A Colorful History of The Prison Mirror, America's Oldest Continuously Operated Prison Newspaper

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Newspaper clippings: Washington County Historical Society. Images: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Newspaper clippings: Washington County Historical Society. Images: iStock

J.S. Allen sensed trouble in the air. It was September 7, 1876, and the Northfield, Minnesota hardware store owner had noticed three mysterious men loitering in front of Lee & Hitchcock Dry Goods Store, right next door to the First National Bank—a strange mid-afternoon scene for the small town's main street.

Once the suspicious trio rose and entered the bank, Allen decided to investigate the scene for himself. Little did he know he'd soon be staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by a member of the infamous James-Younger Gang.

Clell Miller, along with Cole Younger, had been standing guard for the surprise heist. As Allen approached the bank, Miller grabbed his collar. "You son of a b****, don't you holler," Miller growled, pointing his revolver at Allen.

 
 

The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, circa 1876.
The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, circa 1876.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
 

Allen managed to squirm free from the bandit's grasp. He raced around the corner, yelling, "Get your guns, boys; they're robbing the bank!" The people of Northfield heeded Allen's call to arms and grabbed their weapons. Amid a flurry of bullets, the James-Younger Gang was suddenly outnumbered. The incident would go down in history as the Wild West's most famous failed bank robbery, and would indirectly leave a much longer legacy: the founding of the longest-running penal newspaper run solely by inmates.

The James-Younger Gang was a hardscrabble band of Confederate guerillas-turned outlaws, led by brothers Jesse and Alexander Franklin "Frank" James and siblings Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger. During the latter half of the 19th century, the men became household names as they held up trains, robbed banks, and generally terrorized the West, from Texas to Kentucky to their native Missouri.

Of the eight gang members who took part in the Northfield robbery, three had ridden into town ahead of the others. Before their arrival, Cole Younger later recounted, these men had split a bottle of whiskey. The faction had been told to wait for backup before entering the bank, but they reportedly disregarded this command. As the trio saw the other five gang members approaching, they barged into the bank too early. "When these three saw us coming, instead of waiting for us to get up with them they slammed right on into the bank regardless, leaving the door open in their excitement," Cole wrote in his memoirs.

Inside the bank, the trio clumsily fumbled through the motions as they ordered acting cashier and town treasurer Joseph Heywood to open the safe. (Later, a bank teller would recall that he smelled liquor on the men.) Heywood told the robbers that the safe's door had a time lock, and could only be opened at a specific time.

But after Allen interrupted the robbery, the James-Younger Gang's days were numbered. As a gunfight erupted on the street, Cole rode to the bank and yelled for the three to hurry and get out. One member shot Heywood in the head, killing him, and both Miller (the one who'd assaulted Allen) and bandit Bill Chadwell died in the standoff outside. The rest of the gang were wounded, with the exception of the James brothers. Against the odds, the surviving bandits managed to flee town—but their freedom wouldn't last long.

A search party apprehended the three Younger brothers, along with a gang member named Charlie Pitts, close to the Iowa border. Pitts was killed in the ensuing standoff. Only Jesse and Frank James made it out.

Jesse James would go on to recruit new outlaws and continue his life of crime. He'd die six years later in 1882, at the hands of fellow gang member Robert Ford, and Frank James would turn himself in shortly after his brother's death, eventually living out the rest of his days performing odd jobs ranging from burlesque ticket taker to a berry picker before returning to his family farm in Missouri (though Frank spent some time in jail, he was acquitted on all charges and never served time in prison). But for all intents and purposes, the cabal of ruthless robbers was no more.

In November 1876, the Youngers pleaded guilty in court to escape a near-certain death penalty. They were sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor at the Minnesota State Prison. (The facility no longer exists; in 1914, it was replaced by the Minnesota Correctional Facility–Stillwater in neighboring Bayport [PDF].)

 
 

The Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater in 1885
The Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater in 1885
Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

At the Minnesota State Prison, inmates were leased as laborers for private businesses. They worked nine to 11 hours each day and were paid a daily salary of 30 to 45 cents. Prison seemed to have a sobering effect on both Cole and the other two Youngers, and they eventually received more prestigious jobs: Cole was made the prison's librarian; Jim became the "postmaster," who delivered and sent inmates' approved letters; and Bob worked as a clerk.

Then, nearly a decade into their sentence, the three became newspaper founders, thanks to another prisoner named Lew P. Shoonmaker (or Schoonmaker).

Many key facts about Shoonmaker have been lost over the years, although the Minnesota State Archives did recently re-discover his prison records. They note that Shoonmaker was a onetime bookkeeper from Wisconsin who was sentenced to a two-year term in 1886 for forgery. He was released in August of the following year for "good conduct," and a remark in an 1887 newspaper indicated that he went on to edit a paper in Waupun, Wisconsin. But earlier in 1887, while still incarcerated, the enterprising inmate approached Cole Younger and told him that he wanted to launch a prison publication.

The paper was to be the first in the nation to be funded, written, edited, and published entirely by inmates. And after several months of trying to convince the prison's skeptical warden, Halvur Stordock, to approve the publication, Shoonmaker had finally received the go-ahead. Now, all he needed were willing investors—and he wanted Cole to be one of them.

 
 

A mug shot of infamous bank robber and outlaw Cole Younger
A mug shot of Cole Younger.
Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

The deal would benefit both men. Shoonmaker would sell more papers if a notorious name like Cole Younger's was attached to the project. And Younger was likely intrigued by the plan's business model, which would ultimately funnel money directly into the prison's library once the investors were paid back. The newspaper's investors would become shareholders and be reimbursed with 3 percent interest per month; once their investments were recouped, the library would own the paper and its profits would pay for new books and periodicals.

Shoonmaker and a handful of other inmates contributed to the cause, but the biggest investors ended up being the Younger brothers: Together, the three shelled out $50, one-fourth of the required start-up capital. Shoonmaker, who assumed the position of editor, also hired Cole, making him the associate editor and "printer's devil"—an old-fashioned term for a printer's assistant.

On August 10, 1887, The Prison Mirror was born. It cost 5 cents per issue, with yearly subscriptions going for $1, and issues were sold to prisoners and non-prisoners alike. Local merchants like wholesale grocers and various clothiers and tailors also purchased advertisements, which helped pad the editors' coffers.

Historians don't know how Shoonmaker became inspired to start the first prison newspaper west of the Mississippi, and the nation's only paper to be produced by inmates. But as James McGrath Morris, author of Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars, tells Mental Floss, the paper's founding fit with the idea of prison reform, a burgeoning national trend, while also pioneering a new form of penal journalism.

The first-known prison newspaper was technically founded in 1800, when a New York lawyer named William Keteltas fell upon hard financial times and was imprisoned in debtors' prison. The attorney made a case for his release by publishing Forlorn Hope, an advocacy newspaper that lambasted the criminalization of poverty and called for legal change. However, modern prison journalism's true roots can be traced back to the late 19th century, an era in which corrections officials "believed earnestly that prisons were intended to make better people of their inmates and release them into society," Morris tells Mental Floss.

Morris explains in Jailhouse Journalism that as imprisonment gradually replaced corporal and capital punishment, groups like the Quakers of Pennsylvania called for new jails that would shield inmates from corrupting influences, thus restoring their morality. These calls for change led to the first-ever American Prison Congress in 1870, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In attendance were officers and reformers from around the country, including a man named Joseph Chandler. He was a former congressman, and a member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. More importantly, Chandler had once been a newspaper publisher.

Chandler noted that inmates clamored for newspapers, viewing them as a means of social communication and a window to the outside world. But these publications were filled with salacious details of crimes, which could lead a prisoner's recovering conscience astray. Chandler proposed the idea of a sanitized newspaper written specifically for those in prison. That way, inmates could stay abreast with the changing times, allowing them to re-enter society as informed men.

The American Prison Congress led to the formation of the National Prison Association, which would later become the American Correctional Association. Two years later, in 1872, a similar international convention was held in London. In the meantime, officials around the world began putting these new, enlightened ideals into practice, creating new types of prisons called "reformatories." One such institution was the Elmira Reformatory in New York, run by influential reformist Zebulon Reed Brockway.

Brockway had been at the 1870 American Prison Congress. Influenced by Chandler, Brockway hired an Oxford-educated inmate—whose name today is only remembered as Macauley—to run a newspaper called the Summary. First published in November 1883, the Summary was a news digest filled with carefully culled news items, coverage of prison happenings, and submissions from inmates and reformers. It was uplifting, laudatory, and above all, free from controversy. Across America, advocates clamored for more.

Soon, other reformatories began producing their own imitations of the Summary. These newspapers printed prisoners' edited articles, but officials—not inmates—technically ran the show. This would change in 1887 with The Prison Mirror.

The Prison Mirror's maiden issue was four pages long, 14 by 17 inches. It contained introductions, a reprint of the shareholders' business plan, and florid declarations of intent. Written collaboratively by the paper's founders, the opening article began:

"It is with no little pride and pleasure [that] we present to you, kind reader, this our initiative number of THE PRISON MIRROR, believing as we do, that the introduction of the printing press into the great penal institutions of our land, is the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform."

 
 

The nameplate of The Prison Mirror's inaugural issue, published on August 10, 1887. The Prison Mirror is the longest continuously operated newspaper in the United States.

The nameplate of The Prison Mirror's inaugural issue, published on August 10, 1887. 

Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

The Mirror, they continued, would contain both humorous and literary submissions, and "a general budget of prison news, and possibilities, and realities, never before offered to the public." The authors promised to "encourage prison literary talent," "instruct, assist, encourage, and entertain," and "scatter words of warning to the outside world, whose reckless footsteps may be leading them hitherward."

Above all, the paper concluded, the Mirror would provide the prisoners with an independent voice, free from official interference: "This, we believe is the only printed sheet now in existence organized, published, edited, and sent forth to the world by prisoners confined within the walls of a penitentiary."

Also included in this first issue of the Mirror was a letter from the new warden, Halvur Stordock, who had been appointed by Governor Andrew R. McGill earlier that year. Stordock reassured outside readers that taxes didn't fund the Mirror and that the project had his full permission. "If it shall prove a failure, then the blame must all rest on me," he wrote. "If it shall be a success then all credit must be given to the boys who have done all the work."

It's unclear why, exactly, Stordock gave the prisoners such unprecedented free rein. Some critics later claimed that the warden used the Mirror as a publicity stunt; others said that he actually secretly edited the paper. The most likely explanation, however, is that unlike the reformers who founded the Summary, Stordock—a onetime farmer who had been appointed to his new position as a political favor after running for Minnesota Secretary of State—likely knew nothing about penology, or the complications or risks of running a prison.

The Mirror's first issues contained bits of prison news ("The stone steps leading into the new main cell building is a great improvement"), accounts of visitors, summaries of talks given at the prison, and letters from readers. Also included were vignettes from prison life. Some humorous ones featured printer's devil Cole Younger, whom the paper referred to as the staff's "Satanic member." In the inaugural issue, the Mirror published the below anecdote:

"A feat of activity occurred a few evenings since, in the prison cell room which is seldom ever equaled. The Satanic member of The Mirror force, carelessly laid upon the bench whereon he was sitting, a lighted cigar, officer A__n of the night force came up and with the dignity of a modern hero cooly seated himself upon the inoffensive little 'snipe'—a moment only, and the deed was done. Mr. A___ arose with the velocity of a Dakota cyclone, and it is needless to remark a sorer, if not a wiser man, but the fire was quenched. We do not wonder that the Warden is enabled to save the State seven or eight hundred dollars per year, on insurance, when he is provided with such an available fire extinguisher."

Soon after, however, both the paper's "Satanic member" and founding editor Shoonmaker would jump ship. In the Mirror's second issue, Shoonmaker resigned (presumably because he was due to be released on August 30) and handed over his responsibilities to a reluctant inmate named W.F. Mirick. ("I am afraid … that my fellow unfortunates, and the public outside have been led to expect at my hands more than they will receive," Mirick admitted in the paper's third edition, published on August 24, 1887.) Younger also resigned from the paper, perhaps because the job took his time and attention away from the prison library.

Stripped of its famous staffer, the paper now had to make its own name. This turned out to be a rather easy exercise, as its writers took on the unprecedented task of criticizing prison life, politicians, and even other newspapers.

Articles elicited compliments and condemnation from the outside world, and the Mirror printed them with relish. Newsmen debated among themselves whether inmates should be entrusted with the privilege of producing their own paper.

"The editor of the Taylors Falls Journal is having a controversy with THE PRISON MIRROR, a new paper printed inside the state penitentiary," the Rush City Post wrote in 1887. "We haven't seen THE MIRROR, but from the way the Journal squirms, we should judge it to be a lively paper."

And holding to the Mirror's promise to "speak the truth, whatever we conceive it to be," reform-minded journalists viewed the publication as a rare window into the depravities of prison life. In 1887, the Chicago Herald wrote:

"If the Minnesota project is to succeed, it must have a little life in it, and instead of praising the warden, guards, and keepers, it must show them in their hideous deformity. A journal published by jail-birds should be candid, sincere, bold, and even defiant … The reader should hear, or at least he should imagine that he hears, the clank of a ball and chain or the rude swoop of a manacled fist."

In the fall of 1887, The Prison Mirror became entangled in a highly political feud. The permissive Warden Stordock had replaced a warden named John A. Reed, who'd held the position for nearly 13 years. He was well respected but ousted on charges of allegedly mismanaging prison funds. When Stordock took over, "two of the three prison inspectors resigned because of Stordock's appointment, which they correctly thought was [Governor] McGill trying to make place for some of his political friends," according to a historical account provided by Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.

 
 

Warden Halvur G. Stordock allowed prisoners at the Stillwater Jail to found the nation's very first prison newspaper that was independently operated by inmates.
Warden Halvur G. Stordock

Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

Several months after Warden Reed was dismissed, Stordock and new prison inspectors opened an investigation into his administrations. No one quite knows what sparked the scrutiny, but rumors swirled as the governor assembled an oversight committee.

"There were rumors about [Reed] using materials from the prison for his personal use," Peterson tells Mental Floss. "Then, there was even more of a bombshell: He was doing inappropriate things with female convicts and the matron. All of this was played out in the newspapers, and it turned out to be just wrong. False." (During this period in history, a handful of women were housed in the Stillwater Prison, in their own separate quarters.)

The rumors allegedly drove Reed to attempt suicide, according to Peterson. Meanwhile, the Mirror sided with their ally Stordock, and reprinted the accusations. This invoked the wrath of one of the state's most influential papers: The Minneapolis Tribune.

In a Sunday editorial published in October 1887, the Tribune went on the offensive: "A careful examination of the recent issues of the Prison Mirror … compels the frank opinion that it ought to be summarily suppressed or else reformed in all its departments," the Tribune wrote. They lambasted the Mirror for printing "the most offensive and adverse comments upon ex-Warden Reed's pending investigation," and for also commenting "freely and in shockingly bad taste upon inside prison matters."

"Men in the penitentiary are not as men at liberty," the Tribune concluded. "Among the other things denied them should certainly be the privilege of running a newspaper without restriction or responsible control."

Warden Stordock and other officials considered this advice. But before they could make moves to shut down the Mirror, another local paper—the St. Paul Daily Globe—chimed with an editorial titled "Don't Do It":

"It is said that Warden Stordock intends to suppress further publication of the Prison Mirror because a paragraph slipped into the columns of a recent issue alluding to the Reed-Stordock squabble … [the Mirror] has been the means of furnishing the convicts with a great deal of reading matter that they would not otherwise have had, and has in many ways been a source of light and comfort to lives, which, God knows, are cheerless enough at best. It is in the interest of humanity that the Globe appeals to the authorities of the Stillwater prison not to suppress the publication of this little paper."

Somehow, The Prison Mirror weathered the storm and stayed afloat. Later, the inmates admitted (but didn't apologize for the fact) that the Reed gossip had been inappropriate for their pages. After reaffirming their commitment to free speech, they resolved to forge on as normal. All this occurred within the first four or so months of the paper's existence—a time span that would ultimately prove to be the most vibrant in their history.

The Mirror continued printing monthly, but by 1890, it had lost the majority of its lifeblood: the original founders who first brought it to life. Just five members out of the original 15 remained in prison. Mirick, a convicted murderer, had been pardoned and released, and in 1901, Cole and Jim Younger were paroled after 25 years in prison. (Bob Younger had died in prison from tuberculosis.)

The Mirror also changed once Stordock retired and a new warden took over the position. Authorities now reviewed proofs of the paper, and over the years its tone, subject, and length shifted along with staff turnover and the current political climate. "Life is not static, it is dynamic," Martin Hawthorne, a vocational instructor at the prison who is also The Prison Mirror's supervisor, tells Mental Floss. "So too must be The Prison Mirror."

The Mirror—which recently celebrated its 130th anniversary—is still a vital cornerstone of prison life. In addition to the occasional hard-hitting investigation, each 16-page issue of the monthly publication offers a variety of features and recurring columns, like "Ask a Lawyer." Currently, 2225 copies are printed per month, with most going to inmates. Around 200 copies are regularly sent to prison advocacy groups, law schools, and other organizations and institutions.

"Since we publish events that touch or feature offenders that are incarcerated here," Hawthorne says, "they feel that it is their newspaper. It is almost like a small neighborhood paper. There is never an issue where someone doesn't know someone featured in the paper."

But unlike the 19th century Mirror, today’s product is heavily censored—both by authorities and the inmates themselves. To avoid retribution from sources or rebuke from authorities, contributors are forced to walk a delicate line between intrepid reporter and circumspect prisoner. They're unlikely to print anything that could place themselves in danger's way, or result in an issue being pulled. Then, the final product is reviewed by a host of critical eyes, including Hawthorne, the prison's education director, the associate wardens, the Office of Special Investigation, and finally, by the warden himself.

"In a correctional environment, we are always sensitive to any subversive illegal activities or gang references, so if any of these are noticed they are asked to remove them," Hawthorne explains. "We are also sensitive to victims’ rights. So if there is anything mentioned that may have an impact or reference on that, they are asked to remove it. Outside of those considerations, they are free to write about whatever they feel needs to be addressed at the time."

While limited by these constraints, the Mirror still manages to perform important journalism: In 2012, for example, an investigation conducted by paper editor Matt Gretz discovered that Minnesota lawmakers had taken $1.2 million in profits from the Stillwater prison canteen to balance out budget cuts in 2011. Typically, this money is used for inmate programs and recreational materials [PDF].

While not the freewheeling pioneer of free press it once was, the Mirror continues to serve as a vehicle for prisoners to let their voices be heard, just as it did in 1887. "Ours isn't a pretty history," reflected editor Gretz in 2012, in a commemorative issue celebrating the paper's 125th anniversary. "But we sure do have stories to tell."

 
 
This piece was updated on January 4, 2018 with new information from the Minnesota State Archives.

Take a Virtual Tour of a 17th-Century Dutch Smugglers’ Shipwreck

AndrewJalbert/iStock via Getty Images
AndrewJalbert/iStock via Getty Images

When the wreck of the Dutch smuggling ship Melckmeyt was found off the coast of Iceland in 1992, the only way to explore it was with diving equipment. That's no longer the case: As Live Science reports, shipwreck enthusiasts can now experience the watery ruin at home by taking a virtual tour.

Sunk by a storm on October 16, 1659, the Melckmeyt (Dutch for Milkmaid) is Iceland's oldest shipwreck. Its origins are Dutch, but when it set sail 360 years ago, the vessel flew a Danish flag. That's because it had been illegal for the Netherlands to trade with Iceland, which was ruled by Denmark at the time, so to smuggle goods into Icelandic ports, the Dutch sailors posed as a Danish crew.

The Melckmeyt was one of a fleet of illicit merchant ships meant to travel from the Netherlands to Iceland in 1659. After sinking that year, the wreck spent centuries in the cold, protective waters off the island of Flatey near Iceland's west coast. When it was discovered by local divers in the early 1990s, the lower hull of the ship was still in impressive condition.

The shipwreck remains in its frigid resting place at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but you don't need to book a flight or don a wetsuit to see it. In 2016, researchers from the University of Iceland and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands captured high-resolution scans of site and used them to construct a 3D model. Today, that model is available for anyone to explore on YouTube, either as a virtual reality experience with a headset or an interactive 360° video.

During the three-minute tour, you'll follow virtual divers on a journey into the ship's remains. The video ends with a computer-generated model showing what the ship might have looked like before it was ravaged by time. The video is free for anyone to watch from their computer, but if you find yourself in Iceland, you can view the recreation with a VR headset at the Reykjavik Maritime Museum.

Itching to get in touch with your inner deep-sea explorer? Here are some shipwrecks you can visit in real-life.

[h/t Live Science]

Episode 1: TR Vs. Weakness

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s October 14, 1912, and Theodore Roosevelt is standing before a crowd of 10,000 in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Auditorium. The 53-year-old former president is once again campaigning for the highest office in the land, and he was scheduled to deliver what was supposed to be a typical campaign address. But the speech he’s about to give is anything but typical.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.”

At first, the crowd doesn’t quite believe it. Someone yells “Fake!” But there are gasps and screams as Roosevelt pulls aside his vest, revealing a white shirt marred by a growing blood stain.

Just moments before, Roosevelt had been standing in an open car outside his hotel, waving to the assembled crowd—and a would-be assassin had shot him with a revolver from just 7 feet away.

Roosevelt had dropped momentarily, but it wasn’t long before he was back on his feet. Aides wanted to rush him to the hospital, and most people would have gone, but that is not Theodore Roosevelt’s style. Instead, he said, “You get me to that speech.”

And now, on stage, he assures the shocked crowd, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose … I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.”

And then, although the slug is still inside him, he proceeds to give a nearly 90-minute-long speech.

If this sounds like an extraordinary occurrence, it was. Or, it would have been for anyone but Theodore Roosevelt, a man whose life was full of extraordinary occurrences. This was a guy who charged up Kettle Hill on horseback, bullets whizzing past him, with the Rough Riders; who, when he assumed office, became the youngest president in history, and is still the youngest president we’ve ever had; who helped broker peace between Russia and Japan, and won the Nobel Prize for his efforts; who paved the way for the Panama Canal; who went off the grid to navigate a previously uncharted river in the Amazon; who was immortalized on Mount Rushmore; and who is often ranked as one of the greatest presidents of all time.

But Roosevelt wasn’t always strong enough to stop a bullet. In fact, as a child he was afflicted by asthma so terrible that his parents feared he might not live to see his 4th birthday. How did Roosevelt go from puny, sickly kid to a person capable of giving that incredible, unimaginable 90-minute speech? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. For the first season of the show, we’re focusing on Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible life using a convention that he, as a boxer, would have appreciated.

In each episode, we’ll analyze how Roosevelt took on a particular challenge, from conflict within his family and conquering the hours of the day to his tussles with other presidents and preserving the world for the next generation. This episode is "TR vs. Weakness."

But before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about how I became interested in Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, I’m the editor-in-chief of Mental Floss, so history is kind of my thing. But I didn’t fully appreciate all things TR until I plucked Edmund Morris’s excellent book, Colonel Roosevelt, out of the stacks at The Strand Bookstore. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the third book in a trilogy, so then I had to go back and read the others. But anyway, I came out of it with a huge admiration for TR, and, if I’m being honest, a little bit of an obsession.

OK, a big obsession. My desk at work has more TR stuff on it than it does photos of my cats, husband, and best friends combined. I even have a Theodore Roosevelt action figure! At home, I have an overflowing shelf devoted to books about Roosevelt. When I got married, I tried to convince my husband to go on a TR tour of the Dakotas for our honeymoon, which he did not go for, and you know, fair enough. Also, as a wedding gift, the Mental Floss staff got me some first edition books of TR’s collected speeches, which is way better than a KitchenAid mixer … no offense to KitchenAid. And last year I dressed up as Roosevelt for a Halloween costume contest … and won.

So suffice to say, once you get me started talking about Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible accomplishments, I can’t stop talking about them. Hence this podcast. Which finally allowed me take that TR tour of the Dakotas … but more on that later.

The wonderful people at Sagamore Hill call TR enthusiasts like me TedHeads, and I’m going to borrow that nickname for this podcast. So, just a note to all of the TedHeads out there: This is not an exhaustive, A to Z look at TR’s life. If we tried to do that, well, there would be a million episodes in this podcast, because Roosevelt did a staggering amount of stuff in his 60 years. We’re going to be dipping in and out of his life and we are going to miss some things. But we’re going to be visiting some important Roosevelt sites and talking to really smart Roosevelt experts, so hopefully, you’ll still learn some things along the way.

OK, ready to get started?

Bully.

Today, East 20th Street between Park Avenue South and Broadway on the island of Manhattan is a mix of stores, businesses, and restaurants, and it’s busy with taxis and trucks and cars.

But when Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858, it was a much more residential neighborhood that featured the clip-clop of horses hooves and the rattle of carriage wheels. Behind the brownstones was a garden, and around the corner, the Goelet family built a mansion in the middle of three lots, which they populated with cows and peacocks and exotic birds.

Theodore Roosevelt, Junior came into the world on the evening of October 27, in a bedroom on the second floor of the brownstone at 28 E. 20th Street. He was the second child of Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, or Mittie, and Theodore Roosevelt Senior, or Thee; their first child, Anna, or Bamie, had been born three years earlier. Later would come brother Elliott and sister Corinne.

Today, the elder Roosevelts’ room is covered with cream-colored wallpaper adorned with flowers and filled with original cherry-stained walnut furniture; a portrait of Mittie hangs over the fireplace. But we don’t know for sure if that’s what the room looked like when the Roosevelt kids were born there. The family owned the home until 1899, and then sold it, and soon after, it was either completely torn down or had the top two stories torn down—sources are a bit unclear on that point.

In 1919, after TR’s death, The Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association repurchased that building, and the one next to it—which had belonged to TR’s uncle—and reconstructed the home as Bamie and Corinne remembered it. It’s now the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Shortly after he was born, Mittie described TR as a “hideous” baby who looked like a “terrapin,” but Teedie, as he was called as a boy, quickly became the center of his family’s world.

As a child, he had a ton of energy, but from the age of 3 he was, in his own words, “a sickly, delicate boy” who “suffered much from asthma.” He also had what the family called cholera morbus, a type of nervous diarrhea.

As a result of his illness, he was largely home schooled by his Aunt Annie. When out and about in the city, his younger brother, Elliot, had to defend him against bullies. TR spent a lot of time indoors, and passed the time by reading voraciously.

According to historian Kathleen Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, when he was sick—and he often was—the adults “put the needs of the other children second because Theodore’s life was at stake.”

Alyssa: If you watch some of the documentaries, they describe him lying in the family crib, which you still see today in the nursery, barely being able to blow out his candle, from suffering that bad from asthma.

That’s Alyssa Parker-Geisman, the lead ranger at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

She says that the family tried almost everything to treat TR’s asthma. Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that one of his memories was “of my father walking up and down the room with me in his arms at night when I was a very small person, and of sitting up in bed gasping, with my father and mother trying to help me.” Sometimes, in an attempt to force air into his son’s lungs, Thee would take young Teedie in the family buggy and race up and down Broadway.

But they also tried many remedies that, although standard at the time, would raise eyebrows today.

Alyssa: David McCullough in his book Mornings on Horseback describes laudanum being used, which is opium mixed with wine. He also describes what is called Indian hemp; we call it marijuana today. Vinegar of squills was used, which was a plant, I believe, used for rat poison. Whiskey and gin were used. Kids were given enemas.

TR’s parents weren’t exactly feeding him rat poison, though—supposedly, the vinegar and processing would mitigate some of the plants’ side effects. Later, TR would recall having to smoke cigars and drink black coffee to keep his asthma at bay.

Alyssa: And I think that it boggles the mind when you think about it in today's standards. Hindsight is always 20 20. But I'm sure that was kind of cutting edge technology of the day, or medicinal treatment of the day, perhaps. If you see your child suffering, you're going to try to alleviate that in any way possible, which they could afford to do.

The Roosevelts were an affluent family, and that fact is key: Theodore Roosevelt’s story may have been very different if he hadn’t been born into a life of privilege. It not only ensured he could get the care he needed when he was ill, but it also meant that his parents could show him the world. The Roosevelts spent summers outside of the city, and they took family trips to Europe, where Mittie and Teedie would visit health resorts.

Alyssa: You go to these health resorts for treatment. You sit in hot baths, you soak in the hot waters. You might be prescribed literally a walk in the woods, as part of the treatment. So, this was all kind of that time period and the health treatment, back in the day.

This is probably a good place for a break. We'll be right back.

 

Following their first European tour, which occurred when TR was around 12, a doctor recommended he get “plenty of fresh air and exercise” with the goal of expanding his chest to give his lungs room and to ease the strain on his heart.

Afterward, Thee issued his son a challenge: “You have the mind but not the body,” he told his son, “and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.” Through gritted teeth, TR responded that he would do just that.

It was not a promise that he took lightly—TR worshipped his father, whom he called “the best man I ever knew.” Thee’s children called him Great Heart, and he was a huge influence on Roosevelt, who would, later in life, tell a journalist, “The thought of him now and always has been a sense of comfort. I could breathe, I could sleep when he had me in his arms. My father—he got me breath, he got me lungs, strength—life.”

According to Dalton, when his father was away during the Civil War, TR’s health would crater. It’s important to note that Thee was not away fighting—he paid a substitute to fight for him, at least in part because Mittie, a Southerner, couldn’t stand the thought of her husband fighting her brothers. Instead, Thee was on a mission to get troops at the front to sign up for what author Deborah Davis describes as a “payroll savings program” that would allow soldiers to “put aside money for their families while they were off fighting the war.”

It was just one more expression of Thee’s lifelong commitment to philanthropy. He would take his son with him on trips to visit missions like the Newsboys’ Lodging House, giving TR, in Dalton’s words, “a loving example of how one man can use his privilege to make society better.”

A proponent of what was known as Muscular Christianity—which has been defined as “a Christian life of brave and cheerful physical activity”—Thee told his son, “sickness is always a shame, and often a sin.”

Alyssa: His father was an example to his son. Always trying to instill in his son good moral character, strength, virility. I think Thee was seeing around the city that there's a lot of vice happening. And seedy characters, seedy places to visit in the city. He doesn't want his son to succumb to that. He has this strong sense of morality. So, he's going to instill that in his son, of this idea of muscular Christianity. So he challenges his son, right, in this belief of overcoming your weakness, overcoming your fragility and really building up your body and making sure that you're maintaining strong morals as well.

And so Teedie began to build his body. Corinne would later write of often seeing him working out on the piazza overlooking the back garden, “between horizontal bars, widening his chest by regular, monotonous motion.”

Alyssa: He would work out there, keeping a journal of how big his biceps are getting, how big his chest size is getting.

But two years into his efforts, he learned that he wasn’t progressing as quickly as he would have liked.

In 1872, when Teedie was almost 14, he had a bad asthma attack, and his father sent him away—by himself for the first time—to Maine’s Moosehead Lake. It was a life-changing experience.

In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote that, on the stage coach ride to the lake, he met two boys his own age, and rather than making friends, they found him to be an easy victim—and quickly made his life miserable:

“The worst feature was that when I finally tried to fight them I discovered that either one singly could not only handle me with easy contempt, but handle me so as not to hurt me much and yet to prevent my doing any damage whatever in return. … I made up my mind that I must try to learn so that I would not again be put in such a helpless position.”

And so, with his father’s encouragement, Teedie began to learn how to box, with ex-prize fighter John Long as his coach. Much to their surprise, Teedie was tough—he could take hit after hit and keep fighting.

Later that year, the Roosevelts took off on another Grand Tour. There, Mittie and Thee deposited Teedie, Elliott, and Corinne with a family in Dresden, Germany. And though TR was much healthier than he had been, he still never quite conquered his illnesses.

During one attack of the mumps, he wrote to his mother that he resembled “an antiquated woodchuck with his cheeks filled with nuts” and that “your unhappy son had his third attack of asthma, accompanied by a violent headache.” To his father, he said that an asthma attack rendered him unable to speak “without blowing up like an abridged edition of a hippopotamus.”

According to Edmund Morris, Roosevelt’s tutors “openly admired his ability to concentrate on his books and his specimens to the exclusion of physical suffering.” (One of those tutors was the first to predict that he’d be president, by the way.)

The Roosevelts returned to the states in 1873, and the next summer, they headed out to a place that would come to hold a huge significance for Roosevelt: Oyster Bay, New York, where his grandfather and other Roosevelt families vacationed.

Tyler: TR, the president, is 15 years old when he starts coming out to Oyster Bay.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site on Long Island.

Tyler: Wealthy New Yorkers are spending their summers out here. It's a place to escape New York City. For the family that's coming out here, this is the country. We don't think about Long Island as the country any longer, but it was for this family. It was an escape from the heat of New York City, disease in New York City, and it was a place to come out and enjoy themselves.

There might have been another benefit as well: The air may have been cleaner than the air in the city, which would have been better for TR’s asthma.

Tyler: TR senior would have brought him out of the city as frequently as he could have, especially when he was undergoing those really terrible asthma attacks. I think that's probably part of it, for the family to come and spend time outside of New York.

So the family spent a lot of time swimming. Roosevelt loved to row. He would row all over Long Island Sound and the various coves and necks around on the north shore of Long Island. He would explore them. And Roosevelt is as a young boy interested in taxidermy and learning about natural history. The way that you do that in their day is by shooting birds. So Roosevelt is going all over and trying to find different specimens and collecting them for his Roosevelt Museum of Natural History that he kept in his parents' house in New York. Horseback riding, hiking, and just enjoying the outdoors.

Roosevelt loved Oyster Bay so much that he would eventually buy land to build a house on—the house that would come to be named Sagamore Hill. There's a story behind that name, by the way.

Tyler: Sagamore Hill, Sagamore Mohanis was essentially a chief or a sachem. Sachem is the Algonquin word for chief, and then sagamore is a lesser sachem or a lieutenant sachem. And this was apparently a place where they had meetings. Mohanis apparently is the native that signed the land away. Roosevelt decides to name it Sagamore Hill. This is the highest point on Cove Neck, so this is where they would have met.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Before any of that could happen, Roosevelt had to go to college. He entered Harvard in 1876, where he chose to study the natural sciences.

Tyler:
His first couple of years at Harvard, he was the biggest nerd. He was just this person who you'd see and he'd only be in his room, he'd be doing essentially taxidermy. He'd have animals in drawers, and things like that, and you can imagine this didn't make him very popular with people. But then all of a sudden he broke out of it. Eventually he starts joining all these clubs. He becomes friendly with people all over campus.

When he wasn’t in class, or studying, or in his clubs, TR kept up with his boxing and rowing, and he took up wrestling, too. Every spare moment was filled with some kind of activity.

That was doubly true when Roosevelt was experiencing some kind of trauma. In his sophomore year, Thee passed away, and when Roosevelt went back to school, he threw himself into his work, a frenzy of activity, as if to dull his pain.

According to historian Douglas Brinkley, TR wasn’t scared of catching pneumonia and seemed to relish spending hours in the cold: Instead of taking a streetcar, TR would walk three or four miles, and he’d still be ice skating in frigid temperatures long after everyone else went home. A friend from Harvard, Richard Welling, believed that TR was overcompensating for his weakness: "Roosevelt … had neither health nor muscle,” he would later write. “But he had a superabundance of a third quality, vitality, and he seemed to realize that this nervous vitality had been given in order to help him get the other two things."

In between years at Harvard, Roosevelt would spend as much time as possible outdoors, often in Oyster Bay and in Maine. There he lived with backwoodsman Bill Sewall, who would become a lifelong friend. But his initial opinion of Roosevelt wasn’t glowing: He called him a “thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart” and said he was “mighty pindlin’.”

But Roosevelt quickly changed Bill’s mind. One day that summer, they walked 25 miles, and Bill would later recall that “I do not think that I ever remember him being ‘out of sorts.’ He did not feel well sometimes, but he would never admit it.”

On later trips to Maine, Roosevelt would pursue caribou in the snow without tents or blankets for 36 hours. With Sewall and his nephew, Wilmot Dow, he’d summit the 5268-foot-tall Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in the state, making the trip partially in moccasins after he lost one shoe in a stream—after which TR wrote in his journal, “I can endure fatigue and hardship pretty nearly as well as these lumbermen.”

That wasn’t the end of the excursions: He, Sewall, and Dow also took a six-day trip up a river in a dugout canoe through a number of rapids, and then marched 100 miles in pouring rain for three days.

Back at Harvard for his senior year, Roosevelt became engaged to his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and eventually decided on a career in politics.

That year he also had an appointment with a doctor at the university, and the news was not good: The doctor informed him that his heart was dangerously strained. The only way to live a long life, the doctor said, was to live a quiet, sedentary life.

Roosevelt’s response was unequivocal. “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you tell me not to do. If I’ve got to live the sort of life you’ve described, I don’t care how short it is.”

For decades, he kept quiet about the doctor’s advice, and continued to live as if he’d never heard it. The only reason we know about it is that the doctor wrote about the encounter, which is confirmed by Harvard’s records.

Later that year, he married Alice on his birthday. And on their honeymoon, he climbed Pilatus, the Rigi-Grindelwald, and the Jungfrau in the span of 10 days. After that, TR—an amateur—summited the Matterhorn, a mountain so deadly that many skilled mountaineers have died in the attempt. Why’d he do it? He told Sewell that it was to prove to some snobby English climbers he’d met in the lobby of his hotel that “a Yankee could climb just as well as they could.”

Roosevelt never fully conquered his asthma—in fact, his sister Corinne once said that he “suffered from it all his life, though in later years only at long separated intervals.” But his active lifestyle, what he would come to call the strenuous life, built his stamina and helped him manage his illness.

And he never quit being active: When he was governor of New York, he had a wrestling mat installed in the governor’s mansion. (Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that the comptroller put up a fuss about the purchase: “[He] refused to audit a bill I put in for a wrestling-mat, explaining that I could have a billiard-table, billiards being recognized as a proper Gubernatorial amusement, but that a wrestling-mat symbolized something unusual and unheard of and could not be permitted.”) When he got word that President William McKinley was dying, Roosevelt, then vice president, had just summited Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York state.

In the White House, he continued to box, at least until a hard hit took the vision in his left eye … after that, he picked up jiu jitsu. And then he had a tennis court installed, though his playing style was … unconventional.

Tyler: His method of playing tennis was interesting. He would take the handle and propel it into the ball.

According to Michael Cullinane, author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon, TR wasn’t actually all that good at tennis … or sports in general.

Michael: He was terrible at sports. I mean, there's a really funny story about this kid who was playing tennis with the ... He was, TR was then president, he was playing tennis at Sagamore Hill, I think, or maybe it was the White House, I can't recall, but this kid, who's like a teenager, like, "This guy is terrible at tennis and he's the president and I admire him so much but he is, like, the worst tennis player in the world."

Erin: What he lacked in skill, he made up for in energy.

Michael: That's right.

He’d also engage in other physical pursuits—which his daughter Alice called endurance tests—at Sagamore Hill.

Tyler: It was a place to go on these long point-to-point walks, where Roosevelt would ask the children to walk in a perfectly straight direction toward a certain place that was their goal. In that path, no matter what was in your way you had to go either over, through it, or around it. So if it was a thorn bush, you had to go through it. If it was a body of water like a pond, you'd have to wade through it. If it was a wall, you had to climb over it.

This was his living "the strenuous life." Their idea of recreation wasn't what most other people would think, sitting and drinking lemonade on the porch and being taken care of by your servants. For Roosevelt, it was going out and really exhausting yourself. Most people who didn't know him well, I think they didn't understand what they were getting into when they were coming here to Sagamore Hill.

Let's take a quick break, and we’ll be right back.

 

For Roosevelt, working up a sweat wasn’t just a way to stay healthy—it was also a key part of his life philosophy, “of bodily vigor as a method of getting that vigor of soul without which vigor of the body counts for nothing,” as he described it in his autobiography.

He credited his hard work for his successes, writing that, “I never won anything without hard labor and the exercise of my best judgment and careful planning and working long in advance. Having been a rather sickly and awkward boy, I was as a young man at first both nervous and distrustful of my own prowess, I had to train myself painfully and laboriously not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit.”

But again, the fact that he was born into wealth and privilege also had a lot to do with his success.

Roosevelt didn’t just advocate the strenuous life for himself, but for others. At the end of his second term, he ordered that military officers be able to walk 50 miles or ride around 100 miles on horseback in three days, later declaring it “a test which many a healthy middle-aged woman would be able to meet.” When the officers and the press balked at the requirement, he demonstrated how easy it was by doing it himself.

And in his autobiography, TR advised that “A man whose business is sedentary should get some kind of exercise if he wishes to keep himself in as good physical trim as his brethren who do manual labor. When I worked on a ranch, I needed no form of exercise except my work, but when I worked in an office the case was different.”

He also expected his children to live the strenuous life. Especially his children. “I would rather one of them should die than have them grow up weaklings,” he once said.

He was especially tough on his oldest son, Ted, who, like his father, had asthma, and later would suffer from headaches and depression. Eventually he had what TR called “kind of a nervous breakdown.”

Alyssa: The doctors say, "Theodore, you know, he was overstressed or he had a breakdown. And maybe it's because you're pushing too hard.”

TR was contrite, telling the doctor “I’ll never push Ted again.” He said he had been so hard on the boy because Ted could have been “all the things I would like to have been and wasn’t, and it has been a great temptation to push him.”

But Dalton writes that he never could quite let up as he promised. Later, Edith would write to Ted, “As I look back you fared worst, because Father tried to ‘toughen’ you, but happily was too busy to exert the same pressure on the others!”

According to Dalton, the weakling TR had been as a child made him uncomfortable and ashamed: Because “he detested the invalid he had been,” Dalton writes, he looked back on his childhood “with a sense of detachment.” Roosevelt hated weakness.

It’s not hard to trace a line from this back to his father, whom Roosevelt adored and who put so much emphasis on being strong and manly; Roosevelt would always feel inferior to Great Heart. And he never wanted his children to be the kind of weakling he had been.

Both Roosevelt and his father had worried about American society becoming weaker due to “over-civilization.” The idea was that men were so used to modern comforts that they lost touch with some of the things that made them manly. In an 1899 speech, delivered at the Hamilton Club when he was governor of New York, Roosevelt laid out his plan for making his country, and its people, as strong as it could be.

He used the speech, which he would later call “The Strenuous Life,” to argue for U.S. militarism and imperial expansion—which we’ll cover in another episode—and to argue against a life of “ignoble ease.”

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife,” Roosevelt said.

He urged the wealthy fathers at the event to encourage their sons to devote time to non-remunerative work, as his father had done with him, and noted that, “In this life we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past.”

Men should use that freedom to explore different kinds of work, whether it be in politics or exploration. But if a man used that freedom just for enjoyment, “he shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth’s surface … A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world. … As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation.”

He finished by saying that living that life of ease, and seeking peace when war was called for, would doom America to be left behind:

“The 20th century looms before us big with the fate of many nations. If we stand idly by … then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

According to one of Roosevelt’s friends, he had a “policy of forcing the spirit to ignore the weakness of the flesh,” and I think there’s no better example of that than when he was shot in 1912.

Alyssa: John Schrank was the man who fired the bullet.

Schrank would later say that he was against a third-term president, but that wasn’t his only reason for pulling the trigger as TR stood outside the Gilpatrick Hotel.

Alyssa: He was advised by the ghost of William McKinley to avenge McKinley's death, while pointing to a picture of Theodore Roosevelt. So, Schrank followed Roosevelt on the campaign trail from New Orleans to Milwaukee. When Schrank fired at Roosevelt, he was tackled to the ground. Roosevelt didn't bring Schrank up. But the gentlemen around him did. And he actually asked Schrank, "Why did you do it?" And obviously realizing, there's not going to be an answer to that. He's like, okay, fine. Cops, take him away.

Later, Schrank would be examined and deemed insane; he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital and died there in 1943.

After Schrank was hauled away, Roosevelt went on to give his speech.

Alyssa: As a hunter he knew to check yourself, and if you're coughing up blood that probably means a lung is punctured and you're in trouble. But he checked, and he was like, "You know, OK, it doesn't hurt to breathe this way, so I'm going to go on."

According to Morris, the whole right side of Roosevelt’s body had turned black, but the wound was bleeding slowly. So TR slapped a handkerchief over the bullet hole and went out on stage. He didn’t realize until after he pulled out his speech, unfolded it, and began to read that the bullet had gone through it, at which point he joked, “You see, I was going to make quite a long speech.”

And make a long speech he did.

Alyssa: Who gets shot, point blank, and can then go on to carry out about an approximately 90 minute speech? Wow.

But it wasn’t as though Roosevelt was unaffected. He spoke in a voice Morris writes was “no longer husky but weak … a knifelike pain in his ribs forced him to breathe in short gasps. Two or three times, he appeared to totter.” Party aides stood below the footlights in case he fell.

But Roosevelt didn’t fall. Still, by the time he was finished speaking, he had lost a lot of blood, and was taken to Milwaukee’s Emergency Hospital.

Doctors there did an X-ray and found that the bullet had hit his fourth rib on the right side. It had been headed straight for the heart, but had been slowed by Roosevelt’s speech and his eyeglasses case before it hit, and cracked, his rib.

Today, you can see the speech, eyeglasses case, and shirt TR wore on the day he was shot on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Alyssa: I mean, they did the X-ray. They saw that the bullet was lodged into his rib. And they decided not to take it out.

Erin: So he carried that bullet with him for the rest of his life?

Alyssa: Yup. To his death.

Even more incredibly, Roosevelt gave his next speech at Madison Square Garden a mere 16 days later. Ultimately, weakness was no match for TR.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by Erin McCarthy, with additional research by Michael Salgarolo and fact checking by Austin Thompson.

Field recording by Jon Mayer.

Joe Weigand played Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Alyssa Parker-Geisman, Tyler Kuliberda, and Michael Cullinane.

To learn more about this episode check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs

History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.

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