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Fells Point and the Baltimore Privateers
By Cindy Vallar

In 1730 William Fell, a recent arrival from England, chose a tract of land southeast of Baltimore Town in the Maryland colony for his shipyard and a new home. He built boats with two masts at an ideal place for their construction because of the water’s depth, nearby iron foundries, and woodlands populated with white oak, red cedar, and locust.

Forty-three years later, Baltimore annexed this eighty-acre area and William’s son, Edward, laid out a town he christened Fells Point. The streets had names like Thames and Shakespeare. The alleys included Strawberry, Apple, Happy, and Petticoat. Other shipwrights and associated industries began to arrive, and when the fledging American nation needed ships – the Wasp and the Hornet – for her navy, the government opted to have them built in Fells Point. Between June 1776 and May 1778, two hundred twenty-four letters of marque were issued to Maryland vessels. The last commission granted to an American vessel during the war was for a Maryland schooner.

Ship Chandler, Mystic Seaport
Example of a Ship Chandler

Between the war’s end and 1797, nearly sixty thousand tons of commerce passed through Baltimore. By 1800 the city was the third largest in the United States, a rank it held until 1830. But what drew ship owners, their captains, and sailors to this thriving port was her reputation for building sharp and fast vessels. Ship captains and more affluent members of the maritime community built three and one-half story, brick homes with two roof dormers in Fells Point, while sailors and artisans lived in two and one-half story homes.

Old anchors and chains rusted in damp shadows, and the streets and ships had a pungent smell of oakum and tar. Storm-worn figure-heads served as signs of tobacco shops and taverns, and old salts sat around them clinging to their chairs and benches with as tenacious a twist of their legs and arms as though rocked in a gale, spinning the while unconscionable yarns, or lamenting the fate of poor Jack. As in all sea-ports, a sadness and anxiety questioned inscrutable fate, and the awful mystery and uncertainty of the sea penetrated every hearth. (Mayer, 8)
The most popular boat built in the Fells Point shipyards between 1795 and 1835 was the schooner. A total of four hundred twenty-one, averaging one hundred sixteen tons, were built. The keels ranged from twenty-five feet to nearly on hundred fifteen feet, but the average was fifty-nine. Vessels were fore and aft rigged, had at least two masts, and were built by eighty-three different men. One of these was a young Quaker from the Eastern Shore who arrived in Baltimore around 1803. His name was Thomas Kemp, the first son but fifth child of Thomas and Rachel Denny Kemp. He would build a total of thirty-nine schooners and fifty-two vessels in all during his tenure in Baltimore. The other top shipwrights were William Price, William Parsons, and George Gardner.

Thomas Kemp purchased land at the northeast corner of Market (now Broadway) and Lancaster Streets in Fells Point in December 1803. In August of that year, he married Sophia Horstman. Before her death at the age of twenty-one in 1809, she gave birth to three children: Thomas H., Elizabeth, and Sophia. Later that year, Thomas remarried. He and his wife, Eliza Doyle, a young widow, had six children together: John W., Louisa, Margaret, Joseph F., Sally Ann, and William Pinkney.

At first, Thomas probably worked in one of the shipyards, but by June 1804, he and his brother, Joseph, built the Thomas and Joseph schooner. Their rental of the wharf for three months cost $62.50 and the rum to launch the schooner cost $1.75. Through 1805, however, they mostly repaired vessels.

Frame of schoonerOn 6 July 1805, Thomas purchased a piece of property – bounded by Fountain, Fleet, and Washington Streets in Fells Point – and established his own shipyard. His suppliers included Benjamin Bowen, Josiah Hall, and Henry Hollbrook for timber; spars from James Cordery and Joseph Robson; beams, Lloyd Johnson; iron work, Philip Cronmiller; copper spikes and rivets, John S. Young; and rosin and pitch from John Stickney. Thomas employed about two dozen men, most of whom were carpenters and caulkers, and he described the vessels they built as “round tuck privateer fashion schooners.” (Ahrens, 104) One of the first vessels built in the yard was a ninety-nine-ton schooner named Lynx.

Design of Baltimore schooner

Most, if not all, Baltimore schooners of this period had one deck and two masts. Speed was essential in their design, as was a shallow draft. The cogs of the Middle Ages averaged six and one-half knots, and that speed didn’t change much in the intervening years. The Bonhomme Richard’s speed during the American Revolution was five to seven knots. But the sharply raked masts (masts set at a greater angle than normal), allowed Baltimore schooners to more efficiently use the wind, as did the addition of topmasts, topsail yards, and topgallant yards. These vessels could cruise at speeds of up to eleven or twelve knots. The design features that made them sleek and fast, also made them difficult to sail, especially in rough seas. A Baltimore schooner required a highly competent crew, which usually consisted of less than one hundred fifty men, and a captain with good leadership skills to command her fastest speeds. These last two elements would prevent the British from using captured Baltimore schooners against America.

The speed of the Baltimore schooners baffled their pursuers and made the vessels objects of nautical curiosity…. When captured, Baltimore schooners were sometimes brought into the British navy where sailors and captains inexperienced in the handling of such creations, tried unsuccessfully to sail them…. Baltimore seamen had long experience with such vessels, but even they were not anxious to head a schooner around the Horn too often or to remain long in northern latitudes with ice-laden sails on light rigging. (Ahrens, 70-71)
Thomas Kemp developed a reputation for building high quality boats known for their durability and speed. No other Baltimore shipwright of the period matched his genius. He built the four most successful privateers of the War of 1812: Rossie, Rolla, Comet, and Chasseur.

At the start of the war, the American Navy consisted of about seventeen vessels, the largest of which carried a total of fifty-six guns. The British Royal Navy, on the other hand, had significantly more ships and greater fire power:

Vigilant's Letter of MarqueTo compensate for this lack of firepower, the American government issued letters of marque to privateers. Within six months, forty-two Baltimore vessels had commissions. These privateers were armed with three hundred thirty guns and carried three thousand men. It’s estimated that a total of one-hundred eighty-five Baltimore privateers carried letters of marque, a sufficient number to do significant damage to British trade. Occasionally, they also captured royal navy vessels. The Dash, which hailed from Baltimore, carried one gun when she captured the first enemy naval vessel, the four-gun cutter-schooner, HMS Whiting.

The Comet, whose keel was sixty-eight-feet long and had a beam (width at the widest point) of twenty-three feet, was nearly one hundred sixty-five tons. She cost $3,630, but her owner, Captain William Furlong, only had $1,505. Captain Thorndike Chase paid the balance in 1810. During the Comet’s third voyage, she captured twenty enemy vessels. One Englishman called her captain, Thomas Boyle, a “crazy American privateersman who wouldn’t take no for an answer.” (Bourne, 277)

Thomas Kemp often owned shares in the privateers from his shipyard. One such vessel was Chasseur, which was launched on 12 December 1812 as a topsail schooner. Her keel measured 85.66 feet, her breadth, twenty-six feet. Nearly two hundred ninety-six tons, she was built for William Hollins, but as a merchant vessel she was a dismal failure. Not only because of her limited cargo space, but because the British blockade prevented her from gaining the open seas. After several weeks off Annapolis, she returned to Baltimore. A second try was made, but this time her crew mutinied, and she limped home with just her captain and two or three sailors aboard.

Chasseur

Chasseur was one of the fastest ships ever built, so her new owners decided to sail her as a privateer. She was “perhaps the most beautiful vessel that ever floated on the ocean. She sat as light and buoyant as a graceful swan.” (Garitee, xi) Her privateer commission (number 665) was granted on 23 February 1813, and under the command of William Wade, she captured eleven vessels. They broke through the British blockade on Christmas Day, 1813, and six months later put in at New York after a successful cruise. While in port, she was sold to a group of investors that included her builder, Thomas Kemp. They replaced her carronades with sixteen long twelve-pounders. When she passed Sandy Hook to begin her second cruise in July 1814, she had a new captain – Thomas Boyle, who was one of the brig’s owners and had commanded the Comet when Wade served as her second officer.

Thomas BoyleWhen Boyle assumed command of Chasseur in 1814, he had been at sea since the age of ten. He became master of a ship by his sixteenth birthday. Three years later, he called Baltimore home, although he had been born in Marblehead, Massachusetts. During his command as a captain of privateers, he and his men captured thirty to sixty ships. Three-fourths of his men were literate enough to sign their names to the articles of agreement under which they sailed. Boyle ran a tight ship, but had the respect of his crew. He drilled them over and over again in handling the sails and firing the sixteen guns Chasseur carried until it became second nature to them. One of her gunners was a free black man named George R. Roberts.

George R. Roberts, gunner

Roberts first served aboard another privateer, the Sarah Ann, which received her privateering commission (number 329) on 22 July 1812. Several men, including James Ramsey (proprietor of the best chandlery and grocery in Fells Point) and John Craig (a grocer who also owned several scows), were her primary investors. Her captain was Richard Moon. A married sailor, Roberts signed aboard the Sarah Ann, which had one long nine-pound gun and a crew of forty-four. In the Caribbean, she took a British ship carrying sugar and coffee after a three-hour battle, even though the Sarah Ann had only one gun compared to the ten aboard the British Elizabeth. Moon delivered his prize to Savannah, Georgia, then returned to sea. In September, HMS Statira captured the Sarah Ann. The British singled out six men, including Roberts, and accused them of being deserters from the royal navy. They were taken to Jamaica in irons. Captain Moon denied the charges, especially against Roberts, “a coloured man and seaman, I know him to be native born of the United States”. In retaliation the owners of the Sarah Ann seized twelve British subjects “and put [them] into close confinement, to be detained as hostages.” (Cranwell, 13) The prisoners were exchanged. Roberts arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in November 1812, and eventually returned to Baltimore.

Audacity was another trait of Thomas Boyle’s. For three months, the Chasseur sailed through the English Channel and along the coasts of Britain and Ireland, and captured eighteen prizes. To one of the captains of these prizes, he gave a proclamation to post at Lloyd’s Coffee House in London.

I do, therefore, by virtue of the power and authority in me vested (possessing sufficient force), declare all the ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands and sea coast of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in a state of strict and rigorous blockade…. And I do hereby caution and forbid the ships and vessels of all and every nation in amity and peace with the United States, from entering or attempting to enter, or from coming or attempting to come out of any of the said ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands or sea coast under any pretence whatsoever! (Garitee, xi-xii)
Forty years after the war, George Coggeshall, a fellow captain of privateers, wrote of Boyle:
He evidently possessed many of the elements of a great man, for in him were blended the impetuous bravery of a Murat, with the prudence of a Wellington. He wisely judged when to attack the enemy and when to retreat, with honor to himself and to the flag under which he sailed.
During her cruise, the Chasseur took the brig Eclipse with fourteen guns; the Commerce, another brig with a copper hull; the schooner Fox; three additional brigs, the Antelope, the Marquis of Cornwallis, and the Atlantic; and an eight-gun ship called James. Boyle also had his men burn several Scottish vessels. They skirmished with a frigate, pummeling her with two broadsides. The frigate fired a twenty-four-pound shot that struck Chasseur’s foremast and “cut it nearly a third off.” Another shot “struck the gunwale of port No. 5, tore away all the sill and plank shear” and unseated the gun before crashing through the deck and wounding three men, including Henry Watson, who was “compelled to have his thigh amputated.” (Garitee, 159-160)

When Boyle had only sixty men left, the rest having been placed on the various prizes, he sailed back to New York, arriving there on 29 October 1814. Chasseur had taken eighteen prizes, nine of which Boyle sent back to the States, and he parolled one hundred fifty prisoners. A Baltimore newspaper editor printed that Chasseur’s two successful cruises proved that the best way to win the war was to attack British commerce. He considered American sailors “the admiration of Europe and the terror of England.” (Garitee, 160) The success of Chasseur, and other American privateers, severely affected the morale of British merchants and caused their insurance rates to skyrocket. In Halifax a thirty-three percent surcharge was added to rates. Some underwriters refused to even insure the ships and their cargoes.

Before Boyle and Chasseur returned to sea, alterations were done to allow the boat to convert to brig and brigantine rigging as desired. Boyle also replaced ten of the long twelve-pounders with carronades, which hit hard and were easier to load. She returned to the hunt on 23 December 1814, shortly before the war ended. She exchanged shots with several enemy vessels and escaped from either a frigate or first rate ship of the line, before she engaged in her final battle. News of the peace treaty was unknown when Boyle sighted a new target on 26 February 1815. At the time of engagement, she carried fourteen guns and one hundred-two men, including George Roberts. (Boyle had ordered the rest of his long guns dumped overboard to lighten the brig’s load during a squall.) Chasseur’s opponent was HMS St. Lawrence. This large, pilot-built schooner “with yellow sides” had been built in Philadelphia and christened Atlas, but was captured by the English in Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina. She then became a vessel in the royal navy and carried a complement of seventy-six men and thirteen guns. Her captain was Lieutenant J. C. Gordon when Chasseur sighted her about thirty-six miles from Havana, Cuba at eleven o’clock in the morning.

Example of gunGuns were an essential tool in a privateer’s arsenal. (The weight of the round shot used in guns – such as three, four, six, nine, twelve, eighteen, and twenty-four pounds – identified one from another.) As a gunner, Roberts was one of a team of men assigned to one gun. Captain Boyle’s insistence on daily drills allowed them to become familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the gun, to practice with the tools of their trade, and to become so familiar with loading and firing that they could do so without thinking about their actions. The gunners had a variety of ammunition to choose from when loading a gun. They used round shot to smash a ship’s hull and topple her masts. Chain shot damaged the rigging. Bar shot devastated rigging and sails. Some guns were mounted on bed carriages with trucks. Others, called swivel guns, were mounted on a vessel’s rails and used against an enemy crew. Carronades had shorter barrels, used less powder, and were more accurate than long guns.

Sea battle between Chasseur and St. Lawrence

Thinking the enemy was a merchant vessel since he saw only three gun ports, Boyle attempted to close and board her, but Chasseur was sailing too fast and shot under St. Lawrence’s lee. The schooner greeted the American by revealing “a tier of ten ports in a side,” but the soldiers and marines aboard remained hidden under the bulwark. The two vessels exchanged broadsides at thirty feet apart. The battle continued for fifteen minutes before the naval vessel struck her colors. HMS St. Lawrence’s masts toppled after the fighting ended, and her hull and spars were so damaged that Boyle sent her and her wounded to Cuba. He described her as “a perfect wreck in her hull and had scarcely a Sail or Rope standing.” (Garitee, 161) The damage to Chasseur, on the other hand, was mostly confined to her rigging and rails. Of the battle, Boyle recorded:

At this time both fires were very severe and destructive and we found we have an heavy enemy to contend with…. Saw the blood run freely from her scuppers. Gave orders for boarding which was cheerfully obeyed…. [By] various…reports [the British had] 15 killed and 19 wounded…. We…had 5 men killed and 19 wounded. (George)
Later, one writer noted that Roberts “displayed the most intrepid courage and daring” during this battle. When Boyle met with Lt. Gordon, the Englishman gave him a letter, part of which said:
In the event of Captain Boyle’s becoming a prisoner of war to any British cruiser I consider it a tribute justly due to his humane and generous treatment of myself, the surviving officers, and crew of His Majesty’s late schooner St. Lawrence, to state that his obliging attention and watchful solicitude to preserve our effects and render us comfortable during the short time we were in his possession were such as justly entitle him to the indulgence and respect of every British subject. (Paine)
On the first of March, the brig almost collided with a water spout. Soon after, a fellow American vessel out of Boston passed along news of peace. In late March or early April (sources vary on the date), Chasseur sailed up the Patapsco River past Fort McHenry, which saluted her, into Baltimore. Hezekiah Niles, the editor of the Niles’ Register, wrote:
She is, perhaps, the most beautiful vessel that ever floated in the ocean, those who have not seen our schooners have but little idea of her appearance. As you look at her you may easily figure to yourself the idea that she is about to rise out of the water and fly in the air, seeming to set so lightly upon it! (Garitee, 117)
This newspaper also dubbed her “the Pride of Baltimore.” She had captured twenty-three vessels under Boyle’s leadership, and the proceeds from the sales of those plundered cargoes totaled $33,173.62. Boyle earned more than thirty thousand dollars from his cruises, both as a captain and/or an owner of the Comet and Chasseur.

During the war, Thomas Kemp didn’t just build privateers. He also did work for the navy, and his weekly payroll exceeded $1,000. He built the USS Erie and USS Ontario. William Garnds carved their two figureheads for $80. The price of the Erie alone was $50 per ton, and Kemp recorded how he arrived at that cost:

One hundred and Seventeen feet eleven inches upon the Gun Deck, Ninety seven feet six inches Keel for Tonnage measuring one foot before the forward perpendicular, and along the base line to the front of the rabbit of the part, deducting three fifths of the moulded breadth of beam, which is thirty one feet six inches, then the moulded breadth multiplied into the length of the Keel for Tonnage, that product multiplied by half the moulded breadth of beam, and that product divided by ninety five will give Five Hundred and nine Tons 21/95 Carpenters measure, by which said Builder is to be paid Fifty Dollars per ton. (Bourne, 283)
After the war, Thomas Kemp returned to the Eastern Shore to live at his farm, Wade’s Point, a property he purchased for $7,000 in 1813. Five years later, he sold his Fells Point property, which included “a Very Comfortable and Roomy 2 story frame Dwelling house, a good brick Kitchen and Smoke house, A large work shop and very good counting house.” (Ahrens, 105) Kemp died on 3 March 1824, at the age of forty-five, and was buried on the highest knoll on Wade’s Point.

Chasseur once again became a merchant vessel and sailed to China. After she was sold to foreign owners in 1816, she disappeared from the historical record. As for her famous captain, Boyle returned to commanding merchant ships, primarily in the West Indies. In Chasseur’s log after the battle with St. Lawrence, Boyle explained why he chose to fight, rather than flee.

I should not willingly perhaps have sought a contest with a king’s vessel knowing it was not our object, but my expectations were at first a valuable vessel and a valuable cargo. When I found myself deceived, the honor of the flag left with me was not to be disgraced by flight.
When he died at sea in 1825, Boyle had fathered five daughters and one son. During his marriage to Mary Gross, they resided at four different homes, the first of which occupied the corner opposite the home and shop of Mary Pickersgill, who stitched the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the British bombardment. The first notice of his death appeared in Philadelphia’s U.S. Gazette on 21 October.
Captain Boyle was one of the oldest & most respectable ship masters out of the port of Baltimore; possessing a generous disposition, & a nobleness of mind, blending the polished gentleman with that of the sailor made him the favorite of all who knew him. (Hopkins, 81)


His estate was valued at about $10,051, and during the Second World War, the United States named a destroyer in his honor.

In 1860, George R. Roberts had a personal estate valued at $100 and $400 worth of real estate in Canton, a Baltimore neighborhood. He worked as a stevedore or porter after the war. When parades were held, he was honored as a hero as he marched with the other “Old Defenders” of the city. When he died at the age of ninety-five, the Baltimore Sun published an obituary on 16 January 1861 that mentioned his “many hairbreath escapes.” He had a “brave character… adorned by an amiable disposition.” (George) Someone else wrote:

Thus has passed away a man whose patriotism, good sense and high moral character have won for him many friends for whom the news of his death will cause heartfelt sorrow. (George)
Isaac McKim, owner of the Ann McKimFollowing the War of 1812, shipbuilding and commerce almost halted in Fells Point. The reason for this depression was inflation, outbreaks of yellow fever, and too many decommissioned privateers. Shipyards began converting these vessels for use in the slave trade. Not until the launch of the Ann McKim in 1833, did the first signs of recovery appear. From 1840 to 1895, Fells Point once again became a thriving seaport, this time supplying the vessels that became known as Baltimore Clippers. (This name did not refer to the privateers that sailed during the War of 1812. They were often referred to then as “Baltimore Flyers.”)

Once steam ships took the place of sailing ships, other sections of Baltimore, like Locust Point, became the ports of choice because the water at Fells Point wasn’t deep enough for the iron ships. Her shipyards closed and lumber, canning, and packing companies bought the abandoned properties. With the influx of new industries came immigrants who lived and worked there. Many of the original houses were razed during the first few decades of the 20th century, but eventually citizens petitioned for Fells Point to be declared a historic district. The area became the first National Registered Historic District in Maryland in 1969.

Fells Point…is bounded on the north by Aliceanna Street, on the east by Wolfe Street, on the south by the harbor and on the west by Dallas Street…. The character of its townscape is set by groupings of small 2½ story houses which were the homes of seamen, ship’s carpenters, sailmakers and other artisans involved in the port activities. These smaller houses are interspersed with occasional larger, more elaborate 3½ story houses which were the homes of the shipyard owners, prosperous merchants, and sea captains. (Rukert, Story, 93)
Today visitors to this old seaport will find museums, shops, galleries, and restaurants as they walk the cobbled streets along the harbor.
 
 
Special thanks to the curators of the Fells Point Maritime Museum, reference librarian Francis P. O’Neill at the H. Furlong Baldwin Library of the Maryland Historical Society, and Kate Dolan, author of Avery’s Treasure, for their assistance in obtaining source material for this article.
For additional information on the Baltimore privateers, I recommend:

Ahrens, Toni. Design Makes a Difference: Shipbuilding in Baltimore 1795-1835. Bowie,
     MD: Heritage Books, 1998.
American Merchant Marine and Privateers in War of 1812,” U.S. Maritime Service Veterans.
     2002.
Beirne, Francis F. The Amiable Baltimoreans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1984.
Bourne, M. Florence. “Thomas Kemp, Shipbuilder, and His Home Wades Point,” Maryland
     Historical Magazine XLIX: 4 (December 1954), 271-289.
Chapelle, Howard Irving. The Baltimore Clipper. New York: Bonanza Books, MCMXXX.
Clayton, Ralph. Slavery, Slaveholding, and the Free Black Population of Antebellum
     Baltimore. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1993.
Coggeshall, George. History of the American Privateers. New York: C.T. Evans, 1856.
Cranwell, John Philips, and William Bowers Crane. Men of Marque: A History of the Private
     Armed Vessels Out of Baltimore During the War of 1812. New York: W. W. Norton &
     Co., 1940.
Garitee, Jerome R. The Republic’s Private Navy: The American Privateering Business as
     Practiced by Baltimore during the War of 1812. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University,
     1977.
George, Christopher T. “A Maritime Point of View: African-American Sailors Served in Our
     Nation’s ‘Private Navy’.”
Gillmer, Thomas C. Pride of Baltimore: The Story of the Baltimore Clippers 1800-1990.
     Camden, ME: International Marine, 1992.
History of Fells Point,” Live in Baltimore – Neighborhood History.
Hopkins, Fred. “Privateers,”  Maryland Online Encyclopedia.
Hopkins, Fred W., Jr. Tom Boyle, Master Privateer. Cambridge, MA: Tidewater, 1976.
Little, Benerson. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730.
     Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005.
Mayer, Frank. “Old Baltimore and Its Merchants” in Old Maryland compiled by Skip
     Whitson. Albuquerque, NM: Sun Books, 1976, pages 7-13.
Paine, Ralph D. The Old Merchant Marine.
“Privateers,” Pride of Baltimore II Sailing Lore.
Rukert, Norman. “Fells Point” in Beyond the White Marble Steps: A Look at Baltimore
     Neighborhoods by The Livelier Baltimore Committee of the Citizens Planning & Housing
     Association. J. W. Boarman Co., 1979, pages 6-7.
Rukert, Norman. The Fells Point Story. Baltimore: Bodine & Associates, 1976.
Sheads, Scott, and Jerome Bird. Privateers from the Chesapeake: The Story of Chasseur, the
     “Pride of Baltimore,” and the War of 1812. Baltimore: Pride of Baltimore, 2001.
Steiner, Bernard C. “Maryland Privateers in the American Revolution,” Maryland Historical
     Magazine III:2 (June 1908), 99-103.
Stivers, Reuben Elmore. Privateers and Volunteers: The Men and Women of Our Reserve
     Naval Forces, 1766 to 1866. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975.
Waldron, Tom. Pride of the Sea: Courage, Disaster, and a Fight for Survival. New York:
     Citadel Press, 2004. (This book tells the story of the Pride of Baltimore, which was
     designed similarly to Chasseur.)
Wilbur, C. Keith. Pirates and Patriots of the Revolution. Chester, CT: Globe Pequot Press,
     1984.
 
 

Copyright © 2008 Cindy Vallar



 
 
 
 

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