted”.

Chris’s Downfall

Despite appearances, Chris couldn’t afford his lavish lifestyle and his financial struggles were causing untold stress (caledoniankitty.co.uk)

By 2005, Chris’s extravagant lifestyle had outstripped his earnings and he had racked up debts of £2.8 million.

To maintain his non-stop splurging Chris was happy to cut a few corners; he breached the contract he had with the suppliers of Ulvashield by finding a new, cheaper supplier. But the manufacturers took legal action against him for damages, and the wheels of his downfall were set in motion.

By 2007, his company was liquidated.

It’s unclear how much his family knew about their circumstances now that Chris had no income, but friends remained completely in the dark whilst the man kept up a façade of affluence, continuing with social gatherings and bragging to friends that he had a multi-million-pound business deal in the pipeline.

Behind Chris’s big smile and warm handshake, however, his mind entered a dark, dark place. Now that he had no business to attend to only his 15-acre property could occupy his time. Chris pottered around, keeping the grounds of his house immaculate, even moving his tractor from spot to spot such was his restlessness.

As he tinkered away, his thoughts dwelled increasingly on his predicament and his fears of the unbearable shame that would come once the stark truth of his failings was exposed. The Summer of 2008 had been exceptionally wet and grey. One imagines it did nothing to keep the dark clouds off his mind.

It’s likely Chris started to plan his end, and that of his wife and daughter’s, as that bleak Summer waned with the coming of August. Chris by now had no less than 20 bank accounts overdrawn and didn’t even own his home anymore.

Then the day came he’d been dreading; the housekeeper he still employed found a letter attached to the gate. It was from the bailiffs informing him that they were coming to repossess all his possessions within a week. She later recalled how Chris had looked distressed but said nothing.

The Murders

Relaxed and smiling: Chris, Jill and Kirstie on their last day alive (telegraph.co.uk)

On the day this sad saga ended the Fosters were invited to a friend’s barbeque and clay pigeon shoot. Chris spent his last day on earth enjoying the hobby he loved.

It’s chilling to note that none of the guests that night noticed any red flags with Chris, who seemed in particularly good spirits. It is a paradox that a suicidal person can be the happiest they have been in a long time knowing the end is nigh. A photo of the family shows all three smiling at the camera and looking relaxed.

One can only wonder what the mood amongst the Fosters was like that night, on the drive home, and getting ready for bed.

Was Chris quiet or chatty? Did Jill and Kirsty detect an air that something was off? Was there an air of foreboding?

Around 11.30pm Chris told his daughter to go to bed.

Around 3am Chris, 50 years old, shot his wife Jill, 49, in the back of the head. He then went into his daughter’s room and shot Kirstie, 15, in the back of the head too.

He went on to kill all the family pets; the four dogs, three horses; even the ducks and chickens.

Chris then doused the house, the stables and his cars in heating oil to set them alight.

He also made sure to block the driveway with a horsebox and shoot out the tires in order to prevent first responders from quickly extinguishing the fire. The man was so bitter he wanted his creditors, the people who’d supposedly put him in this predicament, to get absolutely nothing out of him.

As the fire took hold, it filled the house with smoke and Chris went to rejoin his wife. He succumbed to smoke inhalation.

It took three days for firefighters to extinguish the fire and allow the investigators to begin their grim task of sifting through the mangled wreckage of Chris Foster’s life.

Is ‘Money Evil’ …or Was Chris?

The chilling tragedy shocked the nation and commentators inevitably tried to make sense of what had happened.

A once successful man was so ashamed of his business failings, he destroyed everything he loved and owned before ending his life. Why?

In the days after, amongst the cards and flowers left by the gateway was a note saying ‘Money is the root to all evil.’

It seemed to sum up the sentiments of many bereaved. Here was an average man who achieved something special; he invented something so great it made him a millionaire, and he shouldn’t have had to worry about money ever again.

Yet instead, it hooked him onto the vice-like trappings of materialism and vanity. Marketing and media make us covet fast cars, swanky clothes and everything else in between, so once Chris got a taste of the good life he was addicted like a heroin addict no matter how much debt he got into, until his creditors hounded him into a corner he couldn’t escape.

Chris appeared to be a loving father and husband, and one friend described him as ‘down to earth’, ‘open’ and ‘warm’. Yet, was he such a nice guy?

Many described Chris as ‘warm’ and ‘friendly’. Yet, others who knew him better called him a ‘narcissist’ and ‘highly controlling’ (mirror.co.uk)

Well, Chris was described by others variously as a ‘schoolboy bully’ a ‘narcissist’ and ‘highly controlling’ who was known to have hit his wife at least once. Some commentators suggested Chris’s murder spree was the last act of control over his family, to deny them a future free of his domination.

Whatever the truth, the sad Foster family saga is testament to Capitalism’s fickle fortunes and reminds us of the maxim: ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’.

Chris Foster, the big man with a big smile, fell very hard indeed.

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