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13 Facts For Abigail Adams’s Birthday

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Abigail Adams refused to be a footnote. Born on November 22, 1744, she would go on to become the wife of one President and the mother of another. But it’s Adams’s first-rate political mind that has secured her place in history. The celebrated First Lady was—in several respects—years ahead of her time. 

1. THERE'S A BIT OF CONFUSION ABOUT WHEN SHE WAS BORN.

Biographies often cite November 11, 1744 as the day Abigail Adams (née Smith) was born. This is both true and false. While John Adams was 9, his future spouse was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts to Elizabeth and Reverend William Smith, a Congregationalist minister. Back then, Britain’s American subjects still used the Julian calendar. Originally implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, it remained standardized throughout Europe for more than 15 centuries. Unfortunately, his calendar was about 11 minutes a year out of sync with the earth’s rotation. This might not seem like a big deal, but over time, it became one: By 1582, the calendar was a full 10 days off course. Obviously, some adjustments were needed.   

So, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar—one that was designed to eliminate this growing problem. At his command, ten October days were completely skipped over (October 4 was directly followed by October 15) and measures were taken to make leap years happen less frequently. We still use the Gregorian calendar today.

While Catholic countries converted to it more or less immediately, Britain and her colonies didn’t do so until 1752. At that point, the Julian calendar had become 11 days off schedule. So according to this outdated metric, Abigail Adams was born on November 11, 1744. In contrast, our modern Gregorian calendar tells us that she came into the world on November 22.  

2. SPELLING WASN'T HER STRONG SUIT.

Like most New England girls in the 18th century, Abigail and her sisters were homeschooled (most likely by their mother). At the Smith residence, available reading material ranged from Shakespeare to the Bible to local newspapers. Over time, Abigail would become a voracious bibliophile and a terrific writer. However, because standardized education was unavailable to those of her sex, Abigail’s numerous letters were frequently plagued with such typos as “perticular,” “benifit,” and “litirary.” And while it’s true that standardized spelling was still in its infancy in the Colonies, Abigail was particularly self conscious about it, even ending one of her letters with “You will escuse this very incorrect Letter.”

3. DURING THE REVOLUTION, ADAMS MADE BULLETS FOR THE AMERICAN CAUSE.

On June 17, 1775, Adams and her 7-year-old son, John Quincy, watched as the Battle of Bunker Hill erupted near Charlestown, Mass. The brutal clash and its aftermath claimed over 100 American lives. Among those slain was Joseph Warren, the Adams’ family doctor and general of the Revolution. “Our dear friend,” she wrote her husband, “ … fell gloriously for his country—saying better to die honorably in the field than ignominiously in the gallows.” Enraged, Adams seized her precious pewter spoons and melted them down into musket balls, which she then distributed to rebel forces. She also sheltered numerous patriot troops and Boston refugees at her Braintree home. 

4. JOHN AND ABIGAIL EXCHANGED OVER 1100 LETTERS.

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Their correspondence offers an intimate look at early American life—and a truly remarkable marriage. Before the war, John’s law practice regularly brought him to Boston. As a member of the Continental Congress, he toiled in Philadelphia throughout much of the Revolution. Diplomatic duties would later whisk him off to Europe and, during his presidency, he spent prolonged periods away from his beloved wife.

Through it all, John and Abigail diligently wrote each other. Their discourse includes eyewitness accounts of the vote for independence, Washington’s inauguration, and countless other moments that helped shape their young nation. Some letters even gush with romance. “I look back,” Abigail reminisced in 1782, “to the early days of our acquaintance; and Friendship, as to the days of Love and Innocence; and with an indescribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our Heads, with an affection heightened and improved by time—nor have the dreary years of absence in the smallest degree effaced from my mind the Image of the dear untitled man to whom I gave my Heart.” 

While these two made up oodles of pet names (he’d sometimes call her “Miss Adorable,” for instance), they’d usually refer to each other as “My Dearest Friend” or “Much Loved Friend.”

5. SHE WAS AN EARLY WOMEN'S RIGHTS ADVOCATE.

Abigail penned what’s arguably her single most famous letter on March 31, 1776. “I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” she informed John. “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Her husband’s response was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh,” he replied. The matter was dropped shortly thereafter. Still, Abigail never gave up: She’d later speak out in favor of women’s property rights and education. 

6. ABIGAIL AND THOMAS JEFFERSON HAD A ROCKY PERSONAL HISTORY.

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Their friendship blossomed in Paris, where the men who would become America’s second and third presidents began working as diplomats during the summer of 1784. Tired of writing her husband from afar, Abigail made the transatlantic voyage. 

At first, Jefferson and Mrs. Adams bonded over their shared love of gardens and songbirds. When John was named Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, Abigail and her new acquaintance reluctantly parted ways (“I shall regreet [sic] ... the loss of Mr. Jeffersons Society,” she wrote). They became international pen pals, exchanging gossip and even shipping each other the occasional gift. In Jefferson’s mind, she was—as he once confided to James Madison—“one of the most estimable characters on earth.”

Sadly, their relationship grew cold when Jefferson handed Mr. Adams a bitter electoral defeat in 1800. Four years later, when the new President’s daughter, Polly, passed away at age 25, Abigail wrote a delicately-worded letter of condolence. Jefferson was both touched and impressed by the letter. “[S]he carefully avoided a single [expression] of friendship towards myself,” he observed, “and even concluded it with the wishes ‘of her who once took pleasure in subscribing herself your friend.”

Things didn’t thaw out between them until Jefferson and her husband began corresponding on friendly terms again in 1811. Abigail and the Sage of Monticello would subsequently resume their letter-writing.

7. SHE MISSED JOHN'S INAUGURATION.

When President Adams was sworn in on March 4, 1797, John’s mother was dying in Massachusetts. A particularly brutal New England winter kept Abigail away from Philadelphia (which was then the nation’s capital), much to the new Chief Executive’s dismay. “The times are critical and dangerous,” he wrote her, “and I must have you here to assist me.” She joined him in the City of Brotherly Love that spring. 

8. JOHN AND ABIGAIL REALLY HATED ALEXANDER HAMILTON. 

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George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury had a knack for making powerful enemies, including Jefferson, James Monroe, and (of course) Aaron Burr. Then there was John Adams, who once referred to Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.” No love was lost between them. In 1800, Hamilton circulated a very critical pamphlet that amounted to a full-on character assassination aimed at our second commander-in-chief. Ultimately, Hamilton’s sharp words helped destroy Adams’ re-election bid.

Abigail shared her husband’s disdain for his political rival. “Beware that spair Cassius,” she warned John in 1797. “O, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes many a time. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself.”

9. SHE VEHEMENTLY OPPOSED SLAVERY.

“I wish most sincerely that there was not a slave in the province,” she wrote in a 1774 letter to her husband. Though Abigail’s father had been a slaver, she remained firmly against the practice throughout her life. In March 1776, Abigail slammed the sheer hypocrisy of slave-owning American rebels, stating, “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be eaqually [sic] strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.”

10. ADAMS ONCE PERSONALLY TAUGHT A YOUNG BLACK MAN THAT SHE BARELY KNEW.

By the standards of her period, she also had a progressive attitude toward integration. Shortly before John took the oath of office, Abigail informed the president-elect about a free black servant boy whom she’d personally given reading and writing lessons. Afterwards, she enrolled him into a local school. Without warning, a neighbor then approached her and bemoaned this new pupil’s presence there.

Irate, Abigail replied that the boy was “as much a Freeman as any of the [other] young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? … I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him to both read and write.” 

Just like that, the neighbor backed off and no further objections were raised. 

11. SHE WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL WIFE TO LIVE IN THE WHITE HOUSE. 

During most of his administration, John Adams—like his predecessor—lived at the Presidential mansion in Philadelphia.  Located at the intersection of 6th and Market Streets, it would serve as the headquarters of the government’s executive branch until May 1800.

Abigail and John moved into the White House on November 1 (between the two dates, the President stayed at a local tavern). At the time, their new mansion was—to the First Lady’s chagrin—still under construction. “Not a chamber is finished of a whole,” she complained. The building suffered from poor insulation. An awkward White House Christmas party did little to lift Abigail’s spirits. As one witness put it, she was “distressed and embarrassed because it was still cold. The guests sat around trying to look comfortable and hide their gooseflesh, but they left early.”

12. A LIGHT INFANTRY COMPANY ONCE NAMED ITSELF AFTER HER. 

In 1798, a Massachusetts volunteer regiment asked for Abigail’s permission to rechristen themselves as “Lady Adams Rangers.” Flattered, she happily consented. 

13. SHE WAS A DOG LOVER.

Through the years, the Adams family included several dogs. Their two best-known pooches, however, were some mutts that they dubbed Juno and Satan. While the devilishly-named canine was regarded as John’s dog, Juno really took a shine to Abigail. After leaving the White House, she could often be seen with the animal padding along at her side. In an 1811 letter to her granddaughter Caroline Smith, Adams declared that “As if you love me proverbially, you must love my dog. You will be pleased to know that Juno yet lives, although like her mistress she is gray with age.”

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
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Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
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That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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