Burke and Hare at the Movies

185 years after their arrest, William Burke and William Hare are more than just grave robbers and murderers, they’re movie stars too!

Corpses are funny things. We insist they be treated with the greatest respect, that they be allowed to rest in peace, but they still repulse and terrify us. This is why zombies are such a popular metaphor and the presence of morticians makes us a little jumpy. We don’t like thinking about corpses, but if we do have to think about them we prefer they be kept tidy and unmolested and well out of sight. Likewise, we like the idea of medical progress, but would rather not know what sort of ugliness is required to make those advances possible.

The conflict between public morality and scientific progress bubbled to the surface in the early 19th century, when medicine first came into its own as a bona fide scientific endeavor and the public first became aware of how messy things could get sometimes. This was embodied in fictions like Frankenstein, in which a doctor used disinterred corpses to understand and recreate the spark of life, and in cold and brutal realities like the highly publicized 1828 murder trial of William Burke and William Hare, two poor Irish lowlifes living in Edinburgh, who learned the best way they could make an easy living was to go into business for themselves doing things no one else wanted to think about. It was during that trial that the sensation-mad citizens of Edinburgh were confronted with a bit more than they might care to know about how medical schools operated.

It was an issue of supply and demand. In the 1820s, Edinburgh, Scotland, was the world’s center for medical research and education. By law, however, the only bodies available to local medical schools for experimentation and teaching purposes were those of executed criminals and the destitute. This put a real strain on professors of anatomy like Dr. Robert Knox, who needed bodies for the practical educational autopsies he performed for his students. The number of executions had dropped dramatically in the early 19th century, which meant teachers like Knox had very little to work with. Any serious supply/demand disparity will give rise to a lively black market, and so sure enough Edinburgh’s body shortage led to the growth of the resurrectionist industry, grave robbers who would dig up the newly buried and sell them to the medical schools. It wasn’t exactly legal (scratch that “exactly”), but it was a common practice everyone accepted but never discussed.

Hare and his wife ran a ramshackle boarding house in one of the town’s less gentrified slums, and Burke was a tenant who’d become drinking buddies with Hare. When they saw a couple of resurrectionists with loose cash in a local pub, they figured it was an occupational opportunity worth exploring.

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Oh, it’s a long and complicated story, but boils down to this. Burke and Hare became regular suppliers to the highly respected Dr. Knox. When an elderly tenant died in the Hare boarding house and they delivered him to Knox instead of the undertaker, they learned that the fresher the merchandise, the more they got paid. Some think it was Hare’s wife who pointed out it was silly to hope they might just stumble upon corpses in the street when they could much more easily make their own corpses whenever it was convenient.

Over the next ten months the pair murdered 16 (or 17 or 18, depending on the account) drunks, hookers, bums and simpletons, people who wouldn’t be missed. The typical methodology involved bringing them to the boarding house, getting them drunk, then smothering them to avoid any evidence of violence. The specific technique even later came to be known as “burking.” Yes, they were nasty boys. They had a pretty good run, there, that lasted until a nosy neighbor noticed an undelivered corpse in the boarding house. That’s one version of how they were caught, anyway. In another, some of Knox’s students recognize one of the doctor’s subjects during a lecture.

They were arrested, as were Burke’s mistress and Hare’s wife, and the extremely public trial took place in December of 1828. Hare turned king’s evidence in order to escape prosecution, and painted Burke as the real mastermind behind the scheme. Most people following the trial at the time felt Hare and his wife were the real culprits, but in the decades that followed the perception has shifted back to Burke, who was in general the smarter of the two. Dr. Knox, meanwhile, was never charged with anything.

On Christmas Day the jury found Burke guilty and sentenced him to death. Hare was set free but soon after his release was attacked by an angry mob, and though he wasn’t lynched, the rest of his days were pretty miserable. Burke was hanged in January, and the next day his body was provided for a public autopsy which drew such enormous crowds a small riot broke out among those who couldn’t get in to see it.

The story of Burke and Hare, these two rare souls who didn’t share the common fear of corpses, who saw them instead as a simple commodity and life as something that got in the way of making money, went on to inspire books, radio shows, songs, and a surprising number of films which remain interesting to this day, not only for their different approaches to the story, but for their historical accuracy as well. Not all the films are accurate on every point, but even the way they choose to rewrite history is interesting. More than just interesting, most of these pictures are even pretty darn good.

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Burke and Hare don’t make a single appearance in what is not only the best known, but the best of the Burke and Hare films. They’re discussed quite a bit, and their spirits are certainly skulking about the story, but both were long dead by the time this takes place. Produced and co-written by the great Val Lewton (The Cat People), The Body Snatcher was the earliest of the Burke and Hare films, Robert Wise’s (The Day the Earth Stood Still) second film as director, and the eighth and last time Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff would be teamed onscreen, and in a way foreshadowed their future career trajectories. It was loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 short story, but Lewton’s adaptation (written with Philip MacDonald) is a brilliant one, crafting a screenplay that is both a take on Stevenson’s story and a sequel.

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As with all of Lewton’s horror films it’s gorgeous to look at, shot in glorious and sharp black and white with a richly detailed production design. More interesting though is not only how it reflected certain historical events, but introduced fictional subplots that were picked up and developed by later, more historically accurate treatments.

Dr. MacFarlane (The Philadelphia Story’s Henry Daniell) is an esteemed surgeon and teacher as well as a former assistant to Dr. Knox. He’s cold and severe and clinical in his approach, and has no patience for Burke and Hare jokes. He knew them all too well. His own assistant, Fettes (Russell Wade) is a soft-hearted lad who nudges the doctor to operate on a poor little crippled girl. It’s also his job to pay the resurrectionists who show up at the back door, a job he doesn’t particularly relish. And Gray (Karloff), is a local cab driver who moonlights as a resurrectionist to supply MacFarlane with educational materials, sometimes newly buried and, well, sometimes not quite buried yet.

(Gray is actually an interesting choice of names here, since it was a Gray who first fingered Burke and Hare, and another famous Gray whose dog guarded his grave for over a decade—a reference that appears in the film.)

I don’t know that Karloff has ever been better in anything. He’s oily and sinister and smooth, yes, a walking corpse himself, but after his background with MacFarlane is revealed in a wonderfully dark scene, he also becomes a tragic figure. Not a very nice or clean one, no, but sad and almost sympathetic.

Lugosi is tragic in his own way here too as Joseph, the aging, simpleminded houseboy to the often cruel Dr. MacFarlane. After years of verbal abuse and little pay, he mistakenly believes he’s hatched a plan to get over on everyone. His own encounter with Gray is a clear nod to an historical figure known as Daft Jamie, a retarded 19 year old who was one of Burke and Hare’s last victims.

Even with no knowledge of the original case, The Body Snatcher is a dark, complex, and often funny picture, a personal favorite of mine among the Lewton films, and an impressive sophomore effort for Robert Wise. There’s an awful lot going on here, and even if I have little patience for the overbearing and treacly subplot about the crippled girl, it still acts as a necessary lynchpin for the second half of the film. . Once you see the other Burke and Hare films and learn something about the actual case (and read the original story), believe you me, The Body Snatcher only gets better and more intriguing. Take for instance the question of Dr. MacFarlane’s wife. Well, I’ll leave that there for you to think about later.

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Horror Maniacs aka The Greed of William Hart (1948)

Horror Maniacs is either one of the worst film titles of all time, or one of the greatest. I’m still not sure, but I’ll keep thinking about it. In any case, as Burke and Hare pictures go, it was a weirdie. Director Oswald Mitchell made it near the end of an unremarkable 15-year career, and the fact that he began his career in the early ‘30s may help explain why everything about the film, from the opening credits to the sound to the cinematography seems to indicate the film was made in 1932, not ‘48. But that’s just the beginning.

Horror Maniacs as originally written by John Gilling was to be the first film based directly on the case. Real names were used and actual events were recreated (more or less). And that’s in fact how it was filmed. When the completed film was brought before the British censors, though, they had different ideas. It was too soon, they decided (it had only been 120 years since the duo was arrested, after all), and people were still too upset to see a realistic Burke and Hare film. So Mitchell returned to the studio and painstakingly redubbed the entire picture to change Burke, Hare, and Knox’s names. If you read lips that’s still what they’re saying, but on the soundtrack they became “Hart,” “Moore,” and “Dr. Cox.” Being a low-budget quickie to begin with, by the time the dubbing was finished there was no money left for a musical score so, apart from the library music used for the opening credits, it was released without one. In an odd way this works to the film’s benefit. It was a trick Hitchcock would use on occasion. Sometimes a lack of music, especially during the murder scenes, can be extremely unsettling.

Okay, now things start to get confusing. Tod Slaughter, who played over-the-top villains in dozens of British costume melodramas of the ‘30s and early ‘40s, is splendid and sleazily charismatic as Willie Hart, who is part Burke and part Hare. Like Hare, he’s married and runs the boarding house and like Burke he’s the smarter of the two. Henry Oscar is Mr. Moore (and only known as Mr. Moore) and he’s also part burke and part Hare. Like Hare he’s married and like Burke, well, I’m not sure. Watching the film I just took Hart to be Burke and Moore to be Hare given the way things end up. Maybe it doesn’t much matter. In any case this was one of the only films of the bunch in which characters speak with Scottish (and not British) accents throughout, Hart and Moore included. That they were supposed to be Irish is another little thing we’ll ignore.

The script does away with what would become standard for burke and Hare films, the series of circumstances which slowly allows them to stumble from grave robbing to murder. When we meet Hart and Moore, killing lonely drunks has already become standard practice. From the beginning they’ve established themselves as notorious and well known resurrectionists around town, and Dr. Cox is their best client. Cox (Arnold Bell) stays in the background for much of the film here, and when we do see him he makes it clear he’s complicit in Hart and Moore’s activities. So long as they keep supplying subjects, he doesn’t care where or how they get them. He’ll also cover for them should anyone start asking too many questions. The last of the pictures historical characters is Daft Jamie. Apparently there was no need to change his name, even though his murder is one of the film’s most disturbing scenes. Jamie has a larger role here than in any of the other films, and is clearly here mostly for comic relief. It was also clearly a role written specifically for Dwight Frye, but given he wasn’t available (having died three years earlier) they brought in Aubrey Woods, who does a swell Dwight Frye impersonation.

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Apart from Hart, Moore, Cox, and Daft Jamie, the names, occupations and relationships of all the other characters in the film are pretty fluid. They keep changing and shifting around, if we ever learn anything about them in the first place. What makes this really tricky is that after the above four are established, the focus of the film turns to Patrick Addison’s character, listed in the credits as “Hugh Alston.” I think someone does call him that once. Others call him “Olson,” some call him “Alston Hughes,” and there are a few others I don’t recall right now. It’s never clear what he does for a living, but we do see he’s a very well educated and respectable fellow. For some reason (also never exactly made clear) he becomes extremely suspicious of Hart and Moore. When he can’t get the police to undertake an investigation, ol’ Jeremy here decides to investigate them himself, together with the help of a woman who may or may not be his girlfriend and may or may not be a hooker.

Oddly enough, as baffling as it all is it’s baffling in a fascinating way. Weirder still, and maybe only by accident, the way Homer and his hooker beautician girlfriend uncover the truth is fairly accurate, and Horror Maniacs is the only film of the lot to get it right.

Gotta say the first time I saw this one I had no patience for it whatsoever, but with subsequent viewings its weirdness has started to win me over.


The Flesh and the Fiends, aka The Fiendish ghouls (1960)

Perhaps unhappy with what Oswald Mitchell did to his script, twelve years after Horror Maniacs, writer/director John Gilling made his own version of the Burke and Hare tale, this time in a pre-Hammer number with a bigger budget, a better cast, and a script that could finally use the real names, dammit.

The trailers made The Flesh and the Fiends look like an unholy mad doctor screamfest, maybe even with a zombie or two tossed in. That’s, um, not exactly what audiences got. Gilling’s screenplay (co-written with Leon Griffiths) focuses on Dr. Knox this time around, brilliantly portrayed as a sharp-tongued maverick by Peter Cushing (there’s just something about the Burke and Hare story that seems to bring out the best in actors). Knox is an outspoken believer both in the importance of the study of anatomy and the need for the government to loosen its regulations concerning the bodies available to the medical schools. He’s not terribly popular among his colleagues, whom he regularly insults not only in person, but in print.

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As the film opens, he hires a struggling young medical student named Chris (the inoffensive John Cairney) to be one of his assistants who would accept deliveries and pay the resurrectionists. Chris’ problem in school, Knox believes, is that he’s too sensitive. Chris soon proves him right by falling in love with a prostitute at a nearby whorehouse. The subplot involving one of Knox’s assistants falling for a prostitute has no historical basis I know of, but plays a major role in all of the Burke and Hare films from this point on. There are even hints of this in The Body Snatcher (remember MacFarlane’s wife), though it may have originated in Welsh poet Dylan Thomas 1953 treatment for a Burke and Hare film. Whether or not the screenwriters here saw that treatment or if this is a happy coincidence is unknown.

Meanwhile Burke and Hare themselves (using their real names this time, though again it’s Burke and his wife who run the boarding house) spend a lot of time at the pub. The grave robbers at the back table may repulse them, but one night they can’t help but notice those guys always have money to spend. Hare (another wonderful and chilling performance from Donald pleasance) gets an idea, and once again we’re off to the races. Hare is clearly the dominant one again, while Burke (George Rose) remains jittery until he sees what kind of money they can make. This time around both men have Irish accents, though the rest of the population of Edinburgh has English accents, fore what it’s worth.

To illustrate again Knox’s complicity in the shady goings on, when Burke and Hare deliver yet another unusually fresh subject and Knox’s partner begins to interrogate them about the injuries on the body, Knox shushes him, pays Burke and Hare, and that’s that. Still though, he’s not a villain here. He’s a man driven by the pursuit of medical knowledge, and one who wouldn’t need to deal with people like Burke and Hare if some silly laws were changed. That’s really the focus of the film. For all his abrasiveness Knox is presented as a decidedly sympathetic, even heroic character.

I suppose if I wanted I could point out any number of historical inaccuracies and irrelevant subplots, but what’s the fun in that? Of the straightforward Burke and Hare films, The Flesh and the Fiends can’t be topped. It’s dark, it’s creepy, and at the same time it has a point to make. The script is sharp and smart, the production detail is admirable, and it has that early ‘60s aesthetic I dig so much and which hints at the Hammer aesthetic around the corner. The cast (including the great

Billie Whitelaw as the hooker) is fantastic, and in sheer cinematic terms it’s a helluva lot of fun to watch. 

Plus, of all the Burke and Hare films, it’s the only one to take into account the trial, its aftermath, and the fates of Burke, Hare, and especially Knox.

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Burke & Hare (1972)

First time I saw this picture I absolutely hated it. I came away remembering it as another dumb British sex comedy about medical students and a local whorehouse and worse, a film overloaded with early ‘70s hippie damage and a minor subplot about Burke and Hare. Watching it again now, I figure I must’ve been drunk that first time. It wasn’t unheard of.

British B-movie standby Vernon Sewell’s last film does involve some whorehouse shenanigans (again one of Knox’s assistants falls for a hooker who later ends up in the clutches of Burke and Hare), but really concentrates on the dastardly duo’s business operation.

The novelty song which opens and closes the film, as well as the sit-com soundtrack that plagues it throughout, makes it clear it’s being played for comedy up to a point. Weird thing is, in historical terms it ends up being one of the most accurate of all the Burke and Hare films.

Ernle Bradford’s script, as per usual, begins with Burke (the ever menacing Derren Nesbitt from the Blue Max) and Hare (Zulu’s Glynn Edwards) bumbling and stumbling their way into the resurrectionist business. They’re a couple of oafs, but thanks to the number of elderly tenants dropping off in Hare’s boarding house they soon become regular suppliers to Dr. Knox (Superman’s brick-faced Harry Andrews), who’s as much a cold and precise businessman as he is a driven scientist. At the same time though he’s charming at dinner parties and has no trouble sharing the humiliating personal medical problems of his patients with his dinner guests.

There is a good deal of talk about the conflict between stuffy and outmoded morality and the requirements of scientific research, but only after another cut back to the brothel where some other kind of wacky hijinx is afoot, often involving two-way mirrors and public officials.

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Hare is the vicious, cold blooded leader here, while Burke, despite those features, is sniveling and hesitant. The interesting twist, and this is the first film to touch on it, is the role played by Hare’s wife (Yootha Joyce). Knox may be complicit in his pursuit of knowledge, going so far as to cover for them by dissecting Daft Jamie to hide the evidence when the cops come snooping, but he’s not the one who originally suggests, as Mrs. Hare does, that the pair start killing people to make more money. She’s as greedy and brutal as her husband and his pal, maybe even more so, and an extremely willing accomplice.

All the Burke and Hare films end quite differently, so I won’t get into what happens in this one. Let’s just say the story of Burke and Hare (if you’re of a certain mindset_) lends itself very easily to black comedy. There’s so much to work with. Even if Sewell’s film doesn’t quite cut it in that sense, even if it’s not terribly funny, he at least gives it a shot (though the god-awful soundtrack sure doesn’t help). He almost finds a way to balance the bright and the bouncy with the grimy and cruel, and amazingly enough keeps his facts straight while he’s at it. There is some early ‘70s damage to contend with, though. I was right about that.



The Doctor and the Devils (1985)

Mel Brooks seems to have had (maybe still does) a morbid fascination with the darker side of medical history. Not long after producing David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, he went on to produce a Burke and Hare film.

The similarities between Freddie Francis’ The Doctor and the Devils and The Flesh and the Fiends may not be all that accidental. Francis was a Hammer films legend, both as a cinematographer and the director of classics like The Creeping Flesh and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, so it’s likely he was very familiar with John Gilling’s film and script. That Francis gives a writing credit to Dylan Thomas also makes it much more plausible that Gilling had seen Thomas’ 1953 manuscript before writing his own (and not giving Thomas a credit).

This is of course a lot of speculation on my part, not taking into account the simple fact both films were based on THE SAME FUCKING STORY. But let’s add that to the list of things we’re ignoring.

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With Francis behind the camera, its little surprise The Doctor and the Devils has the kind of lush, atmospheric photography and detailed set designs you’d come to expect from the best of the Hammer pictures. The film also boasts a notable cast, including a pre-James Bond Timothy Dalton, a pre-Brazil Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Julian Sands, Twiggy, and Patrick Stewart, all of whom take the goings on quite seriously.

Dalton is Dr. Rock, a professor of anatomy despised by his colleagues for his unconventional techniques, who opens the film by telling his students any and all means are justifiable in the pursuit of knowledge. Like Cushing’s Knox, he spends much of the film arguing for a change in the law regarding the research subjects available to him. If he can’t get them legally, he has no qualms about finding other supply routes.

Burke and Hare, here known as Fallon and Broome (Pryce and Rea), meanwhile, get themselves started in the graverobbing business, and Dr. Rock’s young assistant (Sands) falls for a local hooker (Twiggy).

Well, there’s no need to run through the story again. There’s nothing really wrong with the film (even if it’s the only one without a Daft Jamie character). It’s a sober and intelligent retelling, it’s awfully lovely to look at, the acting is uniformly good, and Francis knows how to tell a snappy tale. But you know what bugs me about it? Everyone’s so goddamned pretty, and they talk so pretty (thanks Dylan), and the film itself is so pretty. Burke and Hare were drunken and filthy Irish graverobbers; they aren’t supposed to be pretty. Knox, despised as he was, was still an esteemed and respected professor, not James Bond. And when was the last time you saw a hooker who looked like Twiggy? As good and enjoyable a film as it is, compared with the others it’s a few shades too slick and shiny for the story it’s trying to tell, and because of that it’s ultimately forgettable.



Burke and Hare (2010)

Oh, I had such hopes.

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First to get this out of the way, those claims on IMDb and elsewhere that this is a remake of the ‘72 version are simple foolishness. It’s a bit like claiming Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was a remake of the dark and disturbing 1960 Ralph Meeker film of the same name.

Anyway, back to those hopes. The 2010 Burke and Hare had everything going for it. It was directed by John Landis and featured a cast that included everyone from Simon Pegg to Christopher Lee. It was going to be a black comedy with a political subtext about capitalism and class structure, and one that turned Burke and Hare into sympathetic characters. The screenwriters claimed they’d spent a lot of time interviewing Burke and Hare experts and had gathered an armload of interesting anecdotes. And for godsakes it was being made at Ealing studios, the same folks who gave us The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets. I was promised it would be smart, satirical, and extremely dark, and for my money things don’t get better than that. After seeing five other takes on the story, each in a different style and each with some degree of historical accuracy, I was more than ready for a version that really did exploit the black comic potential in the material. If anyone could do that, John Landis could, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, I was duped. There was nothing wrong with Landis direction, and the cast (Tom Wilkinson as Knox, Tim Curry as his rival Dr. Monro, Simon Pegg as Burke and Andy Serkis as Hare) was wonderful. It looked good. The music was interesting. The period detail and atmosphere were straight on. They even got the damned accents right, which is a first. The problem, and it was a doozy, was the script.

The screenwriters apparently left all their research notes in the back seat of the rental car when they turned it in. They knew it was about two guys who killed people and sold them to a doctor or something, but that was about it. I have no trouble at all with a lack of historical accuracy so long as what you come up with is better, and this wasn’t. The film is so bogged down with irrelevant subplots (a competition between doctors, the early development of photography, etc.) the whole “killing people for money” plotline is all but buried. Even calling the film Burke and Hare is a little misleading. Christ, why spend half a Burke and Hare film on an ex-showgirl’s efforts to stage an all-female production of Macbeth? It’s just pandering bullshit. And don’t even get me started on that whole re-imagined romantic sacrifice ending, hooboy.

The real killer, though, is that the film is neither terribly dark nor terribly funny, two very important attributes you’d expect to find in any black comedy. When you have a cast like that and Tim Curry’s the only one who’s able to elicit even a mild chuckle, you’re in trouble son. Overall, it was a real lost opportunity.

There was one interesting thing I did take away from it all, however, and I have to believe Landis was in on it. In his great if brief cameo, Christopher Lee plays one of Burke and Hare’s early victims. Now, in 1958’s Corridors of Blood, Lee played Resurrection Joe (how I love that name), a Burke and Hare amalgam who sold bodies to a medical researcher played by Boris Karloff who, of course, played a sort-of Burke and Hare amalgam in The Body Snatcher.

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Which brings us back to Robert Louis Stevenson, but I won’t get into the whole Jekyll and Hyde tangent now. In any case, I thought it was interesting, and more proof that things never end. In fact things still haven’t ended to this day. For all the hubbub made over Burke and Hare, a 185 year-old case, medical schools and transplant centers are still scrambling for bodies and organs that are simply not available through legal channels, making the black market more lucrative than ever. WE still don’t want to think about what’s going on, but we’re quietly glad it’s happening.

If you think about it by providing doctors like Knox with the tools they needed, Burke and Hare helped pave the way toward modern medical wonderments like heart and kidney transplants. They also provided a shining example to be emulated, paving the way for today’s black marketeers to make those transplants possible. History and Hollywood may call them devils and fiends, but personally I think we should raise a toast in Burke and Hare’s honor. A small one, anyway.



The Body Snatcher (1945) 5 Stars

Horror Maniacs aka The Greed of William Hart (1948) 2.5 Stars

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The Flesh and the Fiends, aka The Fiendish Ghouls (1960) 4.5 Stars

Burke & Hare (1972) 3 Stars

The Doctor and the Devils (1985) 3.5 Stars

Burke and Hare (2010) 1.5 Stars

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