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The island of plague, war, death, and good wine
While walking along the sandy shores of the Venice Lagoon in Italy, you might come across the terrifying sight of a clean-washed skull embedded in the sand. They are plentiful, common, and they are the old victims of a nearby island: Poveglia.
Poveglia is a small abandoned island that carries the weight of dark legends, twisted folklore, and old history. Touted as being 'the most haunted place on earth' the island's wretched reputation was sealed over the course of centuries - the very soils stained by blood, misery and, of course, death.
The history of Poveglia
When Attila the Hun and Alaric the Goth started their invasion into Europe in the 5th century, some Italians fled to the small island of Poveglia to escape the hordes. As an island, it is easily defendable, far enough away from the mainland to see the enemy coming, and easy enough to build walls around it. Some of those ancient walls still stand today.
These walls stood strong and firm, defending against the hordes, protecting the small population against the onslaught. Even as the Attila fell back and pushed further into the mountains, Poveglia retained its population.
But walls could not defend Poveglia nor Venice against a new invading threat; Bubonic Plague.
In 1348, the largest plague epidemic swept across Europe to claim over 30 million lives, and Venice was not spared. Poveglia was, according to some claims, transformed into a quarantine zone as well as a burial site and burning ground, where the infected dead were destroyed. After their flesh turned to crisp, the bones were then buried in the large pits on the island. Although Venice would be mostly spared from the Black Death, the disease still claimed thousands of lives.
A few years after the epidemic, a new threat pressed against the borders of Italy, this time in the form of the Genoa war. The inhabitants of Poveglia were chased off their island, and the area was turned into a military garrison housing around 6000 people.
During the war (1378 - 1381) there were so many people on the island that they would start calling themselves, "Povegliotti" instead of Venetians. The island served as a protection line against sea-based intrusions, particularly against the Genoa fleets.
After three gruelling years, the war with Genoa finally ended, and the men were ordered off the island. The speck of land was left abandoned for almost 200 years.
The 15th century saw the construction of stockyards and warehouses.
The pits are filled to the brim with bones.
Although the plague had dwindled in its potency, it would still pop up from time to time, and Poveglia was an ideal port to deal with potential quarantine situations, in particular for wool merchants. Animals were considered carriers of the Black Death, and wool was the number one suspect.
It would only be in 1777 when the island was signed over to the Public Health Office in Venetia that the recognisable tower and hospital was constructed. Used once again as a quarantine area against the plague, and other diseases, the island's infamous reputation was born during this period. With the hospital Lazzoretto right at its centre.
According to legends, no one who went to the island would ever come back alive. It was called an 'island of death' and the victims of the plague would shoot up to a whopping 160 000 victims over the course of the hospital's active years - although this claim is unsubstantiated.
What is true is the sheer number of graves. Dozens upon dozens of plague pits filled up with human bones have been found all across the island. When the high tide slams against the sides of the island, some of these bones are dislodged and they wash up on the shores of Venice. Creating that grizzly sight of white-washed bones.
Due to the number of bodies that have been buried in the soil, some scientists believe that around 50% of Poveglia's soil is in fact human remains. Although this has also not been substantiated.
After the Black Death finally receded back into obscurity, Poveglia was used for a short period of time as a base of operation for Napoleon Bonaparte. But shortly after his campaign and his death, the island was abandoned once again until the early 20th century when the eyes of doctors for the mentally insane would turn towards it.
Mental science had made great leaps in the 20th century, and many countries were eager to explore these new methods, although some theories were more damaging than helpful.
The existing buildings were refurbished to suit the needs of the patients. The island's isolation made it easy for doctors to perform some ghastly experiments on their hapless patients. Lobotomy being one of them. Most of the patients were sadly never even meant to be in the hospital, as cases of depression and bipolar disease were all shipped off to the dreaded hospital.
A ghost story
So the stain on the island spread even wider, and by the time the hospital was shut down in 1968, dark rumours and stories began swirling in the mouths of the people who'd fallen in the shadow of the hospital. This time of a crazed doctor who'd performed horrible experiments on his patients.
The hospital on Poveglia is completely abandoned and has slowly deteriorated over time. Making it a dark and terrible sight.
According to the story, some of the patients would see the ghostly visages of wandering plague victims around the hospital. Fascinated by these 'hallucinations' and determined to find the cause of it, the doctor forced horrible experiments on his patients. Determined to find the root of the problem. Many of his patients died during these terrible experiments and the doctor himself started seeing the ghosts - not only of plague victims but of his own patients.
Driven mad by the images, the doctor ran up the bell tower, convinced he was being chased by angry ghosts and ghouls, and jumped out of the tower to plummet to his death.
Some people claim that they had seen the doctor being pushed, others say that he hadn't died when he'd hit the ground, but that a dark fog had descended upon him, and choked him to death.
The hospital was shut down in 1968 and has stood abandoned since.
The story of the doctor is most likely just fantastical - as are most claims about the island. A ghost story easily spun in the shadow of the islands misery. Although many claims are unsubstantiated about Poveglia, people still believe in its darkness and taint, almost willing it to be so. Ghost hunters have made sensational videos of the island, and the Venetians are quick to tell you of the wails of ghosts you can hear on the wind if you listen carefully.
All that you will find on the island today are abandoned buildings, forgotten graves and a small winery, owned by a private party that gives some life to the island. Stories say that the grapes grow thick and succulent, and it's all due to the human compost keeping the ground so fertile. The wine apparently isn't bad either.
But what can we take away from the story of Poveglia? Clearly, the innate human need to spin a yarn from a single thread. Our dark wonder of telling ghost stories around campfires has become a staple in our society, and one that won't die out anytime soon.
However, if the results are stories like the Haunted Island of Poveglia, then perhaps they're well worth telling.
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