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The True Story Behind ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’

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The story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is well known. This dark European folktale with unsettling themes of ingratitude and terrible vengeance has been told and retold for generations. The tale goes something like this:
In the year 1284, there was a serious rat problem in Hamelin, which was at that time a prosperous port on the river Weser in Lower Saxony, Germany. Barges full of corn and wheat arrived every day which was ground in the mills and made into bread and cakes in the bakeries. But the rats came and ate all the corn and the wheat, and the bread and the cakes, and there were fleas everywhere. Life in Hamelin became a nightmare. Desperate for a solution, the town mayor announced a prize of one thousand gold guilders to anyone who could free Hamelin of the rats.
The very next day a mysterious man in bright colorful clothing arrived in town. He claimed to be a rat-catcher, and he promised to get rid of all the mice and rats in Hamelin for the promised sum. The “Pied Piper” then took out a small fife from his pocket and began to play a tune. And as the townsfolk watched in awe, thousands of rats came scurrying out of houses and gutters and warehouses and bakeries and began to follow the Pied Piper. Still playing his fife, the Piper led the mass of mesmerized rats out of town and into the Weser River where they jumped one by one into the water and drowned.
When the Pied Piper returned to the town square to collect his prize, the mayor laughed and gave him only fifty guilders. Enraged, the Piper stomped out of town but not before swearing revenge.
A few days later was Saint John and Paul's day, and while the adults were in church, the piper returned dressed in green and began playing a different tune. This time time it wasn’t rats or mice but the town’s children who came running and dancing towards him. The swarm followed him into the mountain where he disappeared along with the children. Only a lame who couldn’t follow quickly enough, a deaf who couldn’t hear and a blind child remained behind. A total of one hundred thirty children were lost that day.
For a long time, the legend of the Pied Piper was mere folktale kept alive by generation after generation of Hamelin residents until the tale started receiving broader audience through the retelling by the Brothers Grimm. But the tale is much more than fiction. There are evidences that suggest that something deeply traumatic did happen in the German town on 26th of June 1284.

Evidences from the past

We know the precise date from an inscription on a stained-glass window on the town’s church, which stood on the town’s square until it was destroyed in 1660. The window bore the image of a piper and the words: “In the year 1284, on the day of John and Paul, it was the 26th of June, came a colourful Piper to Hamelin and led 130 children away.” The date appears again in Hamelin’s town chronicle. Against the year 1384, the entry simply said, “It is 100 years since our children left.
The oldest picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hamelin.
Accounts of the tale began to appear in subsequent centuries, with the story remaining invariably the same. In a mid-15th century reference found in the Latin chronicle from the German town of Lunenberg, the piper is described as a handsome and well-dressed man about thirty years of age who entered Hamelin and “began to play all through the town a silver pipe of the most magnificent sort.”
The central character of the story, the Piper, was common in medieval times. Pipers were often employed to lead civic celebrations. They wore multicolored dresses, or pied clothes, which was a symbol of low status usually worn by other entertainers such as court fools and executioners. Most pipers lived a vagrant life and were often troublemakers.
The original tale didn’t include rats. The rodent started appearing only in the 16th century, at a time when Europe was gripped by plague, and so the connection between the piper who brought trouble and the vermin who brought illness is not difficult to imagine. At any rate, rats became an important part of the story and it was this version that was popularized by the likes of Robert Browning and Brothers Grimm.

What really happened?

pied-piper-hamelin-9The most common theory behind the tale is that the children died of natural causes such as epidemic, and the Piper was just an allegory of death. Others believe that that they may have joined the failed Children's Crusade of 1212 where thousands of children set off for the Holy Land, but many died on the way or were sold to slavery. But the theory does not explain why the story is set so firmly in Hamelin. Besides the Children's Crusade occurred some seventy years before the alleged incident in Hamelin.
A new theory suggest that the phrase “children of Hamelin” was not meant to convey literal youths, but rather “inhabitants of the town,” and that following the Pied Piper was actually a metaphor for emigrating. In the 13th century, many Germans were persuaded, by offering rewards, to settle in Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania or in the Teutonic Land by landowners. Consequently, thousands of young adults from Lower Saxony and Westphalia headed east and settled there as evident from dozens of Westphalian place names that show up in this area.
Historian Jürgen Udolph believes that many residents from Hamelin wound up in what is now Poland. In the regions of Prignitz and Uckermark and in the former Pomeranian region, Udolph found families with the same dynastic names as in Hamelin with “amazing frequency”. Udolph surmises that the children were actually unemployed youths who had been sucked into the German drive to colonize its new settlements in Eastern Europe. Landlords often employed certain characters called “lokators” who roamed northern Germany trying to recruit settlers for this purpose. Like a medieval piper, some of them were brightly dressed and all were silver-tongued.
A 14th century portrayal of a “lokator” (with a special hat). In the upper panel he is shown receiving the foundation charter from the landlord. The settlers clear the forest and build houses. In the lower panel, the “lokator” acts as the judge in the village. 
An eerily similar tale also exist in the German town of Brandenburg, where a man appeared with a hurdy-gurdy and lured the children away by its beautiful music. In another legend, more than a thousand children left the city of Erfrut singing and dancing in the year 1257 and arrived at Arnstadt, where the citizens there took them in. When parents back home were notified, they brought their children back, but who led them away remained a mystery.
Folktales of rat-catchers are also abound in Germany. In German lore, there is a shape-shifting sprit called Katzenveit who once came to Tripstrille as an exterminator and claimed he cloud drive away the rats. Like the Piped Piper story, he was denied payment and as revenge he led all the cats away from their owners. 
The Pied Piper is a central figure in Hamelin today, although the dark elements to the tale are overlaid with a spirit of fun and merriment. There are Pied Piper-themed restaurants and businesses whose name reflect the legend, and a street named Bungelosenstrasse ("street without drums") purported to be the very street via which the children were led away from the town. No music is played in this street today as a gesture of respect to the town’s lost children.
Every Sunday, throughout summer, in the old town center of Hamelin, actors gather to re-enact the tragic tale that befell the German town centuries ago. In addition, each year the city marks June 26 as "Rat Catcher's Day".
"The Pied Piper of Hamlin", a 16-foot long mural by American painter Maxfield Parrish, at Palace Hotel, San Francisco.  
A rat tile on the streets of Hamelin.  

Sculpture of the Pied Piper in Hamelin.

James Nasmyth’s Fake Lunar Photographs From 1874

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In 1874, an astronomer and an inventor together published one of the most influential books of the time on lunar geology, titled The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite. In 276 pages, James Nasmyth and James Carpenter summed up three decades of research encompassing all that astronomers knew about the moon, and even attempted to answer some of the still-unansweredquestions of the time, such as: Could the moon support life? Did it have an atmosphere? How did its craters form?
Accompanying the text were a collection of striking photographs of the lunar surface, highly detailed and so up-close that they seem like photographs from the Apollo missions which wouldn’t fly for another century. While it is possible to take such detailed pictures of the moon today without leaving terra firma using powerful telescopes and modern cameras, back then photography was still in its infancy and there was no suitable technology to take photographs directly through a telescope.
So how did James Nasmyth manage to take these photos? By building accurate plaster models of the moon’s surface in meticulous detail guided by sketches he made by peering though his self-made telescope. He then photographed the models against a black background and with a strong light shining obliquely upon them to mimic the rays of sunlight hitting the moon’s numerous craters and mountains.
“The result is perfect; far more perfect than any enlargement of photographs could possibly have been,” wrote one of the book’s contemporary reviewers.
James Nasmyth may not have been a professional astronomer, but this Edinburg-born Scotsman was one of the leading engineers of his era. Son of a painter, Nasmyth showed an extraordinary mechanical inclination from a very young age. He was only seventeen when he made his first model steam engine, and twenty-one when he made a complete steam carriage capable of carrying half a dozen people. For two years, Nasmyth worked in the machine workshop of the famous inventor Henry Maudslay in London, but later moved to Manchester where he set up his own foundry business. Soon, Nasmyth and his business partner were making all kinds of heavy machinery for factories, for the railways and for steamships. While forging the unusually large paddle wheels of the steamship SS Great Britain, Nasmyth solved the technical challenges by designing the highlight of his career—the steam hammer. Although, the great paddle wheel for which the mighty hammer was invented was never hammered out, the steam hammer became such a huge commercial success that Nasmyth was able to retire comfortably at the age of forty-eight to pursue the other passions in his life, notably astronomy and photography.
Nasmyth settled down near Penshurst, Kent, where he built his own 20-inch reflecting telescope. Always an inventor, Nasmyth modified a typical Cassegrain telescope by adding a third diagonal flat mirror to pass the beam of light out of the side of the telescope barrel rather than through the other end. This allowed the telescope to be rotated at whatever angle without having to constantly move the eye piece. Most modern telescopes today use this configuration.
After two decades of moon gazing, Nasmyth co-authored the book The Moon Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite with astronomer James Carpenter, where the duo put forward various hypothesis of the moon’s origin, its internal structure and geology. Nasmyth, like many astronomers of the day, believed that the craters on the moon’s surface were of volcanic origin. The book comes with many diagrams of cross-section of the celestial body’s subterranean layers to illustrate this idea, even drawing examples from the terrestrial world to demonstrate.
For instance, Nasmyth argued that as the lunar sphere cooled the outer layer solidified first and contracted, while the inner layers, still molten, expanded which Nasmyth calls “pre-solidifying expansion”. The expanding inner core strained against the contracting outer layers resulting in cracks from appearing on the lunar surface through which molten lava erupted forming the moon’s many craters. Finally, as the core cooled and shrunk it caused mountains to materialize just as shrinking muscles due to old age create wrinkles on the back of a hand. Nasmyth also demonstrated that the expanding interior caused the characteristic radiating streaks found on the moon’s surface by showing a photograph of a glass sphere cracked radially by pressure from within.
Although the science is incorrect, the images that accompanied the book were astounding. Even though fake, the photographs were —as NASA noted— “more realistic than the images that could be achieved by telescope photography at that time.” Ironically, a century later when the Apollo missions beamed home actual images and footage of the moon’s surface, the NASA and the government were accused of faking it all up—a ridiculous notion that refuses to die to this day.
In recognition of their work, both James Nasmyth and James Carpenter were honored with craters named after them.
For those interested in the book, a digital version is available for reading at archive.org.












Dead Guatemalan girl dreamed of sending money home to poor family

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The 7-year-old Guatemalan migrant girl who died in U.S. custody this month was inseparable from her father and had looked forward to being able to send money home to support her impoverished family, relatives said on Saturday.
Nery Caal, 29, and his daughter Jakelin were in a group of more than 160 migrants who handed themselves in to U.S. border agents in New Mexico on Dec. 6. Jakelin developed a high fever and died hours later while in the care of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
"The girl said when she was grown up she was going to work and send dough back to her mom and grandma," said her mother Claudia Maquin, who has three remaining children, speaking in the Mayan language Q'eqchi and betraying little outward emotion.
"Because she'd never seen a big country, she was really happy that she was going to go," she added, explaining how her husband had gone to the United States to find a way out of the "extreme poverty" that dictated their lives.
Corn stood behind her palm-thatched wooden house and a few chickens and pigs scrabbled in the yard as she spoke, dressed in a traditional blouse with a 6-month-old baby in her arms.
A family photograph at the house showed Jakelin smiling and looking up at the camera, wearing a pink T-shirt with characters from the cartoon series "Masha and the Bear."
Deforestation to make way for palm-oil plantations has made subsistence farming increasingly hard for the 40,000 inhabitants of Raxruha municipality, where the family's agricultural hamlet of San Antonio de Cortez lies in central Guatemala, local officials said. That has spurred an exodus of migrants.
Setting out on Dec. 1, Caal and his daughter traveled more than 2,000 miles (3,220 km) so Jakelin's father could look for work in the United States, said her mother, who learned of the girl's death from consular officials.
Almost 80 percent of Guatemala's indigenous population are poor, with half of those living in extreme poverty. The mayor of San Antonio de Cortez described the Caal family as among the worst off in the village.
Mayor Cesar Castro said in recent months more and more families were uprooting to try to reach the United States, often selling what little land they owned to pay people traffickers thousands of dollars for the trip.
"It's not just the Caal family. There are endless people who are leaving," Castro said. "I see them drive past in pickups, cars and buses." He said most of them came back in the end, often penniless after being dropped off by traffickers, caught by authorities and deported.
Jakelin's death has added to criticism of U.S. of President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies from migrant advocates and Democrats in the U.S. Congress.
The U.S. government defended Jakelin's treatment, and said there was no indication she had any medical problems until several hours after she and her father were taken into custody.
Domingo Caal, Jakelin's grandfather, said she had gone on the journey because she did not want to leave her father.
"The girl really stuck to him. It was very difficult to separate them," said Domingo, 61, wearing muddy boots and a faded and torn blue shirt.
Jakelin's uncle, Jose Manuel Caal, said he had heard she was ill before she died, but had expected her to recover. "The girl's death left us in shock," he said.
The family hope the girl's father can remain in the United States.
"What I want now is for Nery to stay and work in the United States. That's what I want," said his wife.
A Guatemalan consular official told Reuters on Friday that Caal told him he had crossed the border planning to turn himself in to U.S. authorities, and will try to stay.
Record numbers of parents traveling with children are being apprehended trying to cross the U.S. border with Mexico. In November, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers detained 25,172 members of "family units," the highest monthly number ever recorded, the agency said.
Parents with children are more likely to be released by U.S. authorities while their cases are processed because of legal restrictions on keeping children in detention.
Caal remains in the El Paso, Texas area, where his daughter died after being flown by helicopter to a hospital there for emergency treatment when she stopped breathing.
A brain scan revealed swelling and Jakelin was diagnosed with liver failure. She died early in the morning on Dec. 8, with her father at the hospital, a CBP official said.
U.S. authorities are investigating the death.

Dangerous Levels of Mercury Found in Some Skin-Care Products Bought on Amazon and eBay

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You may have heard that mercury can lurk in things like sushi and dental fillings, but it turns out that dangerous levels of this toxic heavy metal can also be found in skin-care products, particularly those from foreign countries. And while that last part may make you breathe a sigh of relief, there's still plenty of reason to be cautious about what you're applying onto your skin. Even though skin-care products containing an abundance of mercury aren't made in or technically available for sale in the U.S., it's possible they could still be purchased and shipped straight to your doorstep via online retailers like Amazon and eBay. This was the case when advocacy groups recently purchased products for testing.

What's the deal with mercury in skin-care products?

Recently, 51 advocacy groups sent public action letters to both e-commerce giants, calling on them to "stop marketing illegal mercury-laden cosmetics" and "to ensure that cosmetics found to have mercury levels over 1ppm are no longer offered for sale" after testing revealed that many of them contained extremely high levels of mercury. For context, in the U.S., the legal limit of mercury that can be present in cosmetics formulas, which was set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 1973, is just one part per million (ppm).
According to the letters sent to Amazon and eBay, skin-care creams were purchased by some of the advocacy groups and their mercury levels were tested. Shockingly, one of the test results revealed mercury levels 30,000 times the legal limit.

Why is this an issue?

"Most Americans are aware that mercury is dangerous, but many people don't realize that [it's] sometimes used as the active ingredient in skin-lightening creams," explains Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which was one of the advocacy groups behind the letters and who issued a press release about the findings. "Mercury cannot be used more than 1ppm in skin creams, but the FDA lacks resources to adequately police the marketplace."
The main reason that mercury is used in moisturizers, as Benesh explained, is as a skin "lightener." Mercury can act as a bleaching agent, and it also holds certain preservative properties (which means it can help elongate a product's shelf-life). It's also an inexpensive ingredient. In cosmetics, high mercury levels are most commonly found in products that promise to fade dark spots, blemishes, and fine lines. "Mercury is an effective material for skin lightening, with rapid results, but the price outweighs the benefits," explains cosmetic chemist Ginger King. It's a poison that can damage skin and even organs, she adds.

How is mercury hazardous in products?

That being said, mercury is highly toxic. When applied topically, mercury is associated with the development of skin irritation, rashes, and discoloration, says Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "If it's absorbed, [it] can even cause mercury poisoning with toxicity to the kidneys and nervous system."
Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the primary adverse effect of mercury in skin-care products is kidney damage. And, in addition to what Zeichner noted, it can also cause anxiety, depression, and even psychosis. Long-term use of cosmetics that contain mercury can cause damage to the eyes, lungs, digestive, nervous and immune systems. So yeah, it can be pretty toxic stuff.

Exposure to mercury could come from your environment as well

"We know that inhaling mercury vapor can be harmful to your health," explains Zeichner. "We don't know what effect mercury containing creams have on the air, so that is even more of a reason to avoid these products."
One example that illustrates the potential harm of mercury exposure other than via the skin is from research on mercury exposure during pregnancy: Studies suggest an association between mercury and pregnancy complications and developmental problems in infants. Moreover, as the WHO explains, mercury in skin-care products and soap is eventually released into wastewater via your shower or bath, for example, where it can then re-enter the environment and our natural food supply (read: the fish in your sushi roll). This is why pregnant women and new moms often avoid eating fish.

That's why mercury is now banned in some countries

All of these health hazards have led to the banning of mercury by many countries, including all of those that make up the European Union. However, the over-saturated skin-care marketplace, plus sometimes scarce or non-present ingredient lists on the Internet, has made it more or less impossible for global and U.S. agencies to fully monitor the sale of these products. Amazon and eBay both have policies in place to prevent suspicious items from being listed and also encourage customers to contact them with concerns about purchases.
When asked about its policy with these products, eBay gave Allure the following statement: "Consumers can shop eBay's one billion items with confidence, knowing we have key partnerships and processes in place with product manufacturers and regulators to ensure a safe shopping experience." To that end, upon receiving the letter from the EWG and fellow advocacy groups, eBay says the e-retailer removed the items referenced in the report, as they violated eBay's Prescription Drugs policy. To prevent future incidences, eBay says it has implemented filters with the goal of keeping the products identified in the letter from being listed. 

How to avoid purchasing products laced with mercury

So, how can you be certain you're not about to slather a mercury-laden cream all over your face? Well, first of all, be sure to note where your skin-care products actually come from — products that are made in the United States should not contain unsafe levels of mercury, King explains. Before buying, take a minute to look into the product details and find out exactly where a product was manufactured. If it was produced in the Middle East or Asia, do even more digging before you make the purchase.
Another reason that mercury can be hard to spot in your cosmetics is probably because it goes by many names: Hg, mercuric iodide, mercurous chloride, quicksilver, cinnabaris, or hydrargyri oxydum rubrum (say that three times fast), according to the WHO. Products with very high levels of mercury could also appear gray as "mercury color is dark gray itself," says King.
If you are looking for products to target dark spots, King recommends looking for these ingredients instead: vitamin C, licorice extract, and mulberry extract.
That being said, if you believe you have purchased a product formulated with excessive amounts of mercury, toss it. Then make an appointment with your dermatologist, who can better determine a course of action that's right for you.