It wasn’t until rather recently that I became aware of the existence of a small, benign-looking island known as Poveglia. It is located in the Venetian Lagoon of Northern Italy and has been nicknamed, “the island of ghosts.” I found myself immersed in numerous articles all discussing the island’s various ghost stories. Many historians shy away from talking about ghosts, but I think local lore is an important aspect of the social and cultural history of a location. For example, you can go to Gettysburg and only listen to the facts that are presented by battlefield guides, but I feel like the overall experience of the place is better developed through a deeper exploration of both historic facts and local legends. Through my initial discovery of the ghost stories surrounding the island of Poveglia, I have learned a lot about this location’s dark history.

The bubonic plague, also known as the black death, was a shockwave of untimely expiration and devastation in Europe. It would strike at various intervals in history, leaving in its wake heaping piles of bones and parades of mourners. In 1347, Italy was struck by the plague and an estimated 3 out of 5 died. People learned a lot about the disease through observation and concerns for public health led to the accepted idea of separating the healthy from the unhealthy (MacGowan). During the following epidemics of the 1570s and 1630s, the island was used primarily as a quarantine zone and graveyard.

People were brought to the island in droves and left for a period of at least 40 days. They could only sit and wait to see if they would live and return home or die. Many who were quarantined there never left the island. It is generally estimated that over 160,000 bodies were burned or buried in mass graves on the 17-acre land mass (Carlton). The plague was so deadly that bodies often piled up in the streets, and were later shipped to Poveglia for disposal.

Legend of the Vampires:

Archeologists discovered some skeletal remains on the island with bricks shoved in between the upper and lower jaw. There existed medieval mythological legends that seem to have been inspired from the disturbing visuals involved in opening up mass graves during pandemics. Some bodies were found with their burial shrouds rotted away by the mouth and their corpses were bloated  and blood-covered. Of course we know now that a body swells due to gasses that build-up during the process of decomposition. The burial shrouds often rotted by the mouth of the body because of the bacteria in that area, but back then this phenomenon was seen as being much more sinister. These vampires, also known as shroud-eaters, were believed to cast a spell that spread the plague, thus assisting them in claiming more victims to feast upon. It was believed that the vampire could be killed by shoving a brick in its mouth to prevent it from eating, thus resulting in starvation (Riggs). 

Opening a Mental Asylum:

Just as Mussolini took power, an institution on the island opened up housing the mentally ill and those in need of long-term care. I have touched base on the 20th-century practice of separating the mentally ill from the rest of society in my post focusing on institutionalized care. You can read more about that HERE.

It appears that the actual records of the history of the institution were destroyed, leaving behind mostly urban legends. I read several websites that all told the story of an unknown doctor who had a consuming interest in racial biology. He was said to have subjected his patients to cruel surgical procedures. Eventually he became so overwhelmed by guilt, or fear of the world discovering what he had done there, that he threw himself off of the bell tower. He did not die upon impact though, and it is said that he seemed to have been choked by a ghostly fog (perhaps the spirits of the patients who died at the hospital). The story itself is very creepy but the only factual thing I know about the asylum is that it opened in 1922 and closed  in 1968, leaving the island to be overtaken by nature. In 2014 the island was almost sold to a businessman for $704,000.00, but it was later decided that was not enough money and the sale fell through. The businessman originally planned on having a luxury hotel constructed. Currently, the island of Poveglia remains lost to time. It sits there housing what remains of the thousands of people who never returned from its shores. 

Until Next Time

N.F.

Thank you for your continued support!

Sources:

  • Baker, J.I. “The World’s Scariest Places.” Life. 2017: NY, Page 17. Print.
  • Carlton, Genevieve. “Inside Poveglia Island’s History of Death and Madness.” All That’s Interesting. 14 May, 2022. Accessed 28 November, 2022. https://allthatsinteresting.com/poveglia-island.
  • David, Ariel. “Italy Dig unearths Female ‘Vampire’ in Venice.”PHYSORG. 14 March, 2009. Accessed 28 November, 2022. 

phys.org/news/2009-03-italy-unearths-female-vampire-venice.html.

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