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Elgin: Days Gone By - Table of Contents

Chapter 2


The Grave Robbers

Today's medical schools work with bodies donated in the interest of science, but anatomy students of yesteryear had difficulty obtaining subjects for dissection. Some cadavers were supplied by grave robbers. A band of these so-called resurrectionists, students of a St. Charles physician, were active in 1849. After their operations were discovered, an enraged mob attacked the home of the doctor, mortally wounding him and a student.

When a body snatching occurred in Elgin in 1878, community revulsion was quickly aroused. A suicide, Gardner Hazeltine, had no local relatives and was buried in the potter's field section of Channing Street cemetery. Frank Brown, the son of a respected Elgin doctor, was a student at Rush Medical College. Unbeknownst to his father, he planned to dig up Hazeltine's body for sale while it was still comparatively fresh.

Brown and a hired laborer, Sam Johnson, opened what they thought was Hazeltine's grave. Working without light in the darkness, they instead uncovered the plot of a poor German immigrant woman buried nearby. Removing the corpse from the coffin and encasing it in sacks, they placed it in the back of a carriage belonging to Doctor Brown. The resurrectionists then drove off in baste without filling up the empty grave. The yawning hole was discovered the next morning and attracted hundreds of morbidly curious citizens to the cemetery.

The body Brown and Johnson delivered to the Chicago Homeopathic College was so badly decomposed that it was not accepted. Neither was their explanation about how the body was acquired, and suspicions were aroused. Elgin's city marshal, John Powers, traced cemetery mud dropped from the carriage wheels to the Villa Street road to Chicago. Telegraphing the Police in that city, be was informed that two suspects already were under arrest.When Powers returned to Elgin by train with his prisoners, a crowd estimated at five hundred to a thousand assembled in the vicinity of the east side North Western depot. Fearing mob action, Powers had the train stop at DuPage Street and hustled his prisoners from there to the lock up.

The dead woman's husband seemed indifferent to the outrage. He apparently accepted a settlement offered by Brown's family in return for not pressing charges. The prisoners were freed on bond, and there is no record of the case coming to trial.

Parade of the Horribles

One of the most memorable Fourth of Julys in Elgin was observed back in 1878, on the 102nd anniversary of our nation's independence. "Never before has our city originated and carried out such doings of the day ... and never before were the multitudes in attendance," reported the Daily News. "From near and far they came, having heard that a celebration on a tremendous scale was to take place, and none were disappointed."

At sunrise, bells rang and the roar of a cannon and crackling fireworks announced the great day. National Guard units from Chicago and Rockford, joined by their drum corps and led by the Elgin company, paraded to Lovell's Grove at the head of Douglas Avenue. The program featured patriotic music, a reading of the Declaration, and an oration by the Honorable J. S. Doolittle, a state senator from Wisconsin.

After the ceremony, some of the audience stayed to picnic, but the majority followed the military units to the fairgrounds. There, citizen soldiers performed complex drill movements that impressed even the Civil War veterans. In the afternoon, there were boat and tub races between the two bridges, with prizes for the winners, and members of local gun clubs displayed their skill shooting glass balls out of the air. The day closed with a fireworks display at Fountain Square.

This was a customary nineteenth century Elgin Fourth of July. What then attracted so many visitors to the city, what made the day so unforgettable that it would be talked about for years afterward?

At half past eight in the morning, before the formal program, the "great bell of Moscow" in the woolen mill tower tolled the start of the burlesque Parade of Calithumpians, Antiques and Horribles under the direction of the Mystic Krewe of Komus. This cavalcade of fantastic costumes and comic floats, nearly a mile long, wound its way through all parts of the city past crowded sidewalks. Under the command of Grand Marshall Count De Bong Whong, the marchers saluted King Rex. They included Sitting Bull, the Barber of Seville, the Cardiff Giant, the Siamese Twins, Father Time, Monsieur De Brick Bat, a bear on horseback, and a three-legged man.

Each department of the watch factory entered a float, the most notable being a large tin watch, about six feet tall, mounted on a wagon. Where the stem should have been, appeared the head of a masked man. As the parade moved along, the stem of the watch would keep turning around. Another man inside the case turned the hour and minute hands.

The lampoon spared neither the public schools nor the town lamp lighter. Satirized were the press, the Board of Trade, the police force, the Greenback Party, and Communists. One of the most popular floats exhibited what in polite language could be called a large donkey surrounded by a bunch of clowns. Everyone knew what they represented the Mayor and City Council!

Buffalo Bill

The summer of 1896 was drawing to a sultry close. It was late August and the opening of school was approaching, but small boys were in a fever of excitement. Colonel William R. Cody, Pony Express rider, Army Scout, dime novel hero, and showman, was coming to Elgin!

The smallboys exchanged tales of how Buffalo Bill had slain and scalped Yellow Hand at War Bonnet Creek, had killed 4,000 buffaloes in 18 months to feed railroad workmen, and had ridden 350 miles in less than 60 hours carrying dispatches for General Sheridan. Colorful posters all over town and on rural barns heralded Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World- "The Only Exhibition in All The World That Has No Counterpart!" A national institution this year, the show would travel 10,000 miles and play in 132 cities.

Three trains, 39 cars in all, pulled the pageant up from its previous stand in Aurora and unloaded a herd of buffaloes and 400 or more horses. A big tent, said to be the largest ever stretched in Elgin, arose in Driving Park, east of Liberty Street between what are now May and Jay Streets. The small boys supervised.

In the morning, the small boys pushed to the front of the crowd along East Chicago Street to watch the parade led by Cody driving a span of horses. The marks of time showed in his hair and beard, streaked with white. A cowboyband, real Cheyenne and Brule Indians, and troops of horsemen followed. All eyes focused on the Deadwood stage coach ("The Most Famous Vehicle Extant!"), perforated with bullet holes received in attacks of Indians and outlaws. Six Wells Fargo men were said to have lost their lives defending the coach's strong box.

Their elders had cautioned the small boys the show might be an abbreviated version of the Chicago stop, but Elgin got it all. A solid mass of good natured showgoers filled Fountain Square by 1:30 that afternoon, waiting for street cars and horse-drawn omnibuses. General admission was 50 cents. A crowd estimated at 8,000 attended the afternoon performance and 12,000 came that evening.

A grand review led by Buffalo Bill, astride the magnificent sorrel given him by General Miles, introduced the horsemen: Mexican vaqueros, South American gauchos, Bedouins, Cossacks, European cavalrymen resplendent in their uniforms, and U.S. troopers. Wide-eyed small boys witnessed a thrilling horse race between a cowboy, a Cossack, a vaquero, an Arab and an Indian; a Pony Express demonstration; an Indian attack on an immigrant wagon train, repulsed by Buffalo Bill with scouts and cowboys; and the skilled horsemanship of the Rough Riders of the World.

Little Annie Oakley's phenomenal marksmanship with pistol and rifle prepared the audience for the continuous crack of firearms that followed. Sharp-shooting was exhibited by Johnny Baker with a shotgun and Buffalo Bill with a rifle.

The romantic picture of the West and the distorted view of the Indian brought to town by Buffalo Bill didn't die. It continued in thousands of movies and television shows and remains alive in rodeos. But the small boys of Elgin in 1896 experienced the myth's development and saw the legendary Scout in person. For them it was a never-to-be-forgotten live Star Wars.

The Mysterious Airship

Strange apparitions in the sky are not a phenomenon of the space age. They were seen in ancient and medieval times, long before the first Unidentified Flying Object was reported over Americain 1947. This sighting was followed by a series of reports of so-called flying saucers. One of those UFOs, a "luminous object, throwing off a red glow, traveling at a high rate of speed, just above the tree tops," was allegedly seen above Elgin in the spring of 1950, but it didn't attract as much attention as the Mysterious airship of 1897.

There were no airplanes or dirigibles existing on the planet Earth when a kind of winged cigar with a searchlight was seen over Oakland, California, in November, 1896. Fueled by rumors, alcohol, optical illusions, hoaxes, and hallucinations, and powered by suggestion and enterprising newsmen, the thing traveled eastward. It was sighted in Kansas City, Omaha and elsewhere.

It was inevitable, Elgin being an up-and-coming city, that the airship would appear here. In fact, its arrival was anticipated. "The mysterious airship, or whatever it may be, that is hovering over cities in Kansas and Nebraska may heave in sight of Elgin ere long," the Daily News forecast on March 30, 1897, and proceeded to give a description:

"The airship seems to be under perfect control of the navigator, rising, lowering, and changing direction and speed in prompt obediences to the steering gear. The ship has a brilliant electric headlight by which the movements of the airship maybe watched long after the ship is lost in darkness. The speed of the airship is estimated by those who have seen it to be from 60 to 70 miles an hour."

Sure enough, on the evening of April 11, 1897, about 50 people gathering on the Chicago Street bridge watched a bright light until it disappeared in the northwest. For those who missed the visitor, it conveniently reappeared the next night when it seemed to be several hundred feet in the air over the southeastern part of town.Early the following morning, Kerny Hunn, who lived on South Grove Avenue, heard an explosion and rushing sound like a small cyclone in his front yard. Then came a thud and crash.  Rushing out to the littered street, he saw in the dawn's dim light, a stranger busy tinkering with an airship that had bellows and wings. Kerny yelled to wait, but the stranger made no reply and soared away.

The wreckage left behind was carried downtown where it was placed on exhibition at Frank Lasher's saloon. The capture comprised two large galvanized iron tubes, pointed at each end, and secured by a light wooden framework.

There were scoffers who insisted that the light was a small lantern fastened to the tail of Billy Rahn's kite, and some cynics claimed the mysterious apparatus was only part of an abandoned river raft. But those who believe in UFOs may also believe that Elgin, in 1897, was visited by an Extra-Terrestrial in a Close Encounter of the Third Kind.

Street Carnivals

Earlier residents of Elgin were fond of recalling some special occasions they had shared and enjoyed together, such as the Parade of the Antiques and Horribles in 1878 and the National Guard Encampment in 1909. Among these memorable events were the street fairs of 1901 and 1902, when the entire downtown area became the setting for huge carnivals.

The first of these was organized by the Elgin Street Fair Company for the benefit of the Larkin Home for Children. It was supported by contributions from businesses hoping to profit from the crowds attracted by the festivities. Local attendance was swelled by visitors from nearby towns and cities. Some of the shows were positioned on vacant lots, but most of them were on the streets where they would block traffic the least. Merchants constructed street booths in front of their stores to sell their wares as well as soft drinks, candy, confetti, and souvenirs.

There was a big ferris wheel on DuPage Street. Spectators could gape at Jolly Joe Grimes, who claimed to weigh 742 pounds, or see Mademoiselle La Paloma ascend in a balloon and drop to earth by parachute. Those who paid a fee could ride on a camel at the Streets of Cairo (the mayors of Elgin and Aurora rode one together), while the Streets of India on North State Street featured dagger throwing, trapeze work, and high diving into a tank of water.

How Lunette, the Flying Lady, could sail through the air mystified her audiences, and daring males were fascinated by dancing girls moving through colored lights at the Electric Theatre. The Elgin Fire Department, bells clanging and horses at full gallop, made demonstration runs. A Queen of the Carnival was selected by popular vote to preside over the six nights of revelry.

It was all so much fun, especially since the Ministerial Association didn't approve, that the Elks Club sponsored another street fair the next year. The stands and platforms required more than 20,000 feet of lumber. The Elks strung up more than 2,000 incandescent lights and purchased 4,000 yards of decorative bunting.

The carnival opened with a floral parade of decorated carriages and floats headed by the Elgin Military Band. Street cars operated until midnight through packed throngs, and the city's entire force of 16 patrolmen were on duty to keep order. There were animal shows, a Congress of Midgets, and lady athletes. Dare Devil Grant rode a bicycle while juggling electrically lighted clubs along a tightrope suspended fifty. feet above the street. One of the most popular attractions was the Great London Ghost Show. Living people appeared and disappeared before the spectators' eyes, and no one could fathom from where they came and where they went to.

One of the sensations wasn't planned. Chiquita, the Doll Lady, billed as "the smallest woman in the world," jumped her contract with the management and skipped town without paying her hotel bill.

The fairs were not without critics other than the clergy. Some claimed it was illegal to grant the use of public streets to a private group. Others were disgusted when the merrymaking got out of hand. The Elks admitted that the carnival appealed mainly to those whose lives "were not surrounded by refinement," and that they were neither a major benefit to the merchants or the taxpayers.

And yet the paying customers would say they got their money's worth. Television brings the world's wonders to our living rooms, but back in 1901 and 1902 you had to join the crowd in downtown Elgin to see them.

The Guardsmen

Among the most common of the scenes of Elgin pictured on old post cards are photographs of soldiers. Thousands of these cards were mailed from this city during the two-week encampment of the Illinois National Guard, July 10-23, 1909.

Wing Park and adjoining fields leased by the state were transformed into Camp Deneen, named after Governor Charles S. Deneen, the commander-in-chief. During the first week, three regiments of infantry and one of cavalry. based in Chicago, occupied the site. They were followed the second week by the Third Infantry, which included Elgin's Company E, the Sixth Infantry, and an artillery battalion. These units were composed chiefly of troops from northern Illinois. The number of men and officers coming to Elgin was about three thousand.

Arriving with the guardsmen were six freight cars of equipment, including nearly 2,000 tents and 60,000 rounds of blank ammunition. Elgin merchants, bidding for the contracts, supplied the food: 3, 100 pounds of beef, 4,000 pounds of bacon, 6,600 pounds of sugar, 1,800 pounds of onions, 5,700 pounds of fish, 2,200 pounds of lard, 1,472 gallons of milk, 1,000 dozen eggs, and 1,400 pounds of salt.

Prior to the Guard's arrival, fears were expressed from several quarters for the safety of Elgin womanhood. The YWCA board passed a resolution suggesting to mothers that "young girls not be allowed on the streets evenings during the encampment unless properly chaperoned by older persons" and declaring that "such gatherings always attract a large retinue of camp followers of both men and women of evil intent."

These and similar words of caution were regarded as insulting to the reputation of the citizen soldiers and brought a protest from an Elgin doctor serving as surgeon of the Third Infantry:

"Remember that a patriotic heart beats within the breast of every soldier, and he is ready to lay his life on the altar of his country's honor and likewise for a woman's virtue. That the soldier will flirt cannot be denied, even with the YWCA if they are so inclined. And who could blame them!"

The golf course became a tent city, and the country club opened its links to the public while the soldiers drilled and skirmished amid clouds of choking dust. One mock battle was fought west of town, with the cavalry of a retreating "Dubuque" army seeking to delay the advance of a "Chicago" army toward the railroad station at Plato Center. Troops maneuvered around the Britton farm and up Larkin and Highland Avenues, while officers rode about shouting commands and buglers sounded orders.

The encampment attracted the largest crowd of visitors the city had ever known. Hotels were jammed. Stores, decorated with flags and red, white and blue bunting, did a brisk trade. Streetcars were filled with spectators going to and from the camp. A crowd estimated at forty thousand attended one of the grand reviews before Governor Deneen. Among the regular Army officers observing the training was Major General Frederick Dent Grant, son of the famed Civil War commander.

The weather was ideal, the absence of rain prevented damage to the golf course, and no YWCA board member was molested. The Daily News concluded that "in all its history Elgin has never known two more lively weeks than those during which the state militia camped at Wing Park."

The Poultry Show

There was a time in Elgin, remembered by many still living, when a neighbor's rooster eliminated the need for an alarm clock. Chicken coops in back yards were about as common as one and two-holers', stores offered incubators, wire, feed scratch, and chick mash; and the Courier ran a weekly advice column with such articles as "How to Overcome the Scarcity of Fertile Eggs at Winter Season."

Annual exhibitions of the Elgin Poultry Association were eagerly awaited. Its sixteenth show held in 1915 at the old Coliseum on South Grove Avenue was especially memorable. More than 100 breeders came from seven states and northern Illinois. Practically every bit of the large floor space was taken up by decorated display booths.

For an admission charge of 15 cents, visitors flocked in to view 1,846 birds. Some ducks and geese were shown, but chickens were the main attraction. There were all kinds, including one with three wings, and Japanese Bantams topped with hair instead of feathers. The most popular breeds were Buff Wyandottes, Rose Combed Rhode Island Reds, and Black Orpingtons.

Amid a background chorus of clucking, squawking and crowing, the association awarded 100 silver trophies to winners or prizes in various categories. Unlike a modern auto show, there were no attractive models present to enhance the exhibits. Instead Lady Evelyn, a huge White Orpington, reigned supreme. She was judged the best bird.

The show was filled with excitement for poultry fanciers. On opening night there was a flurry when a large goose escaped from its cage and ran up one aisle and down another, chased by one of the judges. Besides the opportunity to look at arched tails, faultless combs, and sleek feathers, the week-long show sustained interest with contests. Each day, visitors were invited to guess the number of kernels in a jar of corn. In the nightly crowdown, six birds were placed close together in a comer while a crowd gathered to cheer them on. A White Leghorn, surely a favorite in his neighborhood, won the title with 38 crows in 30 minutes.

Suspense mounted daily in the egg-laying competition, which began as soon as the show opened and continued all week. Each of the four Elgin entrants had a large coop housing four hens and a cock. August Pflaum's Rhode Island Reds took an early lead with an output of four the first day, but they were soon surpassed by Allen Norton's quintet.

The great 1915 exhibit was something to crow about. It drew the largest attendance of any local show, and its promoters claimed it put Elgin on the poultry map of Illinois. For those who may have been inspired by this description of its events to chuck their digital clock radios and provide themselves with a ready supply of fresh eggs, Elgin's zoning ordinance now prohibits keeping poultry within the city.

The Blizzard of '18

On January 11-12, 1918, a blizzard-the second in less than a week-buried northern Illinois in huge drifts that blocked roads, shut down the street car lines, and closed some factories and stores. The storm and bitter cold were considered the worst since 1881. For about 300 residents of Elgin and the surrounding area, it led to an unforgettable experience on the Milwaukee Road. Shoppers and commuters boarded two delayed "Elgin trains," the 4:35 and 5:20 locals, at Union Station in Chicago about six o'clock on Friday evening, the 11th. Anticipating the drifts, the first train was drawn by two locomotives and the second by three. The trains inched through the blowing snow, finally crunching to a halt before a seven-foot wall of white about three quarters of a mile west of Roselle. There they would be mired for more than 40 hours.

The first night was tolerable. One of the trains happened to be carrying a diner, so everyone was fed, and the steam engines kept up the heat. Card games were organized, and reading materials exchanged. Quartets, sextets, and choruses were formed to provide music. When Saturday morning arrived, the drifts had climbed to ten feet or more, and two of the engines which had been heating the cars had died. Passengers volunteered to shovel coal into the boilers, working in relays because of the severe cold.

The food was now exhausted, and other volunteers struck out for Roselle to purchase provisions or struggled through the deep snow to farm houses for large cans of water. These efforts solved the food problem, but, one by one, the engines failed. Householders in the unincorporated little village-its population was then probably less than 500-welcomed the stranded passengers, who were carried into town by bob sleigh. Although they slept three and four to a bed, some had to spend the night in the Roselle State Bank and the telephone exchange. More than a 100 remained on the tracks, huddled in one car and attempting to keep warm by burning soft coal in a hard coal stove. The Chicago Telephone Company (now Illinois Bell) sent reassuring messages to anxious families in Elgin. Roselle merchants kept their establishments open, supplying warm clothing at fair prices, and the town's three saloons were turned into restaurants. The groceries were cleaned out.

Meanwhile relief efforts were under way from Galewood and Elgin. Snow plows carrying shovelers reached the stranded trains by three o'clock Sunday afternoon. An engine pulling a baggage car and three coaches finally arrived in Elgin at four o'clock. A crowd Of relatives and friends were gathered to welcome them. Some of the women could not refrain from weeping with joy, but one of the men called out, AWhat, no band?"

Miss Elgin of 1925

Elgin's first entry in the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City was selected at a Pageant of Progress held in 1925. Sponsored by the Boosters' Committee of the Elgin Motor Club, this was a six-day event aimed at advertising the Watch City. it featured a merchants' and manufacturers' exhibition, a display of new cars, a carnival and nightly musical review, and a competition to choose the city's "100 percent perfect baby". But it was the bathing beauty contest that aroused the most interest and controversy.

Considering Elgin's reticence in approaching something new, this was a daring venture. Only the year before the City Council had ruled that both men and women bathers in the new Wing Park pool must have suits with skirts.

The Boosters took a forthright stand about the display of feminine pulchritude, announcing that "only real men can sponsor a National Beauty Pageant. Small ones scoff at it." They nonetheless assured parents "they could see nothing but beauty when these young ladies appear in their bathing attire, for. . . where the environment is cheerful, no smallness of thought can exist."

Attracted by local prizes and the dream of becoming Miss America, 36 contestants between the ages of 16 and 30 entered, among them a Girl in the Golden Mask. Each was given an Annette Kellerman two-in-one bathing suit. To insure impartiality, the judges were all from Chicago, and the participants were introduced by number rather than name.

A preliminary elimination reduced the number of contestants to 24 for the final judging. This took more than three hours. It was a lengthy process considering that present day frosting on the cheesecake, such as demonstrating talent or answering questions, was not then part of the format. The girls were rated only on grace of carriage, form and facial beauty. Because the judges were deadlocked over the final four, however, another standard-one followed in horse shows-was applied when a dentist was called to the stage to inspect their teeth.

Lucille Burns, a graduate of Elgin High and a clerk at Swan's Department Store, was declared the winner. Miss Elgin of 1925 was presented with a sash, scepter and robe at a coronation ball. Many of the losers refused to attend the dance. Apparently believers in quantitative standards, they held a protest meeting because measurements had not been taken.

The contest was denounced as "demoralizing" and "debasing@ by the Elgin Ministerial Association. The clergymen's statement quoted a businessman's opinion that "It was disgusting to go up there and see a lot of half-naked girls parading about."

The Boosters replied by asking the question, "Is the objective of Elgin's citizenry to have a live or dead city? Let us not be prudes but rather broad-minded and progressive."

A bobbed hair brunette, Miss Elgin had an extensive wardrobe to wear at pageant festivities: a red crepe de chine gown with silver stockings and slippers and a hair band to match; a sports outfit of British tweed with black hose and slippers; a flesh colored beaded gown, silver stockings and slippers; a gown of yellow georgette crepe, trimmed with gold and metallic lace, with gold colored stockings and shoes; and a peach colored silk dress with filigreed lace covering with matching peach hose and a black lace hat. Her bathing suit was purple and green iridescent taffeta with black silk stockings.

Miss Elgin was accompanied to Atlantic City by her mother. No contestants were permitted to leave their hotel rooms without their chaperones. Lucille was pleased to report to the folks back home that only at the official judging did she have to appear in a bathing suit, and the judges remained at least five feet away from any of the participants.

Although eliminated in the first round, Miss Elgin displayed a resourceful loyalty to her city's major industry. In one parade she constantly pointed to the watch on her wrist, and afterward wherever she went among the crowds, there were calls for the correct time. The Boosters were pleased.

The Crusader

Despite the growing awareness of the adverse effects on health of cigarette smoking, there is little mention today of Lucy Page Gaston. Once among the most celebrated reformers in America, she was too far ahead of her time. Raised by parents active in the abolition and temperance reform movements, she never married.

At first she took up the anti-saloon cause, and then became increasingly obsessed with the evils of cigarettes. A teacher, she discovered that her poorest students were smokers and later came to believe they would later take to drink, turn to crime, and eventually die of a dreaded disease. Gaston published a Harvey, Illinois, newspaper to promote restrictive legislation and in 1901 founded the National Anti-Cigarette League. For a time her efforts seemed to be successful, especially in the Midwest and Far West. Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin were among several states banning the sale of cigarettes.

Gaston came to Elgin in 1910 under the auspices of the YMCA to form a local chapter of the Anti-Cigarette League. At the organizing meeting in the First Methodist Church, she explained that cigarettes were perilous because the burning tobacco and wrapper formed a gas which poisoned the brain.

Local residents emphasized other evils of nicotine. Principal William L. Goble testified that no inveterate user of tobacco ever received an Elgin High School diploma. He claimed smokers lacked concentration and ambition and concluded that scholarship and smoking do not go together. Henry A. Rice, superintendent of the Star Manufacturing Company, warned that "businessmen and corporations pick boys without yellow stain on their fingers."

Passing out pledge cards, the crusader pleaded: "I come not here to fill your heads with laws, but rather to fill your hearts with a sense of what is right."

The First World War snuffed out the anti-cigarette campaign as well as other reform movements. When Lucy Page Gaston formed her League, less than five billion cigarettes were sold; at her death in 1924 consumption had risen to more than 73 million. It is one of life's ironies that she died of throat cancer.


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