In the year 1284, the legend goes, the German town of Hamelin was overrun with rats. Luckily for them, the Pied Piper was in town, and agreed to solve Hamelin’s problem for a fee. Using his magical flute, he lured the rats into the Weser River, where they drowned. But after the townspeople refused to pay him, the Piper repeated the trick, leading their children into a cave—and they were never seen again. Since then, the legend of the Pied Piper, retold, most famously, by Robert Browning and the Brothers Grimm, has become Hamelin’s claim to fame, and a major tourist attraction. Today, the Piper’s likeness can be seen in fountains, stained glass windows, and other landmarks throughout the town. But there’s one reminder of the beloved tale that most tourists and residents would probably rather not see: the rats themselves, which are infesting the town once again.
In Hamelin, which has a population of 60,000, rat packs up to 300-strong are now on the loose, local officials say. The infestation has been blamed on an abandoned vegetable patch, once used by locals but now strewn with rubbish, and a feeding ground for vermin. (Rat poison has been scattered through the area.) Although Hamelin’s downtown is still relatively free of rats, pest control officers from all over Germany have been recruited to help—but no Pied Pipers, yet.
Town officials, meanwhile, are promising that Hamelin’s rat plague will be under control within weeks. They must be crossing their fingers it won’t repeat itself in 2009—next year marks the Pied Piper’s 725th anniversary, and tourists are expected to descend upon Hamelin in droves (events include, somewhat morbidly, a children’s parade).
After paying tribute to the Pied Piper for over seven centuries, the town has almost certainly made up for its shabby treatment of the Pied Piper—and learned a lesson, too. Hamelin’s current rat catchers must feel encouraged that, given what happened last time, residents almost certainly won’t neglect to pay them.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.