Poveglia was constructed on a permanent fortification built by the Venetian government, and from 1793-1814 was used as a plague quarantine station, or “lazaretto” — one of many in the Venetian lagoon.
The tiny island is said to have hosted over 160,000 infected souls living out their final days and hours there - so many that there are whispers that 50% of the soil consists of human remains. Recently, mass graves have been found on the nearby islands of Lazaretto Nuovo and Lazaretto Vecchio containing the remains of thousands of plague victims. Poveglia has yet to be fully investigated.
Finding the location of Poveglia to be small and easily missed, Napoleon also used the island for a darker purpose, and stored weapons there. The location was discovered, and many small battles took place as the island claimed even more lives.
In 1922, a mental hospital was opened on Poveglia. Local legend says that one doctor at the hospital tortured and killed many of his patients, butchering them horribly only to later die by falling from, or possibly being thrown off of its bell tower.
The hospital closed in 1968, and the ruins are still there, slowly being reclaimed by greenery. And while it is professed to be a former retirement home, evidence that it housed mental patients is still evident.
With a past like this, it’s not surprising that Poveglia is believed to be haunted, attracting the attention of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators.
Elsewhere in the lagoon, the remains of the Insane Asylum on San Servolo Island are preserved as a museum dedicated to the history of Venice’s plague islands and asylums.
In 1776 it was taken over by the Magistrato ally Sanita (Public Health Office) as a quarantine station for ships arriving at Venice from the Adriatic Sea. After a plague was discovered on two ships.
The island was sealed off and became a confinement station, used to host people with infectious diseases. Other plague sufferers were forced to the island, leading to legends of terminally ill Venetians being sent there to die… before their ghosts returned to haunt the island.
At the same time bodies of tens of thousands of dead plague sufferers were shipped over to the island to be burnt and buried—on the island—in pits. Its grounds are said to hide the remains of more than 100,000 bodies, overgrown blackberry bushes now hiding mounds that were once humans.
In 1922 the 18-acre site became an asylum for the mentally ill and it was during this period where a doctor allegedly experimented on patients, performing experiments and crude lobotomies. He later threw himself from the hospital tower after claiming he’d been driven mad by ghosts.
The hospital was shut in 1968 and the island was abandoned. It has been sealed off to the public by government authorities ever since. Not that any locals or tourists would go there anyway. Even fishermen stay away although some use an outer seawall to dry their cray and crab pots and nets.
Stories persist however, as have the sightings of spectres and hauntings and hearings of moaning from a time past that has now earned its reputation as one of the world’s most haunted islands.
Work crews on nearby Lazaretto Vecchio were digging the foundation for a new museum when they came across one such grave pit, filled with the remains of more than 1,500 plague victims.
Archaeologists immediately set to work examining the grisly find, and discovered something even more shocking: a vampire. Which is to say, someone who was thought to be a vampire back in the 16th century.
The tip off: there was a brick shoved between its teeth, which it was believed would starve the vampire, better known in historical parlance as a shroud-eater.
To kill the undead creatures, the stake-in-the-heart method popularized by later literature was not enough: A stone or brick had to be forced into the vampire’s mouth so that it would starve to death, Borrini said.
It’s death and ghosts and doctors wearing Medico Della Peste masks.
Those distinctive long-nosed mask that 17th century doctors wore stuffed with herbs in a misguided form of protection, where they believed that it would filter sickness from the air they breathed.
The masks are intrinsically linked to this area as the plague’s toll was so huge on the local populace it spelled the downfall of the Republic of Venice.
Aside from general reports of screams and moans being heard coming from the deserted island, and the bell reportedly still ringing when there is no bell in the tower, there are a few specific ghosts that are said to haunt Poveglia.
There’s “Striding Peter” who in life was a legless amputee bound to a wheelchair, but now as a spirit “walks” around the island at great speed. The “swish! swish!” sound his speed creates, like that of a scythe cutting through overgrowth, has earned him another name, “The Reaper.” Something about a really fast moving ghost, “swishing” around the island chills me.
Then there’s the Malamoccina, also called “Little Maria.” A little plague victim who has been seen crying on the shores of Poveglia for around 400 years, facing her home of Malamocco.
“Happy Fred” is heard giggling and laughing, not unkindly, all over the island at all times of day and night.
“Staring Anna” walks about the halls of the former asylum and lies in her bed, her eyes wide in fear of the doctor.
“Johnny-in-the-Oven” haunts the the crematorium where he was burnt alive after a botched procedure.
More frightening to me is the belief that there is a demon or demons on Poveglia that will try to follow you home once you step foot on the cursed island.
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