It is one of the world’s most baffling kidnapping mysteries. One summer day, a strange man in gaudy clothes appeared in the tiny hamlet of Hameln, Germany, and 130 children followed him out of town, never to be seen again. Dozens of supersleuths have been confounded in their attempts to uncover the identity of the man and the fate of the children. Recently an eccentric schoolteacher came forward claiming to have cracked the case. The only problem: His one eyewitness died nearly seven centuries ago.
This month, modern-day Hameln celebrates the 700th anniversary of the inscrutable visitation by the man who came to be known as the Pied Piper. And while the tidy town of 60,000 entertains thousands of curiosity seekers with pageants reenacting the legend, recently discovered evidence has heated up the never-ending debate in local beer halls over what actually happened so many moons ago.
Once upon a time, according to medieval storytellers, the Pied Piper, using his enchanted flute, did the town of Hameln a great service by luring all the town rodents to their death in the nearby Weser River. When he came to claim his fee, the town fathers made the Pied Piper an offer they thought he wouldn’t refuse—one ducat instead of the 100-ducat extermination deal he had been promised. You can pay me now or pay me later, the Pied Piper none too patiently explained. When the town fathers laughed at his threats, the piper left in a huff, only to return a few days later, clad in a red hat and colorful huntsman’s outfit. This time, when he played his magic pipe, it was the village’s children who were lured away. Two eventually returned, but one was mute and the other blind, so they could never describe where they had been.
For several centuries the Pied Piper was vilified as a vampire or agent of the Devil. Then, in the 1700s, it was suggested that the kids had been enlisted to join the Crusades, but had never reached the Holy Land. Robert Browning wrote a poem based on the legend, muddying the waters further by changing the spelling of Hamelin to Hamelin for easier rhyming.
Retired schoolteacher Hans Dobbertin, 60, from the nearby village of Eldagsen, has been trying to decipher the legend since 1952. After scrupulous study of local historical records, he believes he has found the key piece of evidence that reveals the true identity of the piper.
Dobbertin’s “smoking pistol” is a stained-glass window from an ancient marketplace church erected just 16 years after the disappearance of the children. The window shows three stags, which were prominent symbols in the coat of arms of Count Nicholas von Spiegelberg, a wealthy Teutonic Knight who in 1284 was actively recruiting young soldiers and settlers for Christian hamlets in eastern Poland, near the Russian border.
“Life in Europe in those days was like your American Wild West,” explains Dobbertin, donning horn-rimmed glasses and pushing his straight gray hair back from his forehead. “People were easily lured into the wilderness by nobles who promised glory and land to those willing to take up the broadsword to fight non-Christian barbarians in the name of God.”
To support his theory, Dobbertin even cites an eyewitness. A woman named Frau von Leude left a written record in 1294 of having seen Spiegelberg and his Hameln recruits. Dobbertin speculates that, blocked in their eastern exodus by unfriendly armies on land, the group put to sea in the Baltic and was lost in a storm.
But what about the rats?
Pointing to an aged painting in his book-lined study, Dobbertin explains that it was the custom of the era to portray the souls of those lost at sea as rats in water. “Remember that for years before printing, this entire story was perpetuated generation after generation only by word of mouth,” Dobbertin says. “In any retelling, names and places were bound to be altered.”
Dobbertin is not a popular man in Hameln, and for a good reason. The livelihood of many people in the town depends on preserving the medieval fable rather than uncovering the truth. Pied Piper knickknacks and memorabilia are prominently displayed in nearly every village storefront window. At the famed Rat Catcher’s Inn, hungry visitors can even nibble on bakery-fresh rolls shaped like rats, or dine on Rats’ Tail flambé (actually strips of spicy pork in a piquant sauce), topped off with a Rat Killer cocktail.
Meanwhile, Dobbertin declines to socialize with the townsfolk, pursuing his dour obsession alone. “We are not angry at Herr Dobbertin for exposing his theories to the world,” says Norbert Humburg, the genial director of the quaint Pied Piper Museum in the center of Hameln. “It’s just that he is too enthusiastic about his point of view. He should be more willing to accept that there are a number of other possibilities as to what happened.”
As in all good cautionary tales, there’s a moral here: Don’t bite the rat tale that feeds you.