Hansel and Gretel: A Real-Life Murder Mystery Turned Fairytale
One of our most beloved fairytales is the story of Hansel and Gretel. It's a strange cautionary tale about not trusting friendly strangers and the dangers of cookies, but did you know that this seemingly benign children's tale has a sinister origin story? Just like the fairytale, the real-life story ends with a prolific female baker burning to death in her own oven after being pushed in by Hansel, with the help of his sister, Gretel, but that's where the similarities end. Let's learn about the case of jilted love, stalking, murder, witchcraft, and gingerbread that inspired the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel.
It All Started with Yummy Baked Goods
Back in 1618 in the mountains of Germany, there lived a woman named Katharina Schraderin. She was a phenomenal baker. She sold her goodies at various markets and fairs surrounding the German town of Nuremberg. Her specialty was gingerbread, but her cakes and cookies also made her regionally famous. Many people sought her recipes, but Katharina kept those a closely guarded secret.
A Jealous Baker
It was in Nuremberg that Katharina met a gentleman named Hans Metzler. A baker himself, Hans noticed that whenever Katharina was in town to sell her cakes and cookies, his sales took a nosedive. Her baked goods were tastier and therefore more popular than his. He longed to get his hands on her recipes, so he tried a novel approach: He began to flirt with her. He showered her with praise and romanced her with small tokens of love, and then he proposed marriage to her. If Katharina was his wife, Hans realized, she would have to share her recipes with him. But Katharina was no dummy. She grew suspicious of Hans's motives and called off the romance, leaving Hans a jilted suitor.
Hans the Harasser
At this point, most people would have given up and taken up cobblery or something, but if you haven't noticed, Hans was kind of a jerk. Enraged by Katharina's rejection, he spread rumors that she was a "Bakkerhexe," German for "bakery witch." He told the people of Nuremberg that she used potions and witchcraft to make her baked good so yummy and attempted to ruin her business. Restraining orders didn't exist yet, so Katharina fled from Nuremberg, leaving everything behind except her recipes, and moved to a hidden house in Spessart Forest near Frankfurt.
Tried for Witchcraft
Even though he was successful at running her out of town, Hans was not through with Katharina just yet. He didn’t have what he truly wanted: her recipes. Hoping that he could claim her possessions after she was found guilty, he filed charges against her for witchcraft, but at trial, she was found innocent and released. Having had quite enough of this nonsense, she immediately left Nuremberg for a second time. Hans just did not know when to quit, though, so he and his sister, Grete, followed her to her secluded home in Spessart Forest.
Hans and Grete, Cold-Blooded Murderers
With his sister as an accomplice, Hans broke into Katharina's home and murdered her. The Metzler siblings then stuffed Katharina's body into her own oven and burned her remains. They then searched the house from top to bottom, looking for Katharina's recipes. They couldn't find them anywhere, although Katharina had left behind some freshly baked gingerbread, so at least the new murderers could indulge in some gastronomical therapy.
The Arrest of Hans and Grete
The Metzler siblings were soon arrested for the murder of Katharina Schraderin, and at their trial, Hans insisted again that Katharina was an evil witch who attacked him and tried to eat him. He claimed that he murdered Katharina in self-defense. His sister, Grete, backed up his story. Because this was back when if more than one person cried witchcraft, you had to believe them, the judge declared them innocent. Hans continued his career as a baker, albeit without Katharina's recipes.
Transformed into a Fairytale
For generations, the people of Nuremberg told stories of Hans and the bakkerhexe. The Brothers Grimm, when they compiled their first book of folktales, included a version of the story. In this tale, Katharina was truly a wicked witch who preyed on the young children that she kidnapped and baked in her ovens. The Metzler siblings, Hans and Grete, were transformed into children. Indeed, "Hansel" literally means "little Hans" and "Gretel" means "little Grete." The villain of the story shifted from the greedy Hans to the innocent Katharina. That poor lady just could not catch a break.
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