The year 1910 marked a turning point in Western spirituality. It saw the deaths of some of the most luminous religious thinkers of the nineteenth century, including psychologist-seeker William James; popular medium Andrew Jackson Davis; and Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. These three figures deeply impacted the movements in positive thinking, prayer healing, and psychical research.
Their death that year was accompanied by the rise to prominence of a new religious innovator – a figure who built upon the spiritual experiments of the nineteenth century to shape the New Age* culture of the dawning era.
In autumn of 1910 The New York Times brought the first major national attention to the name of Edgar Cayce, a young man who later became known as the “father of holistic medicine” and the founding voice of alternative spirituality.
The Sunday Times of 9 October 1910 profiled the Christian mystic and medical clairvoyant in an extensive article and photo spread: Illiterate Man Becomes a Doctor When Hypnotized. At the time Cayce (pronounced “Casey”), then 33, was struggling to make his way as a commercial photographer in his hometown of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, while delivering daily trance-based medical “readings” in which he would diagnose and prescribe natural cures for the illnesses of people he had never met.
Cayce’s method was to recline on a sofa or day bed, loosen his tie, belt, cuffs, and shoelaces, and enter a sleep-like trance; then, given only the name and location of a subject, the “sleeping prophet” was said to gain insight into the person’s body and psychology. By the time of his death in January 1945, Cayce had amassed a record of more than 14,300 clairvoyant readings for people across the nation, many of the sessions captured by stenographer Gladys Davis.
In the 1920s, Cayce’s trance readings expanded beyond medicine (which nonetheless remained at the core of his work) to include “life readings,” in which he explored a person’s inner conflicts and needs. In these sessions Cayce employed references to astrology, karma, reincarnation, and number symbolism. Other times, he expounded on global prophecies, climate or geological changes, and the lost history of mythical cultures, such as Atlantis and Lemuria. Cayce had no recollection of any of this when he awoke, though as a devout Christian the esotericism of such material made him wince when he read the transcripts.
Contrary to news coverage, Cayce was not illiterate, but neither was he well educated. Although he taught Sunday school at his Disciples of Christ church – and read through the King James Bible at least once every year – he had never made it past the eighth grade of a rural schoolhouse. While his knowledge of Scripture was encyclopaedic, Cayce’s reading tastes were otherwise limited. Aside from spending a few on-and-off years in Texas unsuccessfully trying to use his psychical abilities to strike oil – he had hoped to raise money to open a hospital based on his clairvoyant cures – Cayce rarely ventured beyond the Bible Belt environs of his childhood.
Since the tale of Jonah fleeing from the word of God, prophets have been characterised as reluctant, ordinary folk plucked from reasonably satisfying lives to embark on missions that they never originally sought. In this sense, if the impending New Age – the vast culture of Eastern, esoteric, and therapeutic spirituality that exploded on the US national scene in the 1960s and 70s – was seeking a founding prophet, Cayce could hardly be viewed as an unusual choice, but, historically, as a perfect one.
A Seer in Season
It was this Edgar Cayce – an everyday man, dedicated Christian, and uneasy mystic – whom New England college student and future biographer Thomas Sugrue encountered in 1927. When Sugrue met Cayce, the twenty-year-old journalism student was not someone who frequented psychics or séance parlours. Sugrue was a dedicated Catholic who had considered joining the priesthood. Deeply versed in world affairs and possessed of an iron determination to break into news reporting, Sugrue left his native Connecticut in 1926 for Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, which was then one of the only schools in the nation to offer a journalism degree to undergraduates. (Sugrue later switched his major to English literature, in which he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years.)
As a student, Sugrue rolled his eyes at paranormal claims or talk of ESP. Yet Sugrue met a new friend at Washington and Lee who challenged his preconceptions: the psychic’s eldest son, Hugh Lynn Cayce. Hugh Lynn had planned to attend Columbia but his father’s clairvoyant readings directed him instead to the old-line Virginia school. (The institution counted George Washington as an early benefactor.) Sugrue grew intrigued by his new friend’s stories about his father – in particular the elder Cayce’s theory that one person’s subconscious mind could communicate with another’s. The two freshmen enjoyed sparring intellectually and soon became roommates. While still cautious, Sugrue wanted to meet the agrarian seer.
Edgar and his wife Gertrude, meanwhile, were laying new roots about 250 miles east of Lexington in Virginia Beach, a location the readings had also selected. The psychic spent the remainder of his life in the Atlantic coastal town, delivering twice-daily readings and developing the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.), a spiritual learning centre that remains active there today.
Accompanying Hugh Lynn home in June 1927, Sugrue received a “life reading” from Cayce. In these psychological readings, Cayce was said to peer into a subject’s “past life” incarnations and influences, analyse his character through astrology and other esoteric methods, and view his personal struggles and aptitudes. Cayce correctly identified the young writer’s interest in the Middle East, a region where Sugrue later issued news reports on the founding of the modern state of Israel. But it wasn’t until Christmas of that year that Sugrue, upon receiving an intimate and uncannily accurate medical reading, became an all-out convert to Cayce’s psychical abilities.
Sugrue went on to fulfil his aim of becoming a journalist, writing from different parts of the world for publications including the New York Herald Tribune and The American Magazine. But his life remained interwoven with Cayce’s. Stricken by debilitating arthritis in the late 1930s, Sugrue sought help through Cayce’s medical readings. From 1939 to 1941, the ailing Sugrue lived with the Cayce family in Virginia Beach, writing and convalescing. During these years of close access to Cayce – while struggling with painful joints and limited mobility – Sugrue completed There Is a River, the sole biography written of Cayce during his lifetime, now available in a new edition. When the book first appeared in 1942 it brought Cayce national attention that surpassed even the earlier Times coverage.
Documenting the Prophet
Sugrue was not Cayce’s only enthusiast within the world of American letters. There Is a River broke through the sceptical wall of New York publishing thanks to a reputable editor, William Sloane, of Holt, Rinehart & Winston, who experienced his own brush with the Cayce readings.
In 1940, Sloane agreed to consider the manuscript for There Is a River. He knew the biography was highly sympathetic, a fact that did not endear him to it. Sloane’s wariness faded after Cayce’s clairvoyant diagnosis helped one of the editor’s children. Novelist and screenwriter Nora Ephron recounted the episode in a 1968 New York Times article.
“I read it,” Sloane told Ephron. “Now there isn’t any way to test a manuscript like this. So I did the only thing I could do.” He went on:
A member of my family, one of my children, had been in great and continuing pain. We’d been to all the doctors and dentists in the area and all the tests were negative and the pain was still there. I wrote Cayce, told him my child was in pain and would be at a certain place at such-and-such a time, and enclosed a check for $25. He wrote back that there was an infection in the jaw behind a particular tooth. So I took the child to the dentist and told him to pull the tooth. The dentist refused – he said his professional ethics prevented him from pulling sound teeth. Finally, I told him he would have to pull it. One tooth more or less didn’t matter, I said – I couldn’t live with the child in such pain. So he pulled the tooth and the infection was there and the pain went away. I was a little shook. I’m the kind of man who believes in X-rays. About this time, a member of my staff who thought I was nuts to get involved with this took even more precautions in writing to Cayce than I did, and he sent her back facts about her own body only she could have known. So I published Sugrue’s book.
Many literary journalists and historians since Sugrue have traced Cayce’s life. Journalist and documentarian Sidney D. Kirkpatrick wrote the landmark record of Cayce in his 2000 biography Edgar Cayce. Historian K. Paul Johnson crafted a deeply balanced and meticulous scholarly analysis of Cayce with the 1998 Edgar Cayce in Context. And the intrepid scholar of religion Harmon Bro – who spent nine months in Cayce’s company toward the end of the psychic’s life – produced insightful studies of Cayce as a Christian mystic in his 1955 University of Chicago doctoral thesis (a groundbreaking work of modern scholarship on an occult subject) and later in the 1989 biography Seer Out of Season. While Harmon Bro died in 1997, his family has a long – and still active – literary involvement with Cayce. Bro’s mother, Margueritte, was a pioneering female journalist in the first half of the twentieth century who brought Cayce national attention in her 1943 profile in Coronet magazine: “Miracle Man of Virginia Beach.” Bro’s wife June and daughter Pamela actively teach and interpret the Cayce ideas today.
There exist many other works on Cayce – it would take several paragraphs to appreciate the best of them. But it was Sugrue, an accomplished print journalist who worked and convalesced with Cayce for several years, who fully – and this word is chosen carefully – captured Cayce’s goodness.
Sugrue’s historical Edgar Cayce is the man who grew from being an awkward, soft-voiced adolescent to a national figure who never quite knew how to manage his fame – and less so how to manage money, often foregoing or deferring his usual $20 fee for readings, leaving himself and his family in a perpetual state of financial precariousness. In a typical letter from 1940, Cayce replied to a blind labourer who asked about paying in instalments: “You may take care of the [fee] any way convenient to your self – please know one is not prohibited from having a reading… because they haven’t money. If this information is of a divine source it can’t be sold, if it isn’t then it isn’t worth any thing.”
Sugrue also captured Cayce as a figure of deep Christian faith struggling to come to terms with the occult concepts that ran through his readings beginning in the early 1920s. This material extended to numerology, astrology, crystal gazing, modern prophecies, reincarnation, karma, and the story of mythical civilisations, including Atlantis and prehistoric Egypt. People who sought readings were intrigued and emotionally impacted by this material as much as by Cayce’s medical diagnoses. What’s more, in readings that dealt with spiritual and esoteric topics – along with the more familiar readings that focused on holistic remedies, massage, meditation, and natural foods – there began to emerge the range of subjects that formed the parameters of therapeutic New Age spirituality in the latter twentieth century.
Cayce did more than assemble a catalogue of the dawning New Age. The spiritual ideas running through his readings, combined with his own intrepid study of Scripture, supplied the basis for a universal approach to religion, which, in various ways, also spread across American culture. Sugrue captures this especially well in chapter fifteen, which recounts Cayce’s metaphysical explorations with an Ohio printer and Theosophist named Arthur Lammers. Cayce’s collaboration with Lammers, which began in the autumn of 1923 in Selma, Alabama, marked a turn in Cayce’s career from medical clairvoyant to esoteric philosopher.
Licking his wounds after his failed oil ventures, Cayce had resettled his family in Selma where he planned to resume his career as a commercial photographer. He and Gertrude, who had long suffered her husband’s absences and unsteady finances, enrolled their son Hugh Lynn, then sixteen, in Selma High School. The family, now including five-year-old Edgar Evans, settled into a new home and appeared headed for some measure of domestic normalcy. All this got upturned in September, however, when the wealthy printer Lammers arrived from Dayton. Lammers had learned of Cayce during the psychic’s oil-prospecting days. He showed up at Cayce’s photo studio with an intriguing proposition.
Lammers was both a hard-driving businessman and an avid seeker in Theosophy, ancient religions, and the occult. He impressed upon Cayce that the seer could use his psychical powers for more than medical diagnoses. Lammers wanted Cayce to probe the secrets of the ages: What happens after death? Is there a soul? Why are we alive? Lammers yearned to understand the meaning of the pyramids, astrology, alchemy, the “Etheric World,” reincarnation, and the mystery religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. He felt certain that Cayce’s readings could part the veil shrouding the ageless wisdom.
After years of stalled progress in his personal life, Cayce was enticed by this new sense of mission. Lammers urged Cayce to return with him to Dayton, where he promised to place the Cayce family in a new home and financially care for them. Cayce agreed, and uprooted Gertrude and their younger son, Edgar Evans. Hugh Lynn remained behind with friends in Selma to finish out the school term. Lammers’s financial promises later proved elusive and Cayce’s Dayton years, which preceded his move to Virginia Beach, turned into a period of financial despair. Nonetheless, for Cayce, if not his loved ones, Dayton also marked a stage of unprecedented discovery.
Cayce and Lammers began their explorations at a downtown hotel on 11 October 1923. In the presence of several onlookers, Lammers arranged for Cayce to enter a trance and to give the printer an astrological reading. Whatever hesitancies the waking Cayce evinced over arcane subjects vanished while he was in his trance state. Cayce expounded on the validity of astrology even as “the Source” – what Cayce called the ethereal intelligence behind his readings – alluded to misconceptions in the Western model. Toward the end of the reading, Cayce almost casually tossed off that it was Lammers’s “third appearance on this [earthly] plane. He was once a monk.” It was an unmistakable reference to reincarnation – just the type of insight Lammers had been seeking.
In the weeks ahead, the men continued their readings, probing into Hermetic and esoteric spirituality. From a trance state on 18 October, Cayce laid out for Lammers a whole philosophy of life, dealing with karmic rebirth, man’s role in the cosmic order, and the hidden meaning of existence:
In this we see the plan of development of those individuals set upon this plane, meaning the ability (as would be manifested from the physical) to enter again into the presence of the Creator and become a full part of that creation. Insofar as this entity is concerned, this is the third appearance on this plane, and before this one, as the monk. We see glimpses in the life of the entity now as were shown in the monk, in his mode of living. The body is only the vehicle ever of that spirit and soul that waft through all times and ever remain the same.
These phrases were, for Lammers, the golden key to the mysteries: a theory of eternal recurrence, or reincarnation, that identified man’s destiny as inner refinement through karmic cycles of rebirth, then reintegration with the source of Creation. This, the printer believed, was the hidden truth behind the Scriptural injunction to be “born again” so as to “enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
“It opens up the door,” Lammers told Cayce. “It’s like finding the secret chamber of the Great Pyramid.” He insisted that the doctrine that came through the readings synchronised the great wisdom traditions: “It’s Hermetic, it’s Pythagorean, it’s Jewish, it’s Christian!” Cayce himself wasn’t sure what to believe. “The important thing,” Lammers reassured him, “is that the basic system which runs through all the mystery traditions, whether they come from Tibet or the pyramids of Egypt, is backed up by you. It’s actually the right system…. It not only agrees with the best ethics of religion and society, it is the source of them.”
Lammers’s enthusiasms aside, the religious ideas that emerged from Cayce’s readings did articulate a compelling theology. Cayce’s teachings sought to marry a Christian moral outlook with the cycles of karma and reincarnation central to Hindu and Buddhist ways of thought, as well as the Hermetic concept of man as an extension of the Divine. Cayce’s references elsewhere to the causative powers of the mind – “the spiritual is the LIFE; the mental is the BUILDER; the physical is the RESULT” – melded his cosmic philosophy with tenets of New Thought, Christian Science, and mental healing. If there was an inner philosophy unifying the world’s religions, Cayce came as close as any modern person in defining it.
Religious traditionalists could rightly object: Just where are Cayce’s “insights” coming from? Are they the product of a Higher Power or merely the overactive imagination of a religious outlier? Or, worse, are his phrases the type of muddle-fuddle produced by haunts at Ouija board sessions?
Cayce himself wrestled with these questions. His response was that all of his ideas, whatever their source, had to square with Gospel ethics in order to be judged vital and right. Cayce addressed this in a talk that he delivered in his normal waking state in Norfolk, Virginia, in February of 1933, just before he turned fifty-six:
Many people ask me how I prevent undesirable influences entering into the work I do. In order to answer that question let me relate an experience I had as a child. When I was between eleven and twelve years of age I had read the Bible through three times. I have now read it fifty-six times. No doubt many people have read it more times than that, but I have tried to read it through once for each year of my life. Well, as a child I prayed that I might be able to do something for the other fellow, to aid others in understanding themselves, and especially to aid children in their ills. I had a vision one day which convinced me that my prayer had been heard and answered.
Cayce’s “vision” has been described differently by different biographers. Sugrue recounts the episode occurring when Cayce was about twelve in the woods outside his home in western Kentucky. Cayce himself places it in his bedroom at age thirteen or fourteen. One night, this adolescent boy who had spoken of childhood conversations with “hidden friends,” and who hungrily read through Scripture, knelt by his bed and prayed for the ability to help others.
Just before drifting to sleep, Cayce recalled, a glorious light filled the room and a feminine apparition appeared at the foot of his bed telling him: “Thy prayers are heard. You will have your wish. Remain faithful. Be true to yourself. Help the sick, the afflicted.”
Cayce did not realise until years later what form his answered prayers would take – and even in his twenties it took him years to adjust to being a medical clairvoyant. As his new powers took shape he laboured to use Scripture as his moral vetting mechanism. Yet he consistently attributed his information to the “Source” – another subject on which he expanded at Norfolk:
As a matter of fact, there would seem to be not only one, but several sources of information that I tap when in this sleep condition. One source is, apparently, the recording that an individual or entity makes in all its experiences through what we call time. The sum-total of the experiences of that soul is “written,” so to speak, in the subconscious of that individual as well as in what is known as the Akashic records. Anyone may read these records if he can attune himself properly.
Cayce’s concept of the “Akashic records” is derived from ancient Vedic writings, in which akasha is a kind of universal ether. This idea of universal records was popularised to Westerners in the late nineteenth-century through the work of occult philosopher, world traveller, and Theosophy co-founder Madame H.P. Blavatsky.
A generation before Cayce, Blavatsky told of a hidden philosophy at the core of the historic faiths – and of a cosmic record bank that catalogs all human events. In Blavatsky’s 1877 study of occult philosophy, Isis Unveiled, the Theosophist described an all-pervasive magnetic ether that “keeps an unmutilated record of all that was, that is, or ever will be.” These astral records, wrote Blavatsky, preserve “a vivid picture for the eye of the seer and prophet to follow.” Blavatsky equated this archival ether with the “Book of Life” from Revelation.
Returning to the topic in her massive 1888 study of occult history, The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky depicted these etheric records in more explicitly Vedic terms (having spent several preceding years in India). In the first of her two-volume study, Blavatsky referred to “Akâsic or astral-photographs” – inching closer to the term “Akashic records” as used by Cayce.
Cayce was not the first channeller to credit the “Akashic records” as his source of data. In 1908, a retired Civil War chaplain and Church of Christ pastor named Levi H. Dowling said that he clairvoyantly channelled an alternative history of Christ in The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. In Dowling’s influential account, the Son of man travels and studies throughout the religious cultures of the East before dispensing a message of universal faith that encompasses all the world’s traditions. Dowling, too, attributed his insights to the “Akashic records,” accessed while in a trance state in his Los Angeles living room.
Cayce, like Blavatsky, equated akasha with the Scriptural Book of Life. This was an example of how Cayce harmonised the exotic and unfamiliar themes of his readings with his Christian worldview. In a similar vein, he reinterpreted the ninth chapter of the Book of John, in which Christ heals a man who had been blind from birth, to validate ideas of karma and reincarnation. When the disciples ask Christ whether it was the man’s sins or those of his parents that caused his affliction, the Master replies enigmatically: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). In Cayce’s reasoning, since the blind man was born with his disorder, and Christ exonerates both the man and his parents, his disability must be karmic baggage from a previous incarnation. Cayce made comparable interpretations of passages from Matthew and Revelation.
In another effort to unite the poles of different traditions, Cayce elsewhere associated his esoteric search with Madame Blavatsky’s. On four occasions he reported being visited by a mysterious, turbaned spiritual master from the East – one of the mahatmas, or great souls, whom Blavatsky said had guided her.
Neither Cayce nor Sugrue lived long enough to witness the full reach of Cayce’s ideas. The psychic died at age sixty-seven in Virginia Beach on 3 January 1945, less than three years after There Is a River first appeared. Sugrue updated the book that year. After struggling with years of illness, the biographer died at age forty-five on 6 January 1953 at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York.
The first popularisations of Cayce’s work began to appear in 1950 with the publication of Many Mansions, an enduring work on reincarnation by Gina Cerminara, a longtime Cayce devotee. But it wasn’t until 1956 that Cayce’s name took full flight across the culture with the appearance of the sensationally popular book The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein. Sugrue’s editor Sloane, having since warmed to parapsychology, published both Cerminara and Bernstein.
Bernstein was an iconic figure. A Coloradan of Jewish descent and an Ivy League-educated dealer in heavy machinery and scrap metal, he grew inspired by Cayce’s career – partly through the influence of Sugrue’s book – and became an amateur hypnotist. In the early 1950s, Bernstein conducted a series of experiments with a Pueblo, Colorado, housewife who, while under a hypnotic trance, appeared to regress into a past-life persona: an early nineteenth-century Irish country girl named Bridey Murphy. The entranced homemaker spoke in an Irish brogue and recounted to Bernstein comprehensive details of her life more than a century earlier.
Suddenly, reincarnation – an ancient Vedic concept about which Americans had heard little before World War II – was the latest craze, ignited by Bernstein, an avowed admirer of Cayce, to whom the hypnotist devoted two chapters in his book.
In the following decade, California journalist Jess Stearn further ramped up interest in Cayce with his 1967 bestseller, Edgar Cayce, The Sleeping Prophet. With the mystic sixties in full swing, and the youth culture embracing all forms of alternative or Eastern spirituality – from Zen to yoga to psychedelics – Cayce, while not explicitly tied to any of this, rode the new vogue in alternative spirituality. During this time, Hugh Lynn Cayce emerged as a formidable custodian of his father’s legacy, presiding over the expansion of the Virginia Beach-based Association for Research and Enlightenment, and shepherding to market a new wave of instructional guides based on the Cayce teachings, from dream interpretation to drug-free methods of relaxation to the spiritual uses of colours, crystals, and numbers. Cayce’s name became a permanent fixture on the cultural landscape.
The 1960s and 70s also saw a new generation of channelled literature – Cayce himself originated the term channel – from higher intelligences such as Seth, Ramtha, and even the figure of Christ in A Course in Miracles. The last was a profound and enduring lesson series, channelled beginning in 1965 by Columbia University research psychiatrist Helen Schucman.
A concordance of tone and values existed between Cayce’s readings and A Course in Miracles. Cayce’s devotees and the Course’s wide array of readers discovered that they had a lot in common; members of both cultures blended seamlessly, attending many of the same seminars, growth centres, and metaphysical churches.
Likewise, a congruency emerged between Cayce’s world and followers of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Starting in the 1970s, twelve-steppers of various stripes became a familiar presence at Cayce conferences and events in Virginia Beach.
Cayce’s universalistic religious message dovetailed with the purposefully flexible references to a Higher Power in the “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, written in 1939. AA cofounder Bill Wilson, his wife Lois, his confidant Bob Smith, and several other early AAs were deeply versed in mystical and mediumistic teachings. Whether they viewed Cayce as an influence is unclear. But all three works – the Cayce readings, A Course in Miracles, and Alcoholics Anonymous – demonstrated a shared sense of religious liberalism, an encouragement that all individuals seek their own conception of a Higher Power, and a permeability intended to accommodate the broadest expression of religious outlooks and backgrounds.
The free-flowing tone of the therapeutic spiritual movements of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries had a shared antecedent, if not a direct ancestry, in the Cayce readings.
Sugrue provided an irreplaceable record of Cayce’s development as a spiritual messenger and pioneer. The biographer captured the seer as the person who Cayce himself said he was: An ordinary man who struggled with his apparent psychical abilities and the universal religious ideas that travelled through him.
But Sugrue’s work accomplished more than just that. His portrait of Cayce, in its own right, became a formative document of New Age spirituality. In exploring Cayce’s career, Sugrue highlighted and popularised core themes from the Cayce readings – including past-life experiences, alternative medical treatments, the imperative of the individual spiritual search, and the idea of religion as a practical source of healing.
Sugrue demonstrated how Cayce – a committed Christian, a Sunday school teacher, and, by his own reckoning, an everyday man – developed into the founding prophet of Aquarian Age spirituality. In capturing the drama and events of Cayce’s journey, Sugrue elevated the clarity and endurance of the seer’s message.
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This article is adapted from Mitch Horowitz’s introduction to the reissue of There Is a River: The Story of Edgar Cayce (Tarcher/Penguin and A.R.E. Press, 2015). The book is available from all good bookstores and online retailers.
About the Author
MITCH HOROWITZ is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of Occult America andOne Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. He has written on alternative spirituality for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, and is the host of the new web series Origins: Superstitions (www.OriginsTheSeries.com). Visit him @MitchHorowitz and www.MitchHorowitz.com.
The above article appeared in New Dawn 150 (May-June 2015)
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