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Windham County Connecticut
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Record of Early Crime in Windham County, Connecticut, taken from “History of Windham County, Connecticut” by Richard Bayles, 1889.

The court records of Hartford and New London before the erection of Windham county preserve no heavier charges against the inhabitants of its infant towns than such rude assaults and misdemeanors as are incident in any early settlement, with the one exception of Ashford. Joseph Wilson, a young farmer of that town, while wrestling with a neighbor, John Aplin, over a disputed game at pennies, received an inward injury which caused his death in a few day. The jurors summoned on inquest gave verdict: “That Wilson came to his death by some strain, or wrench, or blow, or fall, or broke something within his body. We all conclude that was the occasion of his death—John Aplin being with him when he received hurt Dec. 28, 1720.”
Aplin was at once indicted on the charge of manslaughter and bound over for trial before the superior court at Hartford, the leading men of the town giving bonds for his appearance. Though clearly free from any charge of design or malice, yet being also clearly accessory to Wilson’s death, great fears were entertained as to the result of the trial. The situation of the young man called out deep sympathy and compassion—“grieved and broken at heart that he should have been in such a manner instrumental in the death of his friend,” and yet exposed to severe penalty. The dying man had himself absolved Aplin from intentional blame, and even his wife “did reckon one as much to blame as the other.” Neighbors and friends interested themselves strenuously in his behalf, especially urging that he might not be sent to the dismal, fireless jail at Hartford to await his trial. A letter forwarded to Governor Pitkin by Captain John Fitch, of Windham, from old friends who had known him from childhood and testified to his “peaceable and quiet conversation,” obtained this boon. Aplin was allowed to remain in Ashford till his trial, March 21st, 1721, when he was acquitted and discharged. The tenderness and humane consideration manifested in this instance were very rare at that period.
The first criminal trial after the organization of Windham county resulted in conviction and execution. Elisabeth Shaw, of Canada parish (now Hampton), Windham, was publicly executed December 18th, 1745, for child murder. She was a poor, simple minded girl, decidedly lacking in mental capacity. Nothing is known of the circumstances of the case except that, having given birth secretly to a living child, she contrived to get away with it and leave it hidden in a ledge of rocks not far from her residence. Her father, a straight laced Puritan, suspected, watched her, and perhaps unable to force her to confession, himself preferred accusation to the town authorities. Search was made and the dead body found. The grand jurors found Elisabeth Shaw guilty of murder, and committed her for trial. This was held September 17th, 1745, Roger Wolcott, chief judge. The facts of the case were easily proved—“that Elisabeth Shaw did secretly hide and dispose of her living child in the woods in said Windham, and did cause to perish said child.” Extenuating circumstances had no weight. The mental or physical condition of the unfortunate girl seemed not to have been taken into consideration, and the supreme penalty of the law was pronounced against her. No public effort was apparently made to obtain remission or commutation of sentence. In those stern days the rigid enforcement of law was deemed the only safeguard of morality. A doubtful tradition hints that Elisabeth’s stern father, repentant too late, hurried on to Hartford and procured a reprieve from the governor, but that a sudden storm brought on a freshet, which delayed his return until after the execution. On the appointed day a gallows was set up on a hill a mile southwest from Windham Green. An immense crowd of spectators gathered there to meet the mournful procession, reaching from hill to jail, headed by the cart in which upon her coffin sat the condemned victim, praying continuously “Oh Jesus, have mercy upon my soul!” through the dreadful “death march” and the prescribed religious ceremonies. One official entry completes the harrowing chronicle: “Allowed Mr. Sheriff Huntington, for cost and expense of doing execution on Elisabeth Shaw, 29[English pounds], 5s.”
The second murder reported in Windham county was committed by Anne, a negro girl twelve years of age, owned by Mr. Samuel Clark, of Pomfret, in November, 1795. While playing with her master’s daughter, Martha, a little girl of five years, she was made so angry by some trifling circumstance, “not having the fear of God before her eyes, but moved by the Devil,” that she snatched a sharp knife that chanced to be near her and cut the child’s throat so that she bled to death almost instantly. With remarkable coolness and cunning she immediately rushed out and gave the alarm, crying out that “a shack had killed little Martha.” Her story was at first believed by the distressed household and neighbors, but suspicious circumstances appearing, a skillful cross-examination elicited the truth. Anne was taken to Windham jail, tried, convicted and sentenced. Thirty-nine lashes were inflicted upon her naked body, the letter M stamped upon her hand, and she was confined for life within the jail limits.
Eight years later another child was murdered in Pomfret, under circumstances of cool deliberation and settled malice. This occurred in the little neighborhood now known as Jericho, in Abington parish, near the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Sharpe, a kindly elderly pair, uncle and aunt to the whole community. Childless themselves, they often cared for homeless children, and according to a frequent custom had bound themselves to the care of Caleb Adams, a motherless boy of weak intellect and morbid temper, whom they treated with great kindness. When Caleb was about seventeen years old they took a younger boy into their family, Oliver Woodworth, nephew to Uncle Reuben, a very bright and winning little fellow, who naturally became the pet of the household. Caleb’s jealous disposition was excited by the attention paid to Oliver, and his spleen was further aggravated by the pranks and tricks of the little boy, who took a childish delight in teasing his surly comrade. One day when Caleb was pulling beans in the field, Oliver came out to him with his sled and asked him to go a-graping with him, and agreed at first to wait for him and help him on his job, but soon became tired of it and asked him for his sled, which Caleb had put over the wall. Upon Caleb’s refusal, Oliver went himself for the sled, whereupon Caleb snatched it away and flung it up into an apple tree, telling the boy that if he got it again he would be sorry for it. Oliver immediately pulled it down, and doubtless looked defiance at the big boy who was trying to master him. Caleb at once determined to kill his childish adversary, and laid his plans accordingly. Quite possibly the murder of Martha Clarke, which he must have heard discussed, might suggest to him this way of ridding himself of a trouble-some rival. Calmly and pleasantly he now volunteered to go at once for the grapes, first helping to get a new tongue for the sled. The delighted boy went with him back to the house, helped grind the butcher’s knife and carry the implements for his own destruction, and went gaily prattling with his companion into the deep woods, when a blow from the axe stunned and felled him.
And then his senses came back to him. From the moment of “that first fierce impulse unto crime,” Caleb had thought of nothing but how he should carry it out. He though of no resulting consequences. “The devil,” he said, “led me on till I had done it and then left me.” He could not even carry out his design of flaying the boy and hanging him up like a butchered animal. His impulse now led him to shrink from the sight of men and he traveled off some miles to the residence of an uncle. Night brought no boys to Uncle Reuben’s hearthstone. Neighbors were aroused, search made, and the mangled body of the little favorite brought to light. Caleb was traced and examined. At first denying the charge he was soon brought to make confession of the crime and committed to Windham jail September 5th, 1803. The greatest interest in the case was manifested throughout the country, and the attendance upon the trial was so large that the court adjourned to the meeting house. No investigation could lessen the blackness of the deed, the question at issue was the responsibility of its perpetrator. The criminal had been tainted even before his birth. It was affirmed and “supported by credible testimony,” that before the birth of Caleb his father had become so infatuated with a woman of the vilest character as to persist in keeping her at his own house with her idiot child, to the infinite distress of his outraged wife, who died from grief and mortification a few months after the birth of her son. Two months after her death Adams married his paramour, who took charge of Caleb until her own death, after which he was left in the hands of any one who would keep him for a trifle. It was said that his general aspect and facial motions thoroughly resembled those of the idiot child whose presence had so distressed his mother, and that he now exhibited an innate and abnormal delight in inflicting torture upon animals, together with a strong predisposition for lying, stealing and other vicious practices, while he had been debarred from counteracting influences and judicious training. But all these facts and the alleged insanity of his father which might indicate hereditary mental unsoundness, only served to convince judge and jury of his unfitness to live and the necessity of keeping him from further mischief. A petition signed by many sympathetic persons was laid before the general assembly in his behalf, but that body declined to interfere with what it called “the course of justice.” Very great interest was manifested in the prisoner’s religious condition, many ministers and Christian people visiting him in his cell and laboring to bring him to right views of himself and his situation. He had an especially affecting interview with his kind friends, Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Sharpe – when Mrs. Sharpe in particular was reported as “very tenderly affected towards him, and treated him with Christian compassion, freely forgiving him and hoping that God would also forgive him.” As is frequent in such cases, Caleb seemed quite to enjoy his notoriety and played his part with great propriety. His execution, November 20th, 1803, was made a grand scenic exhibition, affording the highest satisfaction to many thousand sympathetic spectators. Divine service was held on the Green before the meeting house. Caleb walked to the place of public worship accompanied by the high sheriff, Shubael Abbe, and a number of ministers, “exhibiting on a serene countenance signs of deep and solemn thought.” Reverend Samuel Nott, of Franklin, opened the service with a pathetic and well-adapted prayer, which was followed by a sermon from Reverend Elijah Waterman, of Windham, upon Luke XI,35—“Take heed therefore, that the light that is in thee be not darkness”—a solemn and appropriate discourse upon the nature and power of conscience. The immense congregation was then told that Caleb had specially requested to receive the ordinance of baptism before execution, and leave his dying testimony in favor of the religion that supported him. He then ascended the stage or temporary pulpit, and made audible confession of his faith and was baptized by Reverend Walter Lyon, of Abington, his former pastor. On his way to the gallows he conversed freely upon the ground of his hope and the support it gave him that through Jesus Christ he should find mercy, and gazed upon it with countenance unmoved, finding strength in prayer and passages of Scripture. An address was now made by Reverend Moses C. Welch, of Mansfield, stating some facts in the prisoner’s life with appropriate reflections and remarks. Before and after this address, Caleb kneeled and prayed with composure in words well suited to convey his feelings and desires—that he might be supported in the trying moment: that all might be for the glory of God; and particularly, that the people might take warning by his end and forsake the ways of sin. Mr. Lyon “then addressed the Throne of Grace in language the most interesting and affectionate, at the close of which the criminal was launched into eternity.” The tender-hearted sheriff burst into tears after performing his most painful duty, and a deep and lasting impression was made upon all who had witnessed this remarkable ceremony.
In less than two years, on November 6th, 1805, Windham was treated to its third public execution—that of Samuel Freeman, of Rhode Island, a temporary resident of Ashford, a colored man of mixed Negro and Indian blood and vicious character, who in a fit of drunken rage took the life of an Indian woman with whom he was consorting. The trial and execution were conducted with the customary formalities and attracted the inevitable crowd of spectators, whose satisfaction in this case was unalloyed with any troublesome questionings as to the justice of the penalty, or any sentimental sympathy with the degraded subject.
The murder of one of Woodstock’s most promising young men the same November called out very different emotions. Marcus Lyon, a descendant of one of Woodstock’s substantial old families, returning from a summer sojourn at Cazenovia, New York, was attacked by two desperate ruffians at Wilbraham, Mass., most barbarously murdered, robbed and thrown into Chicopee river. Some peculiar indications observed and reported by a little boy led to the discovery of the body, which was taken out and identified and tidings sent to his home in West Woodstock.. The story spread like wildfire through the town and the population sailed out en masse to meet the mournful procession bringing the murdered man back to his old home. A still greater multitude assembled at the Baptist meeting house to witness the funeral ceremonies conducted by Reverend Biel Ledoyt. The shocking circumstances, the tears and lamentations of mourning friends, the deep emotion permeating the vast assembly presented a scene seldom witnessed in a rural township. Several elegies and ballads were called out by this event, perpetuating the memory of this lamented youth.
By a quite remarkable chance the murderers were discovered and publicly hung in Worcester, a large number of Windham county residents enjoying the privilege of attendance.
The tendency of certain crimes to become epidemic is often marked. Even the decorous and conservative town of Thompson indulged in a murder excitement and trial at about the same date of the preceding. Ebenezer Starr, the popular landlord of the Brandy Hill tavern, while violently disputing with the well known physician, Doctor Thomas Weaver, died instantly from rupture of the brain. Though it was quite obvious that “passion was the cause of his death,” public opinion demanded the arrest and trial of Doctor Weaver on charge of manslaughter. He was acquitted of the crime, but nevertheless sentenced to a public whipping and branding on the hand as a punishment for his assumed agency in arousing such angry passions.
Thompson was also variously implicated in the counterfeiting epidemic, which was exceedingly prevalent in those days of poverty and bad money. Its frontier position, cornering upon Massachusetts and Rhode Island, furnished admirable facilities for illicit enterprise, enabling fugitives from justice to dodge back and forth from pursuing officers. A professional expert from New Hampshire availed himself of these peculiar advantages, brought down die and tools, and enticed a simple minded rustic to join with him in counterfeiting silver money. This work was carried on in a cave in the Buck hill woods, while the simple young man engaged in outside trade, buying up produce and stock, for which he paid in spurious coin. One good silver dollar was made to cover a number of the counterfeit, and money became very abundant. It is said that many recipients suspected something wrong, but quietly connived in the young man’s business operations. His own folly at length brought the matter to light. “The goose that laid the golden eggs” committed suicide in this instance. Intoxicated with the rare delight of plenty of spending money, the young man insisted upon treating all his friends in all the taverns about town, squaring the accounts with his new silver dollars. Such unprecedented freeness and flushness aroused suspicions which led to investigation and discovery. His sudden arrest carried consternation to his self-seeking aiders and abettors, who hid away in meal chests and outhouses till the excitement subsided. The crafty old offender evaded capture; his victim escaped trial for forfeiture of bonds and went out west, returning after a few years a sadder and wiser man to settle down into a sober and law abiding citizen. Some years later, a larger gang, in the same vicinity, engaged in manufacturing fraudulent bank notes, which ended in exposure and punishment, the ringleaders suffering prolonged imprisonment.
The first and only execution after the removal of the county seat to Brooklyn was that of Oliver Watkins, a resident of Sterling, for strangling his wife. The crime was clearly proven, although Watkins refused to make confession, and denied his guilt with his latest breath. The trial, sentence and preparations for execution excited the usual interest. Captain David Keyes, of Ashford, resigned his position of high sheriff to escape official service. Roger Coit, of Plainfield, was appointed to succeed him, and carried through the law’s requirements. In expectation of the coming influx, landlords and liquor sellers provided vast supplies of all kinds of liquor, and hired a special guard to keep watch of the criminal the night before execution, lest he should commit suicide or in any way escape. A gallows was set up in a hollow between Brooklyn and Danielsonville, where the vast multitude of spectators crowding its sloping sides enjoyed a distinct view of the whole proceedings. Long before the break of day, August ----, 1831, the various roads were thronged with wagons and foot travelers, single men and families, coming from all parts of Windham county and adjacent states. The ceremony was conducted with the usual formalities. Prayer was offered by a well known minister, and then Reverend George Tillotson, the youthful pastor of the Congregational church in Brooklyn, preached a most solemn and impressive sermon upon the words, “Be sure your sin will find you out,” followed by prayer. As he pronounced the fateful “Amen” with such composure and distinctness as to be heard by each one “of the thousands who listened for it with the most absorbing interest, in stillness that seemed rather of the dead than of the living,” the drop fell and the forfeited life was taken. The deep solemnity which marked the exercises profoundly impressed the vicious minded, and it is said that in the religious revival that followed “not a few dated their first heart purpose to turn from their sins from the sayings and scenes of that awful day.” On the other hand, an eye witness* (*The late Isaac T. Hutchins, West Killingly )gives his testimony, “that there were never half so many drunk at any one time and place in this country;” that the throng was so vast that long before night not a mouthful could be procured in the village either to eat or drink except water, and there were reports of conduct which ought “to make a Feejee islander blush.”
As soon as possible after the formation of Windham county, August 18, 1726, the justices ordered “that a gaol be built with all possible expedition, 31 x 18. The gaol to be ten foot wide, built of logs all framed into posts, and be divided into two rooms by a board partition; one to have a small fire-place or chimney. The other end to be for the prison-house; to be built after the manner of other ordinary framed buildings, having a chimney with the back to the gaol; the (gaol) room to be 6 ½ feet between joints and having a cellar under it 14 x 12.” This building sufficed for prison accommodation till the period following the great revival of 1742, when many Separates and what were deemed religious schismatics were imprisoned for holding religious services contrary to law and refusing to pay rates for the support of the stated churches. The Separate ministers, Elisha and Solomon Paine, Alexander and Peter Miller, Thomas Marsh, and many zealous exhorters and conscientious opposers of compulsory taxation for religious purposes, were thus imprisoned, so that the justices were compelled to add a new story to the jail and send many offenders to Hartford for safe keeping. Very great excitement prevailed at this epoch, crowds of people flocking to the jail to hear their favorite ministers, who by giving bonds were allowed to preach in the jail yard, while law abiding citizens sent rescripts to the sheriff desiring him “to shut the prison doors and keep the people out.” It is evident that considerable liberty was allowed to prisoners at that time, as some specially obnoxious Separates complained of being “closely locked up” and denied the liberty of the yard, while notorious offenders confined on criminal charges were allowed to go about the town. Letters from worthy Christian ministers confined in Windham jail “on the sole presentment of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” report their “close confinement in most distressing circumstances as to our bodies, and their families reduced or exposed to difficulties too affecting to relate.” Next in number to these religious offenders were the imprisoned debtors who were allowed a range within certain limits, and such as were unable to pay worked out their debt in various services. In 1762, the jail yard was reported in a decaying state. In 1774, extensive repairs were made, and a farthing tax ordered throughout the county to meet the outlay. During the early days of the revolution, the citizens of Windham county were greatly annoyed “by their situation in regard to a sheriff, which place in their opinion was very badly supplied,” the incumbent, Colonel Eleazer Fitch, a very capable and popular military officer, unfortunately failing to participate in the popular movement and remaining loyal to England and its king, yet so great was his personal popularity that it was not till after the escape of noted prisoners that citizens of the county petitioned for his removal. He was succeeded December, 1776, by Captain Jabez Huntington, “whose principles were far more agreeable” to the public, as one not likely to exhibit undue leniency to inimical Tories and prisoners of war. The jails were now filled to overflowing, each encounter with the enemy bringing fresh recruits, so that it was difficult to keep and guard them. Mr. A.E. Brooks, Main street, Hartford, has at his place of business a rare and curious memento of this period—the image of Bacchus, striding a wine cask, carved out of a block of pine in Windham jail, by four seamen of H.M.S. “Bombrig,” captured June 10th, 1776, by a party under command of Captain Nathan Hale. Edward Sneyd, captain; John Coggin, boatswain; John Russel, carpenter, and William Cook, sailor, were the aforesaid prisoners and carvers of this remarkable revolutionary relic. They were evidently jolly fellows, devotees of the jovial god, and having been permitted through the laxity of Sheriff Fitch to enjoy the good cheer of the Windham taverns, they left this specimen of their handiwork as a parting testimonial of gratitude and regard to the popular landlady, Widow Carey, when they made their escape from jail. Bacchus was immediately installed as an appropriate figure-head for the tavern, and for many years occupied a high position among the tutelary divinities of the gay old town.
After the close of the war Windham jail became even more popular. Tories and inimical persons were indeed required to keep out of town, but the number who suffered imprisonment for debts incurred in the service of their country was painfully large. Men of high position and character, earnest and self-sacrificing patriots, were confined within the jail limits. These limits were defined, 1782, from the jail to Captain Tinker’s house, then to Samuel Grey’s trading shop, on to Thomas Reed’s work shop, and to Major Harbyton’s blacksmith shop—then, a straight line to the tavern sign post, and west to an elm tree in front of John Staniford’s dwelling house. In 1784, it was ordered that a yard twelve feet high be erected around the jail, as son as the money could be procured from the county. The limits of the jail were again confirmed in 1786, but prisoners were forbidden to enter dwelling houses; allowed to enter work shops used for mechanical purposes.
Very little can be learned of the condition of the Windham jail from this date onward till its removal to Brooklyn. During this interval a new building was probably erected, but the precise date is difficult to ascertain. Very little can be learned either of the treatment of prisoners, but it was probably such as prevailed in other jails during that period, modified by an unusual degree of outside liberty. Exposure to cold, damp and filthy quarters and the promiscuous herding of all grades of criminals, were its most repulsive features.
After an arduous struggle the county seat was removed from Windhamm July 26th, 1820, it was found that a convenient court house and jail had been provided in Brooklyn. The court house was newly erected; jail and prisoners had been removed from Windham to the site now occupied by the Episcopal church. Jail limits were assigned and Ebenezer Baker appointed keeper of the jail, but was soon succeeded by William Tyber. Attempts were soon made to establish a county work house and house of correction. Among the great reformatory movements for bettering the condition of mankind the treatment of criminals was included. Philanthropists labored to reduce crime and reform the criminal; town officers to reduce the tax list. Under this double stimulus great changes were made. The feasibility of providing remunerative labor for prisoners in confinement was carefully considered. Six acres of land were procured a little west of the village and new brick buildings erected. In 1842 the prisoners were removed to this new Windham county jail, and thenceforward employed, when practicable, in cultivating the land and other outdoor labor. The good effect of this experiment upon the health and conduct of the prisoners led to its permanent adoption. Under the judicious and careful management of Mr. John S. Searls, appointed jailor in 1847, the outdoor working of the prisoners was much extended and systematized. Continued employment was sought out both in summer and winter, in digging, carting, wood cutting, harvesting and any specie of out labor for all such as were not compelled to be kept in close confinement, their wages accruing to the county. A committee on prisons, appointed by the general assembly, May, 1865, the late Charles Osgood, of Pomfret, chairman, reports of Windham:
“The jail at Windham is a substantial brick building, erected in 1842, pleasantly located near the village, and with the outbuildings, including a spacious barn recently erected, and all its surroundings in first class order. The prisoners for years past have been employed almost wholly at outdoor labor, at whatever kind of work and wherever they could be employed to the best advantage. The commissioners receive $3.00 per day and no charge for travel or expenses.
“Number of prisoners in jail, June 17, five. The present indebtedness of the county is $367.31, occasioned by building a barn and an addition to the jail for a female department in 1863, at an expense of nearly $2,000.
“The result in this county of the prudent management of its affairs, the manner of working prisoners and the reasonable and honest charges of its officials, is, that all the ordinary and the greater part of the extraordinary expenses of the county, including extensive repairs and additions to the court house and jail and the erection of new buildings have been paid and that, too, without calling upon the towns in the county for either tax, contribution or assessment for more than twenty years.”
This good record was maintained through the twenty-six years of Mr. Searls’ faithful service, and has been mainly attained by his successors, though in consequence of the increasing demands and large expenditure of the present era the county cannot always succeed in carrying out its ideal of making its prisoners pay all its running expenses. Their earnings, however, added to what is received from the state for board of prisoners, make the jail considerably more than self-supporting year by year, and provide for repairs, additions and modern improvements, with a balance in favor of the county. Fortunately in this rural town there is no conflict with other classes of laborers. Farm help has become so scarce and dear that the farmers welcome aid from this source, and in many cases can carry on their farms with prisoners’ help at special seasons. Perhaps ten thousand bushels of corn were husked and as many bushels of potatoes dug by the prisoners last autumn, and there is no difficulty in finding jobs of work throughout the year. They physical effect of this outdoor labor is very marked and the consumption of food proportionately larger than by prisoners kept in close confinement. Continual efforts are made for their mental and moral improvement. Through the forethought of Mr. Sibley, the present jailor, a prison library has been instituted, supplied with suitable books and papers, which are constantly in demand and greatly appreciated. A religious service is held once in two weeks by the chaplain, Reverend E.S. Beard, and a monthly meeting is held by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. This temperance effort is especially called for as at least three-fourths of the prisoners are brought there through the use and abuse of liquor. Yet though great pains are taken to enlighten and reform, it is to be feared that the good impressions produced are seldom lasting. Much good seed falls apparently on stony ground, but it can at least be said that the influence of prison life is salutary, and that no manor woman is the worse for confinement in Windham county jail. With regard to women the question has scarcely been tested, so few is the number that have been committed to its precincts. The whole number committed to jail in the year ending June 30th, 1887, was 225; number discharged, 218; average number in confinement, 34. By far the larger proportion were received during the winter when work was not attainable. Over 21 years, 190; under 21 years, 35; natives of Connecticut, 62; of other states, 71; other countries, 92. One man from Connecticut, four from other countries, could not read or write. Drunkenness was the direct charge against 129; 106 called themselves moderate drinkers; one, habitually intemperate; 18 strictly temperate; 113 had been previously in prison; 19 were committed as tramps. Receipts from earnings of prisoners, $1,857.11; total jail receipts, $6,426.87; total jail expenditures; $4,988.37.


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