Poveglia, an island in the Venice lagoon, literally plagued by illness, death and destruction. Some have called it the closest place to Hell on earth. Many who have visited have vowed never to return and the locals are so scared of the island, they refuse to go anywhere near it. Often cited as the most haunted place on earth, visiting would create your own living nightmare, a personal horror story. An island with a history of evil, hundreds of thousands of deaths, mass murder and mass graves, a mad house, a crazy doctor, suicide, vicious and violent apparitions and harrowing disembodied screams haunt the island. How is it that something so dark and evil can lie on the cusp of one of the most beautiful cities in the world?
The History of Poveglia
Poveglia is a 17 acre island located in the Venetian Lagoon, situated between Venice and Lido. Originally named Popilia, it was first recognised in 421AD when the residents of Padua and Este fled there to escape Barbarian invasions. These communities lived there happily and quietly until the Bubonic Plague hit the area severely in 1348. Many people on the island died of the plague and the remaining residents were shipped off to the island of Guidecca in 1379, when Venice came under attack from the Genoan fleet.
Other than being used as a quarantine island during the many outbreaks of the plague during the 14 and 1500s, the island was abandoned and uninhabited. Poveglia was eventually offered to the Camaldolese monks, but they refused the land and in 1645 it became home to one of the five octagonal forts built around Venice to protect and control the entrances to the lagoon. As a result of this, in 1776 it came under the jurisdiction of the Public Health Office and became a checkpoint for all goods and people coming to and from Venice by ship. The next time the ‘Black Death’ hit the area in 1793, the island once again became a quarantined area for the ill, permanently so by 1805 under Napoleon’s rule. The church of San Vitale was destroyed and its bell tower transformed into a lighthouse.
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During the Napoleonic Wars, English soldiers used the island to ambush the French and prisoners were taken ashore to be killed. Apparently, many of the ill fated French ships still lay at the bottom of the lagoon around Poveglia’s octagon fort.
In 1922, a hospital was built on the island and any locals showing signs of sickness physically or mentally were shipped over to Poveglia. Some say it was a mental asylum, but Venetians keen to dismiss the various myths surrounding the island firmly advocate that the so called madhouse was in fact just a resting place for the elderly; a geriatric centre. But whatever the island had become, it was closed in 1968, the island was once again abandoned and still is to this day. Many locals refuse to visit and tourists officially are banned from accessing the island without permission.
Black Death consumed Venice for centuries and the victims of this horrific disease were shipped off to Poveglia to die. The last contact the afflicted had with the outside world was with a plague doctor. Wearing a haunting and evil looking beak-like mask filled with aromatic herbs and spices, believed to kill the virus thought to be caused by the putrid air around the sick, he would sail the patients through the evening mist to their fate on Poveglia. Ironically, images of the costumes that plague doctors would wear, look uncannily similar to the grim reaper.
It was a barbaric fate that awaited, the plague was out of control. Tens of thousands of people, crammed onto this small island with nowhere to live, nowhere to sleep, dragged helplessly from their families. A foul stench of infection, disease and burning flesh shrouded the inescapable island. The moans and screams of adults and children in horrific pain echoed across the waters. They lived in fear, watching the dead being piled into mass graves and burned. Unable to cope with the island’s constant intake, some of the incapacitated would just be thrown onto the heap and burnt alive among the corpses. Those severely ill, carrying bloody, rupturing blisters would be burned at the stake for all to see, believed to be possessed by evil.
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The island is now the resting place of hundreds of thousands of dead bodies; the plague of 1576 in Venice killed 50,000 alone. The number of bodies burned on Poveglia is so high that is said that 50% of the soil on the island consists of human ashes.
It seems that Venice had a habit of shipping off what they couldn’t control and in 1922, Poveglia became home to the mentally ill and the incurable and an asylum was built on top of the graves of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. Patients at the institution soon started complaining of hearing the voices and screams of tortured souls and many had visions of the ugly and treacherous apparitions which haunted the corridors and various rooms. These accounts were quickly dismissed by the doctors, believing that the patients were indeed, just completely mad.
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The asylum was run by a mad doctor who ran crazy experiments on the residents in a egocentric attempt to cure madness. He performed lobotomies and tests using tools such as drills, hammer and chisels and often took patients up to his bell tower from which the shrill voice of pain and calls for help could be heard across the island. Legend has it that as time went on, the evil doctor himself became haunted by the anguished spirits of his own victims which sent him mad. He eventually met his end in a fall from the top of the bell tower. Some say he jumped out of despair, unable to deal with the ghosts who tormented him, some say he was pushed by these very apparitions. A nurse witnessed the whole event and said that the doctor survived the fall and lay at the bottom of his bell tower, his body broken and disfigured, and it was the evil mist that finally choked him to death. To this day, the doctor’s body lays somewhere between the walls of the abandoned asylum and his own ghost haunts the bell tower.
Rumour has it, nobody will take you there out of complete fear of the island. Even the fishermen keep their distance. The buildings have been completely abandoned and are said to be haunted by plague victims and the mad. The island is plagued by curses, apparitions, the sounds of crying and screaming. Sometimes strange music can be heard, it hosts a weird and uncomfortable energy and the bell tower can often be heard even though nobody is on the island. Locals and tourists are prohibited from visiting the island because it is believed to be evil.
Is Poveglia Haunted?
Who really knows? Many reporters and photographers who have visited the island have said that they just felt peace and serenity while they were there. However, many who have visited have very different stories!
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Many psychics have left the island scared to death, describing it as “a harrowing place, filled with malignant, long suffering and very angry, vicious entities that seem to have a nasty and malicious disdain for visitors”. Most psychics found their experiences on the island so traumatic, they have vowed never to return.
Those who manage to find their way over to the island despite the ban have spoken of a heavy atmosphere of evil and that the screams and tortured moans heard made staying there unbearable. Apparently encounters with the island’s ghosts are aggressive and physical, with many reports of people being brushed, nudged and shoved by invisible entities and there have been reported cases of attacks by unseen forces of a brutal nature. There was even one report of a visitor hearing a disembodied voice order them to “leave immediately and do not return”.
In the 1960s, the Italian government did manage to sell the island, but the owner abandoned it, being the last person to try and live there. A family did later look to buy the island, with the intention of building a holiday home there, but they left their first night there, refusing to say what had happened. All we know is that their daughter’s face had been ripped open and required 14 stitches.
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Popular American TV show, ‘Ghost Adventures’ spent the night on Poveglia. On several occasions, their equipment would fail, they experienced disembodied voices and footsteps and strange orbs of light were caught on camera. There was one moment, in the fields thought to be the plague pits, where seemingly, an apparition ran across the bridge and knocked over some equipment, and host Zak Bagan appeared to be viciously assaulted and possessed by something entirely unfriendly.
Australian reporter Charles Miranda who visited Poveglia was warned by local man Giovanni that he used to spend time on the island as a boy with his Father. When he was older, he spent two weeks on the island himself and said that he had witnessed many spirits on the island, including Paolo, that of the mad doctor himself. “When I came back, I told everyone what happened to me, the ghosts, what they did, Paolo’s ghost mostly, pushing me - whoosh, whoosh, always pushing, and things moving.” After staying on the island, Miranda reported that while it was eerie, he did not witness any ghosts, however, they captured an image of the asylum’s chapel at night where an out of place hospital table was on the far right of the room, and by morning, it was on the left.
Perhaps the only way you’ll ever know if the island of Poveglia is truly haunted, is to visit it yourself!
It is true that the island of Poveglia was mostly used as a ‘cure’ for Black Death which haunted the area for hundreds of years. There were 22 recorded outbreaks of the plague in Venice between 1361 and 1528. People just didn’t know how to handle such a widespread disease and the only thing that seemed to work was to separate them from the healthy and prevent the disease from spreading. Plague doctors were employed by the state in an attempt to control the disease, but these physicians were usually untrained and second rate. As a result, the dying were put into quarantine on Poveglia.
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The plague doctors would transport the affected to the few islands in the Venetian Lagoon by boat, dressed in their costumes and accompanied by vats of burning herbs.
By the early 1400s, outbreaks of the plague had become widespread and the island was now one of many ‘Lazarettos’, a quarantine island, coined from the phrase, ’Quaranta Giorni’ translated as ‘forty days’. The Venetians would take those afflicted to the islands where they would remain for forty days until they could be issued a clean bill of health
Apparently to begin with, it wasn’t that bad there, they had their own rooms or apartments, were fed well and drank together and could send and receive mail. It was in the 16th century that panicked officials shipped anyone displaying symptoms of plague to the lazarettos, they became overrun, the dead and dying were shovelled into grave pits and burned.
Graves would regularly be dug open to bury new corpses and the grave diggers would find bloated bodies with blood seeping from their mouths, they were thought to be still alive and drinking their own blood, and so the legend of the vampire was born. Actually, the bloating was caused by a build up of gases and the fluid was forced up through the mouth by decomposing organs. The stake in the heart was popularised by literature, it was actually a stone or brick forced into their mouths which supposedly would stop the creature from feeding.
The truth is, plague pits are everywhere, what is uncommon is to know where the plague pits are and Poveglia is only known due to the sanitary laws of Venice and the fact it was a quarantined island.
The story of the crazy doctor is a legend, it could be true, it could be exaggerated, it could be fallacy. If the Venetians are to be believed, the island didn’t house an asylum at all, just a old people’s home which also seemed to cure the problem of homelessness in the city.
The truth is that locals do still go over to the island and fishermen can be seen resting their rods on the island. Venetians describe it as their own Disneyland. The reason tourists are not generally allowed over there is simply due to the dangers of the decrepit buildings, it is just a safety issue.
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On the island, you can find a church, a cavana, the hospital and asylum and several out buildings. The infamous bell tower also still stands. The Italian government owns the island and has made several attempts over the years to sell the land. Poveglia went up for sale again in April 2014, hoping it would make enough money to pay off some national debt. Businessman and now Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, won an auction with a big of €513,000, which would allow him to lease the island for 99 years. He was also reportedly happy to invest €20 million to restore the buildings and to ensure public use. He said it wanted to buy the island for the Venetians and to stop the Arabs or the Chinese from buying it.
A local restauranteur set up the ‘Poveglia Association’, a community attempt to buy the island by asking individuals to invest €99. The campaign was known as €99 for 99 years. Unbelievably, they came up with a rival bid of €440,000 thanks to a Facebook and Crowdfunding campaign. Their aim was to turn the island into a recreational area, used for camping and picnicking.
Brugnaro’s bid was eventually turned down and following an initial push to have his bid reinstated, his attention was turned to his mayoral campaign and he decided to let the island go. For now, Poveglia remains under the control of ‘Demanio’, Italy’s land agency. The ‘Poveglia Association’ are still campaigning and there is still hope that one day, the island will be returned to the people of Venice.
Get me to Poveglia
To get to Poveglia from Venice, you need permission from the Italian Tourist Board. Unofficially, for a price (approx. €200) you can hire a boat to get you there. On Tripadvisor, it is said that the tour company firstname.lastname@example.org can organise you a boat. On request of such a trip, I received no reply. Failing all that, some people have managed to swim there!
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