You might have heard of the plague and how many deaths it caused during the dark ages. If you do, you also might have heard of this spooky haunted island called Poveglia, where people who had the plague were put to death.
At first glance, Poveglia looks like a private island owned by a wealthy businessman. Nothing is less true. The island has a bizarrely dark history, which goes back far in time. Let’s take a look at the last 500 years to unravel its history.
The Origin and Its Location
The island of Poveglia¹ is located between Venice and Lido in the Venetian Lagoon and was first mentioned in history books in 421 when the residents of Padua² and Este³ fled to this island during barbarian invasions.
Around the 9th century, its population started to grow, and in the following years, it started to gain importance in the region, so much that Podestà⁴ governed it, some civil office.
In 1379, the island was attacked by the Genoese Navy⁵, which caused the island to empty, and in the following centuries, the island remained inhabited. The Venetian government constructed five octagonal forts to defend and monitor the lagoon’s entrances beginning in 1645. The octagon of Poveglia is one of only four that have survived.
Poveglia as a Quarantine Station
Because Venice was one of the most important trading cities in the world around that time, there was a lot of traffic to and from Venice. This had a dark side: diseases, infections, and plagues were also the first to arrive here. A densely populated city like Venice was, therefore, a perfect breeding ground for all sorts of diseases.
Of course, they found out about this in Venice and imposed strict rules on sanitary laws. When the first ship arrived in Venice with people on board showing symptoms of the plague, the victims were immediately dumped on Poveglia. The so-called ‘Plague Masters’ was in charge of this. These plague masters were tasked with tracking down people with symptoms and getting rid of the dead quickly.
It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, a worker or an aristocrat, young or old. If you had symptoms, you were banished to the island. So when the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population, the entire island was littered with corpses, with some living but doomed, sick adults and children still wandering among them.
Whenever possible, mass graves were dug into which people (sometimes still alive) were thrown and then set on fire. But when the numbers got too high, they were only dumped on the island, after which the ships quickly sailed away. There have been multiple outbreaks of the plague in the last 500 years, but 50,000 people seem to have died in Venice alone during the 1576 outbreak.
Even in times when there was no plague outbreak, the island continued to fulfill the same role. Despite not understanding the concept of bacteria or viruses at the time, they did know that isolating sick people helped prevent the spread. The word ‘quarantine’ therefore has its origin here, on this island. It is a derivative of the word quaranta which means forty.
An estimated 160,000 people have died on the island over the years. It appears that 25% and 50% of the soil consists of ashes from burned and charred corpses. Local fishers are also afraid to go near the island because they thought they could pull the bones of their ancestors up in their fishing nets.
The island served as a quarantine area until 1814. After that, it was closed and abandoned, but unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.
After being forgotten for more than a century, it was given a new purpose in 1922: a psychiatric hospital was built on top of the mass graves where they hid mentally ill people for 46 years.
The existing buildings were modernized, and several wings were added. It became a permanent home for those who were not wanted in society, far from civilization. Psychiatric care for ‘madmen’ was not very developed at the time.
The doctor in charge and his staff conducted all kinds of horrific experiments on the patients, trying to determine where their “madness” came from.
After years of gruesome experiments and torture, the doctor committed suicide by jumping off the clock tower, as he reportedly heard the voices of the deceased shouting at him continuously. Yet, it took until 1968 for the institute to be closed.
After 46 years, the atrocities finally came to an end. Since then, the island has been declared a prohibited area.
According to the Italian government, this is because all remains could never be properly buried. But according to the local fishermen, it is because the island is cursed. Despite this, now and then, so-called ‘Urban Explorers’ sneak ashore to wander through the ruins and leave their footprints in the cursed ground.
If you know how to find the right person and offer the right price, you can get into the island. But most fishermen prefer not to get close to it and sail around it with a big circle.
They believe that the place is cursed and speak of all kinds of inexplicable events and observations that they themselves or their forefathers observed.