The Man Who Took the Knife to London’s High Society

The Man Who Took the Knife to London’s High Society


By the 1780s John Hunter was the leading anatomist in Europe and an influential figure in Georgian high society: he had married a beautiful bluestocking poet, Anne Home, and was surgeon extraordinary to King George III.

During the day, the carriages of his wealthy patients blocked Leicester Square, where he lived with his family. In the evening, while Anne entertained London’s literati (“literary debates were decidedly not his idea of fun”), the Resurrectionists, or “Sack ‘Em Up Men”, would deliver corpses from London’s cemeteries to his back door. He was, as historian Wendy Moore says, “the Jekyll and Hyde of the Georgian period”.

At his country house in the “tranquil village” of Earl’s Court, Hunter kept an exotic menagerie: zebras and mountain goats grazed on the front lawn, prompting some to say he was the model for Dr. Dolittle. Hunter would sometimes be seen driving a carriage containing fresh supplies of fruit and vegetables from Earl’s Court to his Leicester Square townhouse, pulled by three Asian buffaloes. On the return journey, it would carry a gory cargo of dissected corpses. It was at Earl’s Court, he conducted experiments on animals of which Dr. Moreau would have been proud. The squealing of pigs and dogs vivisected in the name of science competed with the roar of his lions. In one of his more bizzare experiments he successfully grafted a cockerel’s testicle into the belly of a hen.

The place in British society of a man like John Hunter was rich in contradictions. As a surgeon, he treated some of the prominent men of his age – men like Adam Smith and David Hume (who called him “the greatest anatomist in Europe”), Gainsborough, Hickey, and the baby Byron, possibly James Boswell too. Many of these and other celebrities were personal friends of his and Anne’s – men like Joseph Banks, Joshua Reynolds, and Daniel Solander – highly respected members of civilised society.

Hunter kept a careful record of his surgical operations. This extract from his notebook details an unfortunate patient’s neck tumour:

‘John Burley, a Rigger, thirty-seven years of age, of a middle size, dark complexion, and healthy constitution; about sixteen years ago, fell down, & bruised his cheek on the left side, above the parotid gland. It was attended with a good deal of pain, which in four or five weeks went off, and the part began to swell gradually, and continued increasing for four or five years, attended but with little pain. At this time it was increased to the size of a common head, attended with no other inconvenience than its size and weight. He again fell and received a wound on its side, which gave considerable pain at first, but it got well in eight or nine weeks (This part is marked in the Drawing.) After this, the tumour increased without pain, on the lower part; as also at the basis, extending itself under the chin to the amazing size it now appears. Lately, he had perceived that its increase is much greater than what it was some time ago: he says he can perceive it bigger every month. The tumour is in parts the colour of the Skin, in other parts of a shining purple, where the Skin of the cheek is elongated. The beard grows upon it and is shaved in common. When by accident it is wounded, it heals kindly, because it is only the Skin that is wounded; and has sensation in common with the skin. It is hard to the feel some places, and in others softer, as if containing a fluid. It seems quite loose and unconnected with the skull or lower jaw and may be moved easily without giving Pain.’ 

Hunter performed the operation to remove this monster of a tumour on Monday, October the 24th, 1785. It lasted twenty-five minutes, and the man did not cry out during the whole of the operation. The Tumour weighed 144 ounces.

John Hunter died on October 16, 1793, after yet another heated argument with the out-dated surgeons at St George’s Hospital. He left huge debts, having spent all his money building up his unique anatomical collection which was opened to the public in 1788 at his Leicester Square home. The 14,000 items collected over 40 years – including Burley’s immense tumour – demonstrated the interrelatedness of all life on Earth. It also proved the originality of Hunter’s thinking. Seventy years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, monkey and human skulls were placed together in a series, and he told visitors that “our first parents, Adam and Eve, were indisputably black”.

He had hoped the nation would buy his collection, but William Pitt the Younger exclaimed: “What! Buy preparations! Why I have not got money enough to purchase gunpowder.” Hunter’s wife and children were left with nothing. His brother-in-law seized his unpublished works and plagiarised them ruthlessly to carve out a career for himself as a surgeon. The man whom Hunter had taught the art of anatomy then burnt his priceless research notes.

I gave the eponymous hero of my latest novel, Sinclair, a brush with Hunter at St Georges Hospital. Here are a few of Sinclair’s thoughts on London voluntary hospitals.

“I’ll have to look for a position at one of the voluntary hospitals. I was hoping that I’d never had to go into one of those sanctimonious places again. It’s not the patients that get me down, they can’t help being sick or poor, it’s all the praying and grovelling. Those hospitals are full of the most unpleasant people, Frank. Pompous and incompetent men, self-satisfied arrivistes and simpering clergymen.”

“Oh, life’s full of grovelling and doing what somebody else wants, in my experience. Just try being in the Army.”

“I know it has to be done from time to time, but I’m not good at it. Those poor patients have to pray for their souls and give thanks to their benefactors at least three times a day no matter how sick they are. A lot of them are at death’s door, but they still have to get on their knees and give thanks to God and their wealthy benefactors.”

“But it’s better than being left to die alone and without any care, isn’t it?” said Greenwood.

“Aye, I suppose when you put it like that it’s a small price to pay for a warm bed, medicine and a bowl of broth, but it sticks in my craw. Why should these people be grateful for so little when the undeserving seem to have so much? Besides, this so-called charity work is false. It’s the very thing that enables surgeons like Hunter to build their reputations and make fortunes in the City.”

“So why can’t you be like them, Jamie?”

“Because staff appointments aren’t made on merit, they’re made through connection and patronage, and I won’t prostitute myself for these corrupt men of money. I put my principles aside to join the East India Company. I thought I could make myself happy by getting rich in the colonies, but thankfully I was saved from that folly. I now realise a man must be happy with his conscience if he’s to be happy at all.”

“That’s the trouble with principles; they’re very expensive for a poor man. Most of my father’s friends, who are rich of course, claim to have principles, but somehow they make sure that they never have any that stop them making money or for which they cannot get others to pay.”

“I think you’re an even greater cynic than me, Frank.”

“Oh, that’s quite possible. My whole life has been spent in the company of politicians: I don’t need the newspapers to know how they think.”

——————————————-

Source: The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery by Wendy Moore

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon 

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The First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

The First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

Humble Beginnings

Jeanne Baret was born on July 27, 1740, in the village of La Comelle in the Burgundy region of France. Her record of baptism survives and identifies her as the legitimate issue of Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard. Her father is identified as a day labourer and seems likely to have been illiterate, as he did not sign the parish register.

Housekeeper and Servant

At some point between 1760 and 1764, Baret became employed as housekeeper to naturalist, Philibert Commerson, who had settled in Toulon-sur-Arroux, some 20 km to the south of La Comelle, upon his marriage in 1760. Commerson’s wife, who was the sister of the parish priest, died shortly after giving birth to a son in April 1762, and it seems that Baret took over management of Commerson’s household at that time, if not before.

Lover and Friend

It seems Baret and Commerson shared a more than an interest in his household as she became pregnant in 1764. French law at that time required women who became pregnant out of wedlock to obtain a “certificate of pregnancy” in which they could name the father of their unborn child. Baret’s certificate, from August 1764, survives; it was filed in a town 30 km away and witnessed by two men of substance who likewise had travelled a considerable distance from their homes. She refused to name the father of her child, but historians do not doubt that it was Commerson and that it was Commerson who had made the arrangements with the lawyer and witnesses on her behalf.

Paris and a Child

Shortly afterward, Baret and Commerson moved together to Paris, where she continued in the role of his housekeeper having left his legitimate son in the care of his brother-in-law in Toulon-sur-Arroux and never saw him again in his lifetime. Baret apparently changed her name to “Jeanne de Bonnefoy” during this period. Her child was born in December 1764 and was given the name Jean-Pierre Baret. Baret gave the child up to the Paris Foundlings Hospital and he was quickly placed with a foster mother. The child suffered the fate of so many at that time and died in the summer of 1765.

The Expedition

That year Commerson was invited to join Bougainville’s expedition to circumnavigate the globe to claim territory for the French king similar to the expeditions of his contemporary the English Captain Cook. Commerson hesitated in accepting because he was often in poor health; he required Baret’s assistance as a nurse as well as in running his household and managing his collections and papers. Finally, he accepted and as his appointment allowed him a servant, paid as a royal expense, he decided to take his companion and helpmate Jeanne with him. The problem was that women were completely prohibited on French navy ships at this time. Together they devised a plan for Jeanne to disguise herself as a man and join the ship just before it sailed. Before leaving Paris, Commerson drew up a will in which he left to “Jeanne Baret, known as de Bonnefoi, my housekeeper”, a lump sum of 600 livres along with back wages owed and the furnishings of their Paris apartment.

Breaking the Rules

The pair boarded the ship Étoile in December 1766 and because of the vast quantity of equipment Commerson brought with him the ship’s captain, François Chesnard de la Giraudais, gave up his own large cabin to Commerson and his “assistant”. This fortuitous act gave Baret significantly more privacy than she might otherwise have expected on board and she did not have to use the shared heads like other members of the crew to relieve herself.

Surviving accounts of the expedition differ on when Baret’s gender was first discovered. According to Bougainville, rumours that Baret was a woman had circulated for some time, but her gender was not finally confirmed until the expedition reached Tahiti in April 1768. As soon as she and Commerson landed on shore to botanize, Baret was immediately surrounded by Tahitians who cried out that she was a woman. It was necessary to return her to the ship to protect her from the excited Tahitians. Bougainville recorded this incident in his journal some weeks after it happened when he had an opportunity to visit the Étoile to interview Baret personally.

Another account says that there was much speculation about Baret’s gender early in the voyage and asserts that Baret claimed to be a eunuch when confronted directly by the Captain, La Giraudais (whose own official log has not survived). After crossing the Pacific, the expedition was desperately short of food. After a brief stop for supplies in the Dutch East Indies, the ships made a longer stop at the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. This island, known as Isle de France, was then an important French trading station. Commerson was delighted to find that an old friend and fellow botanist Pierre Poivre was serving as governor on the island, and Commerson and Baret remained behind as Poivre’s guests, probably encouraged by Bougainville as it allowed him to rid himself of the problem of a woman illegally on board his expedition.

Assistant and Housekeeper

On Mauritius, Baret continued in her role as Commerson’s assistant and housekeeper. It is likely that she accompanied him to botanize on Madagascar and Bourbon Island in 1770-1772. Commerson continued to have serious health problems, and he died in Mauritius in February 1773. After Commerson’s death, Baret seems to have found work running a tavern in Port Louis for a time. Then, on 17 May 1774, she married Jean Dubernat, a non-commissioned officer in the French Army who was most likely on the island on his way home to France.

Marriage and Return to France

There is no record of exactly when Baret and her husband arrived in France, thus completing her voyage of circumnavigation. Most likely it was sometime in 1775. In April 1776, she received the money that was due to her under Commerson’s will after applying directly to the Attorney General. With this money, she settled with Dubernat in his native village of Saint-Aulaye where he may have set up as a blacksmith.

State Recognition of Services to Botany

In 1785, Baret was granted a pension of 200 livres a year by the Ministry of Marine. The document granting her this pension makes clear the high regard with which she was held by this point:

Jeanne Baret, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit…. His Lordship has been gracious enough to grant to this extraordinary woman a pension of two hundred livres a year to be drawn from the fund for invalid servicemen and this pension shall be payable from 1 January 1785. She died in Saint-Aulaye on August 5, 1807, at the age of 67.

Honours and Publications

Commerson named many of the plants he collected after friends and acquaintances. One of them, a tall shrub with dark green leaves and white flowers that he found on Madagascar, he named Baretia Bonafidia. But Commerson’s name for this genus did not survive, as it had already been named by the time his reports reached Paris; it is currently known as Turraea. While over seventy species are named in honour of Commerson, only one, Solanum baretiae, honors Baret.

For many years, Bougainville’s published journal – a popular best-seller in its day, in English translation as well as the original French – was the only widely available source of information about Baret. More recent scholarship has uncovered additional facts and documentation about her life, but much of the new information remained little-known and inaccessible to the general public, particularly outside France. The first English-language biography of Baret, by John Dunmore, was not published until 2002, and then only in New Zealand. Other articles appeared only in scholarly journals.

The 2010 biography of Baret by Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, brought Baret to the attention of a wider audience and helped to overturn some of the old misconceptions about her life.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon 

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Ching Shih – The world’s most successful pirate was a woman!

Ching Shih – The world’s most successful pirate was a woman!

Ching Shih, the world’s most successful pirate was born in 1775.

Although not much is known about her she was a known prostitute who worked in a floating brothel in the city of Canton. She caught the eye of the renowned pirate Zheng Yi while she was working there.

Some stories say that Zheng Yo took her by force, others that she struck a bargain with him. It is said that she agreed to marry him for half his Pirate Empire. Whatever happened the two worked together to run the most successful pirate operation ever seen in the South China Sea.

In the six years, they were married their fleet grew from about 200 ships to more than 400.

They grew their business by forming alliances with other pirate leaders creating the Cantonese Pirate Coalition. This gave them effective control over much of the merchant traffic in the area. By 1807 they were collecting a mountain of protection money from traders for safe passage.

Zheng Yi’s ship was caught in a storm in 1807 and he lost his life. His ferocious widow took up the reins of their criminal enterprise and continued to run the empire they had created together.

With her newly appointed military commander, Chang Pao leading her loyal band of 400 pirates Ching Shih focused on the “business” side of things.

With her pirate army and navy she had effective control of Guangdong province, a vast spy network within the Qing Dynasty; and domination of the South Chinese Sea. Needless to say, this was not a situation the authorities in China liked.

Before long the Emperor raised a fleet against her. Unfortunately for the Emperor, Ching Shih was a brilliant military strategist and rather than running from her assailants she met them head on taking 63 of the Emperor’s ships and terrifying their crews.

Ching Shih forced those who she captured to join her pirate gang by threatening to have them nailed to the deck by their feet then beaten to death. Needless to say, there was a high rate of take up.

The Admiral in command of the debacle, Kwo Lang committed suicide rather than suffer further humiliation of being beaten and captured by a woman.

The Qing Dynasty government then enlisted the aid of the super-power British and Portuguese navies, as well as many Dutch ships, paying them large sums of money to drive Ching Shih into submission.

The international task force waged war on Ching Shih’s organisation for two years but met with little success. She won battle after battle until finally, the Emperor decided to take a different tack. Instead of trying to defeat her, he offered her and most of her organisation an amnesty.

Ching Shih initially rejected the Emperor’s offer but she wisely changed her mind and signed in 1810.

The deal she struck disbanded her fleet and granted amnesty to most of her followers. In the deal, she was allowed to keep all her loot. She sacrificed 126 members of her 376 crew who were executed. 250 others received some punishment for their crimes. Her commander and new husband ChangPao was given command of 20 ships in the Qing Dynasty navy.

As for Ching Shih herself, not only did she negotiate the rights to keep the fortune she acquired she got a noble title, “Lady by Imperial Decree”, which entitled her to various legal protections as a member of the aristocracy.

Ching Shih retired at the age of 35. She did not give up her life of vice thought. She opened a gambling house cum brothel in Guangzhou, Canton, which she ran until she died aged 69.

Ching Shih died in her bed as an aristocrat, a successful businesswoman, a mother, and a grandmother.

Since her death, her infamy has led to the creation of several fictional and semi-fictionalised accounts of her pirate years. She first appeared in the 1932 book ‘The History of Piracy’, by Philip Gosse then in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate’ in 1954.

Nikita star Maggie Q played Ching Shih in TV series titled Red Flag. Jun Ichikawa played Ching Shih in the film Singing Behind Screens, 2003. In the 2007 film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Ching Shih (played by Takayo Fischer) is portrayed as the powerful Mistress Ching, one of the nine Pirate Lords.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £0.99  Also available on:

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The Queen who Gave up her Crown for a Husband and her Country

The Queen who Gave up her Crown for a Husband and her Country

Queen Ulrika Eleonora the Younger (1688 – 1741), was Queen regnant of Sweden from 5 December 1718 to 29 February 1720, and then Queen consort until her death in 1741. She was the youngest child of King Charles XI and Ulrika Eleonora of Denmark. She had an elder brother and sister so never expected to be queen.

Her mother died in 1693 when she was five and little Ulrika and her elder sister, Princess Hedvig Sophia, were set off to be brought up by their grandmother, Hedwig Eleonora at Karlberg Palace. Grandmother was a consummate operator, she was the guiding light in her husband’s administration and she dominated her son so much that he referred to her as the Queen ignoring his wife. Her grandmother described Ulrika as a stubborn little girl who would pretend to be ill when it came to doing things she didn’t like riding and dancing. It seems little Ulrika was not the physical type but she was a talented musician, and when performing with her sister at court concerts, she would play the clavier while her sister sang. Although she was friendly, modest and dignified, with good posture and beautiful hands she was regarded as neither intelligent nor attractive and no match for her older sister.

Her father died in 1697 when Ulrika was 9 years old and the crown passed to her brother Charles XII (1682 –1718). Grandmother was sure he was too young to take on full royal responsibilities, he was only 15, and petitioned to act has his regent; a caretaker government was put in place which lasted for seven months then Charles took full command. Charles was an absolutist monarch; he believed he had been put in charge by God, an idea that was already encountering quite a bit of resistance in Europe at the time. He was, however, a successful war leader and achieve considerable success in defending Sweden in the Great Northern War.

On 12 May 1698, Princess Hedwig Sophia married her cousin, Frederick IV, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Her marriage was arranged as a part of the traditional Swedish policy of alliance with Holstein-Gottorp against Denmark. The marriage took place against her consent and she was not happy; Frederick IV had a string of mistresses and whores he preferred over his reluctant wife. Hedwig Sophia was a widow with a young son by 1702 but Ulrika was still unmarried. Hedwig Sophia returned to the Swedish court where she was the centre of attention, partying with her brother the king and lauded for her beauty and fashion sense. She was known as the “The Happy Princess” unlike her stubborn little mouse of a sister. Unfortunately, Hedwig Sophia caught smallpox in 1708 nursing her son who also had the disease. Hedwig Sophia died but her son survived.

With no marriage in prospect for her brother the king in sight Ulrika’s position suddenly changed with her sister’s death. In 1710, she received a marriage proposal from Prince Frederick of Hesse, he was a widower with an eye on her crown. The marriage was supported by her grandmother because it would force Ulrika to leave Sweden and so increased the chance of her favourite granddaughter’s son becoming king when Charles died. Although her prospective husband liked the idea of inheriting her crown his advisers were telling him that Ulrika was no great catch describing her as imperious, haughty, and suffering from bad breath and a weak bladder. Their engagement was announced four years later on 23 January 1714, and the wedding took place on 24 March 1715. During the wedding, her brother Charles XII remarked: “Tonight my sister is dancing away the crown”. But it turned out she wasn’t. When a musket ball went clean through her brother’s head in 1718 the Swedish nobles opposed to the war which had been waging for nearly two decades seized their chance and offered Ulrika the throne on the condition that she accepted a modern constitution for the country. She accepted but years of living as an autocrat made accepting what was required of her very difficult so she abdicated giving her crown to her husband who did the deed for her and Sweden took its first steps into the modern age. All of which goes to show that you don’t have to be clever, or beautiful to make history you just have to seize the opportunities life throws at you and do the right thing.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback and on Kindle. Also available on:

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Anna Godiche, the publisher who survived Denmark’s political earthquake

Anna Godiche, the publisher who survived Denmark’s political earthquake

Anna Magdalena Godiche née Høpfner (January 11, 1721 – February 22, 1781) was a Danish book printer and publisher. She managed the biggest printing company in Denmark as the Danish political scene combusted. Born to judge Høpfner in Haderslev Anna married Andreas Hartvig Godiche (1714-1769) of Copenhagen in 1736. Godiche owned one of the biggest printing companies in Denmark and was one of those contributing to the expansion of book printing in the mid 18th century. She took over the company which held the monopoly on printing and publishing the work of Johann Friedrich Struensee and Enevold Brandt, when her husband died in 1769.

Portrait of Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772), Cornelius Høyer (1741-1804) – Frederiksborg Museum

Struensee took over the Danish government in 1770 and held absolute sway for almost thirteen months, between 18 December 1770 and 16 January 1772. With Brandt’s assistance he set about reforming Denmark. Reforms initiated by Struensee included:

  • abolition of torture
  • abolition of unfree labour (corvée)
  • abolition of the censorship of the press
  • abolition of the practice of preferring nobles for state offices
  • abolition of noble privileges
  • abolition of “undeserved” revenues for nobles
  • abolition of the etiquette rules at the Royal Court
  • abolition of state funding of unproductive manufacturers
  • introduction of a tax on gambling and luxury horses to fund nursing of foundlings
  • ban of slave trade in the Danish colonies
  • rewarding only actual achievements with feudal titles and decorations
  • criminalisation and punishment of bribery
  • re-organisation of the judicial institutions to minimise corruption
  • introduction of state-owned grain storage to balance out the grain price
  • assignment of farmland to peasants
  • re-organisation and reduction of the army
  • university reforms
  • reform of the state-owned medical institutions

His reforms were popular at first but Struensee had overstepped the mark with his royal masters, he did not speak Danish, conducting his business in German, his affair with the queen and the birth of their illegitimate child scandalised Danish society and gradually his enemies moved in for the kill.

A palace coup took place in the early morning of 17 January 1772, Struensee, Brandt and Queen Caroline Matilda were arrested in their respective bedrooms, and the perceived liberation of the king, who was driven round Copenhagen by his deliverers in a gold carriage, was received with universal rejoicing. The chief charge against Struensee was that he had usurped the royal authority in contravention of the Royal Law (Kongelov). He defended himself with considerable ability and, at first, confident that the prosecution would not dare to lay hands on the queen, he denied that their liaison had ever been criminal. The queen was taken as prisoner of state to Kronborg Castle.

Enevold Brandt

On 27 April/28 April Struensee and Brandt were condemned first to lose their right hands and then to be beheaded; their bodies were afterwards to be drawn and quartered. The Kongelov had no provisions for a mentally ill ruler who was unfit to govern. However, as a commoner who had imposed himself in the circles of nobility, Struensee was condemned as being guilty of lèse majesté and usurpation of the royal authority, both capital offences according to paragraphs 2 and 26 of the Kongelov.

Struensee awaited his execution at Kastellet, Copenhagen. The sentences were carried out on 28 April 1772 with Brandt being executed first. First, Struensee’s right hand was cut off; next, after two failed attempts his head was severed, stuck on a pole and presented to 30,000 bystanders; then, after disembowelment, his remains were quartered.

The King himself considered Struensee a great man, even after his death. Written in German on a drawing the king made in 1775, three years after Struensee’s execution, was the following: “Ich hätte gern beide gerettet” (“I would have liked to have saved them both”), referring to Struensee and Brandt.

Anna Magdalena Godiche survived the scandal and lived for another 10 years.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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