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Hameln's Shame

While it’s well known that fairy tales, folklore and fables exist - in part - to impart simple moral lessons to children, some of the most famous also hide secret shames.


In some ways, the darkest shadows cast by the history of our wretched species can be separated into horrific events which fall into two categories: Those we failed to forestall - tragedies - and those which we have perpetrated - atrocities. Some of the latter are so terrible that, given enough time and a convenient paucity of evidence, we are compelled to rewrite them; to remember them as fictions in order to begin to mitigate and move on from the associated guilt. Nonetheless, some of our sins are so profane that while their costs and consequences can be deferred, they will always come due eventually; often indiscriminate in their hunger for redress.

One of the most famous such deceptions in European history, a myth that has grown and been codified into a deliberate fiction, concerns the German town of Hameln and how an entire generation of its children were lost. Modern retellings of a folktale widely-known as The Pied Piper of Hameln - or some variant thereof - talk of a town beset by a flood of rats that were spreading disease and destroying stores of grain and wheat, essentially starving those who did not succumb to the various plagues and pestilences they carried. Desperate and almost without hope, the town accepted eagerly when a visitor - the eponymous Pied Piper - arrived and offered to drive the vermin away.

A price agreed and a deal struck, the Pied Piper walked through the town and played his song, some aspect or element of the music compelling the rats to abandon their nests and follow him in rapt, hypnotic attention. Before long the Piper was at the head of a nightmarish procession, a brown and grey tide of sinewy, beady-eyed beasts who had been cutting a merciless and mindless swathe through Hameln. Never stopping, not even pausing for breath, the Piper led the rats out of town and into the torrent of the Weser river - full and fast from the recent rains - keeping his feet as he waded in, chest-deep. The rats, stupefied by the music, drowned and were washed away.

Unequivocally successful, even unbelievably so, the Piper kept going until there wasn’t a single rat left in Hameln, then returned for his payment. Hesitant, belligerent - having, in desperation, agreed upon an amount that the town’s newfound freedom made unpalatable - the Mayor tried to haggle the Piper down to a lesser fee until, his much smaller offers rebuffed and feeling personally rebuked, the Mayor accused the Piper of having caused the crisis in order to profit. After a moment of chill silence, in which both men realised that there would be no détente, the Piper calmly swore that before long another, far steeper price would be paid, then walked away from Hameln.

It would be several months before he was seen again; enough time for those who had heard his oath to begin to convince themselves that it was an empty threat. He returned on the dawn and, never saying a word, he began to play a new song. Roused by the music, the people of Hameln went to their windows, but they were too late. Their children had heard the song first, had been drawn to it and had left their beds and gone out into the streets to flock to the Piper’s side. Their parents, their neighbours, froze in what they assumed was panic - until it didn’t pass. The song left them unable to do anything but watch as their children were taken.

But all of that is just a story, even the most well-known aspects were added in the centuries following the one undisputed fact; at some point in the late middle ages, all the children of Hameln were taken away. The more exoteric theories about why are numerous and varied, but the truth - and its continuing repercussions - are more harrowing than the bleakest of these. The children of Hameln were not taken by the Piper, they were sold to him with the willing assent of their families. He told them no lies; they knew that they were trading with a man who pursued immortality (always a bloody prize). After all, part of the promised payment would have been to share in that secret.

Over the following centuries the story of what had happened in Hameln became a myth, increasingly fictionalised as it spread around the world, and no traces of the missing children were uncovered. That changed in the late eighteenth century when a number of American industrialists - each notorious not just for their use of child labour, but for their deliberate disregard for the safety and wellbeing of their young workers - were murdered. These men had earned their numerous enemies, sometimes counting each other amongst them, and there should have been no shortage of suspects. Except that they seemed to have been held down by dozens of small, impossibly strong hands and then choked on fistfuls of groschen and heller; antique coins of the kind that might have been paid to the parents of Hameln.

Understandably, a connection to the Pied Piper myth was not made at the time and the investigators either found scapegoats or quietly marked the cases as unsolved (whereupon their files sometimes found their way into the hands of certain private concerns). Even as they moved on, similar cases with similar victims began to appear all over the world, isolated clusters of attacks sometimes half a world away from one another. We can’t be sure how long this pattern would have gone unnoticed - especially once information about crimes began to be shared more readily across and between different countries - but the issue became moot when, in June 1929, one of the murderers was not able to escape with her associates.

It was in Batavia (now Jakarta) and a senior official from the Dutch East India Company - who was rumoured to have made a significant portion of his fortune trafficking in local children - was working late into the night. Hearing a noise outside his office, he stood up to investigate and was suddenly set upon by a dozen children trying to drag him to the floor. Struggling violently, he managed to throw a girl aside before he succumbed, hearing his window break before he was surrounded and coins were forced down his throat. On the street below, a passer-by heard the shattering glass and saw the girl fall from the second-floor window; he began calling for help as he went to her side.

Injured but alive, she was taken to a nearby hospital and treated, under guard, as the authorities waited to be able to question her. There was no trace of the other children, and only the official they had killed stood as proof that they had ever been there at all (the passer-by had seen them staring down in silhouette from the broken window). After a faltering start, exacerbated by her apparent malnutrition, she began to heal remarkably quickly but could not be woken up. Days passed, then weeks, until the security around her was eventually relaxed and she was only closely monitored at night. Very little of sense or substance was expected, even if she came to; but what they got was an account that they couldn’t believe.

Early one morning, several months after her admission, the girl sat up and began to talk in what some of the Dutch staff recognised was an arch and anachronistic form of German. She did not converse with anyone, or acknowledge them, rather she dictated the details of her origin and a statement of intent. Whatever had happened in the Pied Piper’s laboratories had birthed a group so simpatico in word and deed that they almost seemed to share one mind. Their physical growth and ageing halted, they were both more and less than human - the monstrous creating monsters in turn - and they acted with a righteous fury and a singular, implacable intent to punish by proxy.

Her mentions of other murders meant that several distinct mysteries could be linked and, if they had believed the more outlandish parts of her story, she might have represented unparalleled opportunities for advancing the medical understanding of ageing and death. This would never to come to pass though, because in the dead of night the other children came for their sister. Since they were not there to punish, no-one was hurt - only a few people even claimed to have seen them as they passed through the hospital - and they even left payment in the form of more antique coins. Soon thereafter they resumed their work, becoming another, altogether different sort of myth: Hameln’s shame revisited upon those who committed similar sins.


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