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Iowa Historical Record Quarterly

Published Quarterly by the State Historical Society, Iowa City, Iowa


VOL. XIII. April, 1897. No. 2



     JAMES M. ELSON was born on the 6th day of November, 1838, at West La Fayette, Coshocton County, Ohio, and was the fourth child of Samuel and Matilda Elson. They were natives of Virginia, and in their early childhood removed to Ohio, at which place they were married, and nine children were born to them.
     The family removed to Iowa in 1852, locating on a farm situated in Linn County. In the daily labors of this pioneer farm James' youth was spent.
     The opportunities for an education were limited, principally to the winter months of the district school, where he became proficient in the common branches. He inherited from his parents a splendid physique, marvelous power of endurance, and a physical bravery that knew no fear, while his sympathies were in harmony with a generous heart and one of the truest natures.
     The men with whom he came in contact were rugged and self- reliant and his association with those hardy pioneers of civilization imbued him with an unfaltering energy and an indomitable will. His character was thus unconsciously being molded and formed by surroundings that imparted strength and steadfastness to it.
     His entrance into manhood was upon the field of battle. When the flash of the first gun, which thundered down upon Sumter, brought a nation into line, he was among the first to offer his service as a volunteer soldier, to defend and maintain the government.
     He enlisted in Company C, Ninth Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry, on the 30th of July, 1861, and was mustered into the service of the United States, at Dubuque, on the 24th of September.
     The first duty to which the regiment was assigned, was guarding a line of railroad in Missouri.
     The Regiment joined the Army of the Southwest, and began its first campaign on the 28th of January, 1862, which resulted in the memorable battle of Pea Ridge on the 7th of March. The Ninth' Iowa was the first under fire, and was in the heat of the combat during the entire day. At the close of the day they had gained their first victory which proved to be dearly bought, as they had met with heavy losses.
     Jeremiah E. Elson, an older brother of James, who was in the same Company, was severely wounded.
     The Color Guards were organized immediately after the battle, and James was promoted Color Sergeant, as a recognition of the cool, daring bravery that he exercised during the battle. The position is not only one of honor, but also very dangerous. Prior to the making of a charge, the Color Sergeant is instructed to carry the regimental colors, and make for a certain place on the enemy's line of works, which is to be the guide of the regiment. When the signal is given, he makes for the position ordered, and plants the colors at the designated place; should he be shot down, the next guard is to seize the colors, and carry out the orders.
     The Army of the Southwest had been effectual in driving the Confederate forces beyond the limits of Missouri and Arkansas, after which the Ninth Iowa was assigned to the Fifteenth Army Corps, and embarked for the lower Mississippi on the 18th of December.
     It participated in the attempt to take Chickasaw Bayou, the assault and capture of Arkansas Post, and Jackson, Mississippi. A position was taken in the outer works of Vicksburg on the 18th of May. After severe skirmishing the following day, they gained an admirable position within about seventy-five yards of the enemy's works. A general assault was ordered to be made along the entire line at ten A. M. on the 22nd.
     The crowning effort, the final consummation of merit, the cool and determined character of James M. Elson was brought out before assembled thousands on that 22d day of May, 1863, when they needed a brave man to carry and place the emblem of our nation on the enemy's works in front of Vicksburg.
     The Army of the Tennessee was in line at the appointed hour, and Color Sergeant Elson was ordered to lead the charge. His reply was: "If my life is spared to reach the breast works, I will plant the flag of the Ninth Iowa there." The order was given to forward, and facing a storm of shot and shell, dealing death and destruction on every side, he led the regiment, and the regiment led the entire army. He was unable to fulfill his promise for in making the attempt to plant the flag on the enemy's works, he was shot down within a few feet of them, and on looking back, he learned that every one of the color Guards had fallen, either killed or wounded, and that the regiment was badly shattered. He was bleeding profusely from a wound in his thigh, which would soon have resulted in death had not a brave comrade crawled over to him and tied his hat cord around the limb, thus compressing the arteries and saving his life. He lay on the field in this condition until nearly dark, before he could be rescued. The flag, wet with the crimson stains of his life's blood, was unfastened from the staff, and drawn from under the prostrate body of its bearer, at the time he was removed from the field.
     General Steele, the Division Commander, who was watching the charge from an eminence, witnessed the brave dash of the Color Sergeant, whose gallantry so forcibly impressed him that he issued an order on the field of battle, that he be promoted to any vacancy among the commissioned officers of his Company, as a recognition of his brave conduct. A Lieutenant's commission was the reward, and across the face of it was printed in large red letters, ``Promoted for good conduct at Vicksburg."
     He lay in the hospital for some weeks, struggling between life and death, and when he finally gained sufficient strength, a leave of absence was granted for him to be taken home. His weight was reduced from one hundred and sixty pounds to eighty pounds. His mother's careful nursing soon brought about a return of his usual health and strength.
     The Grand Lodge of Iowa granted a special dispensation to Benton City Lodge, No. 81, to confer the Masonic degrees on him as another recognition of his gallant conduct.
     He returned to the field after an absence of two months, remaining until the close of the year, when the regiment was granted a thirty days' furlough. On his return home this time, he plighted his vows at the marriage altar, with Miss Margaret Anderson, on the 2nd of January, 1864. He returned with his regiment at the expiration of the furlough and participated in Sherman's historic campaign. Lieutenant Elson was inspecting his Company before Atlanta on the 24th of August, when a stray ball from the enemy struck the branch of a tree, and glancing down struck him on the shoulder, passed through the upper and posterior part of the lung, and lodged in the pleural cavity, where it became encysted. He was obliged to leave the field for one month, and on his return was promoted Quartermaster, which position he held during the remainder of the war.
     At the close of the war Mr. Elson returned to his wife and home, preferring the peaceful pursuits of life to those of war. Three sons and one daughter were given to bless their lives, the sons, Frank A., Edward J., and Harry A., survive their parents.
     Mrs. Elson died in 1876, and four years later he married Miss Addie C. Lewis, who also died in 1891.
     Mr. Elson was a man who inspired confidence the moment he came into your presence, and he was honored at various times, with positions of trust. He was appointed Postmaster for Shellsburg, and filled the position for a period of eight years, and in 1893 was elected Sheriff of Benton County, on the Republican ticket. The large majority of votes which he received was a tribute to his personal popularity, and the esteem in which he was held was manifested by a popular demonstration. He wore the highest decoration awarded by the government for acts of heroism voluntarily performed, having been awarded a "Medal of Honor" by the Congress of the United States.
     A few weeks after entering upon his official duties as sheriff, the rebel bullet that had lurked in his body for so many years, accomplished what it was intended to do sooner, ending his life on the 26th of March, 1894. When death came it disclosed, not only the warm affection, friendly devotion, and high esteem of his associates, but also the firm and enduring hold he had upon the affection of his country everywhere.
     The funeral services were held at Shellsburg, on the 28th, under the auspices of the G. A. R. and the Masonic Fraternity, and the remains were laid to rest in Oakwood Cemetery.
     His deeds are carved in letters of life on the unbroken columns of the country's union to be handed down to the future generations as a tribute to his bravery.
     The battle flag that he carried at Vicksburg, is now sacredly treasured in a hermetically sealed glass case in the archives of the State Capitol as a memorial of his bravery. It is numbered "28" in the State's battle flag collection, and contains the following extract taken from the history of the regiment: "On the 2nd of May (1863) in line with the whole Army of the Tennessee the regiment went first up to the assault. Its colors went down a few feet from the rebel works after the last one of its Guards had fallen either killed or wounded, and its dripping folds were drawn thence from under the bleeding body of its prostrate bearer."



     Our little prairie community was very much like any other one of a thousand such that forty or fifty years ago took possession of the rolling plains of eastern Iowa. How any one of us came to that particular prairie, hardly one of us could tell. We started out from older communities not knowing whither we went, and presently found ourselves on the prairie all strangers at the outset, hailing from every section, united only in enthusiasm and the strong determination to win home and fortune. Those who were first on the ground selected lands which charmed alike by beauty and by nearness to water and to wood, at that time the only source of fuel. Those coming later dropped down on this quarter-section or that as circumstances seemed to dictate. Of course we all knew each other soon. If we did not know a man's name, we had no hesitation in riding over to ask him, nor was there any delicacy as to reporting, to the limits of opportunity, any facts ascertainable about a newcomer, his wife, children, horses, personal history, and belongings. For the crystallizing or organization of such a heterogeneous section of humanity, Sundays seemed to offer best occasion. Father Blew stirred somewhat to life the community spirit by riding the prairie all one Saturday afternoon and inviting everybody to meeting at his house at two o'clock the next day. Of course everybody went, even although everybody knew that Father Blew's house was no bigger than the average at that time and contained no more than two or three rooms at most. But it was summer time and those who could not get indoors, could stay out and look in by the windows or even sit in the wagons and hear through the open door what was going on within. Father Blew was a preacher, sure enough, although to what communion he adhered I never thought to inquire. His generosity included us all, and the entire absence of formality in his mode of worship made it easy for all to feel at home in his religious meetings. Otherwise he lived a quiet secluded life, his companion a spinster sister, very reticent, but a famous maker of delicacies withal, always for the gratification of other people. The house was farther noted as the first in the neighborhood to have a garden enclosed by a picket fence. There was also a fence before the door and in the narrow yard the blue-grass grew right up to the very base- board. There were no romping children there to trample it out, or keep the ground about the cottage bare. This was believed to be the first appearance of bluegrass in that county and there are those today who would derive the name of the now universal sod from that of the old-time prairie preacher. However this may all be, the Sunday invitation once accepted, was oft repeated and with the same results, again and again, until meeting at Father Blew's became the regular thing and any fine Sabbath afternoon would bring out such a crowd of people that "movers" sometimes stopped their white-covered wagons on the highway and sent some one up to ask "if it was a funeral?"
     It was on some such Sunday in the early fall that Father Blew closed his sermon with the announcement that after singing, all the men of the congregation were invited to meet around Gerrit Simpson's wagon outside to consider a matter of great importance to the community. How the news got outside I do not know, but no second announcement was necessary. By the time the tones of Old Hundred had died away and the benediction was well pronounced such a crowd had gathered about Simpson's wagon that Mrs. Simpson, who had been in the house, could not see it at all, and Father Blew found great difficulty in getting into the forum for himself appointed. The old gentleman wore a pair of home-spun pantaloons of a tint since irrevently designated butternut, and his coat was of the cut known as shad-belly with shiny brass buttons, but his vest seemed clerical and we all wondered where he got it. As he rose that afternoon, in Simpson's wagon, and looked over his glasses at the crowd, he seemed so dignified, and yet withal so benevolent that the people instinctively recognized their leader and required not so much as a gesture for perfect silence and attention.
     "Friends and neighbors," began Father Blew, "I have as you know no children of my own, but I notice that all—or most all of you are men of family; this is a most salubrious climate and God has given us many children. They are like prairie-chickens in a buckwheat patch in fall, and yet so far they are learning nothing. They are ignorant children. They know nothing except the wild freedom of these great meadows, and the skill for the little daily tasks which you assign them. How shall these children become citizens of the great Republic unless they learn to know its history and can read its laws? We must have a school. All you who are in favor of a school for this community raise your hands!" Every hand went up, except that of Peter Mitchell, the Englishman, but he was deaf and could hardly have been expected to give assent to such a proposition until it was explained to him. "Now," continued Father Blew, "in order to have a school we must have a school- house; our first school- house back in Ohio was built of logs and I propose a log school-house here. Gerrit Simpson offers a half-acre of his hill top for a school-yard and if we all turn in and bring logs from the timber 'Friday we can have a raising-bee Saturday, and next Sunday morning will see a new school-house."
     The proposition was received with shouts. Gerrit Simpson's half-acre was agreed to as centrally located, and that quiet gentleman was induced to make it an acre. Every farmer proposed what he could do, most agreeing to bring logs, although Sam Waterson was allowed to bring from his quarry a load or two of rock for corners, chimney and so forth, and "Sawmill" Johnnie promised slabs enough for the floor and seats and inch boards for the desks. All was conditioned on fine weather. But in those days for some reason the weather was always fine. Morning after morning in autumn the sun rose gloriously over the low wave- like hills of our horizon and chased away the chill of night, and at eve he sank red again into the grassy plain just as for the sailor he drops beneath the level of the ocean. And so the sun rose fair on Friday, and it was soon evident that we were really a community and not a mere accidental clustering of families, for over the whole prairie there was a common stir. Everywhere teams and their drivers were on the road; mostly "running-gears," the driver astride the hounds behind, his pendent feet and legs knocking the pollen from the asters as he passed. In half an hour every team was out of sight, lost in the big woods that then occupied Skunk River bottoms; but by afternoon Simpson's hill looked like a gigantic wood-pile. There were logs enough to build two school- houses to say nothing of rock and slabs. Peter Mitchell brought in silence a load of lime and covered it with some of Saw-mill Johnnie's slabs. Somebody else had not forgotten sand, and Mr. Lyon, the richest man in the neighborhood—he loaned money to the rest—sent split walnut clap-boards for the roof, just what he had left over from roofing the barn; he hoped there would be enough. Father Blew in work-a-day dress stood there all day keeping tally, and great was his satisfaction as he read to his sister at night how the forests of Lebanon did once furnish trees to build the temple of Solomon.
     Saturday morning the sun rose early, but there were many on our prairie who that day saw him rise. There was business on hand, and excitement such as we never knew again until that day the shot was fired on Sumter, and then it was of a different sort. Father Blew is reported to have been found there by Gerrit Simpson about sunrise. Gerrit knew he had not been there all night for the old man wore a different coat. Gerrit himself was not only famous as the owner of the site on which the structure was so soon to rise but had won a reputation the fall before by setting up and tying one hundred shocks of corn in a single working day, simply because he had heard that some man in Illinois had done the feat, and because nobody in our section believed it could be done. Then came Peter Snyder, a Pennsylvania German, who could make chairs and who came over to make the furnishings. The next was long Bob Langstraw, the carpenter, whose technical skill shown in many ways about his own unfinished residence was the envy of the country- side. There was a curly- cue sawed ruffle all around his cornice and the door-casings, so far as in place, were made of walnut and mitered at the corners. Bob brought abundant tools and went immediately to work. The sound of his ax welcomed others of whom there is here no space to tell. There was Gottlieb Landsman who had been a sailor, who on the open prairie, had built his house in likeness of the hull of a ship, and by a short ladder went into it by a sort of port-hole on the side, the wonder of mankind. Then there was Mr. Dennis, a tall, strong, black-bearded man, who said little but was called an abolitionist all the same; and Solomon Ramsgate who was a Methodist par excellence, who held family- worship night and morning, and who when on a summer day he opened his windows toward Jerusalem could be heard by half the settlement. It was a common joke that Mr. Ramsgate's name should have been Ramshorn, but Mr. Blew objected, as did Mr. Henstop whose name, originally, no doubt, Hohenstauffen, had been thus curtailed in old Pennsylvania until it came to Iowa a constant temptation to levity. Nor must we omit Mike Lafferty, who came very early with a load of logs, all walnut, and a tree to set out. People said he had been out all night, for his timber was ten miles away.
     Blessed be Mike! That tree is growing yet, and Mike's grandchildren have played beneath its shadow. As for Mike's walnut logs he said there was naught too good for the " children," and his logs went in early into the structure. They were fine and straight, and were sound enough to make lumber when the old school-house eventually went down, years after, to give place to a new structure of Minnesota pine.
     By the time that all those living farthest from the scene were busy, each with ax or adz, or the tool that suited him best, the near neighbors began to put in an appearance. Peter Mitchell was there in time to lay the rude corners and the hearth for the fire place which was to occupy one end. Black Sambo helped him. Sambo, of course, lived with Dennis and took naturally to lime and whitewash. Later on as Samuel Beauregard he entered the army and served through the war, but this day he was tender to old Peter Mitchell and, as he afterward remarked, helped to lay the foundations of one of the first educational institutions in the State of Iowa.
     The first courses were laid in white oak. Then came Mike Lafferty's walnut. After that bass-wood and quaking asp, Father Blew objecting to hickory on account of the borers and dry- rot. Men worked as never before. Langstraw assumed general direction as superintendent of construction, beveling the logs for the next notch above, and occasionally throwing out a stick which some fellow in his enthusiasm had notched on both sides. Everything went on in quiet save that now and then a thumb would get fast in the place where the chinking ought to be, when Father Blew's benediction was apt to be employed, part of it, at least, in an inverted sense, and that good man would charitably find occasion to turn his back and converse for a moment with Peter Mitchell in a somewhat elevated tone of voice which shut out other voices.
     Toward noon the industry slackened somewhat. The sun grew warm. Coats had long since been shed, and the small boys, still barefoot, were sent with buckets to Watterson's spring for fresh supplies. There began, also, to be some little anxious watching, down the road, and not infrequent inquiries as to the time of day. Away on the ridge of the next line of hills Bob Langstraw declared he saw something red or yellow. Was it not a cluster of New England aster or the waving wands of golden-rod? No, surely; for presently over all the prairie bright colors were predominant, reds and yellows, and blues that to the eyes of hungry workmen outshone the colors of- the flowers, as mothers and sisters and children came burdened with buckets and baskets. Bob saw a yellow sunbonnet with two or three red ones following after, and every man saw the color he loved the best. And the quantities they brought! and the excellence of it—how shall it ever be told! Mrs. Mitchell brought pickled pig's feet with allspice thrust in convenient places, enough for small and great; Mrs. Dennis brought fried prairie chicken which Sambo himself had shot the day before; Mrs. Simpson vinegar-pies for which she was celebrated and which certainly constantly absorbed all the sourness there ever was in that happy family; Mrs. Ramsgate brought wild- plum jelly and crab-apple preserves with a flavor for which no finest pastry-book has ever yet suggested so much as a name; and Miss Blew somehow managed to lug over under her white apron a big pan full of bread-pudding whose excellence was the wonder of the hour; while Father Blew himself, by no means idle, building of the abundant chips a roaring fire, offered coffee with cream to all comers. What a merry company! What exclamations of glad surprise as basket after basket disclosed its unexpected richness! But what is the matter with Mike Lafferty? Why sits he out by himself watching the valley? Calls for Mike elicited no response; but when Father Blew went over and spoke softly to the lonely man, poor Mike at last confessed, "Sure and I be expecting Katie" Just then a shout arose and Mike turned round to see his heart's desire ride in proudly from the other direction. She had gone clean past Simpson's hill, and only discovered her mistake when old Mrs. Snyder, who could speak no English, and therefore stayed at home, caught the bridles of the little roan mare and started astonished Katie back again. "I could not come fast" said she "for there was the basket and I was feared for Paddy sitting on behind me."
     And now everybody was quiet. Hungry people say little in presence of good things to eat. "Let the children first be fed," said Father Blew, and little Paulina Landsman, seated upon a log, in an attempt to accept a piece of cream pie at the hands of the good preacher and to watch his brass buttons at the same time, tipped over backwards completely, and Father Blew must needs pick her up, which was more than he could do for the pie, while grieving Gottlieb exclaimed, "Ach was!" for Paddy Lafferty had secured his piece of the same pie in safety and with a satisfaction not for a moment to be questioned.
     After dinner, however, the tongues were loosened. New as it was, our community was not destitute of themes for conversation. Had not Dave Hathaway's boy been bitten by a rattle- snake last August, and, in absence of the requisite whiskey had not the lad displayed remarkable symptoms, all the markings of the reptile having come out one after another on the boy's body, so that people came for miles to see? No knowing what further transformations might have ensued but that the necessary stimulus finally arrived. Then, were not the ``soul sleepers" last winter engaged in a missionary tour in the settlement just south of us and were not even now some whiffs of their doctrine circulating on our prairie winds, much to the vexation of Father Blew? Besides these more weighty matters the usual neighborhood happenings were interesting then as now, though all unchronicled in the columns of the weekly journal.
     Soon, however, one man after another picked up his tools. This was no time for talk. The log walls rose apace. The soft brown of the oak, the rich purple of the walnut, the pure white of the linden and aspen, succeeded each other in bands around the-house which Peter Snyder declared were as handsome as the stripes in his wife's carpet. This old artificer, by the way, consumed the day in building furniture. Selecting from the pile of slabs the straightest, the old chair-maker bored leg-holes on the bark side, made legs of hickory poles, brought from his own wood- pile, and so fitted a row of seats around the prospective school- house almost before the walls were up. In the same way the cunning mechanic knew how to build the desks; for did he not bore holes around the walls inside at a convenient height and inclination, into these holes thrust slanting pins long enough to carry Saw-mill Johnnie's smoothest plank, and when these were once in place the desks were done. Nowadays the seat revolves to the convenience of the pupil; in that earlier day the pupil revolved to the convenience of the desk, and whisked his legs now to this side of the bench, now to that, as duty might require.
     Meantime the building rapidly approached completion. Many hands made light work. The walls were bound across by aspen ceiling joists and similar straight poles built up the gables and tied them to each other and so supplied the place of rafters. A hole had been left at one end for the fire place; the chimney should rise outside. Opposite the chimney was the opening for a door. Gottlieb and Lafferty were the committee to lay the slab floor and build the door frame; Father Blew actually manufactured that day a pair of wooden hinges. Many is the day they creaked thereafter, summer and winter groaning out their soapless misery.
     Suffice all to say that ere the sun went down that day the house was built, at least as far as circumstances would permit. Mr. Lyon's shingles, better than expected, actually covered nearly the whole roof, and Mr. Simpson said he would bring over a few more on Monday and finish it; the fire-place was built up to the chimney throat, and Mitchell and Sambo were to return and build it higher and plaster up the chinking; it was agreed that these should be paid by subscription for working over time; Mike and Gottlieb had sawed out each a section of a log, one on each side where the windows were to be, and Langstraw agreed to get the glass in before cold weather. Snyder and Father Blew had the door swinging and creaking, and even constructed a wooden bolt to fasten it. One by one the workmen drew off together to admire, while from behind them the sinking sun lent his most glorious rays, lighting on the rude walls every ax-stroke with colors dearer and more golden than the tints of stained glass;—had they not done it themselves!
     Just then a head was thrust out of the western window, if we may so dignify the long slot where the log had been removed, and Lafferty's voice it was that cried: "would yez be opening that door!"
     Mike's request was greeted with a shout and several started to release him from his unnoticed imprisonment.
     "We thought you might stay in there all night," said Mr. Simpson.
     "If any of ye gintlemen want to stay in there all night ye're welcome; but sure them that lived to get out in the morning would be dead with the cold," said Mike.
     Another shout louder than before greeted Mike's bold rejoinder, and the men forgot they were tired and nearly fell over the logs in their fun. Gottlieb Landsman climbed up with much risk to some of Mr. Lyon's shingles, and tied a bunch of autumn flowers to the end of the ridge-pole; that was German fashion, he said. Then father Blew proposed three cheers for the new school-house and they were given with a will, then three cheers for Iowa heartier still; but when the echoes had died away Bob. Langstraw sprang upon a log and waving his hat cried, "three cheers for Father Blew," and these were loudest and longest of all. Was it the cool air of evening that dimmed the old man's glasses with mist, so that he saw not the stout farmers as silently gathering their tools they slipped off one by one each on his separate way? We cannot say. Father Blew as he had been first to come was likewise last to go; and when a few weeks later the happy children chased each other round the corners of the new school- house and shouted until their. music would sometimes reach across the valley to his home, Father Blew would stand, and smiling watch them, as he tapped the garden pickets with his cane.
     Only a log school- house, you say, a crude and clumsy affair. Yes; but that crude structure became the center of intellectual life for our community. The first light- houses were simply beacons kindled on the forelands; the Eddystones with revolving, far-reflecting lamps came later. With no more than Peter Snyder's furniture, and a good teacher, we learned to read and write, but what we read was worth reading and our penmanship while perhaps neither spencerian nor vertical in style has nevertheless proved generally good at the bank. Nor were the builders of the log college themselves personally unrewarded. To say nothing of spelling schools which sometimes, I must say, threatened the mental health of the community, but which afforded opportunity for the development of certain social instincts otherwise much hampered if not utterly suppressed, we had debating clubs which settled the supremacy of the pen as against the sword, the superiority of republican institutions, the unrighteousness of human slavery, the folly of drink, and we have even heard the classic use of the verb, Barrico, proclaimed within those walls. There was also the utmost religious freedom. The "soul- sleepers" at one time held the fort for two weeks; with little effect, it seems, for their deliverances were declared to be enough to make the few occupants of our little cemetery turn in their graves; mesmerists and phrenologists of every sort came that way, made their grimaces and passed on. As politics grew warmer, such discussions, of course, superseded all else. The school-house became a voting precinct, and through its rude, narrow window passed in an almost solid vote for John C. Fremont for president of the United States, until who shall say that the building of Father Blew's log school-house did not effect, to some extent, at least, the fate of the republic and so the destinies of mankind.


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