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Iron John In The Gilded Age

June 2024
17min read

“The Almighty dollar,’ Washington Irving wrote, was the “great object of universal devotion” among Americans. Tocqueville described moneymaking as the “prevailing passion.” And though the object of their craving sometimes changed, Tocqueville noticed that the emotional intensity persisted. This was why tightfisted Yankee merchants would break down in penitential tears and convert to Christ, why sober Ohio farmers would abandon their homesteads and join Utopian communes. Because Americans were so bound up in the struggle to get ahead, Tocqueville concluded, they rushed “unrestrained beyond the range of common sense” when cut loose. Thus did a materialistic nation beget so many “strange sects,” each striking out on such “extraordinary oaths to eternal happiness.”

As Bly’s boys tried to create and perform rituals dating back to the Bronze Age, they overlooked a less remote source.

Yet even Tocqueville might have flinched at the spectacle of thousands of adult men, most of them well-to-do and college-educated, chanting before bonfires and pounding on drums, growling and cavorting in imitation of foxes and bears, plunging naked into baptismal mudholes, and smudging their faces with ashes—all of them following a path blazed by the poet Robert Bly in the final decade of the twentieth century.

What set them in motion was Bly’s 1990 Iron John: A Book About Men . Manhood had seldom been of much interest to general readers, and the book’s odd amalgam of romantic poetry, esoteric philosophy, and popular psychology, all bolted to a little-known myth by the Grimm brothers, seemed unlikely to appeal to the masses. But Iron John clambered onto the best-seller list and remained there for more than a year.

The book’s success confirmed its central premise: that American men who had renounced the Vietnam War and embraced feminism now fear thev have become too soft. Having drifted far from traditional manhood, they need help finding their way back. Such men are drawn to Iron John—a Wildman who led boys from the suffocating confines of childhood into the liberating expanses of manhood. BIv believes the storv outlines the initiatory process by which boys become men in most societies. Though deprived of such guidance, American men need not despair, for the requisite rituals are too deeply embedded in the human psyche to be forever lost, or so Bly maintains.

Some of Bly’s readers, calling themselves mythopoets, resolved to exhume those rituals and breathe into them new life. They scoured the works of Joseph Campbell and Mary Stewart for mythological or historical examples of men’s rituals that could be “adapted” for modern usage. Other Bly enthusiasts published magazines and placed ads in newspapers to attract like-minded men to share the experience. Still others—some one hundred thousand strong—sought to identify with their hoary male forebears by attending weekend “mancamps” in the woods (or in suitably bucolic convention centers). Soon the mythopoetic army overran the tiny outposts of “pro-feminist” academics and men’s-rights activists, each of which until then had claimed the men’s movement as its own.


But as Bly’s boys tried to create and perform initiatory rituals dating back to the Bronze Age, they overlooked a less remote source: the Gilded Age of nineteenth-century America, when literally millions of men—members of the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and hundreds of similar societies—each week performed elaborate initiatory rituals.

The oldest and most imitated of the fraternal orders was Freemasonry. Founded in late-seventeenth-century England as a stonemasons’ guild, the group evolved into a drinking and eating club for tradesmen, merchants, and some noblemen. Its special cachet was secrecy. Members used hand signals and passwords to identify one another; soon they devised a legend about Hiram Abiff, the master mason of Solomon’s Temple who was assassinated by rivals and “raised” back to life. Eventually new members underwent a simple initiation, during which they learned the secret signals and heard Abiff’s story. Then everyone hastened to the wine steward.

By the mid-1700s Freemasonry had diffused through much of the Western world. In France it was taken up by free-thinkers and evolved into a shadowy political force that attached itself to various conspiracies against church and monarchy. In Germany it served as the inspiration among a group of intellectuals for an elevated mysticism that culminated in Mozart’s The Magic Flute .

But it was chiefly as a drinking society that Freemasonry crossed the Atlantic and took root in the English colonies. In America nearly all the lodges were located in taverns. Often the three “degrees,” or ritual ranks, were conferred in a single evening by members who, having lingered too long at the punch bowl, stumbled over the oaths, passwords, and whatever else they happened upon. Their revelries commonly spilled beyond the tavern, and constables learned to exercise special vigilance on nights the “merry Masons” were abroad.

The character of American Freemasonry changed after 1826. That year William Morgan, who had joined a Masonic lodge in Rochester, New York, moved to Batavia, New York, but was denied admission to the lodge there. Disdaining his oath of secrecy, Morgan announced plans to publish the Masonic signs and lectures. Several weeks later some mysterious strangers showed up, told Morgan that he was under arrest for unpaid debts, and took him to Fort Niagara. Then he disappeared, never to be seen again. Rumors abounded that he had been tossed into the rapids by Freemasons; members of the order suggested that Morgan had fled town and changed his name to avoid creditors.

What happened next is beyond dispute: Two dozen Masons were indicted for conspiring to abduct Morgan, conspiracy being the most serious charge that could be lodged in the absence of a body. Though the evidence against the defendants was damning, only a handful were convicted, and their sentences were brief. But a public tumult ensued when it was learned that Gov. De Witt Clinton, as well as some of the prosecutors, judges, and jurors were members of the order. Ministers raged against Freemasonry. Politicians, insisting that both political parties had been tainted by the order, founded the nation’s first third party, the Anti-Masonic party.

Tens of thousands of Masons withdrew from the order, many lodges ceased meeting, and some officials closed their doors for what they assumed would be the final time. But the Morgan debacle indirectly reinvigorated the fraternal movement by turning it over to an emerging middle class of businessmen, clerks, lawyers, and doctors. Many exFreemasons flocked to the Odd Fellows, formerly a working-class club, and took control of it. They sold the punch bowls and banned alcohol, they investigated the morals of prospective initiates and hauled wayward members before lodge tribunals, and they ceased passing the hat for needy members and established an insurance system based on fixed weekly assessments. These, however, were simply the means to promote the order’s chief new purpose: initiation.

Victorian men retreated on lodge nights into a mystic wonderland inhabited by gods and heroes.

The ceremonies were drafted by a special committee on ritual, which included several former Freemasons. They wrote an hour-long pageant based loosely on the story of Genesis, with the initiate playing Adam. Because Adam was naked, the initiate’s shirt was removed. “Thou art dust,” he was told, and chains were wound around his body to symbolize his “guilty soul.” He was led blindfolded around the lodge room four or five times as officers lectured on mortality, God, and the meaning of life. Suddenly the blindfolds were snatched away. A skeleton loomed in the torchlight. “Contemplate that dismal, ghastly emblem of what thou art sure to be, and what thou mayst soon become,” an officer intoned.

Odd Fellows found this ritual inspiring and craved more like it. But English officials, who had chartered the first American lodges, were dumbfounded. To them the lodge was a place for workers to unwind, perhaps over a tankard of beer, and to help one another when times were bad. Workers needed tangible assistance and support, not long-winded lectures on morality and religion. Relations between American and English branches smoldered as droves of bibulous English emigrants knocked on the doors of the American lodges, took seats in awe-inspiring “temples,” and stared in disbelief as lamps were extinguished, torches lit, and robes, altars, and skeletons prepared. As speakers droned on, with no one stirring to prepare libations, the Englishmen’s wonder turned to anger. During the 184Os English officials demanded that the Americans abandon the new rituals on pain of having their charters revoked. The Americans refused, explaining that Odd Fellowship had grown in America only after it had discarded “conviviality” and instituted religious rituals. “Our career affords an example not unworthy of your imitation,” American officials noted pointedly.


In 1844 the Americans broke loose and established the “Independent” Order of Odd Fellows. Free to develop on its own terms, American Odd Fellowship created a sequence of nine elaborate rituals, most of them derived from the Old Testament. In one, for example, the initiate became Isaac, the son of Abraham, who journeyed across a desert wilderness to Mount Moriah (several blindfolded circuits of the lodge room). Then he was tied up and placed upon an altar. Firewood was piled beneath it, a torch was lit, and the Twenty-third Psalm read. After explaining that Isaac was to be sacrificed, Abraham struck a match and leaned toward the wood. Then a gong sounded. God, Abraham announced, had decided to save Isaac and had commanded that he be admitted as a patriarch of Abraham’s family. Odd Fellows reported that such a rite “fully satisfied” their “desire” and elevated their order “almost to the dignity of a religion.” The Odd Fellows grew from some thirty thousand members in 1843, just prior to the new rituals, to two hundred thousand by 1860 and nearly a million by 1900.


American Freemasonry developed along similar lines, especially the Scottish Rite, the most prestigious branch of the fraternity, which greatly expanded its twenty-nine rituals during the 185Os and 186Os; the new sequence filled eight hundred printed pages. Although a few traditionalists claimed that Freemasonry had been “murderously perverted” by the revisions, most credited the new rituals for the order’s growth from forty thousand members in the 183Os to nearly threequarters of a million by the close of the nineteenth century.

During the 186Os and 187Os hundreds of fraternal organizers imitated the Odd Fellows and Freemasons. The Knights of Pythias, founded in 1864, devised a set of five wildly eclectic rituals: Roman senators sauntered through Hades, and crusaders through medieval castles. Within a decade membership in the order exceeded a quarter of a million, a figure that doubled by the end of the century. An official in 1887 attributed the order’s growth to a ritual that had “taken hold of the hearts of men.”

The craving was so widespread that entrepreneurs proffered initiatory ritual rather like the wav Publishers’ Clearinghouse exploits the gambling itch to sell magazines. Victorian insurance promoters, recognizing that men would more likely buy a policy if it came with evenings of initiation, created scores of ritualistic beneficiary societies. One syndicate approached Lew Wallace to transform his best-selling novel into a ritual for the Knights of Ben-Hur. After eliminating the anachronism, Wallace agreed, and within a decade more than a hundred thousand men—initiates of the Tribe of Ben-Hur—had raced “chariots,” done time on “Roman” galleys, and forked over substantial premiums for the Tribe’s life insurance. Life insurance companies, lacking such rituals, fought hard to gain control of the market. But as late as 1900 a half-million more Americans were insured by fraternal societies than by insurance companies.

Wherever Victorian men came together, someone, it seemed, would propose formal initiations. The Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization, offered three separate rituals, much to the dismay of politically ambitious men such as Oliver Wilson of Indiana who complained that GAR members cared more about the “bauble of ritualism” than pensions. The Knights of Labor, the largest of the post-Civil War labor organizations, provided its membership with three lengthy ceremonies. When Terence Powderly took charge of the Knights, he fought to eliminate the rituals. “The best part of each meeting was taken up in initiating new members, in instructing them in the use of symbols, in hymns and formula that could not be put in the interest of labor outside the meeting room,” he complained in his autobiography. But the Knights refused to give up their ceremonies.

At the turn of the century observers estimated that from 20 to 40 percent of all adult men belonged to at least one of the nation’s seventy-thousand lodges. Because only the highest-paid manual workers could afford the dues, paraphernalia, and initiation fees, and because Catholic lodge members were threatened with excommunication, the fraternal movement was chiefly an activity of middle-class Protestant men, many of whom belonged to several orders. Initiation was arguably their chief leisure activity.


The money spent on ritual, though incalculable, was by any standard staggering. During the last third of the nineteenth century the Odd Fellows’ total revenue was about $150 million; the Freemasons, far more affluent, surely took in several times this amount. The insurance industry estimated the revenue of beneficiary societies at $650 million. All told, fraternal income perhaps approached $2 billion, about what federal government spent on defense during the same period.

By the turn of the century, up to 40 percent of all adult men belonged to at least one lodge.

Some of this wealth went into costumes, pensions, charity, or the pockets of unscrupulous officials, but much was expended on the temples themselves. In nearly every community the temple of the Masons, Odd Fellows, or Knights of Pythias was a landmark. The spectacular Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, built during the 187Os at a cost of $1.5 million, rivaled Wanamaker’s across the street. The Masonic Temple in Chicago, completed in time for the world’s fair in 1893, was the tallest building in the world.

We neglect fraternal orders partly because they declined so rapidly in the twentieth century. A new generation of men, when draesed to the lodee bv their bosses or fathers-in-law, choked down laughter as the neighborhood grocer, donning the miter of a Jewish high priest, fumbled through an Old Testament lesson for the Odd Fellows or as the superintendent of the ironworks, wearing the headdress of an Iroquois sagamore, brandished a tomahawk and challenged the initiate’s fitness for the Improved Order of Red Men. Many young men regaled friends with hilarious accounts of what had transpired at the lodge, and they never went back. Hundreds of smaller orders quietly passed out of existence. Most beneficiary societies, financially dependent on an infusion of young members, were in serious trouble by the 1920s. The Depression finished them off and also wiped out thousands of lodges that could no longer make the mortgage payments on their temples. Within a few years most Americans would associate the orders with Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton of the Loyal Order of Raccoons.

The historical profession came of age during these skeptical years, and academics saw no reason to pay much attention to institutions that were intentionally behind the times. Scholars who bothered to look at the rituals dismissed them as hokum; they assumed that businessmen joined to make contacts, workers to acquire insurance, and others because there was not much else to do. With the development of trade associations and businessmen’s clubs, private and governmental insurance, and movies and television, most of the orders expired out of sheer inanity.

But historians erred in thinking of the orders as yet another manifestation of the backwardness of small-town America. The orders in fact thrived especially in large cities. And the businessmen, engineers, and lawyers who spent evenings pretending to be medieval knights or Indian chiefs were by day transforming the United States into an urban-industrial nation.


The popularity of Iron John in recent years further confirms that male rituals are not incompatible with modernity. At first glance the slouching, dungareed participants at Bly’s mancamps little resemble the somber, stiff faces that stare out from nineteenth-century lodge photographs. But the rituals invented by Bly’s mythopoets are uncannily similar to those performed in fraternal lodges more than a century ago.

Both sets of rituals attempted to establish a link to primitive or ancient peoples. Bly proposes that the story of Iron John, though based on a tale the Grimm brothers set down in 1820, may have originated twenty thousand years earlier. Men’s movement enthusiasts exalt drumming as an “ancient ritual” and carve wooden masks in honor of “old gods” such as Pan, Orpheus, Shiva, and Dionysus.

More than a hundred years ago Albert Pike—poet, lawyer, Confederate general, and Masonic ritualist—similarly called for a return to the primitive truths that “faded out from men’s souls before the world grew old.” He viewed Freemasonry as a faint echo of rites practiced by druidic shamans, Eleusinian mystics, and Zoroastrian priests. The Ancient Order of United Workmen and the Improved Order of Red Men in their very names suggested a link to the distant past. They did so not from any romantic attachment to Noble Savages—Native Americans who sought admission to the Red Men were turned away- but to lay claim to rites of prehistoric origin. For much the same reason the Knights of Pythias identified Pythagoras as the first member of their order.

Once they had settled into their tribal sweat lodge, Solomonic temple, or medieval castle, initiates for both the fraternal orders and modern men’s srouos underwent an initiatory se- quence with comparable motifs. After being depicted as deficient or immature, they embarked on arduous journeys revealing the knowledge necessary for self-transformation. Fraternal initiates, their shirts removed or disarranged, were blindfolded and prodded around the lodge. The ritual climaxed when the blindfolds were snatched away. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ ” Masons were informed.

Men’s movement initiates, also blindfolded and their faces smudged or covered with masks, are carried over the heads of members or obliged to crawl on hands and knees. As the drumming reaches a crescendo, the blindfolds are removed. Newcomers to one men’s group, after scrambling throueh a tunnel, are told. “Go, The The light is gold.”


All fraternal initiates swore themselves to secrecy on pain of allowing brethren to “thrust my tongue through with a red-hot iron” or words to that effect. Fearsome oaths notwithstanding, the orders were remarkably lax. Some, fearing that another would steal an affecting ritual, copyrighted their “secret” work. Everyone recognized that meaningful secrets could not be kept among a million members. Secrecy was chiefly symbolic, a means of strengthening the bond among men by underscoring the exclusion of women. Indeed, no offense was more serious than to tell one’s wife the “concerns of the order.” Women, for their part, resented the large sums spent on dues and paraphernalia and chafed at their husbands’ absence on the frequent lodge nights. In the 185Os the Odd Fellows, seeking to “lessen and ultimately destroy the prejudice of the fairer sex,” created a women’s auxiliary called the Degree of Rebekah. Still, women were to have no part in men’s initiations. “The simple truth is this,” one official explained in 1867: “Woman is not entitled to and seeks not a place among us.”

Bly’s mythopoets initially took a more moderate stand. Because some men’s groups met in family rooms or booked events in public facilities, women came and went pretty much as they wished. But it soon became apparent that even their fleeting presence somehow interfered with the proceedings. “Don’t have a woman near the meeting space,” men’s organizers warned. The need for secrecy and exclusion was driven home after one exuberant group invited the media to a weekend mancamp. Bly telegrammed a warning: The mythopoetic movement was still in its “infancy,” and its rituals would be ridiculed by the public. But by then a small army of freelance journalists had already filled their notebooks with arch accounts of what they had seen. “A luscious hologram of multilayered idiocy,” Joe Queenan of GQ wrote. Now most men’s groups exclude women and outsiders. Many swear participants to secrecy—one reason less has been heard of them in recent months.

If women were consnicuous bv their ab- sence, “fathers” were omnipresent—in both fraternal and men’s groups. The central drama of fraternal rituals derived from the hostility of “elderly” officers—patriarchs with flowing white beards or sachems leaning upon walking sticks—toward the callow initiates— “squaws,” “pages,” “children.” Tension between surrogate father and son rose to a climax. Suddenly, usually on completion of the initiatory journey, the officer embraced the in-itiate. Father and son had become brothers.

Bly’s goal is similar. Young men today do not know what it means to be a man because their fathers—"enfeebled, dejected, paltry"—failed to teach them. Bly’s hairy Wildman serves as a surrogate for the clean-shaven (or absent) male cipher of the modern family. Some men’s groups place an empty “Spirit Chair” at the front of the room, a mute reminder (and perhaps indictment) of the missing fathers.

The charge that men’s rituals are a reaction against the advancement of women is probably not far from wrong.

Rituals such as these, abstracted from a “sacred” context and a community of shared sentiment, seem so artificial as to verge on fraud. (Some wags during the nineteenth century said that the orders had been invented by novelty companies; today critics propose that men’s group organizers have a stake in drum companies). Many find it hard not to agree with Lance Morrow of Time , who called the men’s move- ment a “depthless happening in the goofy circus of America,” language reminiscent of the nineteenthcentury criticisms of the lodges.

But though contrived, the rituals—then and now —are not without effect. Mancamp participants are commonly convulsed with sobs. A reporter for Esquire , while sniggering at what he described as a “Three Stooges skit,” was taken aback by the “murderously authentic” moans and weeping around him. In 1877 the Voice of Masonry observed that fraternal initiates became “so wrought upon and their feelings so excited that they shed tears.” The National Christian Association, founded in 1867 to rid the nation of the orders, acknowledged the mysterious power of the rituals and identified Satan as their source. Members took degree after degree “as a charmed frog goes into a snake’s mouth.”

To what, indeed, can we attribute the enduring attraction of men’s rituals? Bly, whose views matter if only because he predicted the movement his book inspired, responds that all men possess an intuitive attraction to the requisite rituals of manhood, which are “still very much alive in our genetic structure.” But until scientists find a peptide chain curled along the Y chromosome that impels men to caper in mudholes or don outlandish headgear, his argument will persuade few who are not already wedded to Jung’s notion that some ideas are factory-installed in the brain. Moreover, Bly’s belief that men are predisposed to such rituals fails to explain why American men had to invent them in the first place or why so many of their great-grandchildren scorned their vaunted rites.

Some social scientists regard male rites as attempts by men to assert their fading power over women. In this vein, many feminists view the mythopoets as part of a backlash against their movement, a longing for the good old days when men were Wildmen and women chattel; they brush aside the pro-feminist protestations of Bly and his followers as little more than a smoke screen.

Many women in the nineteenth century, particularly those active in reform and women’s rights, had similar misgivings about what transpired behind the lodge’s thick veil of secrecv. If, as defenders of the orders claimed, fraternal rituals were designed to make initiates “gentle, charitable, and tender as a woman,” why weren’t women permitted to see what went on? If the purpose of the orders were laudable, why were they so elaborately cloaked in secrecy? The charge that men’s rituals are a male reaction against the advances of women has surfaced repeatedly; it is probably not far from wrong.

By the first few decades of the nineteenth century, women were assuming a new place within the homes of the emerging middle classes. At a time when lawyers and merchants—not to mention legions of ambitious inventors and clerks—fastened their attention upon the prospects of making money within the rapidly expanding national economy, they all but abandoned patriarchal traditions of men’s religious and moral guidance. And women, delivered from many of the crushing burdens of farm life, eagerly filled the void left by men’s withdrawal from the “domestic sphere.” Their special task, women now proclaimed, was to redeem the nation from a hardhearted materialism by instilling in children the gentle and self-effacing virtues of Christ.

When the men who had been reared in such homes came of age, they found themselves inhabiting a competitive world where the government safety net was but a few filaments in the imaginations of the likes of Edward Bellamy and Henry George. How were these young men to reconcile the demands of bosses and the remorseless workings of the market with the lessons of love learned at a mother’s knee? How reconcile the Darwinian world of adult men with the peaceable promises of childhood?

Fraternal rituals offered psychological guidance by leading men from the precepts and enticements of childhood into a closer affinity with bosses and bankers, customers and colleagues. It did so by attenuating adult men’s associations with childhood and women and by strengthening the ties amongst themselves. The rituals provided a religious experience antithetical to what they had learned as youths and supplanted the familial bonds of childhood with the brotherhood of the lodge.


Lodge officials insisted that their rites accorded with Christianity. There was seemingly no reason for initiates to view the religion of the lodge with suspicion: lodge meetings usually began with a minister offering a prayer, all initiates were obliged to profess belief in God, most rituals were drawn from the Bible, and the setting itself resembled nothing so much as the church. But the altars, chalices, coffins, and flickering candles, when used as props to enact the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple (Royal Arch Masonry), the execution of a spy (Grand Army of the Republic), or a sojourn through the “calcined wastes” of Hades (Knights of Pythias), conveyed lessons far different from what ministers imparted to their flocks on Sunday. The deity of the lodge was distant and impersonal, totally unlike the loving God that then prevailed in Protestant churches.

The rituals, too, provided a family psychodrama that drew initiates from the feminine attachments of childhood and brought them, by means of an initiatory “rebirth,” into a new family of brothers. This transference climaxed with the reconciliation of the initiate—the son—with his new father.

The rituals of Bly’s mythopoets seem to function much the same way, evoking the “old gods” of patriarchal tradition, imitating the warrior rites of tribal societies, enshrining ancient kings and heroes. From these imaginative realms women are almost entirely absent. Modern men cling tightly to Iron John partly because he carries them into a world where manhood is unencumbered by gender-role ambiguities. The leaders of fraternal orders nowadays take unabashed pride in the “masculine” character of their rites and express misgivings over what they regard as the “feminine” inventions of the men’s movement: the “touchy-feely” quality of the steam baths, naked romps in the woods, the self-revelatory discussions that stretch deep into the night. Such experiences may well be therapeutic, states Harry E. Echols, a lawyer and prominent Odd Fellow and Freemason in Washington, D.C., but they lack the ongoing fellowship of the lodge and meaningful rituals that, burnished by the passage of time, reflect the wisdom of the past.

Echols’s statement points out that more than gender is involved in the appeal of men’s rituals. The orders and the men’s groups seize upon the distant past because it offers something of an antidote to the modern world. Victorian men, driven by sales and production quotas, buffeted by the vagaries of distant markets, and trapped in widening webs of corporate bureaucracies, retreated on lodge nights into a mystic wonderland inhabited by gods and heroes, kings and knights, a place where identity was conferred rather than imperiled. The unreality of the lodge was its chief attraction.

The same may be true of the mancamps. When one participant complained that its rituals were ridiculous, an organizer explained that the weekend’s purpose was to let people “get beyond the logical world.” The rational demands of the modern world for system, regularity, and order may spawn an antithetical world of fantasy and emotional expression. Tocqueville put it somewhat differently: The material satisfactions of life notwithstanding, “the soul has needs that must be fulfilled.”

The emergence of Bly and of the Wildman he bought back from the primordial depths of the human soul serves as a reminder that the road to the future may take some strange detours. The enduring appeal of compensatory anachronisms—not to mention the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism—shows the emotional power of pre-modern values and beliefs. When we finally arrive at the year 2001, it may bear less resemblance to the aseptic and androgynous landscapes of Stanley Kubrick than to terrain through which we passed centuries ago.

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