Mysterious Hauntings: Poveglia Island, Italy's Island of Ghosts
Who among us wouldn't love an island getaway? Warm, sandy beaches, picturesque sunsets, and crystal clear waterfalls rushing into cool, refreshing lagoons. Yeah, I could grab a drink and get into that. Wouldn't it be even better if it was your own island? Completely abandoned without the crowding of other tourists milling about. I guess it really depends on the island, now doesn't it? While many of us have probably imagined an island all our own, we have definitely never imagined one where the screams of the land's past wake us in the night.
Wikipedia's page on Poveglia Island states that it was first mentioned in chronicles as early as 421. This was during the Goth and Hun invasions of the 5th century. The Romans escaped the invasions and for centuries afterward, the island was abandoned. This would become an eerie trend in the history of the most infamous island in the Venetian Lagoon.
By the 9th century, the population had grown and so had the island's importance to the city of Venice. Its defensive location made it a perfect spot to build an outpost. In the 14th century, a fort was erected to ensure that any enemy ship that approached the city would be destroyed before reaching it. However, the Genoan fleet attacked Venice in 1379. The residents of Poveglia were relocated to Giudecca, another island of the Venetian Lagoon. Once again, the island sat vacant and abandoned for centuries.
Though most of the cursed island's history is grim, there was a point when the area prospered. According to the Luxe Adventure Traveler, Poveglia Island thrived economically for a time, until 1378, that is. It was at that time that the once prosperous community was devastated by the war of Chioggia. By the war's end in 1381, only a few dozen of its inhabitants were able to return home.
In 1527, the doge tried to unload the deserted location. A doge was an elected lord and head of state in several Italian city-states and they were often referred to as "crowned republics." He attempted to offer Poveglia Island to the Camaldolese monks, who refused it. The seemingly cursed land sat uninhabited until it presented itself as a grand solution for the deadliest outbreak of the bubonic plague to strike Europe.
The Black Death, as it came to be known, ravaged the entire country, but the city of Venice took one of the worst batterings from the epidemic. An international trading hub, the city was extremely susceptible to the disease's rapid spread. They happily welcomed ships from all corners of the known world at that time, also allowing the plague into their city. This outbreak led the Italian government to create the first system of quarantining. The small 17 acre island was proposed for quarantining anyone inside the city, or arriving, that showed signs of illness. The standard time for isolation was 40 days. The word quarantine is even derived from the Italian word quaranta, meaning 40.
All That's Interesting reports that as early as the 16th century, people were being dragged to the island, kicking and screaming as it's been told by many sources. Even the slightest symptom of illness could land an unfortunate soul on Poveglia Island. Many that were sent for 40-day quarantines never left the island. Those that may not have been sick at the time most definitely would've caught the disease once they were exposed to others suffering illness. Starting in 1645, the Venetian government built five octagonal forts to protect and control the entrance to the lagoon. Four of the forts still stand today, one of which is known as The Poveglia octagon.
Throughout the centuries that Poveglia Island housed plague victims, more than 160,000 were sent there. Many of them died on that forsaken piece of land, never seeing their loved ones again. Mass graves were dug to bury some of the dead and even the dying. All That's Interesting states that untold thousands were also cremated there. The cremated remains were never properly cleaned up as death was a daily occurrence on the island. Due to this fact, it's said that roughly 50% of Poveglia Island's soil is human ash. Jerry Pauley mentions on Hillbilly Horror Stories that the ground itself actually feels different to walk upon than any other beach you've ever visited. This is due to the fragmented human bones mixed in with the cremated remains.
The island northeast of Poveglia, Lazzaretto Vecchio, was becoming overwhelmed with the number of corpses piling up there as well. All That's Interesting provides statements from archaeologist Vincenzo Gobbo, who says that roughly 500 people died there every day. With half of Venice's population wiped out by the Black Death, it's not surprising that the surviving inhabitants were constantly working to bury or cremate the deceased.
16th century chronicler Rocco Benedetti visited Poveglia Island and wrote of the hell he witnessed there. Sick and dying patients laying three to four in a single bed. Mass graves with numerous bodies all thrown in together. Workers dug graves all day long, every single day, without a moment's break. Oftentimes, patients that were too sick to move or speak were taken for dead and thrown into the mass graves with those already passed.
During the 18th century, the damned island became a key part of Venice's epidemic prevention plan. The city created a network of lazaretti, or plague stations, located on different islands in the Venetian Lagoon. The Magistrate of Health turned Poveglia Island into the primary plague checkpoint in 1777. It became the most important of all the inspection ports as any ship sailing into Venice had to stop there first. Any crew members showing the slightest sign of illness were kept on the island for 40 days, until they were determined to be sick or healthy. Due to the lack of knowledge about the spread of disease in the 18th century, many of these crew members got sick and died before their 40 days came to an end.
Atlas Obscura points out that Napoleon Bonaparte stored weapons on the island for a time before it became a quarantine site. The small 17 acres was easily missed by passing ships, making it the perfect spot for a secret arsenal. However, his cache of weapons was discovered and many small battles ensued. These battles claimed the lives of many soldiers, further staining Poveglia's soil with the blood of those unprepared to die. While Napoleon was utilizing the isle for his arsenal, he also decided to make some changes. He had the old church and bell tower destroyed, converting the tower into a lighthouse.
When the dark cloud that was the bubonic plague finally lifted from over Europe, the island found itself sitting abandoned once again. It wouldn't find its purpose again until 1922, when it was transformed into a mental hospital. This would truly morph the previous quarantine site into a new kind of hell altogether. Rumors quickly spread of a doctor performing horrendous and torturous experiments on the patients. According to the Luxe Adventure Traveler, he conducted these experiments in the hopes that he would find a way to cure insanity. Among the morbid tests he's said to have conducted, lobotomies were a major one. Ranker states that he would perform his lobotomies with an array of strange and horrid tools, such as drills, hammers, and chisels. Many of these macabre pieces of hardware can still be found at the broken-down old hospital today.
His mind altering experimentation didn't stop at lobotomies. This unnamed Frankenstein doctor was also known to take patients to the bell tower against their will to torture them in unknown ways. It's said that the screams of tormented patients could be heard across the small island. There was never any kind of record kept of the goings-on at the bell tower. To this day, no one knows what kind of hell those poor souls endured. What we do know is that the screams emanating from the tower's loft were most certainly heard by patients and staff alike.
The good doctor supposedly began to suffer signs of mental illness himself, driven to insanity by the souls of those he tormented to death. Luxe Adventure Traveler states that he had even claimed to others at the hospital that he was being driven mad by the patients. As though Karma was working overtime, he eventually met his end at the bell tower in the 1930s. Whether he leapt from the top, or was thrown is unknown and up for debate. A nurse working at the facility apparently witnessed the doctor's fall, but was uncertain if he'd jumped or been thrown. Many speculate as to whether or not unknown forces were responsible. Did the souls that he robbed of life in that bell tower take his in revenge?
Poveglia's mental hospital remained open for nearly 50 years, closing its doors in 1968. During its operation, many patients reported hearing screams in the night as they tried to sleep. They thought that the souls of the plague sufferers and victims of the storied mad doctor were still there, existing in everlasting agony. They would also report seeing apparitions of the souls claimed by the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Of course, these reports were written off by staff as the insane ramblings of mental patients.
Once the hospital was shut down, the building was left abandoned along with the island. With vegetation creeping up the decaying walls and through the broken windows, it looks much like a scene out of I Am Legend. Atlas Obscura points out that the hospital is also claimed to be a former retirement home. Nevertheless, signs that mental patients were housed at the facility before major breakthroughs in psychiatry are easily found around every corner.
Since the hospital's closure, it has been illegal to visit the island. Many locals of Venice refer to it as the Island of Ghosts, due to its morbid and storied past. Venetian residents know the stories well and steer clear of the most infamous island in the lagoon. Fishermen will not even fish near that area for fear of what they may hear or witness on the island. It's considered to be the most haunted place in the world. Photographers, journalists, and paranormal investigators from shows like Ghost Adventures have been permitted to visit the island. They all quickly found in doing so that cab drivers don't particularly care for driving anywhere near the tainted land of human remains. Not only out of fear of being arrested, but fear of the island, itself.
With such a long and gruesome history, it comes as no surprise that Poveglia Island has worked its way into pop culture since the 18th century. Some time after it was sealed off as a quarantine site following the discovery of disease on two ships, stories began to spread. Wikipedia reports that locals were already telling the stories of those that had been hauled off to the site to await death before returning to haunt the location for eternity. The mental hospital did nothing to help the island's image. More stories began to spread about the ringing bell tower. Not long after the cruel doctor's death, the bell was removed from the tower, but it continued to ring nonetheless. A report titled "Haunted History" states that renovation on the island had abruptly stopped soon after beginning, with no explanation.
The trend continues today with Poveglia Island being featured on such television shows as Ghost Adventures and Scariest Places On Earth. Podcasts have also regaled listeners on the spooky history. Hillbilly Horror Stories, And That's Why We Drink, The Farthest Reaches, Origin Mysteries, and Haunted History Podcast are just a few that have covered this story. The advancement of technology has only helped to further it in new and interesting ways over time. It's funny to think that we've gone from locals telling this story over fires in the 18th century to podcasters and television hosts now telling the same story to much larger audiences today.
Business Insider reported in 2014 that the Italian government was attempting to auction off the haunted spit of land. The auction was an effort to raise money that would cover the country's national debt. Italy was offering up a 99-year lease agreement to the highest bidder. Their effort was met with outrage from the Venetian public. Locals wanted to stop the private sale and keep ownership of the island local. This way, it could be opened up to the public for the first time.
Attempts to prevent the sale failed, and in May 2014, online bidders battled for the island. According to Business Insider, The Telegraph had reported that just the barracks alone had previously sold for 3.8 million euro. The winning bid ended up coming in at 400,000 euro, according to the Daily Mail. They also stated that restoration of the buildings was estimated to cost around 16.25 million euro.
It was the hope of the Italian government that the new owner would open the island up to the public. Build a luxury hotel and re-brand the ghostly island with the storied past. Could you even imagine the advertisement? Come to Poveglia Island and bury your feet in the ashes of untold thousands! Italian businessman and winner of the soiled soil, Luigi Brugnaro, had no initial plans after buying the property. He knew that he wanted it to serve some public use, but never seemed to land on a project. Or maybe he wasn't allowed to complete one.
It's still illegal to visit the island today. Not only would you be trespassing on private property, but you would quite literally be stepping on the bones and ashes of thousands. There's a saying in Venice. It goes, "When an evil man dies, he wakes up in Poveglia." Due to the legend that seems to surround it, Venetians would rather be safe than sorry. No one sets foot on the island for their own personal safety.
Out of 166 islands scattered throughout the Ventian Lagoon, I think I can find a better one to visit. At least one I won't be arrested for trying to visit. Although, I will say that opening such a place to the public could be very educational for those that don't understand how far we've come as a society. Over the course of centuries we've managed to rise above a complete lack of medical knowledge, learning and growing along the way. Long gone are the days of quarantining multitudes of people together. As are the days of cruel experiments meant to teach us more about biology and human behavior. Today we can simply go to the doctor for a quick prescription or worry ourselves to death on WebMD. Regardless, of how much that could be learned from such a historic site, Italy's Island of Ghosts may not be visited by the public.