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Doctor Caesar and His Antidote for Poison in 1750
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In the spring of 1750, the South Carolina General Assembly purchased the freedom of an enslaved man known as Doctor Caesar, who possessed life-saving medical knowledge. In return for his emancipation, Caesar divulged to a committee of White legislators his secret antidote for poisons and snakebites, prepared from a combination of familiar plants found across the colonial landscape. This simple decoction earned Doctor Caesar immortal fame in South Carolina and beyond, but it also provided a modicum of comfort during the final years of his long life and benefitted his family members who remained enslaved.
Today’s program focuses on a curious episode in the history of colonial-era South Carolina that is relatively well-known. While other writers have explored the medicinal and legal aspects of Caesar’s story, I’d like to focus on the extraordinary narrative of his emancipation and the few surviving clues related to his domestic life. First, however, we’ll need a bit of background to understand the context of Caesar's rise to fame.
The White minority of South Carolina’s early population, like their contemporaries in other slave-holding colonies, was terrified of being secretly poisoned by the enslaved people who prepared their meals and handled their food and drinks. The colony’s draconian law governing enslaved people, ratified in 1740, for example, declared poisoning a felony that was punishable by death. Proving that someone had been poisoned was a difficult matter, however, thanks to the limitations of scientific knowledge during that era. Nevertheless, White colonists and their families harbored great anxieties about poisoning and sought remedies that might save them from a sudden, clandestine murder.
The natural ingredients used by Caesar to create an antidote for poison were not unknown to Europeans of the eighteenth century. The two main ingredients that Caesar employed—narrowleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and common horehound (Marrubium vulgare)—had been used in folk remedies for many centuries by cultures around the world. Neither of these plant is native to South Carolina, however, and were apparently brought here by early European settlers who were familiar with their medicinal properties. Educated physicians of the eighteenth century might have prescribed more sophisticated, cutting-edge theories to combat suspected poisoning, while humbler folk clung to ancient recipes. Caesar’s rise to fame in 1750 was an example of a public desire to disseminate a proven treatment for an ailment that was frequently suspected but rarely proven.
Caesar first appears in the written records of South Carolina in the autumn of 1749. On November 24th of that year, an unidentified member of the provincial Commons House of Assembly mentioned to his colleagues “that there is a Negro man named Caesar belonging to Mr. John Norman of Beach [sic; Beech] Hill, who had cured several of the inhabitants of this province who had been poisoned by slaves.” The anonymous speaker also mentioned “that the said Negro man Caesar was willing to make a discovery [that is, revelation] of the remedy which he makes use of in such cases for a reasonable reward.” After a brief discussion of the topic, the members of the Commons House “resolved that a committee be appointed . . . to consider of the services done by the said Negro called Caesar. And to report the same, as it shall appear to them, with their opinion thereupon, to the House. As also to consider of and report what reward the said Negro man Caesar shall merit for his services.”
The members of the committee summoned and interviewed at least four well-respected White planters in the Lowcountry. All reported that they or a member of their family had suffered from unidentified ailments, thought to be poison, which miraculously disappeared after drinking a decoction of medicinal herbs provided by the enslaved man Caesar.
Mr. William Miles, for example, “informed the committee he verily believed his sister had been poisoned, and was cured by Caesar; and that sometime afterward his brother seemed effected [sic] with a very odd disorder, and, suspecting that it was the effects of poison, sent for Caesar who relieved him instantly. And that the said Mr. Miles now suspects his son to be in the same situation, and wants Caesar to [come to] his relief.”
The committee also interviewed young Henry Middleton (1717–1784; briefly president of the Continental Congress in 1774), who had recently suffered from a strange physical ailment. Mr. Middleton “seems to believe his disorder proceeded from poison,” reported the committee, “as he found a good effect from the first dose of Caesar’s antidote, and after the second dose the symptoms of his disorder intirely left him. He also informed the committee that his overseer apparently was in a worse situation than himself, and has been intirely relieved by the same hand.”
Next, the committee interviewed Mr. John Norman, Caesar’s owner, who was a militia captain and planter on the northern boundary of St. Paul’s Parish. More specifically, Norman’s plantation was located in a rural neighborhood on the east side of the Edisto River called Beech Hill, now in modern Dorchester County. “To his knowledge,” said Mr. Norman, “Caesar had done many services in a physical way, and in particular had frequently cured the bite of rattle snakes, and never knew him to fail in any one attempt.” Furthermore, Mr. Norman continued, “that Caesar had been frequently called upon as a doctor in many cases by the neighbors, and mentioned an instance to the committee of the man that had been cured of the Yaws [a type of bacterial infection] by Caesar when he had been twice salivated, and was covered with an intire scab from top to toe. And another point Caesar is very famous in is the cure of pleurisies [inflammation of the chest cavity] many of which he had undertaken to the knowledge of Mr. Norman which have had very deadly symptoms.”
The legislative committee also interviewed Thomas Sacheverell of Colleton County, who stated “that Caesar had undertaken to cure a man who was violently afflicted with fits.” The man was not yet fully cured and the treatments continued, said Mr. Sacheverell, but, “in appearance,” he was confident that Caesar’s treatment would soon effect a cure.
Having heard testimony from four respected White witnesses, “the committee called the said Negro Caesar before them.” No physical descriptions of the man survive, so we don’t know whether Caesar was a native of Africa, or had been born in South Carolina, or whether he spoke the King’s English or the pidgin language we now call Gullah. We only know that he an older man, approximately sixty-seven years of age at this time—nearly as old as the colony of South Carolina. Speaking face-to-face with the Caesar, the affluent White men of the legislative committee “asked him on what conditions he would discover [i.e., reveal] his antidotes, and such other useful simples [sic] as he was acquainted with.” The enslaved man Caesar answered this momentous question with a simple yet bold response. He said “that he expected his freedom, and a moderate competence for life, which he hoped the committee would be of opinion deserved one hundred pounds currency per annum [approximately £14 sterling]. And he proposed to give the committee any satisfactory experiment of his ability they please, as soon as he should be able to provide himself with the necessary ingredients.”
On November 29th, 1749, five days after receiving their assignment, the committee appointed to investigate Caesar’s reputed skills reported their findings to the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly. They recounted their interviews with Messrs. Miles, Middleton, Norman, and Sacheverell, and their brief meeting with Caesar himself. Although the committee did not articulate a direct endorsement of the enslaved man’s medicinal knowledge, the positive testimony of four White witnesses was apparently sufficient to convince them. To their fellow members of the Commons House, the committee offered the following concluding remark concerning Caesar’s fate: “The Committee therefore recommend that upon his satisfactory discovery of his antidotes against poison he shall have his freedom, and an annual allowance of one hundred pounds for life with such a further allowance for any other useful discovery he may make to the public as this House shall think fit.”
This was a bold proposal, to be sure, and might have provoked a hearty exchange of words among the members of the House. But the surviving journal of their deliberations does not mention any harsh words or raised voices. It only records that the legislators asked to hear again “the last paragraph of the said report.” After the proposal was read a second time, recommending Caesar’s manumission from slavery and the payment of an annual allowance for the rest of his life, the Speaker of the House, Andrew Rutledge, called for a vote. The precise tally was not recorded, but the majority voted to secure Caesar’s freedom.
The vote to emancipate Caesar in the autumn of 1749 was a historic step, but it remained a conditional gesture. The enslaved doctor still had to reveal his secrets to a jury of White men who would judge whether or not his recipes merited the proposed rewards. There was also the matter of compensating John Norman, Caesar’s legal owner, who would be deprived of a valuable property if and when Caesar was set free. The enslaved man had to be appraised by impartial judges, and then the members of the Commons House had to vote to appropriate the funds necessary to purchase Caesar’s freedom.
To these several ends, the Commons House adopted a series of resolutions on November 29th. First, they appointed two of their own members to meet with two men to be appointed by John Norman, who would separately evaluate and appraise Caesar’s monetary value. If the four men could not agree on a figure, they were empowered to select a fifth man to act as “umpire” and settle the matter. Secondly, the House resolved to make additional appropriations beyond purchasing Caesar’s freedom, “for any further discovery he shall make of any useful medicine.”
Such monetary issues were contingent on the consent of the principal parties, of course, so the Commons House then summoned John Norman and Caesar. It appears that the two men knew that their affairs were part of the day’s legislative agenda, and had journeyed from Beech Hill to Charleston. According to the legislative journal, the members of the House were informed that Mr. Norman “attended at the door, [and] he was called in.” The Speaker, Andrew Rutledge, “acquainted him with the said Resolution” adopted by the members of the House, “and then asked him if he was willing to agree to it.” Mr. Norman “answered that he was content. And then he withdrew.” Having secured the consent of Caesar’s owner, the legislators “resolved that this House will make provision for payment to the said John Norman of the appraised value of the said Negro Caesar.”
Finally, the members of the Commons House voted to acquaint Caesar with the proposed plan, and to solicit his cooperation. “And the House being informed that the said Negro Caesar attended at the door, he was called in.” No record survives of Caesar’s appearance at that moment, but we might imagine that he was dressed modestly in his best linen shirt and wool jacket, with his felt hat clutched firmly in his nervous hands. The Speaker of the House spoke directly to the enslaved man and briefly explained the government’s plan to purchase his freedom. Caesar’s participation was crucial, so Mr. Rutledge directed him “to reveal to the said committee all the secrets which he knows in physic, as well antidotes against poison as any other.” The manuscript journal of the proceedings does not mention any response, but Caesar probably nodded in consent before being dismissed. The journal merely states “And then he withdrew.”
One week later, on December 7th, the committee appointed to enquire into the case of the enslaved doctor, Caesar, reported to the Commons House that there had been some small difficulty in reaching a consensus on the man’s monetary value. As instructed, however, the four appraisers had chosen a fifth man, Thomas Lamboll, to act as an “umpire” and settle the matter. Mr. Lamboll submitted a sworn appraisal, stating “that upon due consideration of all the advantages of the said Negro slave Caesar (aged near sixty-seven years) might be of to the owner by his knowledge and skill (as represented to him)[, he] may be worth the sum of five hundred pounds current money of South Carolina.” To this very generous sum, the members of the Commons House did not object. Instead, they outlined the final condition on which the price of £500 would be paid. After the committee investigating Caesar shall have make their report, “if it shall appear to this House that he had made a full discovery to the satisfaction of the said committee that his antidotes against poison are effectual, this House will order the Public Treasurer to pay the said sum of five hundred pounds to the said John Norman immediately.”
The members of the Commons House adjourned in mid-December 1749 for their usual holiday recess, and reconvened two months later. On February 28th, 1750, while compiling a list of government expenses for the annual tax bill, the House resolved to add the sum of £500 for the purchase of Caesar from John Norman of Beech Hill. That sum remained a conditional payment, however, as the committee appointed to investigate Caesar’s cures had not yet made their report to the House. To expedite the matter, the Speaker of the House ordered the members of that committee to “immediately examine the said Caesar with respect to his antidote against poison, and that they do report the matter at large, as it shall appear to them, to the House.”
Two weeks later, on March 14th, the House resolved to advance the sum of £50 currency directly to Caesar, as an immediate reward for his work, and perhaps to compensate him for demonstrating the preparation of his antidotes. Growing impatient with the foot-dragging committee, however, the Speaker of the House ordered them to prepare their report immediately “and made a report thereon to this House without loss of time.”
The much-anticipated report finally arrived on March 16th, 1750, and was read aloud, twice, to the members of the Commons House. Pursuant to their orders, the legislative committee had “examined into the cures performed by the said Negro Caesar and the efficacy of his antidote for expelling the poison.” They concluded “that the said Caesar hath cured several persons who had been long ill of a lingering distemper, attended with intollerable pains in the stomach and bowels, particularly Mr. John Cattel, Mr. Henry Middleton, and Mr. Gaillard, who had employed some of the most skilful physicians in this country, and found no relief from their medicines.” The committee had planned to test the enslaved man’s potions on an animal, but, finding that Caesar himself was, at the time, “dangerously ill of a fever,” they set aside the planned experiment. Instead, “they insisted upon his discovering everything he knew concerning the cure of poisons, together with the names of the plants which he made use of in performing the aforesaid cures, and his method of preparing and administering the same, as likewise the symptoms by which he knew when any person was poisoned.” Caesar vowed to “faithfully comply with” this request, and dictated the following medicinal prescriptions:
THE CURE FOR POISON
Take the roots of Plantane and wild Hoare-hound, fresh or dried, three ounces; boil them together in two quarts of water to one quart, and strain it; of this decoction let the patient take one third part three mornings, fasting successively, from which is he finds any relief, it must be continued till he is perfectly recovered. On the contrary, if he finds no alteration after the third dose, it is a sign that the patient has either not been poisoned at all, or that it has been with such poison as Caesar’s antidotes will not remedy, so may leave off the decoction. During the cure the patient must live on a spare diet, and abstain from eating mutton, pork, butter, or any other fat or oily food.
N.B. The Plantane or Hoar Hound will, either of them, cure alone, but they are most efficacious together.
In summer you may take one handful of the roots and branches of each, in place of three ounces of the roots of each.
For drink during the cure, let them take the following.
Take of the roots of Golden Rod, six ounces, or in summer two large handfuls of the roots and branches together, and boil them in two quarts of water to one quart (to which also may be added a little Hoare Hound and sassafras); to this decoction, after it is strained, add a glass of rum or brandy, and sweeten it with sugar for ordinary drink.
Sometimes an inward fever attends such as are poisoned for which he orders the following,
Take a pint of wood ashes and three pints of water; stir and mix them well together; let them stand all night, and strain or decant the lye of[f] in the morning, of which ten ounces may be taken six mornings following, warmed or cold, according to the weather. These medicines have no sensible operation, though sometimes they work in the bowels, and give a gentle stool.
The symptoms attending such as are poisoned are as follows,
A pain in the breast, difficulty in breathing, a load at the pit of the stomach, an irregular pulse, burning and violent pains of the viscera above and below the navel, very restless at night, sometimes wandering pains over the whole body, a reaching [i.e., retching] and inclination to vomit, profuse sweats (which prove always serviceable), slimy stools both when costive and loose, the face of a pale and yellow colour, sometimes a pain and inflamation of the throat; the appetite is generally weak, and some cannot eat any; those who have been long poisoned are generally very feeble and weak in their limbs, sometimes spit a great deal; the whole skin peals, and likewise the hair falls out.
Caesar’s Cure for the Bite of A Rattle-Snake.
Take the roots of Plantane or Hoare Hound (in summer roots and branches together) a sufficient quantity; bruise them in a mortar, and squeeze out the juice, of which give, as soon as possible, one large spoonful; if he is swelled you must force it down his throat. This generally will cure, but, if the patient finds no relief in an hour after, you may give another spoonful, which never fails.
If the roots are dried, they must be moistened with a little water.
To the wound may be applied a leaf of good tobacco moistened with rum.
Shortly after hearing the report of Caesar’s cures for poison and snakebite, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly adjourned for a month-long spring recess. Before doing so, however, the House ordered that a fair copy of the cures be prepared and handed to a local printer for public dissemination. The legislators reconvened to Charleston in late April, and on Monday, May 14th, 1750, the front page of the South Carolina Gazette printed the full text of “The Negro CÆSAR’s Cure for Poison.”
The antidotes provided by an enslaved man were now public knowledge, thanks to a commitment made by the Commons House of Assembly to purchase Caesar’s freedom. The Commons represented only the lower half of South Carolina’s bicameral legislature, however, and the smaller Upper House of Assembly was apparently caught off-guard by this now-public news. On May 17th, the members of the Upper House sent a message to their colleagues expressing their annoyance. “This House is unacquainted with the discovery of the said antidote, and are therefore of opinion, that, as no application had been made to the General Assembly or any information given to this House of the merits of the said slave in the particular mentioned in that article, we cannot judge of the expediency of setting him free, or putting the province to the expence of doing the same.” The Upper House complained of being backed into a corner, in which their choices were either “agreeing to the giving away sums of money quite in the dark and without proper information or rejecting the tax-bill.” Their objections were soon pacified, however, after the Commons forwarded to the Upper House a copy of the full report of the committee that had interviewed both Caesar and his satisfied customers. Without further complaint, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified its annual tax bill on May 31, which contained an appropriation of £500 “to Mr. John Norman for the freedom of a negro man named Caesar who discovered an antidote against poyson.”
Caesar gained his freedom in the late spring of 1750, and the text of his medicinal cures circulated beyond South Carolina. It was reprinted in newspapers, almanacs, and journals in the American colonies and in Britain. Due to popular demand, The South Carolina Gazette reprinted the full text of “CÆSAR’s Cure for Poison” on March 4th, 1751. Shortly after that publication, South Carolina’s provincial government issued a payment of £100 to Caesar, the first instalment of his promised lifetime annuity. At the same time, however, the legislature also amended the draconian act for governing enslaved people within the colony. The revised law, ratified on May 17th, 1751, sought to restrain the activities of enslaved healers like Caesar. Henceforth, “no negroes or other slaves (commonly called doctors,) shall hereafter be suffered or permitted to administer any medicine, or pretended medicine, to any other slave, but at the instance or by the direction of some white person.”
We know little of the life of Caesar after his emancipation from slavery in the spring of 1750. He was reportedly around sixty-seven years of age at that time, and his health was in decline. His last will and testament, drafted in the early days of 1754 with the aid of some literate friends, provides a few personal details. After gaining his freedom, he remained in the vicinity of, and perhaps on, the plantation of John Norman at Beech Hill. In his will, he identified himself as “Doctor Caesar of South Carolina in St. Paul’s Parish[,] Practitioner of Phisick.” He directed his executors to liquidate all of his material assets and apply the money to the care of his family. His wife, Lilly, and minor daughter, Hannah, were still enslaved by John Norman, and the proceeds of his estate might be applied towards the purchase of Hannah’s freedom. Caesar also mentioned a daughter named Lucy, as well as two grandchildren, Peggy and little Caesar, but did not specify where they lived. To execute his will and administer his modest estate, Caesar appointed White men of Beech Hill he described as “my two friends,” James Baker and Andrew Way.
The precise date of Caesar’s death is unknown, but apparently occurred during the early weeks of 1754. Soon after, his two executors and three White neighbors visited his residence to compile an inventory of his possessions. The principal asset on their written schedule, valued at £40, was “1 old Negro wench,” an unidentified woman who was not Caesar’s wife. Caesar had probably purchased this enslaved woman from one of his White neighbors to prepare his meals and perform other domestic chores. Next in value was a supply of pipe tobacco, and then his woolen coats, jackets, and linen shirts. The rest of the inventory, which totaled just over £62 currency (£9 sterling), included small household utensils, provisions, and a few tools that Caesar might have used to build his own house.
On March 12th, 1754, the South Carolina Gazette carried an advertisement for the auction sale of “all the effects of Doct. Caesar, deceased, consisting of one negro wench, some provisions and household goods,” to be held on April 2nd at the house of executor Andrew Way at Beech Hill. Later in April, the South Carolina legislature paid its final annuity to Caesar’s estate, covering the last eight-and-a-half months of his life, and his executors published a notice asking Caesar’s recent customers to render their payments without delay.
The sale of Caesar’s modest estate in the spring of 1754, combined with the payment of his final annuity, probably generated enough cash to provide some comfort to his wife and children, but the proceeds were not sufficient to purchase their freedom. At least three members of his family remained in the household of John Norman, who died less than two years after Caesar. The inventory of Norman’s estate, made on January 20th, 1756, included a “Negro wench Lilley [sic] & child,” as well as a “Negro girl Hannah.” Caesar’s other daughter, Lucy, was not enslaved at Norman’s plantation, nor is there any mention of his grandchildren, Peggy and little Caesar.
The story of Doctor Caesar and his antidote for poison forms a colorful chapter of South Carolina’s early history. The details of his celebrated medicinal decoction provide valuable insight into the practice of health care in the mid-eighteenth century, while simultaneously illuminating a remarkable episode of cooperation between White authorities and an enslaved man endowed with irrefutable talents. Because the surviving archival records of the state’s early history include few details about the lives and labors of the enslaved majority, the brief snapshot of Doctor Caesar’s career during the final years of his life represents a priceless window into the world of colonial South Carolina.
I believe it’s entirely possible that descendants of Doctor Caesar walk among us today in the Lowcountry, although it might be impossible to reconstruct the branches of his family tree. Nevertheless, Caesar’s story forms a compelling part of this state’s shared heritage. His legacy endures among the descendants of all enslaved people who persevered in the face of obstacles to contribute to the health and wellness of our community.
 See, for example, the article about Caesar by Vennie Deas-Moore in The South Carolina Encyclopedia; Judith A Carney, “African Traditional Plant Knowledge in the Circum-Caribbean Region,” Journal of Ethnobiology 23 (Fall/Winter 2003): 167–85; Matthew James Crawford and Joseph M. Gabriel, eds., Drugs on the Page: Pharmacopoeias and Healing Knowledge in the Early Modern Atlantic World (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019).
 See section XVI of “An Act for the better Ordering and Governing Negroes and other Slaves in this Province,” ratified on 10 May 1740, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 402.
 J. H. Easterby and Ruth S. Green, eds., The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, March 28, 1749–March 19, 1750 (Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1962), 293–94. The committee included “Doctor [Thomas] Dale, Doctor John Rutledge, Captain Taylor, Mr. Mathewes, Mr. Dart, Major Boone, Mr. [James] Irving, Mr. Mazyck, and Mr. Austin.”
 On 4 May 1745, John Norman filed a memorial for two tracts on Beech Hill, St. Paul’s Parish, Colleton County. See South Carolina Department of Archives and History (hereafter SCDAH), Memorial Books, volume 7, page 457.
 Easterby and Green, Journal of the Commons House, 1749–1750, 303–4.
 Easterby and Green, Journal of the Commons House, 1749–1750, 326.
 Easterby and Green, Journal of the Commons House, 1749–1750, 412.
 Easterby and Green, Journal of the Commons House, 1749–1750, 461.
 Easterby and Green, Journal of the Commons House, 1749–1750, 478–80. I have reproduced the spelling as it appears in the original source.
 R. Nicholas Olsberg, ed. The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, 23 April 1750–31 August 1751 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1974), 82, 111, 124, 149, 156. See the list of appropriations annexed to Act No. 780, “An Act for raising and granting to his Majesty the sum of sixty thousand three hundred and fifty-eight pounds fourteen shillings and ten pence one farthing, for defraying the charges of the government for one year, commencing the twenty-fifth day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and forty-nine, inclusive, and ending the twenty-fifth day of March, one thousand seven hundred and fifty, exclusive, and for discharging the reside of the debt incurred for the defence [sic] of the coasts and protection of the trade of this province,” ratified on 31 May 1750. The text of this act does not appear in the published series of The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, but it survives among the engrossed statutes at SCDAH.
 Olsberg, Journal of the Commons House, 1750–1751, 375, 423. See sections VII, XI, and XII of “An additional and explanatory Act to an Act of the General Assembly of this Province, entitled ‘An Act for the better ordering and Governing Negroes and other Slaves in this Province;’ and for continuing such part of the said Act as is not altered or amended by this present Act; for the term therein mentioned,” ratified on 17 May 1751, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 422–23.
 SCDAH, Will Book 1752–1756, page 187. WPA transcript volume 7: 186–87. The text of the will does not include a specific date, but it was recorded on recorded on 17 May 1754. The witnesses were Benjamin Chapell and Joshua Clark.
 SCDAH, Inventory Book RR (1753–1756), page 169. The appraisers were John Stewart, Joseph Baker, and Moses Way.
 South Carolina Gazette, 5–12 March 1754 (Tuesday), No. 1030, page 3; Terry W. Lipscomb, ed., The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, November 21, 1752–September 6, 1754 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1983); South Carolina Gazette, 2–9 April 1754, page 3.
 SCDAH, Inventory Book S (1756–1758), pages 282–85. Norman’s personal estate was appraised by John Gannaway, Henry Saltus, and Richard Bedon Jr. The inventory does not specify a location, but Bedon was one of Norman’s neighbors who appraised Caesar’s value in early 1750.
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