Spiritualism emerged in response to the postEnlightenment
attack on supernaturalism, which by the midnineteenth
century had made a significant impact on the public.
As part of a general assault on belief in the existence of a
spiritual world, post-Enlightenment thinking had cast particular
doubt on survival of bodily death. Spiritualists claimed that
they had discovered a regular method of making contact with
the spiritual world and could establish beyond a reasonable
doubt the continuation of life beyond death.
The primary phenomenon of Spiritualism centers on mediums,
individuals who can, it is believed, establish contact with
spirit entities and through whom the spirits speak and act. Mediums
seem to have a peculiar sensitivity to the presence of
spirit forces and entities. Sometimes that sensitivity reportedly
manifests early in life in such childhood experiences as knowing
something is going to happen before it does or seeing spirits,
sometimes described as invisible playmates. Other mediums
grow to adulthood unaware of any psychic sensitivity and
discover it quite by accident. For example, what occurs while
playing with a Ouija board. Several report their sensitivity
emerging after an accident to the head. Many have discovered
their abilities while associating with Spiritualist friends or participating
in a psychic ability development class.
The basic task for mediums is facilitating communication
between individuals and their acquaintances in the spirit world.
In either trance or a waking state, the medium mediates the
conversation. When the medium is in a trance state, the spirit
entity often speaks directly to an individual using the mediums
vocal cords, it is said. When awake, the medium most frequently
simply repeats messages from the spirits. Such communications
may take place in a private session between the medium
and the client, in a séance, or in platform work, in which the
medium stands in front of a large audience and gives brief
readings to selected members.
Mediumship is thus meant to be a demonstration of the continued
existence of persons who used to reside in a body on
Earth. The problem, of course, is determining whether what
appears to be happening (i.e., a simple conversation between
an individual, a medium, and a spirit) is real, an elaborate
hoax, or an unconscious charade stemming from the vivid
imagination of the medium.
The basic evidence comes from the content of the messages.
That is, the voice speaking through the medium often reveals
information that only the spirit entity could have known. From
a successful session with a medium, sitters often report hearing
private details of their lives, possibly relating to incidents
shared with the deceased. They note peculiar traits of speech
of the entity assumed by the medium or the discovery of a lost
object by following the directions given by the spirit. Occasionally
spirits offer predictions of things that will happen to the sitter.
Spirits speaking through an entranced medium often demonstrate
knowledge and erudition apparently not available to
the medium when awake.
In the course of a séance or platform work, the entire range
of extrasensory perception (e.g., telepathy, psychometry,
telekinesis, clairvoyance, and precognition) may occur; in
fact, some psychical researchers have suggested that mediumship
can be completely explained by ESP.
Mediumistic phenomena also include psychic or spiritual
healing. Spiritualist healers generally see their healing work as
originating in the work of spirit helpers who work through
them. At one end of the healing spectrum is psychic surgery.
Philippine psychic surgeons became famous with claims of actually
opening the body of a patient and under spirit guidance
removing unhealthy tissue. A tamer form, found among early
American and British healers, involved an entranced medium
operating on the astral body of the patient. With the patient
lying on an operating table, the medium would appear to pantomime
an operation several inches above the body. Corrections
in this spiritual body double having been made, it was believed
that appropriate changes would then occur in the
More commonly today, however, Spiritualist healers simply
reach a rapport with their spirit guides and mediate healing energy
from them. Spiritualists point to alleged healings as evidence
of the spirit world. Critics, of course, point to similar
healings in other contexts having no reference to spirits, and
all contemporary research in paranormal healing has been directed
toward defining a healing power without reference to
any spirit agency. In actions akin to healing, mediums have
demonstrated the ability to influence the growth of plants,
seemingly by passing energy from their body to the plants.
Early in the Spiritualist movement various telekinetic phenomena
began to appear. In fact, the initial events from which
Spiritualism dates itself were rapping sounds that seemed to
manifest some intelligence because they occurred in response
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. SpiritualismPhenomena
to questions put to a supposed spirit. Such raps became commonplace
over the next decades, as did various other noises,
such as paranormal voices and music.
Among the most common mediumistic phenomena are various
forms of automatism agitation of the body or limbs, automatic
writing, automatic drawing and painting, slate writing,
and direct writing. Of these forms, automatic writing is by far
the most common. Numerous texts have been produced purportedly
by a medium simply allowing his or her hands to be
controlled by a spirit.
The most controversial physical phenomena have been
those associated with materialization and dematerialization.
Throughout the early twentieth century a great deal of psychical
research was devoted to the study of reported claims of fullbody
materializations of spirit entities created from a mysterious
substance called ectoplasm. In séances where such materializations
occurred, sitters were often treated to the appearance
of apports, objects believed to have been dematerialized elsewhere
and rematerialized in the séance room. Closely related
was the occasional production of plastics imprints of fingers,
hands, faces, legs, and psychic molds of faces, hands, and legs.
Spiritualists have also claimed incidents of matter passing
through matter and the transportation of the human body
Less common has been the alleged production of various
chemical phenomena, including psychic lights (luminous phenomena),
perfumes, catalytic phenomena, and water. Of these,
incidences of psychic photography, or more particularly, spirit
photography, were the most spectacular. The literature also
reveals incidents of some electric phenomena, including the
discharge of electroscopes and phenomena suggesting human
Mediums have also claimed the powers attributed to Indian
fakirs, such as fire immunity and the levitation of the human
Finally, also reported in séances have been a wide variety of
unusual but less evidential phenomena, such as the movement
of objects without contact (telekinesis), vibratory effects, increase
and decrease in weight, and spelling out of messages by
typtology. Reports of psychophysiological phenomena include
change in stature (elongation, shrinking or puffing out of the
human body); stigmata; effects of personation, transfiguration,
obsession, and trance; loss of weight; nervous drain; the
appearance of auras; and various emanations.
Thermodynamic effects include the frequently reported
variations of temperature and the less common reports of increase
of heat in apported objects or, in case of penetration of
matter through matter, currents of air and psychic winds.
Although numerous fanciful explanations for mediumistic
phenomena have been put forthincluding one positing the
existence of planetary spirits with whom mediums communicated
and one theorizing a vast thought reservoir fed by
human thought raysmost twentieth-century psychical researchers
have concluded that not only were they not produced
by spirit agencies, but were produced by fraud. That conclusion
was reached after numerous cases of cleverly produced fraud
were uncovered and information on how such phenomena
could be produced through conjuring became available. The
broad acceptance of that appraisal has meant the virtual abandonment
by mainstream Spiritualism of physical séances and
their survival only on the fringes of the movement. Revelations
of fraud have called into question all of the accounts of materializations,
apports, and spirit photography produced throughout
the first century of Spiritualism.
Spiritualism still adheres to the spirit hypothesis, meaning
the belief that the intelligence that directs the phenomena of
the medium is of a disembodied spirits. The spirit hypothesis
remains the most intriguing of the explanations of such phenomena,
and the possibility of finding evidence of the spirits
survival after death still motivates many parapsychologists.
Barbanell, Maurice. This Is Spiritualism. London Herbert
Garrett, Eileen. Many Voices The Autobiography of a Medium.
Reprint, Alexandria, Va. Time-Life, Inc., 1991.
Lewis, James R. Afterlife Beliefs and Phenomena. Detroit Visible
Ink Press, 1995.
On March 31, 1848, Mrs. John Fox of Hydesville, New York,
summoned her neighbors to hear strange knockings that were
disturbing her family. At this time the Fox household comprised
John Fox, his wife, and their two young daughters, Margaretta
and Kate, aged 15 and 12 years respectively. On being
questioned, the raps seemed to manifest signs of intelligence,
and it was eventually deciphered from them, it was said, that
the disturbing influence was the spirit of a peddler, murdered
for the sake of his money by a former resident of the house. It
was subsequently claimed in April of that year that the Foxes,
while digging in their cellar at the instigation of the spirits, discovered
fragments of human hair, teeth, and bones.
The neighbors of the Fox family were deeply impressed by
these revelations and, by way of a test, questioned the spirits
on such matters as the ages of their acquaintances, questions
that were answered, apparently, with some correctness. Soon
afterward the daughter Margaretta Fox visited her married sister,
Mrs. Fish, at Rochester, New York, where the knockings
broke out as vigorously as they had at Hydesville. Her sister
Catherine visited some friends at Auburn, and there, too, the
rappings were heard.
Committee after committee was appointed but could not
discover the cause of the sounds or how the answers to mental
questions that were posed were correctly given. Some of those
who sat with the Fox sisters soon found that they had similar
powers. So the movement spread. The public had already been
prepared for such demonstrations by the spread of the teachings
of Emanuel Swedenborg and demonstrations of animal
magnetism. Clairvoyants had also made use of rapping prior
to the mediumship of the Fox girls. The induced trance had
also recently been brought to the notice of the American people
by lecturers, the clergy, and others. So, accustomed to departures
from orthodoxy in every direction, many found no difficulty
in admitting the intervention of good or evil spirits in
human affairs, and for those who refused to accept the spirit
hypothesis a satisfactory explanation of the phenomena was
found in electricity, electromagnetism, or the od (odic) force.
The first experimental Spiritualist organization, the New
York Circle, was formed in 1851. The New York Conference
was established the same year, and the preaching of a new science
and faith began to make converts among the notable personalities
of the day. Wisconsin governor N. P. Tallmadge, abolitionist
William Lloyd Garrison, Professors Britten, Wells,
Bryant, and Bliss of the University of Pennsylvania, Chief Justice
Williams, Judge John Worth Edmonds, Professor Robert
Hare, Professor James Jay Mapes, General Bullard, Horace
Greeley, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullan Bryant
were some of the distinguished early converts.
According to an estimate in Spirit World, there were 100 mediums
in New York and 50 to 60 private circles in Philadelphia
in 1851. The North American Review wrote in April 1855 that the
New England Spiritualist Association, which computed the
number of Spiritualists in America as nearly two million, did
not overstate the facts.
Probably the strangest developments in the early history of
American Spiritualism were the new motor machine of John
Murray Spear and the Mountain Cove Community of Rev.
James Scott and Thomas Lake Harris. As time progressed,
SpiritualismUnited States Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
Spiritualists struggled with many offshoot movements that
claimed justification for such ideas as free love and community
ownership of the spirit communications of mediums.
Soon physical phenomena began to supplement the simpler
forms of spirit communication. Table turning and tilting partially
replaced the phenomenon of raps. Playing of musical instruments
by invisible means, direct spirit writing, bell ringing,
levitation, and materialization of spirit hands were just
some of the phenomena witnessed and vouched for by distinguished
The levitation of the great medium Daniel Dunglas Home
was recorded at an early stage in his career. Slate writing and
playing of musical instruments were feats practiced by the alleged
spirits that frequented the spirit room of Jonathan
Koons in Dover, Ohio.
At Keokuk, Iowa, in 1854 two mediums spoke in tongues
identifiedon somewhat insufficient dataas Swiss, Latin,
and Indian, and thereafter other mediums practiced trance
speaking in foreign tongues, a phenomena known as xenoglossis.
Recognized foreign tongues included Latin and Greek,
French, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Gaelic, but
generally the trance utterances, when they were not in English,
were not recognized definitely as any known language, and frequently
the spirits themselves interpreted the tongue.
Speaking in pseudotongues, or glossolalia, was evidently related
to the articulate but meaningless fluency of people caught
up in a moment of religious ecstasy. There were a few verified
cases, however, where persons in a state of exaltation spoke fluently
in a language with which they were unfamiliar in their
Many of the spirit writings were signed with the names of
great peopleparticularly Franklin, Swedenborg, Plato, Aristotle,
St. John, and St. Paul. Trance lecturing before audiences
was also practiced, books of inspirational sayings were published,
and poetry and drawings were produced in abundance.
These automatic productions had a character of their own
often vague, high-sounding, incoherent, and distinctly reminiscent.
In cases where they displayed even a fair amount of merit,
as in the poems of T. L. Harris, it was pointed out that they
were not beyond the capacity of the medium in a normal state.
As a rule they had a superficial appearance of intelligence, but
on analysis were often found to be devoid of meaning.
With the spread of the movement, Spiritualist periodicals,
most short-lived, sprung up. The Univercoelum of 1847 and the
Spirit Messenger, which succeeded it in 1849, were mouthpieces
of the harmonial philosophy as articulated by Andrew Jackson
Davis. A similar paper, Disclosures from the Interior and Superior
Care for Mortals, was published by Rev. James L. Scott,
founder of the Mountain Cove Community, and Thomas Lake
Harris. The Spiritual and Moral Instructor, by T. S. Hiatt, and
Heat and Light also came into existence. The first true Spiritualist
periodical was issued on July 1850 by former magnetist La
Roy Sunderland. The title, The Spiritual Philosopher, was
changed a year later to Spirit World. In 1852 the Shekinah was
launched on its short career by S. B. Brittan and Charles Partridge.
After 18 months it was absorbed by Joseph R. Buchanans
Journal of Man.
The first periodical that could boast of permanence was the
Spiritual Telegraph, born of a resolution of the New York Conference
in 1852. It ran until 1860, when it was absorbed by Andrew
Jackson Daviss The Herald of Progress.
In 1854 the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge,
the first well-organized Spiritualist body, started the
Christian Spiritualist (185457), and the year 1857 witnessed the
appearance of The Banner of Light, which ran into the 1930s.
Other early periodicals were The Spiritual Clarion, The New Eva,
The Light from the Spirit World, of St. Louis, the Age of Progress,
and The Sunbeam. Later ones included the Religio-Philosophical
Journal, the Western Star, The Spiritual Scientist, The American
Spiritualist, the New England Spiritualist, The Spiritual Age, and
The Lyceum Banner.
Trends in the Movement
From the beginning of the movement those who accepted
the actuality of the phenomena arrayed themselves into two
separate schools, each represented by a considerable body of
opinion. The theory of the first was frankly Spiritualistic, and
the second tended toward mesmerism or animal magnetism
under one name or another, with a flavor of contemporary scientific
thought. These two schools had their foundation in the
early days of animal magnetism, when the more rationalist
ideas of the magnetists were pitted against the theological theories
of angelic or diabolic possession.
In the United States the hypothetical force of the rationalists
went by such names as od (odic) force, electromagnetism,
and so forth. Poltergeist disturbances, occurring from time to
time, were ascribed either to spirits or to odic force, as in the
case of the Ashtabula poltergeist. Asa Mahan, one of the rationalists,
suggested that a medium could read the thoughts
of sitters by means of odic force. The protagonists of magnetic
theory attributed trance speaking to the subjects own intelligence,
but after the birth of American Spiritualism in 1848 a
Spiritualist interpretation became more common.
Notwithstanding these conflicting theories, little was done
in the way of scientific investigation, with the exception of the
experiments conducted by Robert Hare, a professor of chemistry
at the University of Pennsylvania, which resulted in Hares
conversion to Spiritualism. His critics denounced him violently,
and he was obliged to resign.
Very few exposures of fraud were made, partly because the
majority of the sitters accepted the phenomena with unquestioning
faith, and partly because the techniques with which
such detection might be made were not available. The collaboration
of skillful, trained, and disinterested investigators, such
as those who later applied themselves to the elucidation of
parapsychology, was entirely lacking in the early days, and the
public was left to form its own conclusions.
Spiritualism in the United States was, from the first, intimately
bound up with socialism. It was, in fact, the outgrowth
of the same original outlook that produced socialistic communities
and occasioned the rise and fall of so many strange religions.
Warren Chase, Horace Greeley, T. L. Harris, and other
prominent Spiritualists founded such communities, and inspirational
writings (today called channeling) frequently gave directions
for their construction.
The Problem of Fraud
American Spiritualism has been characterized by a wide
range of phenomena, and there has been a problem distinguishing
genuine phenomena from those that are fraudulent.
For example, the Davenport brothers, who traveled far and
wide, advertised Spiritualism by inexplicable noisy demonstrations
but most likely were simply very good stage magicians.
The medium Henry Gordon introduced levitation of the
human body, and D. D. Home produced phantom hands that
dissolved in the grasp of the sitters. Homes accomplishments
remain a mystery. Joseph Rhodes Buchanan discovered psychometry,
which William Denton corroborated in some exciting
experiments. William H. Mumler accidentally became the
first exponent of spirit photography. Mary Hardy produced
the first paraffin wax molds. Emma Hardinge Britten, Nettie
Colburn (also known as Henrietta Sturdevant Maynard), and
Cora Scott (later Cora L. V. Richmond) did inspirational
speaking, and Mary J. Hollis and Mrs. J. H. Conant became
outstanding trance mediums. The infamous Henry Slade was
the major exponent of slate writing, and Charles Foster led in
the art of pellet reading and skin writing (dermography).
The Fox sisters, who gave the first impetus to modern Spiritualism,
were soon eclipsed in power and variety of demonstrations
by these and other mediums. But they were also the first
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. SpiritualismUnited States
who had to bear the brunt of the backlash against Spiritualism,
which was soon to come. In the sisters first university examination,
on February 17, 1851, Professors Austin Flint, Charles A.
Dee, and C. B. Coventry of Buffalo University, delivered the
following verdict on their phenomena It is sufficient to state
that the muscles inserted into the upper and inner side of the
large bone of the leg (the tibia) near the knee joint, are brought
into action so as to move the upper surface of the bone just
named, laterally upon the lower surface of the thigh bone (the
femur), giving rise, in fact, to a partial lateral dislocation. This
is effected by an act of the will, without any obvious movements
of the limb, occasioning a loud noise[,] and a return of the bone
to its place is attended by a second sound.
The revelation by Mrs. Norman Culver of an alleged confession
by one of the Fox sisters cast more doubt on their credibility.
Then, in 1857, the editor of The Boston Courier offered $500
for the production of genuine phenomena and provided a
committee from Harvard University be the umpire. On behalf
of the Spiritualists, a Dr. Gardner accepted the challenge. The
committee consisted of Professors Pierce, Louis Agassiz, and
Horsford of Harvard University, N. B. Gould of the Albany Observatory,
the editor of the Boston Courier, and a few friends of
Gardners. The mediums were Mrs. Brown (Leah Fox), Kate
Fox, J. V. Mansfield, Mrs. Kendrick, George Redman, and the
Two days were devoted to the manifestations. They were imperfect
and unsatisfactory, and the committee returned a negative
verdict, promising also a later report of additional investigations,
which, however, was never issued. After the failure of
the Cambridge investigation, Gardner extended invitations to
the press to attend séances with the same mediums. Several papers
published impressive accounts.
The Progress of the Movement
Over the years important records of observations and long
experiments were published by E. A. Brackett, Epes Sargent,
a Dr. Wolfe, Allan Putnam, and Eugene Crowell. An early history
of Spiritualism by E. W. Capron, Modern Spiritualism, was
supplemented by Emma Hardinge Brittens Modern-American
Spiritualism (1870), outlining 15 years of progress. Many organizations
and Spiritualist churches worked for the advancement
of the cause. In 1873 the first camp meeting was initiated
at Lake Pleasant, Massachusetts. It was quickly followed by others.
The years between 1880 and 1890 witnessed four outstanding
events the report of the Seybert Commission; the selfexposure
of Margaret and Kate Fox in 1885; the founding of
the American Society for Psychical Research for systematic
and organized psychical research in 1885, with the participation
of a group of distinguished scientists; and the discovery of
the remarkable mediumship of Leonora Piper.
The Seybert Commission was set up by the University of
Pennsylvania, which received an endowment of $60,000 from
the will of Spiritualist Henry Seybert to investigate Spiritualist
phenomena. After issuing a preliminary negative report in
1887, which was widely resented, the committee discontinued
The self-exposure of Margaret and Kate Fox did not result
in the deathblow to Spiritualism hoped for by anti-Spiritualists,
because the motives of the sisters were called into question and
their confession was followed a year later by full retraction.
The emergence of psychical research with the founding of
an American branch of the Society for Psychical Research in
1885 was of far-reaching importance, marking the beginning
of regular attention to Spiritualist phenomena. At about the
same time William James discovered and became intensely interested
in Leonora Pipers powers. He wedded his research to
that of the new organization and lent it the prestige of his
name. Richard Hodgson joined James in the Piper investigations
and acted as secretary of the American Society for Psychical
Research until his death in 1905. The American branch of
the society was then dissolved, but its work was quickly resumed
by Columbia professor James H. Hyslop, who assumed leadership
of a reorganized American Society for Psychical Research
and conducted its work until his death in 1920.
Other keen and able investigators arose. Hereward Carrington
established his claim to renown and Hyslops mantle
was placed on the shoulders of Walter F. Prince. In the early
twentieth century, Pipers earlier role was filled by Margery
(Mina Crandon). The controversy produced by her phenomena,
focused in the investigation of the Scientific American and of
Harvard committees, split the psychical research community
and its major organization. Prince and other American Society
for Psychical Research leaders withdrew and founded the Boston
Society for Psychic Research in 1925. The Boston society
competed successfully with its New York rival for 15 years until
the Margery controversy had died and a merger was worked
Spiritualism in the Twentieth Century
The nineteenth century has been called the heyday of Spiritualism,
and the period up to World War I was certainly the
time when most attention was paid to it. However, such a designation,
coupled with the knowledge of the negative results of
so many investigations of the movement, led many to assume
that it had largely died out. Such was not the case. In 1893 the
National Spiritualist Association, later the National Spiritualist
Association of Churches (NSAC), began to bring some
order to the organizational chaos of state and local associations,
provided a united front to respond to other competing groups,
such as the Theosophical Society, and presented a creed abstracted
from spirit teachings.
The NSAC dominated the movement for a generation but
in the 1920s began to experience internal discord arising from
some mediums belief in reincarnation. While French Spiritualists
had adopted a reincarnationist position, in general British
and American mediums were opposed to it. As early as 1924 it
became an element of contention, with the withdrawal of
Amanda Flowers and the formation of the Independent Spiritualist
Association. In 1930 the NSAC passed a strong statement
repudiating reincarnation only to have the majority of
the New York membership withdraw and reorganize as the
General Assembly of Spiritualists. The issue would arise again
The twentieth century also saw the emergence of an African
American presence in the Spiritualist movement. Some joined
the NSAC, but as early as 1913 Leafy Anderson founded the
Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Association. Through the remainder
of the decade 11 additional congregations were
founded, and in 1920 Anderson moved to New Orleans to pastor
the congregation there. In 1922 the NSAC pushed black
members out of its fellowship, and they founded the National
Colored Spiritualist Association of Churches. Over the next
decade additional black denominations were founded and
began to spread throughout the African American community
Among the larger Spiritualist churches that appeared over
the century were the Universal Church of the Master (formed
in California in 1908), the International General Assembly of
Spiritualists (1936), the National Spiritual Science Center
(1941), the Spiritual Episcopal Church (1941), the Universal
Spiritualist Association (1956), and the United Spiritualist
Spiritualism seems to have spread slowly and consistently
across the United States through the century. However, with
the emergence of parapsychology and the refocus of psychical
research away from the claims of Spiritualists and toward the
laboratory production of psi phenomena, Spiritualism was
largely forgotten. The last great crusade against it was conducted
by the magician Harry Houdini in the 1920s. A number of
Spiritualist mediums attained some public recognition as psySpiritualismUnited
States Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
chics but were rarely identified with their churches. One such
medium was Arthur A. Ford, who first came to public notice
when he claimed to have received a message left behind by
Houdini at the time of his death. Ford went on to inspire the
formation of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship (now the International
Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship), a fellowship of nonSpiritualists
who wanted the resources of the psychic world to
investigate the religious life. He ended his career with a famous
séance on Canadian television for Episcopal bishop James A.
The Pike séance revealed a continuing problem of Spiritualism.
Several years after the séance and both Pikes and Fords
death, an examination of Fords papers revealed that he had
faked the séance. Periodically, word of similar fraudulent activity
served to substantiate that Spiritualism was itself saturated
with fakes and thus should simply be dismissed as a movement
of consequence. In 1960, psychical researcher Andrija Puharich
uncovered the fake materializations going on at Camp
Chesterfield. Then, in 1976, Lamar Keene quit his career as a
fake medium and offered detailed information about a circle
of churches operating what amounted to a confidence scheme
to provide a constant stream of phenomena for their members.
Meanwhile, during the same period, Spiritualism had to
compete with the revival of occult religion in the New Age
movement. Integral to the New Age has been mediumship
under a new name, channeling. However, Spiritualism has
largely remained aloof from the New Age movement, its adherents
not participating to any marked degree.
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