Friday, May 15, 2015

Poveglia Island, Italy

In the water near Venice sits Poveglia Island, a curious place on the whole. The island has clearly been modified by humans - it has far too many straight lines and smooth curves in it's outline to be completely natural - as both a place of residence and as a military fort, and later as a waiting station for ships entering Venice and finally as a hospital. Stories hold that Romans used the island as a quarantine station for plague victims, and that  the same was done with victims of the black plague, whose bodies were then buried in plague pits (mass graves of plague victims) on the island. Many of the bodies are said to have been burned, and it has been claimed that the ashes have created a distinctive dust on the island. These stories hold that over 160,000 people died over the course of the island's history. And the presence of the dead is said to still lurk on the island, making it a dark and forboding place approached only by the brave. Typically non-specific stories of strange shadows, disembodied voices, and shoves (or even blows) from unseen assailants abound.

Oh, and the pits in which the remains were placed is said to be below an area that was once used for growing wine grapes.  How's that for a strange vintage?

Legends further state that a building constructed in the 1920s housed psychiatric patients, who were overseen by a very literal mad scientist - a psychiatrist who performed cruel experiments upon his charges, and performed other additional acts of cruelty with no pretense towards research. He is also said to have performed neurosurgery with crude tools such as hammers and chisels. It is said that this psychiatrist eventually completely snapped after telling other hospital employees that he had encountered ghosts, climbed the bell tower (in which some stories hold he had performed his grisly work), and flung himself towards the ground. He survived the fall, but a white mist (possibly composed of ashes) rose from the ground, and enveloped and strangled the psychiatrist.

In addition to the torments inflicted on them by this psychiatrist, the patients are also said to have seen ghosts of Roman and Renaissance plague bearers, and to have heard disturbing whispers emanating from the walls of the building.

One story holds that the last people who attempted to settle on the island was a family that had been granted permission to build a vacation home. After the home was completed, they cut their first night short when their daughter was attacked "by something" and had her face split open, requiring 20 stitches.

And, of course, stories hold that the evil psychiatrist was interred in the bell tower, and that people in Venice can hear the bell tolling at night.

Sleep well, Venetians!

Commentary: Supernatural claims aside, Poveglia has an interesting history. In the early 5th century, people from Padua and Este settled on the island, fleeing from the barbaric invasions unfortunately common in Italy during the late Roman Empire. people continued to settle on the island, and over the centuries, a series of structures were built as the town formed.
In 1379, Venice and Genoa went to war, and the people of the island were removed as the island was converted for military use. A fort known as "the Octagon" was built, and the island become the home of a proper medieval town, but it was abandoned in the 14th century.

A couple of sources hold that in 1576, when the Black Death hit Venice, and the local authorities took the bodies of victims to Poveglia to dump them into mass graves, as well as a dumping ground for the bodies. But it appears to be the case that it was not Poveglia, but another island was used for quarantine. Mass graves of plague victims were pretty common throughout Europe during outbreaks, and in a place like Venice, where land is at a premium, an uninhabited island would be a good dumping ground, but it does appear that it was another island that was used and not Poveglia (though, I would not be surprised if documentation surfaced indicating that this island was also used).

Two hundred years later, in 1777, the island came under the jurisdiction of the Magistrato alla Sanita (or, as we'd call it in English, the Public Health Department), and it became a check point for ships entering and leaving Venice. In 1793, cases of plague were identified on two ships, and the island was used as a quarantine station for those who were suffering illness, and lodgings built. Napoleon Bonaparte made this function permanent in 1804, but the lodgings were demolished in 1814. It was again used as a quarantine station in the early 20th century.

And then, in 1922, the hospital was built to provide long-term care to the mentally ill. The construction of isolated hospitals for the mentally ill or those carrying contagious diseases was not uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th century, and many such hospitals (including one off shore from New York City) were built at that time. Naturally, many of these locations are now reputed to be haunted.

The hospital was eventually converted to a retirement home/convalescent hospital (or may have had one as part of it from the get-go, the sources are inconsistent on this point), but even it appears to have shut down in 1968. That said, what descriptions I could find of the latter days of the place make it sound amazingly pleasant.

Given this history, it's only natural that the island is home to a whole host of ghost stories. Even for Venice, a place that boasts more than its share of ghost stories, this place is invitingly creepy. The place is officially off-limits...but a quick Google search reveals that so many people have managed to spend the night there that the ban is clearly poorly enforced. This has, therefore, become quite the destination for legend trippers.

That said, the identities of the victims of ghostly violence always seem to be obscured. It's "the last family to settle here", not "John and Marsha Smith, who built a cabin in 1977." This is often a sign of the story being more non-specific urban legend than truth.

The only thing that amazes me is that there has been no horror movie, as of yet.

Note: Some great photos of the island are available here.  And if you are wealthy, you might just have a chance to buy the island.

Sources: Messy Nessy Chic, Wikipedia, Mental Floss, Gizmodo,