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Fairy Scapegoats: A History of the Persecution of Changeling Children

A Glimpse of the Fairies by Charles Hutton Lear/Getty Images

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Richard Sugg | Fairies: A Dangerous History | Reaktion Books | June 2018 | 19 minutes (4,969 words)

Fairies were dangerous. Not to believe in them was dangerous. Not to respect them or take them seriously was dangerous — hence all the carefully euphemistic or indirect names one used in speaking of them, from “the Gentry” to “the Good People,” “Themselves,” “the fair folk” and “the people of peace” through to the charming Welsh phrase bendith û mamme, or “such as have deserved their mother’s blessing.” Fairies stole your children. They made you or your animals sick, sometimes unto death. They could draw the life, or essence, out of anything, from milk or butter through to people. Their powers, as we have seen, were almost limitless, not only demonic but even godlike in scale and scope.

While ordinary people still believed this less than a century ago, the educated had also believed it in the era of the witch persecutions. Witches did these kinds of thing, and fairies or fairyland were quite often referenced in their trials. Although Joan of Arc was tried as a heretic, rather than a witch, the latter association naturally clung to such an unusual woman, and it is notable that in 1431 her interrogators took an interest in the “fairy tree” around which Joan had played in her childhood in Domrémy. In the Protestant camp, Calvin later emphasized how “the Devil works strange illusions by fairies and satyrs.” In early modern Sicily one distinct type of witch was the female “fairy doctor,” the phrase donna di fuori (“woman from outside”) meaning either “fairy” or “fairy doctor.” Here Inquisitors encouraged people, including suspected witches, to equate fairy and witch beliefs. In 1587 they were especially interested in one Laura di Pavia, a poor fisherman’s wife who claimed to have flown to fairyland in Benevento, Kingdom of Naples.

In many cases, educated witch-believers saw fairies and fairyland as sources of dark power for witches. Lizanne Henderson lists 38 Scottish witch trials (1572—1716) featuring references to fairy beliefs, including that of Isobel Strathaquin (Aberdeen, 1597), accused of using skills which she “learnt . . . of an elf-man who lay with her.” At the 1616 trial of Katherine Caray the accused spoke of meeting not only “a great number of fairy men” on the Caithness hills at sunset, but “a master man” — a figure which in this context could have been seen as “the King of the Fairies” or “the Prince of Darkness.” After a Scottish girl, Christian Shaw, suffered hysterical fits in 1696, the ensuing trial featured a veritable cauldron of lurid evidence, from a mysterious black man with cold hands through to the eating of “a piece of unchristened child’s liver,” and a charm of blood and stones used by one Margaret Fulton, a reputed witch whose “husband had brought her back from the fairies.”

Like witches, fairies were powerful, uncanny and unpredictable. And like witches, or vampires, or any of the world’s numerous magical figures, fairies were scapegoats. They could be blamed for almost anything.

One particular case of demonized fairies is so intriguing that it merits a little space to itself. Its protagonist was Ann Jefferies, a maidservant of the Pitt family at St Teath, Cornwall. In 1645, aged nineteen, Ann was “one day knitting in an arbour in our garden” when “there came over the garden hedge to her six persons of a small stature, all clothed in green, which she called fairies: upon which she was so frighted, that she fell into a kind of a convulsion-fit.” So related the bookseller and printer Moses Pitt fifty years later, having been six at the time of Ann’s encounter.

What followed looks in many ways like the career of a fairy doctor. Ann seemed to suffer some kind of neurosis about food and allegedly took none from the family for several months, claiming that the fairies themselves fed her. Ann presently cured Mrs Pitt’s leg after a bad fall merely by stroking it, and soon became so famous that numerous people flocked to the house for cures from as far south as Land’s End, and as far north as London. All cures seemed to be done purely by touch, without medicines. Ann showed psychic ability, knowing of her visitors before they arrived. Moses himself never saw the fairies but his mother and sister both did.

This case is already interesting for the way that it echoes those of other fairy doctors, despite the Pitt family (and other affluent patients from London) having no concept of such figures. The element of danger initially seems brief, being limited to Ann’s fear at the first encounter. But presently local ministers began to insist that the fairies were “evil spirits” and that the whole affair was “a delusion of the Devil.” A warrant appeared; Pitt’s family and Ann were questioned by local authorities; and magistrate John Tregeagle had Ann locked up — first in Bodmin Jail, and next in his own house, where he kept her without food. Although witchcraft was not explicitly mentioned, it is hard not to suspect that this was on people’s minds. The instability of the Civil War may have further aggravated such fears: the female prophet Anna Trapnel had sparked controversy in January 1645, and Sarah Wight had a similar effect in the weeks after February 1647.

Like witches, fairies were powerful, uncanny and unpredictable. And like witches, or vampires, or any of the world’s numerous magical figures, fairies were scapegoats. They could be blamed for almost anything, from human deaths through to mass famine. In one sense, the fairy as scapegoat was potentially a good thing. For fairies, real or not, could not be harmed. Women taken for witches certainly could be, and were — and after official persecution ended there were hundreds of serious vigilante assaults on them throughout Britain, right through to the end of the nineteenth century. In reality, however, fairy scapegoats did produce a great deal of human suffering. The problem, here, was what people did to real human beings who were believed to be fairy changelings.

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In August 1909 an old woman of Donegal, Annie McIntire, applied for a pension. She told the Pension Committee that although “she did not know the number of her years,” she “remembered being stolen by the ‘wee people’ (fairies) on Halloween Night, 1839.” Was she certain of this?

“Yes, by good luck my brother happened to be coming home from Carndonagh that night, and heard the fairies singing and saw them dancing round me in the wood at Carrowkeel. He had a book with him, and he threw it in among them. They then ran away.” The applicant added that the people celebrated the event by great feasting and drinking. The committee decided to grant her a pension.

Whatever actually happened that Halloween night, McIntire clearly believed her version until the end of her days. So, too, would many of those around her, young or old. For everyone knew that fairies stole children.

More broadly, fairies again resembled vampires or witches in that all three, very basically, attacked life. The latter pair could suck out your blood, soul or breath, or extract the essence from food. Much later, that iconic Other of our own times, the alien abductor, updated this basic assault with clinical probings or the removal of human eggs or sperm. In the pre-scientific cultures of the fairy or the witch, however, the most potent emblem of life was simply one’s own baby or child.

One ironic result of this was that, for most of history, no child was delighted by fairies. Old people in Cornwall told Evans-Wentz:

if we as children did anything wrong, the old folks would say to us, “The piskies will carry you away if you do that again.” . . . In Tintagel I used to sit round the fire at night and hear old women tell so much about piskies and ghosts that I was then afraid to go out of doors after darkness had fallen.

At Cwmcastellfach farm in Wales a seventy-year-old man told Evans-Wentz that “in his childhood days a great dread of the fairies occupied the heart of every child. They were considered to be evil spirits who visited our world at night.” Even in the less typically fairy-haunted flats of Norfolk, young children growing up around the First World War were told, “if naughty . . . that the ‘hightie sprite’ was at the bottom of the garden and would get them.” On the whole, this distinctive East Anglian spirit evoked far less terror than Celtic fairies. There again, one 1980s informant recalled it as “a black bat-like figure, man-size, hovering silently in the twilight, waiting to snatch away disobedient children.” While many boys and girls were being enchanted by Rose Fyleman’s “fairies at the bottom of our garden,” others still feared vampiric kidnappers at the bottom of theirs.

Writing in 1960, the Dutch scholar Jacoba Hooykaas found child-stealing fairy or elf types were feared in Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Moravia, Greece, Lithuania, Bohemia and Hungary, with a modern-day variant in Bali. In Celtic territories, fairies stole babies and children — especially boys, and especially those with blue eyes and fair hair — leaving fairy substitutes in their place. Having identified such a switch, people did everything they could to make the fairies reverse it. To the end of the nineteenth century, and probably later, such children were ritually abused by their own parents to this end. Immersed in rivers or placed at the margin of coastal tides, stood on hot coals or hung over fires, exposed in freezing weather, bathed in poisonous foxglove essence, beaten, threatened and subjected to forms of exorcism, these babies and children sometimes survived, sometimes not. Ironically, part of the logic of this treatment was the sense that the fairies cared enough about their offspring to rescue them from such abuses and restore one’s child in the process. Even as they tormented these supposed changelings, parents were projecting their own familial love onto fairyland.

Certain of these conditions only manifested some time after birth. This, surely, was the smoking fairy gun: you had known your own baby, and this, now, was not him.

Let us imagine a large rural family in which an initially normal, healthy new baby presently begins to seem suspect. He cries almost incessantly, fails to grow, walk or talk, has oddly wizened features and is constantly hungry. At one very basic level, a child continually crying and demanding food, and unable to work like its six- or seven-year- old peers, is a liability in such circumstances. But these problems almost certainly took second place to the real and frightening belief that it was not yours, and that your child had been stolen. Hard as it now is to credit, parents in such cases very probably felt just as distraught as the modern mothers and fathers making television appeals about their missing or abducted children.

While it was clear to educated Victorians that many changelings were disabled children, much more precise clinical parallels were detailed in 1988 by the interdisciplinary scholar Susan Schoon Eberly. The case given above would fit especially well with a genetic disorder affecting metabolism, phenylketonuria (pku). This and other similar conditions predominate among male children of Irish and English descent. Even brief references from fairy believers give clues to these disorders, talking of children like “old men,” perhaps suffering from progeria. Obvious physical deformity, such as the oversized heads of hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain,” would be singled out; yet so too might the pretty, blue-eyed, snubnosed, “elfin” children afflicted with Williams syndrome. Here, as in every magical culture the world over, it was never a good idea to stand out. Eberly also adds that certain of these conditions only manifested some time after birth. This, surely, was the smoking fairy gun: you had known your own baby, and this, now, was not him. All of this painstaking detective work can, in one sense, be collapsed into three letters: “oaf,” a word broadly cognate with “elf,” once meant not a clumsy or stupid person, but, literally, a changeling.


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Plain and axiomatic as the real medical causes now seem to us, the majority view, from the ancient Romans to the Edwardian Celts, was intensely superstitious. When Martin Luther recommended drowning a changeling, it was because the child’s appearance showed it to have no soul. In the seventeenth century, even the most rational Christians used “changeling” as a loose synonym for the mentally disabled, with dramatist Elkanah Settle echoing Luther when he talked, in 1694, of “some coarse half-souled fairy changeling.” The relatively enlightened physician and philosopher John Locke probably did not believe in fairies, yet did speculate at great length on the souls of the mentally disabled, and whether or not they should be classed as a different species.

With these kinds of attitudes lodged at the heart of Christian and proto-scientific elites in the early modern period, what could changelings expect from true fairy believers? In all households, there were routine precautions aimed to prevent child theft. A very common one involved putting fire tongs over a cradle, because of the fairies’ well-known antipathy to iron. As in McIntire’s case, books also had power over them, and religious ones especially — hence the placing of a Bible or prayer book under a child’s pillow. In Ireland into the 1930s, babies were not believed safe from fairies until they (the babies) had sneezed, so that many infants had pepper thrust under their noses minutes after birth. In Connemara at the same time people still dressed boys and girls alike in red flannel petticoats until the age of twelve, a disguise used to trick those fairies who liked to steal boys in particular.

If such measures failed, the changeling met with violence — this often being advised or performed by the local fairy doctor. In some cases, such rituals were used on actual sick children thought to be “fairy-struck” — though, as we will see, they too could be seen as in danger of abduction. Carole Silver cites changelings killed by foxglove baths in Wales in 1857, and in Donegal in the 1870s and 1890s. Eberly tells of a Scottish case, in Caerlaverock, where the ceaselessly yelling and ill-tempered baby was thrown onto hot coals. In 1952 the Australian-born classical scholar Gilbert Murray (1866—1957) recalled how,

in Ireland, in my own lifetime, a child, who was for some reason reputed to be a changeling, was beaten and burned with irons, the mother being locked out of the room while the invading fairy was exorcised, though unfortunately the child died in the process.

This killing does not seem to have been prosecuted, and many of those which escaped public or legal notice must now have been lost to us. This was nearly the case after the tragic death of a nine-year-old boy, son of Kilkenny labourer Patrick Kearns. Late at night on April 7, 1856, a police patrol met the Kearnses taking their son’s body to an unused burial ground, and insisted on examining him. Thus, instead of an unknown secret burial, there came to light the tale of how the child, confined to bed for three weeks past, was judged to be suffering from a “fairy-blast.” Although he was not himself a changeling, it was said that he was “being gradually carried off by the fairies”; if he had died naturally it may have been believed that They had taken him. Versions of this affair vary. But it seems that a man called Thomas Donovan, assisted by Patrick Murphy, attempted a ritual test, giving the boy water and getting him to cough. When the boy could not cough, he was dragged violently out of the house and around the yard, strangled and badly beaten. He died early the next morning from his injuries.

Even as they tormented these supposed changelings, parents were projecting their own familial love onto fairyland.

Some accounts have Donovan as the “fairy doctor” making the initial diagnosis; others mention an unnamed “wise woman” as doing so. Although one report has Patrick Kearns apparently trying to rescue his son from Donovan, the versions which claim the parents to have agreed with the procedure, even after the boy’s death, match other known cases better. Interestingly, during the trial, the judge briefly mentioned delusions about fairies, emphasizing that these could in no way absolve Donovan (Murphy having by now fled to America). A qc, meanwhile, could see no motive for the crime, and wrongly inferred that perhaps there had been some delusion about the boy being “possessed by the Devil.” This already shows the gulf between educated and popular perceptions of fairies. Moreover, we also learn that the Kearnses resorted to the fairy rituals despite their son having previously been under the care of two licensed doctors — one of whom confirmed after autopsy that the boy, though killed by Donovan, would have died of a tumor and water on the brain within a week. Donovan was sentenced to a year’s hard labor. A few years before, the parents of six-year-old Mary Anne Kelly, allegedly “in a dying state” for six months prior to September 1850, turned from the dispensary physician to a Roscrea “fairy doctress” named Bridget Peters. Peters seems at one point to have declared Mary Anne “fairy struck,” and at another that the child was a fairy. She gave the girl verbena and foxglove, and ordered that she be exposed naked outdoors for three nights on a shovel. This was done, despite Mary Anne’s cries being audible in the house. On the third night she died.

Here again fairy ritual took on demonic overtones. One report claimed that a prayer had to be said over the girl “in the name of the devil,” and several carried the headline “Witchcraft.” In this instance the mother, Mary Kelly, seems to have been unusually complicit (and was initially tried along with Peters). If uneducated, the Kellys were by no means desperately poor. A key witness in the trial was their servant, Mary Maher, who was sacked after refusing to put Mary Anne out on the shovel, and who may have been the only reason the crime came to light. Mary Kelly seems ultimately to have been acquitted. Peters, described as “respectable looking” and evidently literate, was found guilty.

Cases such as these now seem so extraordinary as to be almost unreal to us. Eberly has argued convincingly that modern-day responses of parents to disabled children still sometimes mingle anger and guilt, and that such emotions could well have fed into the violence directed at changelings. Silver has suggested that one benefit of the changeling belief was the way it shifted blame for the child’s condition into a thoroughly separate, supernatural realm, beyond human control. With these points in mind, it bears emphasizing that Mary Anne had from birth been blind, brain-damaged and partially paralyzed. Having said all this, we need to grasp that such modern rationalizations were largely alien from the fairy cultures in which changelings suffered or died. Most parents really, unshakably believed that this was a dangerous, uncanny fairy creature, and very possibly feared it too.

In some cases, this level of terror was also apparent in the “fairy child.” In April 1840 James Mahony, a man living on the country estate of Charles Riall, at Heywood, County Tipperary, was influenced by his neighbors into the belief that his son, John (aged six or seven), was a fairy. This was partly due to a curvature of the spine which had kept the boy in bed two years, and partly to his being a suspiciously “intellectual child.” On the night of Tuesday, 14 April, Mahony, with the connivance of neighbors, held the near-naked boy over a hot shovel, threatening to put him on it, and dragged him halfway to the water pump, proposing to drown him under it if he did not reveal the whereabouts of Mahony’s true son. John seems to have become so terrified by this that he presently “told them that he was a fairy, and that he would send back the real John Mahony the next evening, if they gave him that night’s lodging” — even going so far as to specify that the real John was in a farmer’s house, wearing corduroys and a green cap. Next morning, John was found dead in his bed. Although a doctor decided that this had resulted from the boy’s spinal condition, this fatality looks as though it may have been caused by sheer terror. We have seen that voodoo death can occur in such cases in around one to three days, while vagal inhibition can kill in seconds or minutes, when shock affects the vagus nerve, the autonomic nervous system, and ultimately the heart. We have to wonder, here, if John’s parents ever doubted the child’s terrified “confession.” Did they remain convinced that they had actually killed a fairy?

Similarly, Westropp remembered from his boyhood, in 1869, “a very old woman, Kate Molony,” from Maryfort, County Clare, who, many years before, being anxious about her daughter’s failing health, “went to a ‘wise woman,’ who assured her that the child was ‘changed.’ She spoke of this on her return, and unfortunately the patient was old enough to understand the fearful decision. The poor child turned over on the bed with a groan, and was a little later found to be dead.” This sounds unmistakably like vagal inhibition. If so, the child must have died either because of her sheer terror of her own fairy status (in which she apparently believed) or because of the ensuing tortures which she knew this diagnosis would bring.

Such dangers were not entirely confined to the uneducated inhabitants of the Celtic countryside. Writing around 1865 about the fairies of Cornwall, Robert Hunt had recently heard from a friend of how, “the other day . . . an Irishwoman . . . was brought before the magistrates, in New York, for causing the death of a child by making it stand on hot coals, to try if it were her own truly-begotten child, or a changeling.” Meanwhile, Westropp’s family — affluent landowners at Patrickswell, Limerick, since the sixteenth century — had a much closer brush with changeling superstitions than the one recalled above. For Westropp’s “second sister, whose delicacy, when an infant, excited remark, was, about 1842, taken out by a servant to be exposed on a shovel on the doorstep at Carnelly. The angry and hasty intervention of another servant saved the child, but the would be ‘exposer’ was convinced” of the rightness of her attempt to “‘get back the child’ from the fairies.”

This incident partly echoes the 1884 case of three-year-old Philip Dillon of Clonmel, severely burned after two neighbors put him to a changeling test in his mother’s absence. In such contexts, “changelings” were at risk from others besides their parents, with these people very possibly acting “for the good of the community.” It is easy to forget, looking back from a thoroughly medicalized world, how profoundly extra-scientific these people’s lives were. The disabilities and illnesses of these children perhaps seemed just as fundamentally wrong. Changeling beliefs therefore offered two important benefits. First, they allowed people to shift from being helpless victims to active combatants of the perceived problem. Second, and probably more importantly, they gave an otherwise frighteningly arbitrary condition a meaning — a known and accepted place within a shared framework of explanation.

Immersed in rivers or placed at the margin of coastal tides, stood on hot coals or hung over fires, exposed in freezing weather, bathed in poisonous foxglove essence, beaten, threatened and subjected to forms of exorcism, these babies and children sometimes survived, sometimes not.

Yet, if this helps us make some sense of the majority of popular changeling cases, it fails to shed any light on the abuse suffered by Walter Trevelyan of Penzance. On Monday, July 10, 1843, local magistrates and residents heard of how the upper-middle-class Trevelyans had routinely tortured Walter, now aged two years and nine months, for at least a year at their grand Georgian house, The Orchard. Servants and visitors testified that Walter had been kept without food or water for hours, had been left outside in a tree during winter, been made to lie face down on the gravel walk, kicked over a slope in his baby carriage by his father, and tied upside down in a tree until he was black in the face. After the miseries of the day Walter was put to bed on a mattress filled with corks, lest he should gain any comfort in the few exhausted hours of night.

Some of this was specifically ordered by Mrs Trevelyan, and all of it seems to have been the sole responsibility of Walter’s parents. Indeed, although the hearing was catalyzed by local vicar Reverend Le Grice, all of the evidence was supplied by working-class servants or visitors, with gardener Francis Dale stating that Walter’s cries were so heart-rending as to force him to move away to another part of the garden, where he could not hear them.

Was all this really inspired by the belief that Walter had been “changed by the nurse”? Simon Young, to whom I am indebted for answering various queries on the original newspaper reports of the case, thinks not. He suspects that this phrase refers not to fairy changelings, but to the belief that a child’s nurse might change her affluent charge with her own baby, so that the latter could have the benefits of an elite upbringing. He adds that servants may have heard the parents remark facetiously that they thought the naughty Walter to have been “changed at nurse” (that is, so naughty that he could not be their natural child). They then took this literally, as partial explanation for the cruelties inflicted on him.

For educated parents to act on fairy beliefs in this way would be very unusual. We can further add that not all of the abuse looks precisely ritual — as, for example, John Trevelyan kicking Walter over the slope. But much of it, though different from popular habits in detail, does seem to fit the same broad logic: treat the child so badly that its fairy parents will reverse the switch. Ultimately, this case seems to me too unclear to permit a decisive judgement on its origins. One reason for this is that, bizarrely, the Trevelyans themselves seem to have given no evidence at the hearing. We therefore have not a word from them on why Walter was treated in this way. The impression that local magistrates essentially connived to spare the powerful family is grimly reinforced by the final verdict: “we are unanimous in the opinion that the child has been most cruelly and shamefully treated, but there is not sufficient evidence to connect Mr Trevelyan with the ill-usage, for us to send the case to a higher tribunal.” If ever there was an instance of the Victorian elite shamefully closing ranks, then clearly this was it.

If we accept, hypothetically, that the parents’ cruelty was purely mundane, we are left with some curious ironies. Was it worse for people like the Trevelyans to torture their child than for fairy believers to do so, actuated by supernatural terrors? I would say yes. Second, we have the reaction of the household servants. It is not quite clear if they understood Walter to have been a human changeling or a fairy one. Given the popular fairy beliefs then prevalent in Cornwall, the latter notion would be plausible. In this case, we would have to assume that the mundane sadism of upper-middle-class parents was so appalling to ordinary people as to persuade them that it must have a supernatural origin.

Whatever Walter suffered in adult life (and fighting in the Afghan War, as he later did, was probably a walk in the park by comparison with childhood), we can assume that he did not find people around him looking askance and muttering “changeling” whenever he passed by. But this was the fate of a handful of mentally or physically disabled adults — people who were held by their neighbors, even parents, literally to be “fairies” throughout their lives. John Rhys heard in the late nineteenth century of a woman called Nani Fach at Llanover, Wales, supposed to be one of the fairies’ offspring, and also, more specifically, of a farmer’s son called Elis Bach at Nant Gwrtheyrn, northwest Wales. All of the large Bach family were quite ordinary, save for Elis, whose legs were

so short that his body seemed only a few inches from the ground when he walked. His voice was also small and squeaky. However, he was very sharp, and could find his way among the rocks pretty well when he went in quest of his father’s sheep and goats . . . Everybody believed Elis to have been a changeling.

Meanwhile, in Yorkshire in 1884 Mr J. Cocksedge recalled how, as a child, he had often looked in wonder at hat-maker Fanny Bradley, the tiniest woman he had ever seen. Fanny’s brother Tom was of similar stature, and it was said that when they

were infants their mother took them with her to a field adjoining Almscliff Crag, where she had occasion to go to shear or reap some corn . . . While this woman was busy at work these fairies came and stole her children. When she found that her children had gone she cried and was so much troubled that the fairies brought them back, and placed them where they found them. And they said that that was the reason Fanny and her brother were so little.

Other writers, including a niece or nephew of Fanny, stated that she was so small as to have once stood in a man’s pocket when measuring him for a hat. Whatever the exact size of Fanny and Tom, their quasi-changeling status (the fairies did something to them, before handing them back) seems to have been reinforced by the fact that they and one other Bradley child had this appearance, while all the others were quite normal. We can only guess how such people made it into adulthood at all. Perhaps their parents were too kind-hearted to subject them to potentially fatal changeling tests; perhaps they underwent them but survived. Such cases also raise the question of when parents stopped trying to get their real child back, and what it felt like to accept that you would live with a fairy for the rest of your life.

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Richard Sugg is lecturer in Renaissance Literature at the University of Durham. He is the author of several books, including John Donne and The Smoke of the Soul.

Reprinted with permission from Fairies: A Dangerous History by Richard Sugg, published by Reaktion Books Ltd. © 2018 by Richard Sugg. All rights reserved.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

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