Podcast Episode 68: Inside the Lincoln assassination trial at Grant Hall

a man sitting at the table

This episode of Walk With History takes place at Grant Hall in Fort McNair, Washington, DC, where the Lincoln Assassination trial was held from May to July of 1865. A military commission found seven of the prisoners guilty of at least one conspiracy charge, and four were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Over 300 witnesses gave their testimonies about all of the accused. The episode provides a glimpse into the history of the trial and the location where it took place.

Visit Grant Hall

Main video:Inside the Lincoln assassination trial at Grant Hall

Other videos:

His name is Dr. Mudd

Retracing the assassination of Lincoln


Ep 68 – Grant Hall
[00:00:00] Scott: Welcome to talk with history. I’m your host, Scott, here with my wife and historian, Jen. Hello! On this podcast, we give you insights to our history inspired world travels, YouTube channel journey, and examine history through deeper conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there.
[00:00:36] Now, Jen, before we get into the whole thing tonight, we have another… Five star review on Apple podcasts, which I am very excited about because that actually, that’s one of the things out there that really does help us kind of get noticed and moved up in whatever rankings they’re out there for, for history.
[00:00:53] We got a review from nursey Q and this is based on our last Gettysburg ghost. Episode says, she said, thank you for the episode. I used to love watching ghost hunters, et cetera, but not for the ghosts, just for the history of the places they were going to. That’s basically why I watched the history, but now I have walk and talk with history and I love it.
[00:01:16] You are both so informative. Thank you, Susie. Oh, that was nice. So thank you so much, Susie, for leaving the review that I love it because we love getting that feedback, uh, for a little. The little indie podcasters like us, um, that, that feedback really does help. And it kind of does. It’s nice to know what our audience is, is enjoying out there.
[00:01:35] So thank you so much, Susie. Um, for anybody else listening, we love getting reviews. If you want to do that on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else, um, hopefully we’ll see the review out there somewhere, or you can shoot us an email. Um, and you can find our email over at talkwithhistory. com.
[00:01:53] Now today. We’ll be taking you into Grant Hall at Fort McNair, Washington, DC. This is the location where the Lincoln assassination conspirator trial was held in 1865. Now on April 14th, President Lincoln was shot by the infamous John Wilkes Booth, as many of us know, but less than, conspirators
[00:02:20] sat in that very room that Jen takes us through in our most recent video. So, so Jen, how did this all come about that you were able to get into Grant Hall? Because it’s on an army
[00:02:30] Jenn: base. Yeah, it’s on Fort McNair. Uh, Fort McNair is the third oldest army installation in the United States, behind West Point and the Carlisle Barracks.
[00:02:40] So, it’s pretty historic and old, uh, but, you know, I can get on the base because, uh, I’m a military spouse.
[00:02:48] Scott: That’s right. Now, you had tried a couple times before. I think we’d even tried to bring… We tried to bring J. D. We tried to bring J. D. on
[00:02:55] Jenn: because he was in town. And I think, that day, I honestly think they were…
[00:03:00] Worried that people were parking on base to go to the Nationals game because Fort McNair is directly beside the baseball stadium And they were and but when I went on this time They were allowing people to park on the base to go to the Nationals game. Yeah I think now it’s like a thing now you can park there if you’re military They even had a whole section because the game was going on at the same time so I think they kind of like embraced their location and Uh, and I think at that time we had like a new gate guard.
[00:03:30] Yeah. He
[00:03:30] Scott: didn’t quite understand what was happening. It was a weekend.
[00:03:32] Jenn: Yeah. It was kind of an off time. But what has happened recently? Okay, so the third floor of Grant Hall is just recreated of the Lincoln, uh, military tribunal that happened. So it, that’s all it’s there for. And so they want people to see it and visit it.
[00:03:49] The issue is the rest of the building is used for the National Defense University. It’s used for the African American studies. And so people are in there doing their, the professors are in there. There’s a couple of work ends and so they don’t really want people traipsing up and cause it’s three floors, no elevator.
[00:04:05] It’s a historic building. And so they don’t want people in there during working hours. So. They have an amazing PAO there, and you can call… That’s Public Affairs Officer. Public Affairs Officer. So if you get on the website, you can call that number, and she will let you know of the, they have civilian times, where they, you get yourself on a list.
[00:04:28] They’ll meet you at the gate. They’ll get you onto the
[00:04:30] Scott: base. And I believe that they even mentioned kind of like the more public dates on the website. She’s kind of plan around that. So if you’re interested, we’ll put a link in the description of the show notes description. And we did the same thing in our video on YouTube.
[00:04:44] Um, but you got ahold of the public affairs officer and she was. Super
[00:04:47] Jenn: excited about it. She was super excited. I, I told her I had base access. I’ll meet you at Grant Hall. And she’s like, yeah, I’ll take you up. She has the key. She goes, you can film and do whatever you want. Shout out to the
[00:04:56] Scott: public affairs officer at Fort McNair.
[00:04:57] She was super helpful. Very excited about, you know, very nice. She was great. Um, and we were really excited. She lives in Annapolis. And well, and then the nice thing was is that you kind of got your own personal tour of the space and for, for making the video. And after anybody listening, listen to this podcast, I encourage you to go check out the video because we do, we took our time kind of really painting the picture for what the building used to look like compared to what it looks like now.
[00:05:24] I spent probably like a good couple hours trying to figure out the best way to frame that. And I took an old picture and I show very clearly. where you were standing and what remains of grant hall. Cause it used to be a
[00:05:35] Jenn: penitentiary. So it used to be a penitentiary built in 1829 and it was a huge penitentiary.
[00:05:42] Um, but it doesn’t really gain its notoriety until 1865 when this military tribunal happens. What was nice about having it to myself and you’ll see in the video is when people come and visit. It’s packed small. It’s small. And so, and they have reenactors in there and it’s just, it would be hard to film with so many people around and walking around and reading everything.
[00:06:07] One thing they do have, and you’ll see in the video is where the military tribunal sits. So they are, there are. Uh, nine gentlemen, they have their pictures there, uh, around the table. So those nine gentlemen are identified. Now this military tribunal is nine because they’ve using this kind of number system for guilty.
[00:06:31] And for execution, if you’re found guilty, it has to be majority. So five over four, and then for execution, it has to be two thirds, six out of nine. So they’ve tried to make it very basic numbers here. It’s not beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s not full amount of people. It is just majority and
[00:06:51] Scott: two thirds.
[00:06:52] Well, and that’s different than I think you mentioned it briefly in the video, but we, you don’t go too deep into it in this particular one, but there was some controversy. you know, around the fact that this was a military tribunal and not a
[00:07:05] Jenn: civilian court. So President Johnson, he got his attorney general who told him, uh, let’s do a military tribunal.
[00:07:13] It’ll be faster. It’ll be easier. And this happened during wartime. And because this happened during wartime, we can, even though these are civilians, they acted in a war like action, uh, assassinating a, the commander in chief. And so we can We can try them in a military tribunal, then you get the secretary of war who’s like, no, this has to be done in a civilian court.
[00:07:38] Um, but Johnson’s whole mindset is he wants it done fast, right? Because Lincoln is buried at the beginning of May. The trial basically starts the beginning of May. He wants this done. The country wants an answer. They want. Uh, and they want their justice.
[00:07:57] Scott: Well, and even if you think about it, right, even Lincoln wanted the nation to heal.
[00:08:03] Mm hmm. Right? And you’ve talked about this in some other videos. And Lincoln didn’t, um… Want any malice. He didn’t want any malice. Like, he wasn’t trying to execute a bunch of Confederate soldiers or generals or anything like that. He didn’t call for any of that. So… Johnson, right? Obviously, previous vice president, now president, I assume that they had been had those discussions together and he was kind of carrying that.
[00:08:26] Sentiment forward and he was trying to say like hey this Lincoln wanted this to heal in order to heal We have to get past all this tragedy And this was like almost the high point one of the high points of tragedy of the war
[00:08:39] Jenn: when you think about it It’s so immediate Appomattox is happening in April the beginning of April And then the president is assassinated in the middle of April.
[00:08:49] Then he’s basically buried the beginning of May and they’re going to start this trial again the middle of May. So it’s happening quickly. Yeah, he
[00:08:57] Scott: gets buried like on May 3rd or 4th. May 4th. And then the tribunal starts on May 10th.
[00:09:02] Jenn: Yeah, so what happens is on May 1st, President Johnson issues the order for the conspirators to be tried.
[00:09:09] And using a military commission. And then on May 9th, everyone has read their charges. So people go to their cell doors. They take off their hoods. Yeah. And you
[00:09:20] Scott: show that,
[00:09:20] Jenn: yeah, we show some pictures. So they take the hoods off and read their charges. But what’s interesting is like the trial starts May 12th.
[00:09:26] So three days later. So they have lawyers in this, and I show you where the lawyers sit on those two tables, kind of in front of the accused. They have three days to prepare their case.
[00:09:37] Scott: You know, it’s funny that you mention that because one of the scenes, there was a movie made, right? And I didn’t include too many clips of it because we were trying to really show the space more than focus on, you know, the kind of the controversy around a lot of this stuff.
[00:09:49] But one of the scenes that I was watching as I was kind of doing my editor portion of the research was the lawyer for, uh, Mary Surratt, right? The kind of the main character, at least in the movie. Sure. He’s arguing. you know, for kind of a delay. I forget what the technical term is, right? You know, for, for a stay or something like that because he needs time, right?
[00:10:11] And that’s what he’s foot stomping. He’s like, this, this just happened. Like, you know, I need time. Now, obviously he’s kind of playing a bit of the antagonist because everybody wants this to be done and everybody kind of knows who’s guilty and this, that and the other. But he’s trying to, I think in his eyes, trying to do the right thing.
[00:10:29] Sure. So there is, there is some controversy there, but at the same time, it’s just moving fast because when things are in the military, you can do that.
[00:10:36] Jenn: Sure. And they’re also playing on that gender politics because Mary Surratt will be the first woman executed, you know, by the federal government within the means of the law.
[00:10:47] And so even in the seven week trial, they get 371 witnesses. So it’s not like they can’t find people who want to talk about this. I think, right, this is big news. And when you have these eight accused, right, you get Samuel Arnold, George S. Surratt, David Harold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O. Laughlin, uh, Louis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt.
[00:11:10] When people see their names in the paper, they’re like, Oh, I know that person, or I talked to that person, or I saw that person. And you get people on both sides, character witnesses. People who saw the peop uh, you know, Booth and Mudd’s house, right? You’re gonna get people who saw Booth and Mudd meet at the church months before this happened, just to show that they knew each other.
[00:11:30] Like, you’re gonna get those kind of testimonies. I think people wanted to come forward and give them. Sure. So they probably found their ways there. And so I show you in the video where witnesses stood. So they stood in that big wooden box facing the military tribunal and they have the accused off to their left.
[00:11:49] They have the recorder to the right and behind them as a press table. I think the press table is almost the biggest table and the press was allowed to be in there. And of course, every day they’re turning out news. Uh, with the drawings associated with it, with the hoods and all the things.
[00:12:05] Scott: And that’s how we have a lot of the recreations.
[00:12:07] recreations. Yeah. That’s it. And I don’t know when they redid the space.
[00:12:12] Jenn: So what happened was, you know, this was just considered a working penitentiary, right? And I, and even we’ll talk about the outcomes, but even when the accuser. It’s basically out the front door. Oh, yeah, right. They just take you out the front door Yeah, and they do it right there And so it basically it’s as long as it takes them to build the scaffolding because they’re building it from nothing So it’s just a working space so what happens is in 1881 the penitentiary is closed and It’s basically all sections are pretty much demolished except for that eastern section and then from 1901 to 1914 it’s used as a school.
[00:12:55] Late 1900 is when it gets the name Grant Hall. They actually changed it to Grant Hall because now it’s just one building and it’s not even until 1940. Eight that the base changes to Fort McNair because McNair is a World War II general. So you’re getting this change happening around and you’re getting this honoring of history, right?
[00:13:18] Now people are starting to, Oh, maybe we should save these things now. After it’s used as a school, it’s used as a barracks and it’s kind of made into officer spaces. And the PAO was telling me, there’ll be people who come in and be like, I lived up here. Really? There was a kitchen right there. There was a bathroom right there.
[00:13:37] Like they lived there. Oh, interesting. Right. So they, it was like, it was a, Barracks for officers. And so it was in 1996 that the barracks was handed over to the National Defense University. And the professors were in there and it was just a derelict building and they were, it was got up for demolished because they weren’t gonna fix it.
[00:14:02] All the things that needed was so old, but it was a professor who realized how important that third floor was and went to Congress and actually got a grant, uh, his. historical grant to fix that third floor and preserve that building. That’s so interesting. So thank God for that professor who saw how important of a historic artifact the whole third floor is, uh, to American history.
[00:14:27] That’s why it’s saved today. Well, and
[00:14:28] Scott: it just goes to show, even just you talking about that right, right now, right in the military and it’s just in general. This country needed some run time before it started really trying to like save, save some of its history, right? Because we’re such a young country compared to many countries around the, around the world, many nations around the world.
[00:14:47] You know, we’re only a couple hundred years old compared to, you know, thousands, you know, for, for others. Leave it to, to someone in, in the late 90s, early 2000s to say like, Hey, that, that space up there, that’s kind of, there’s a pretty significant event that happened. Yes. You know, and he may have been looking at the old pictures too.
[00:15:02] He’s like, You know what? I bet that’s where, where it happened. And that’s, and that’s what they they did. And it
[00:15:07] Jenn: didn’t look like that then even when they saved it. Right. So they, they redid it to make it look how it did. Right. That’s why I kind of mentioned it in the video. It’s been redone to look like it did
[00:15:18] Yeah. Well, well,
[00:15:19] Scott: and everything’s new. Yes. You can
[00:15:20] Jenn: tell. And they, they actually wanted to use it for the mirror, for the movie. But it wasn’t ready in time. Oh, really? Yeah. So Robert Redford was kind of upset because he wanted to use the actual third floor, but it wasn’t, it hadn’t been finished in time. A classic government contract.
[00:15:34] Yeah. I don’t think it was done until 2012. Yeah. So it wasn’t finished in time. So, but they do have a bunch of the artifacts from the movie up there and I show some of those, uh, in the video. Yeah. It’s really neat. We, so let’s talk a little bit about the accused. What’s interesting is when I walk in and there’s a it’s basically they’re kind of higher up and they have a wooden bar or a blockade in front of them.
[00:16:02] Think about
[00:16:02] Scott: a modern day court where the jury sits. Yeah, that’s kind of where they accused were sitting. Yeah, there was eight of them,
[00:16:08] Jenn: eight of them and they it was a guard between each of them so they couldn’t speak to each other. So it’s kind of On, unlike a plain bench. And that’s kinda why they’re spread out.
[00:16:16] And their pictures are also displayed like the, the members of the military tribunal, their pictures are also displayed. And then Mary Surat is at the very end on her own because she’s separated. And then there’s a gate against the wall, kind of like a gate door to show you that was the door to the penitentiary, to the rest of the building.
[00:16:35] So the civilians would come up the way. You would come up to visit and not the civilians, but like the, the tribunal, the people who are not accused. Yeah. And they would all sit. And then the penitentiary, the accused would come through that penitentiary door and not pass that basic parishion, right? So keep them over to the other side.
[00:16:55] And so that’s kind of how they. Kind of, again, kind of separated them
[00:17:00] Scott: in the space. Yeah, and again, if you, if you watch our video, we show a couple times, and it’s, it’s pretty clear in the thumbnail, the reason, basically behind that door, you know, if you tried to walk out of it today, you would walk out of the building and, and fall out of the building.
[00:17:14] Yeah. But there was a whole huge prison. There was a huge, yes, prison. You know, weighing behind that. So they would stay over there, they would walk up, and they would just walk right into this room. Mm hmm. And,
[00:17:23] Jenn: um, honestly, they were, like, their hands were put in these, uh, handcuffs that kind of separated their hands.
[00:17:29] Couldn’t even touch your hands together. They wear these hoods, where you couldn’t, you couldn’t even look out under. They basically, and they ball, they put a ball and chain on their ankle. So that’s kind of how they were imprisoned the whole time they were in prison. Which is not long, when you think about it.
[00:17:43] Because… Yeah, less than a month. The sentence is handed down June 30th. So of the eight, you’re going to have four executions. You’re going to have Asarat, Harold, Powell, and Sarat. And if you watch our video. The night that Lincoln was assassinated, we go through the whole story, what everybody was doing that night.
[00:18:04] I’ll link that in the show notes as well. So all four are directly involved with Booth. All four, I, I, you can see why these four are executed. Even Mary Surratt. And this is like, even in the movie The Conspirator, this is the whole question, was she guilty, was she not? Um, but there’s no… way you can deny the evidence that what she was involved in.
[00:18:25] She wasn’t just providing the boarding house where they met. There’s more that she did. Um, and then you get Arnold, Mudd, and, uh, Laughlin who get life in prison. And they basically are tied to Booth. Mudd, we know for sure he sets his leg, but they’re tied to Booth. They help with the kidnapping conspiracy.
[00:18:48] Because before this became an assassination, Uh, attempt and, and, uh, and actually, you know, was an assassination. They wanted to kidnap Lincoln. The whole plan was to kidnap Lincoln and, and then ransom him for, you know, the South to just be left alone. For the South to just, you know, form their own country.
[00:19:10] And there was a lot of push in the trial to tie Jefferson Davis to ordering this kidnapping plot. So when did you meet with Davis? How well did you know Davis?
[00:19:24] Scott: I mean, were they ever able to try and
[00:19:26] Jenn: prove any of that? They weren’t. And because the accused will not testify. Right, they’re not gonna so it’s only people what they heard what they and again the people who more than likely are coming forth to testify Want to see them pay the price for what they’ve done.
[00:19:44] I think if anybody is a Loyalist to the south. They’re probably not coming forward to testify About their character. Although you do get Mary Surratt’s enslaved woman who comes forth to testify about her character as a good enslaver Yes And then you get one person who helps with the horse, the runaway horse, a spangler, the horse
[00:20:09] Scott: for food.
[00:20:10] Yeah, he’s the guy that you were saying in the video, he basically just like held the horse for him. He held the
[00:20:14] Jenn: horse for him. He gets six years hard labor. Uh, six years. Right. Yeah. Aiding and abetting. They were not messing around. So, and then the execution, so they, they hand out, you know, everyone is found guilty.
[00:20:27] Again, that only takes five of the nine. And then for the executions, they’re all, the four executions take six of the nine. And this is June 30th. They’re all executed July 7th. So here you have what, seven days? to build a gallows for four because they’re going to hang them all at the same time. Yep. And Mary Surratt will be the first woman.
[00:20:49] And
[00:20:49] Scott: those are all you see a lot of the famous pictures. Yes. Pretty well known pictures. And you mentioned a couple of them, um, one before the conspirators, you know, kind of got up there on the, on the gallows kind of stage per se. Um, then there’s the other one where they’re standing up there, another one with the umbrella.
[00:21:08] Yeah, they’re kind of held over. They’re kind of shading Mary Surratt. It was interesting.
[00:21:13] Jenn: She had her priests come up there and And give her her last rites, but I know it’s like until they till they kill her They’re still giving her some feminine decorum. Yeah,
[00:21:24] Scott: basically. Yeah, and you can actually find a picture of them hanging
[00:21:27] Jenn: yes, and so It’s an interesting concept because it’s like a whole platform just kind of falls away.
[00:21:33] So even if you were standing on that platform, you just like fall away to the ground. Yeah, hopefully nobody else was standing up there. It’s not like four doors. It’s like the whole half of the stage is going to fall away.
[00:21:42] Scott: After the execution, they actually bury him just. Right
[00:21:45] Jenn: there right to the side.
[00:21:46] It’s basically not even, you know, 10 feet away. And what’s interesting is they bury them all right there. And I think Booth is also put with them, his body because they have his body from when they shot him. I don’t think I realized that. And so it’s but then it’s about four years later, President Johnson were allowed their families to have their bodies back.
[00:22:07] And it’s about it’s that time as well 1869 that he’s going to commute the sentences. of Mudd and Spangler and, um, Arnold and, oh, oh, Lachlan. I think one of them had already died in prison, but the other ones live out some of their lives.
[00:22:26] Scott: Yeah. And Mudd, I mean, he had actually done, you know, tried to kind of keep doing his doctoring thing, right?
[00:22:31] He, we cover him a little bit in our, we, you visit his house. Yes. Uh, on a day that the house wasn’t actually open. So you visit the front gate to his house, but we talk all about kind of his case and how he actually knew Mudd and he actually. Claimed that he didn’t, but he had met him
[00:22:47] Jenn: previously. He knew him.
[00:22:48] He helped him get a horse. He knew who, he knew who. He did. They
[00:22:51] Scott: knew each other. And, um.
[00:22:52] Jenn: I don’t think he knew who was going to show up at his door that night. Right. But when he did show up at his door, he knew who he was. Yeah,
[00:23:00] Scott: and so that’s actually a really good video. If you’re curious to kind of watch a couple of videos on this.
[00:23:03] We have the, the Lincoln assassination, the night of. We kind of walk all through D. C. We show you all the spots where all that happened. We have this Grant Hall one. We have the Dr. Mudd video. Yes. We’d love to do some other ones, but we have a couple good ones. We
[00:23:16] Jenn: do. And so it was, uh, O’Loughlin, who he’s sentenced to life in prison, sent to Fort Jefferson, and he dies of yellow fever in 1867.
[00:23:26] So he doesn’t get to have his, uh, sentences, sentence commuted. Samuel Arnold does. He survives to 1906. He dies of tuberculosis. Of course, we know Mudd. He is, uh, pardoned, but he dies of pneumonia in 1883 at his house. There where we visit and then Edmund Spangler He is also part in and he remains in Maryland until his death in 1875
[00:23:48] Scott: Yeah, and you said the movie the conspirators is actually pretty good.
[00:23:51] It’s actually
[00:23:51] Jenn: very good I would recommend watching it because they actually go into all of these individuals and More about their lives and the people who play them are very good
[00:24:04] Scott: the funnest part about this video. We talked about it afterwards It’s it’s a little bit less about The event itself, and it’s really more of a show and tell. Yeah, it’s about the space. It’s about the space. It was really neat just to see… Just to be in the space. And I, and I think we ended up doing a pretty good job, because the video’s doing okay, um, of really showing you…
[00:24:24] And showing the viewers what it used to look like and what it looks like today. So you get a really good feel for when you’re standing there at the corner of what are now tennis courts that are being revamped or whatever. Yes. That’s right where the gals were. Right at the tennis court corner. Right at the tennis court corner.
[00:24:39] And then just down the way, and we can show, we show you the picture so you have a really good mental picture when you look at that. And it was really neat to watch this and just be like, Oh my gosh, right there. Like that’s where they said like, okay, pull, pull the bulls and boom. Those people were executed and they were buried just, just over there.
[00:24:56] And then in that space, all of those conspirators were sitting in there, you know, and the military tribunal and all of the stuff that came out of there, the pictures that we have today were drawn in
[00:25:09] Jenn: that room. Well, the PAO says she gets picked people all the time who want to take a picture by like the window where the conspirators were sitting because it’s such a, that went in Harper’s Weekly.
[00:25:20] Like that was a. very popular drawing of the space. And so people want to take a picture right there, right beside like the stove with the pipe going through. And they, it, it looks just like it. And you’re, and I, I also love to stand right with the witnesses. Yeah.
[00:25:38] Scott: Yeah. You do in the video. She lets you kind of go back there and you’re standing where the witness is stood.
[00:25:42] You’re actually back in the bench area where the conspirators sat. So that was one of the really cool things. And if you’re listening to this and this sounds interesting to you, this is, this is a couple great videos that I think you would really, really enjoy for our, for our listeners out there. So again, this was fun.
[00:25:57] I was bummed I didn’t get to tag along on this one because I think it would have been fun to be inside the space for those listening. Please go check out the video because I think you would really enjoy it. It’s pretty short, um, a lot shorter than, than this podcast and, uh, it’ll, it’ll give us, you know, that one more step towards, uh, beating the history channel, as we always say.
[00:26:15] So thank you this afternoon for listening to the Talk With History podcast and please reach out to us at our website talkwithhistory. com. More importantly, if you know someone else that might enjoy this podcast, please share it with them, especially if you think today’s topic would interest a friend.
[00:26:30] Shoot em a text. Send them a link to this particular episode and tell them to look up the Talk With History podcast because we rely on you, our community, to grow and we appreciate you all every day. We’ll talk to you next time. Thank you.

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The mountains are calling, let me grab a jacket and my kids.

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