Robert C. Daniels

Author / Adjunct History Professor

Author of: 

- 1220 Days: the story of U.S. Marine Edmond Babler and his experiences in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps during World War II

- World War II in Mid-America:  Experiences from rural Mid-American during the Second World War 

- Several published military history articles at www.militaryhistoryonline.com.

 

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About World War II in Mid-America

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Read Some of My Published Articles:

Ed Gein:  the Cannibal Myth Exposed

World War II Veteran Interview

Hell Ship - From the Philippines to Japan

Interview of a WWII Veteran

The Failures at Spion Kop

The Quality of the Combatants in the Black Hawk War

The Muslim Horde's Easy Invasion of Iberia

MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines

Failures of Democracy Led to the Rise of Communism during the Spanish Civil War

Hitler, Germany's Worst General

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Ed Gein:  the Cannibal Myth Exposed

What follows after a brief introduction represents a research project I conducted in 1997 during my college years, along with a few recent updates/edits.  Ed Gein, pronounced Geen and commonly referred to as Eddie, became infamous when he was arrested on 16 November 1957 for the murder of Plainfield, Wisconsin, resident Bernice Worden.  However, it was not her murder that made him an instant "celebrity."  It is what he did to her body as well as the bodies of other women he "collected."  The book and subsequent movie "Psycho" were to be loosely based upon Eddie, but nothing in either the book or the movie come close to Eddie's gruesome exploits.

During a recent trip "home" to Wisconsin over the 2012 Thanksgiving holiday, my wife and I visited the small town of Plainfield.  Although we did not go into the hardware store where Bernice was murdered, and being sensitive to the local residents, who still, after 56 years, quite understandably, tend to cringe when the topic is risen, we visited the cemetery where Eddie is interned.  At first, we could not locate the gravesite of either Eddie, his mother, father, or brother, and not wanting to hover around, again being sensitive to the townsfolk, albeit somewhat disappointed, we left the cemetery.  However, after driving out of town to the site of Eddie's home -- now nothing but a wooded area, the original house and farm buildings long being destroyed -- we stopped once again in Plainfield at a gas station to use the restroom and purchase a cup of coffee.  Upon leaving the gas station, we decided to give the cemetery one last visit before heading back south to Madison where we were staying.

After driving through the cemetery the second time, actually covering every one of the small cemetery's short lanes, I stopped the car and was about to once again give up when my wife decided to get out and take a short walk to see what she could find.  About one minute later, she motioned to me to join her.  I walked a few short yards from where our car stood, and there, with the grave markings on the tombstones facing away from the path so we could not see them from our car, stood the graves of Ed's brother Henry, his mother Augusta, and father George.  Between Henry's and Augustus' headstones was a gap, which is where Eddie is buried, his headstone having been removed and placed in secure storage due to vandalism.

        

Granted, not the best of pictures, being taken with my cell phone.

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Ed Gein:  The Cannibal Myth Exposed

By

Robert C. Daniels 

 

            Growing up in a small mid-western Wisconsin town, I heard all of the tales and exploits of Ed Gein (pronounced Geen).  Everyone in that part of Wisconsin knew of Ed, and his gruesome deeds made for some pretty scary campfire stories.  In the land-of-Gein one did not need to make up a ghost story.  After all, we had Eddie, as he was affectionately called by almost everyone, and the stories about him were much scarier than any ghost story that anyone could dream up.  The scariest part of these stories is that they were, for the most part, true!  They even made a movie based on Eddie’s persona . . . “Psycho.”[1]

            I remember hearing about lamp shades and chair covers that were made of human skin, of shrunken heads, and of even a belt made of women’s nipples.  I remember hearing of the police finding a human heart in a pan on Ed’s stove, of soup bowls made from his victims’ skulls, and tales that he would actually go to cemeteries at night and dig-up the corpses of freshly buried women.  Then there was my Uncle Frank who would always tell of how one of the victims that Eddie had dug-up was one of Frank’s aunts.

            One of the many stories that developed out of the Gein case was that of Eddie being a cannibal.  However, the evidence and testimony, although substantiating that Eddie was a grave-robbing, psychotic, schizophrenic murderer,[2] not only does not substantiate the cannibal theory, it shows that he did not eat his victims.

            Growing up with all of these stories, listening to Uncle Frank tell of his aunt being one of Gein’s victims, hearing neighborhood parents tell their children to “be sure and be home before dark or Eddie will eat you,” along with the fact that I lived less than five city blocks from the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where Eddie was incarcerated, left an indelible impression on me that Gein was not only a monster who killed or dug-up dead women, but that he also butchered and ate them as well.  It was not until much later when I became an adult that I began to research the truth about Eddie and to differentiate the facts from the myths.  What follows is the results of that research and the uncovering of why and how the rumors of Ed Gein-the-Cannibal emerged.

            Edward Gein was a 51-year-old bachelor who owned a farm located a few miles outside of the small township of Plainfield, Wisconsin.  Although Gein was pictured as a “mild mannered individual, . . . a little awkward around people, but a polite and accommodating fellow, who would never say no to a neighbor who needed help sawing firewood, hauling grain, or repairing a barn,”[3] on 16 November 1957, the decapitated body of Bernice Worden was discovered hanging upside-down and gutted like a deer inside Eddie’s summer kitchen.[4]

            Further search of Gein’s dwelling revealed additional, even more ghastly, atrocities.  Found were the lamp shades and chair covers made of human skin, the belt made of women’s nipples, the skullcap of soup bowls, and the shrunken heads of the ghost stories of my childhood.  Also discovered were a wastepaper basket and a tom-tom, both make of human skin, along with the even more perverse item of a shade pull decorated with human lips.[5]

            When the story broke newspapers quoted District Attorney Earl Kileen as saying, “The body had been cleaned and handled in a way similar to that used in a slaughterhouse,” and that “it appears to be cannibalism.”[6]  This statement “sent dozens of people to their doctors suffering from stomach problems after remembering eating packages of ‘venison’ given them by Gein.”[7]

            Eddie was subsequently tried and found guilty of first degree murder, and after a sanity hearing, in which he was declared not guilty by reason of insanity, sent to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin.[8]  It must be noted here that Gein was only tried for the murder of Bernice Worden, the woman whose body was found in Gein’s summer kitchen.  He was never tried or even charged with any of the other more ghastly crimes of grave robbing, body mutilation, or cannibalism, nor the murder of Mary Hogan, a local bar owner who had gone missing from her blood spattered bar a few years earlier and whose body parts had also been found in Eddie’s home.  However, all of these were, with the sole exception of cannibalism, substantiated in subsequent legal inquiries and investigations as being true, and Eddie even “admitted that he had violated nine graves” to get the bodies of his victims.[9]  Where then did the cannibalism myth come from?

            Plainfield today is still a small town with a current population of only 839,[10] and in 1957 the village had just over 600 residents.[11]  As a typical, small mid-western community where everyone knows everyone else, rumors tend to fly when even the smallest tidbit of scandal erupts.  The news of what Eddie had done was shocking, and amounted to much more than a mere tidbit or scandal.  The town’s people were horrified, and as D. L. Champion put it, it was soon “rumored that one reason for Gein’s utterly inhuman actions was cannibalism . . . after all, a heart, presumably that of Bernice Worden,  had been found in a pan on the kitchen stove.”[12]  It must also be remembered that as early as the day after the Worden murder, even the district attorney had said that it appeared to be cannibalism, and, as pointed out earlier, these rumors were taken so seriously by the local population that many actually went to their doctors with stomach ailments after remembering they had eaten venison that Eddie had given them.  At first glance, a heart found on a stove, a carcass of a woman dressed out like a deer, along with the district attorney stating that cannibalism was a real probability, does tend to make one think that lunch was about to be served at the Gein residence.  Therefore, the cannibalism story does become a viable theory.

            At this point, a word or two must be stated concerning the local police departments at the time.  In summarizing Judge Robert Gollmar, who would preside over Eddie’s eventual trial for murder and then his sanity trial, the local police departments were made up of men who were elected as such right out of the community, and were for the most part untrained in police work.  The Waushara County Sheriff’s Department, where Plainfield is located, formally consisted of only three full-time officers.  These could be backed up during emergencies by one or more part-time deputies from each of the surrounding small communities – one such part-time deputy was Frank Worden, Bernice’s son.  This was typical of all of the rural Wisconsin law enforcement agencies in the area, and due to the scant amount of available full-time police officers, each police forces relied upon the officers of the other surrounding communities’ and counties’ police forces for help in times of need.  As a result, a call for help from any officer would quickly bring assistance from all available police officers from every surrounding community and bordering county.[13]

            On the night of the 16th of November just such a call for help went out when Frank Worden returned to his mother’s hardware store after a day of deer hunting – the first day of the annual Wisconsin deer season – to find a trail of blood in the store and his mother missing.  Within half an hour of the initial plea every police officer within miles, including the head of the state crime lab in Madison, was on the way to Plainfield.[14]  It must be remembered that very few of the officers had any law enforcement training, including Waushara County Sheriff Art Schley, who had only “been sheriff for just over a month,”[15] and with the extent of the horrific findings they were uncovering, making sense of anything must have been all but impossible, even verging upon the unreal.  They were finding more and more mummified, rotting, and even fresh, steaming body parts with every turn.  Allen Wilimovsky of the state crime lab, while recalling his thoughts about the night of the 16th said, “My first impression was some degree of shock.  I momentarily stepped back and without saying anything other than thinking to myself, ‘What type of individual would do something like this.’”[16]  Judge Gollmar stated, concerning the more experienced officers, that “considerable confusion ensued and there was a general feeling of shock among these seasoned law officers.”[17]  One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the un-seasoned officers.  With this mounting confusion, caused by the seemingly unending new gruesome discoveries, and the inexperienceness of some of those involved, we get the beginning of the cannibal myth as Paul Woods states,

As the chief investigators left the farmhouse, the whole media circus was wheeling its way into town . . . Kileen was the first big cheese of law enforcement they got their hooks into. . . . “What do you believe is Gein’s motivation,” came an East Coast accent behind flashing camera bulbs.

            Kileen was about to decline and answer, when he got a flash of perverse inspiration.  “We’re not sure  . . . but the crimes almost certainly seem to involve cannibalism.”   It was as sane a rationalization of craziness as he could manage – so the myth of Ed the cannibal was born.[18]

             We see that the myth originally came from District Attorney Kileen in his attempt to rationalize the situation.  However, what facts did Kileen base his statement on?  Was it the fact that Bernice Worden’s body was strung up and gutted like a deer?  Or that her heart was found in a sauce pan on Gein’s kitchen stove?[19]

            Let’s look at the heart on the stove story.  This would seemingly lend a great deal of credence to the cannibal myth.  However, Harold Schechter, who has conducted extensive research into the facts of the Gein case, states concerning Bernice’s body that by “early Sunday morning [the 17th of November], other parts of her butchered body had been discovered – her heart in a plastic bag in front of the Gein’s potbellied stove, a pile of entrails (still warm) wrapped in a newspaper and folded inside an old suit of men’s clothes.”[20]   We see that the heart, in actuality, was not on the stove in a pot, but in front of the stove wrapped in a plastic bag.  The fact that the heart was in a plastic bag actually became part of the official records when Neenah, Wisconsin, pathologist Dr. Eigenberger stated in his official autopsy report of Bernice Worden’s body that “separately removed had been:  1. Heart (without the pericardium) and this had been kept in a plastic bag . . .”[21]

            Where then did this heart-in-the-stove story come from?  I believe it was due to the fact that Kileen was, as were all of the other law enforcement officials, that were at the crime scene, overwhelmed with what they had just witnessed, and as Schechter relates:

It wasn’t long before the facts surrounding Bernice Worden’s murder – horrific enough to begin with – underwent some significant alteration.  Mrs. Worden’s heart, for example, which had actually been discovered in a plastic bag near Eddie’s stove, was suddenly reported to have been found in a frying pan on one of the burners.  The old suit of clothes in which her entrails had been hidden became a refrigerator packed with vital organs, all of them neatly wrapped in brown butcher’s paper.  Stories began to circulate that the widow’s body had been dismembered and her legs hung up to cure in Gein’s summer kitchen.  Eddie’s cellar was rumored to be stocked with quart jars full of human blood.[22]

            It becomes clear that not only was District Attorney Kileen’s statement of cannibalism a rash, unfounded statement, but the heart-on-the-stove rumor was not only just a rumor, but a false rumor at that.

            According to Judge Gollmar, “Gein talked very freely to Joe Wilimovsky about the bizarre things he had done with the bodies.”[23]  Ed also admitted to murdering Mrs. Worden and then butchering her in his summer kitchen because, he said, “I thought I was dressing out a deer,” and that he had “collected from cemeteries” his other victims.[24]  It would seem then, that Eddie did not have an aversion to admitting to the crimes that he had committed.

            Dr. R. Warmington, one of the first psychiatrists to interview Gein after his arrest, wrote in his report that Eddie did admit to digging up women and making “so-called masks from the heads by removing the skin and separating it from the bone.”[25]  However, in this same interview Dr. Warmington writes that “the unused parts of bodies were burned and eating is denied.”[26]  If Eddie was willing to admit to the ghastly crimes of butchering his victims and then using their body parts to manufacture his perverse “trophies,” even to the wearing of some of the masks as well as the leggings made of his victims’ skin – not to mention a vest made of his victims’ breasts –, then why not admit to eating his victims?  What did he have to lose?

            When asked about what he meant to do with the heart and body of Mrs. Worden, Gein said, “he meant to burn it, and not to eat it [meaning the heart].  He thought he would have buried the body rather than burn it because ‘his stove was so small.’”[27]  “Eddie [also] informed the lawmen, that they would find the residue of Mary Hogan’s body which he had carved up in his summer kitchen and then, after saving sections he coveted, cremated in his potbellied stove.”[28]

            Throughout my research I have only been able to locate one refernce where it is stated that Eddie admitted to any form of cannibalism.  In a short one and one half page article on Gein, the author of the Encyclopedia of World Crime:  Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Law Enforcement states that Gein “talked freely about eating the dead flesh of the bodies taken from graves and those he had killed.”[29]  However, I have not been able to establish any records of Gein ever making any statement even remotely similar to this, which lends little, if any, credence to support the encyclopedia’s article.  Whereas I have been able to locate nearly every other statement quoted herein in at least two documentable sources.

            Judge Gollmar stated that “Gein never admitted cannibalism,” however, Gollmar’s own personal thoughts were that it was “very possible” that Gein did eat some of the flesh of his victims.[30]  Again, if Eddie admitted to everything that he was accused of, whether it was the murders of Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan, digging up the nine graves, and not only cutting up his victims, but making his gruesome trophies out of them, even wearing some of the body parts, then why not admit to eating them?

            Eddie did not admit to eating his victims simply because he did not eat his victims.  As he repeatedly stated, he buried or burned the body parts that he did not use in fashioning his trophies.  Indeed, many of these body parts, or at least the remains of them, were subsequently located at various sites on Eddie’s farm, some even pointed out by Eddie himself to investigators.

            Eddie had an “abnormally magnified attachment to his mother,” and in a psychological interview, Dr. Warmington stated that Eddie’s “motivation is elusive and uncertain but several factors come to mind – hostility, sex, and a desire for a substitute mother in the form of a replica or body that could be kept indefinitely.”[31]  It should be noted here that Eddie only dug-up women,[32] and the two victims that he killed were female.  In addition, all of his victims resembled his mother in one form or another.  It then makes sense, if one can call what Eddie did sensible, that he committed these ghastly crimes in hopes of having or procuring a substitute for his beloved mother, not for food.

            Edward Gein was most definitely a grave-robbing, psychotic, schizophrenic murder, who was so obsessed by his long dead, overbearing mother that he not only killed two women, but dug-up the bodies of nine other recently deceased women in order to obtain, in his own deranged way, a substitute for his mother.  However, there is no evidence that would substantiate the rumors or claims that he ate his victims.  District Attorney Kileen, facing the onslaught of the news media, and out of frustration with what he had just witnessed at the crime scene, reached into thin air and grabbed the first thing he could think of to put some type of meaning into this horrendous madness, and cannibalism seemed to be a viable answer.  Once started, this cannibal myth, fostered through the rumors of “venison” and the story of the heart on the stove, grew into a legend, albeit an untrue legend, that exists even today.

            Eddie, at the age of 77, now senile and suffering from cancer, died of respiratory failure in the geriatric ward at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison on 26 July 1984.  It is interesting to note that although his obituary referred to Eddie as a grave robber and murderer, the title of cannibal was notably missing.[33]

            In a post script, two of the graves that Eddie admitted to robbing were reopened for examination on 15 November 1957.  Both graves “were found empty, except for a few bones and the pinch bar that ‘apparently had been used to open’ one of the caskets.  The graves were those of Mrs. Eleanor Adams and Mrs. Mabel Everson, both buried in 1951.”[34]  In accordance with a letter I received from my aunt, who was the wife of my late Uncle Frank, Mabel Everson was indeed Frank’s aunt.[35]

            It is also interesting to note that in talking to or interviewing three retired staff members of the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin, where Eddie had spent many of his later years after his arrest and subsequent conviction, all three related that Gein was a rather unassuming old man who did not seem, for the most part, out of the ordinary.  One of these individuals, my uncle, Alfred Bohnert, who worked at the hospital as a cook, would state that “Eddie was normally a very unassuming, quiet, and helpful kind of guy.  That if you didn’t know who he was or what he had done, you would think nothing of him.”[36]

            David Lyon, who spent many years as a guard at the hospital, recalled that:

Ed, he worked outside a lot.  People didn’t realize that little old man that looked like somebody’s granddad was Ed Gein working on the front lawn.  But Dr. Schubert, who ran the hospital for years and years and years, he would periodically receive death threats if he ever let Ed Gein out. 

But Ed was…, in this day and age, if he were to have a good lawyer he would have beat the case because they lost so much evidence and so much was destroyed by the townspeople when they burnt his house down and everything, you know.  There was no way that they could have convicted him.  But in those days they did, and it was for the best.  

Ed was an interesting man to talk to because if you talked to him for fifteen minutes to a half hour you couldn’t see anything wrong with him.  But if you talked to him longer than that some of his comments were a little bizarre, you know.  So after a while you knew; yeah, this is the right place for him.[37]

            Dr. Schubert’s long-time office secretary, Joan Landaal, also recalled Eddie.  In doing so, she related that Eddie

paneled my office. . . .  Yeah.  He never said anything because they always had a supervisor with him.  But he would look at you, and I remember how sick looking his eyes were.  I think that when someone is sick you can tell in their eyes, and he was just like so sick looking.  But he never bothered me.  He didn’t bother anybody, really.  He just did his work.  But he paneled my office.[38]

When asked if she was uncomfortable when Eddie was present, she replied, “Not a bit, because there was a supervisor working with him because it took two guys to handle this big eight-foot tall boards. . . .  Never bothered anybody.  But he sure looked at the women, you know.  The girls that worked in the office. . . .”[39]

            Although Eddie was a model prisoner, even displaying a quiet, mild mannered, and unassuming personality during the many years he lived and worked at the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and then again at the Mendota Mental Health Institute where he was transferred to in 1978 when the hospital in Waupun was closed, it was for good reason that he was hospitalized away from the public.  A year after his transfer to Mendota, “a particularly gruesome murder took place in Milwaukee,” where an eighty-six-year-old women named Helen Lowes was found not only bludgeoned to death in her bedroom, but with her eyes gouged out and slits cut into her face . . . “apparently in an attempt to peel the skin off her skull.”[40]  The suspect arrested for the crime was a Pervis Smith, a former mental patient at the Central State Hospital, who would relate that “he’d learned all kinds of interesting things about murder, mutilation, and the manufacture of human face masks from his best friend at the hospital, ‘Little Eddie’ Gein.”[41] 

It seems the “unassuming,” “quiet,” “helpful” “granddad” looking old man who never bothered the hospital staff might not have been quite as quiet and unassuming after all . . . at least not when in the dorm rooms safely out of ear shot of the staff where eager students were about.  As David Lyon aptly related, the guarded hospital was the right place for Eddie . . .  whether cannibal or not.


Endnotes:  

[1] Harold Schechter, Deviant:  The Shocking True Story of the Original “Psycho,” (New York:  Pocket Books, 1989), 252.

[2] Robert H. Gollmar, Edward Gein, (New York:  Windsor Publishing, 1981), 167.

[3] Schechter, 40.

[4] Gollmar, 3-10.

[5] Schechter, 88.

[6] “Butchered Body of Woman Found:  It Appears To Be Cannibalism,” Virginia-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), 18 November 1957, sec. A, p.1.

[7] Gollmar, 80.

[8] Ibid., 170-172.

[9] Ibid., 69.

[10] Wisconsin, map, (Wisconsin Department of Transportation, 1993).

[11] Gollmar, xx.

[12] D. L. Champion, “A House Full of Skulls,” True Detective, March 1958, 50-61.

[13] Gollmar, xx-xxi.

[14] Ibid., 7.

[15] Schechter, 83.

[16] Gollmar, 17-18.

[17] Ibid., 41.

[18] Paul Anthony Woods, Ed Gein-Psycho! (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 73.

[19] Gollmar, 24.

[20] Schechter, 92.

[21] Ibid., 100.

[22] Ibid., 104-105.

[23] Gollmar, 22.

[24] ”Murder, Head Collecting Admitted by Shy Bachelor,” Virginia-Pilot, (Norfolk, VA), 19 November 1957, sec. A, p.1.

[25] Gollmar, 69.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 41.

[28] Schechter, 180.

[29] Robert Jay Nash, Encyclopedia of World Crime:  Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Law Enforcement, Vol. II, (Wilmette, IL:  CrimeBooks, Inc., 1990), 1289.

[30] Gollmar, 41.

[31] Ibid., 215 and 217.

[32] Ibid., 216.

[33] “Ed Gein is Dead at 77; Inspired Film ‘Psycho.’”  New York Times, 27 July 1984, sec. B. p.10.

[34] “Ghoul Gein Did Rob Graves, Wisconsin Diggings Show,” Virginia-Pilot,  (Norfolk, VA), 26 November 1957, sec. A, p.1.

[35] Lois Schleicher, letter to the author, 29 January 1997.

[36] Author’s recollections of  listening to his uncle, Alfred Bohnert, undated.

[37] David Lyon, interview by author, 1 December 2005.

[38] Joan Landaal, interview by author, 16 March 2006.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Schechter, 261.

[41] Ibid.

 

Works Cited:

 Author’s recollections of listening to his uncle, Alfred Bohnert, undated.

“Butchered Body of Woman Found:  It Appears To Be Cannibalism.”  Virginia-Pilot.

            Norfolk, VA.  18 November 1957, sec. A, p.1.

Champion, D. L.  “A House Full of Skulls.”  True Detective.  March 1958.

“Ed Gein is Dead at 77; Inspired Film ‘Psycho.’”  New York Times.  27 July 1984, sec. B.

            p.10.

“Ghoul Gein Did Rob Graves, Wisconsin Diggings Show.”  Virginia-Pilot.  Norfolk,

            VA.  26 November 1957, sec. A, p.1.

Gollmar, Robert H.  Edward Gein.   New York:  Windsor Publishing, 1981.

Landaal, Joan.  Interview by author, 16 March 2006.

Lyon, David.  Interview by author, 1 December 2005.

”Murder, Head Collecting Admitted by Shy Bachelor.”  Virginia-Pilot.  Norfolk, VA.  19

            November 1957, sec. A, p.1.

Nash, Robert Jay.  Encyclopedia of World Crime:  Criminal Justice, Criminology, and

            Law Enforcement.  Vol. II.  Wilmette, IL:  CrimeBooks, Inc., 1990.

Schechter, Harold.  Deviant:  The Shocking True Story of the Original “Psycho.”  New

York:  Pocket Books, 1989.

Schleicher, Lois.  Letter to the author.  29 January 1997.

Wisconsin.  Map.  Wisconsin Department of Transportation, 1993.

Woods, Paul Anthony.  Ed Gein-Psycho!  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Last updated on 03 Feb 2013 .   

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