I was first introduced to the chilling mysteries of Poveglia during last year's Hallowe'en blogathon. Bryan White, blogger over at Cinema Suicide, published an incredible post entitled, Poveglia, Island of Madness. This carved-up island in the Venetian Lagoon has a centuries-long history of grief, suffering, violence - and above all, death. Since Roman times, it has been a penal colony, a site of war, a plague quarantine zone and lazzaretto, and most recently - an insane asylum and home for the indigent aged. Ugly things happened at that hospital, and it has been abandoned since 1968.
Even in the 16th century, Poveglia already had a terrible reputation. When the Doge offered it at that time to Camaldolese monks, they refused to accept it. With approximately 160,000 dead remaining on the island, its use for agriculture has been discontinued.
Image Source: Forensic Geology.
As a result, the island is closed to visitors. White summarized its history:
What strikes me is the sheer enormity of the Black Death; Poveglia's and neighbouring islands' relics are all that remains. These sites bear the physical and spiritual scars from one of the most hellish pandemics the world has ever seen. It killed as many as 200 million people in Europe in its first wave in the 14th century, from which the continent took over a century and a half to recover. Plague epidemics recurred in Europe until the 19th century. The photo below shows just how horrific the epidemic was. It's no wonder that it still haunts us. Places that were central to that history are still alive with long lost pain.Poveglia ... has a really nasty reputation. See, in the 1500′s epidemic plagues had found their way to Italy again and the island became a quarantine zone for sailors seeking port in Venice. Sanitary conditions during this period of the middle ages were pretty bad and just about everywhere you went was a prime breeding pit for disease. Venice was mad obsessed with sanitation at the time and even though they managed to contain the victims on Poveglia, the city still lost half of its population during The Black Plague’s last great push through Europe. Oh yeah, I didn’t mention that yet, did I? Poveglia began as a lazaretto and became a holding pen for anybody even so much as suspected of having plague symptoms. It didn’t matter who you were, if it looked like you getting sick, off you went to Poveglia to die a miserable animal’s death and when the pile of bodies got too high, they toss the corpses in a pit and set fire to it. There are some serious mass graves throughout Europe; in places like Germany and Poland. They’re still turning up pits of corpses in the Baltics. The leftovers from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia is also pretty heavy but none of them hold a candle to Poveglia. 50% of the island’s soil is made up of human remains. Bones routinely wash up on the shore and in the nets of sailors who fish too close to the island. Poveglia is a place of profound suffering. The estimated body count there was somewhere in the neighborhood of 160,000 and as a result has come to be known to paranormal enthusiasts as a “thin place”, where the membrane between here and the other side is particularly thin and while a shit ton of people exited through the plague pits of Poveglia, a lot of nasty energy was left behind and a lot of nasty energy came back through to influence and corrupt the events of the future.
Following the ebb of disease, the island was left mostly uninhabited. Being the place where over a hundred thousand people went to die, you gain a reputation and nobody wants to live in a place like that. With the exception of a couple of farmers tending to the particularly awesome crops that came as a result of rich soil infused with the remains of a shit ton of terminally ill people, nobody lives there. In 1922 a sort of retirement home was established there where local indigents went to wait out their final years. A portion of the newly built facility was dedicated to the mentally ill, as luck would have it. Legends of Poveglia state that the occupants of this home, not just the crazy ones, reported hearing sounds and seeing things. It’s all stock ghost story stuff, strange lights, apparitions, sounds of wailing, crying and screaming. 160,000 souls locked down to a place on Earth so rancid they can’t move on. Poveglia’s dire reputation affected the staff of the hospital, too, allegedly. An unnamed doctor in the island’s mental facility experimented on his patients, urged on by their babbling about plague victims, he developed sick and savage new ways to lobotomize his patients until his suicide attempt put the kibosh on continued medical malpractice. The unnamed doctor, suffering from what he thought were his own hallucinations, plunged from the hospital’s bell tower and managed to barely survive the fall. Disappointed, Poveglia’s non-corporeal population rose up from the ground as a mist and finished the job by choking him to death. ...
Since that time, there have been attempts to buy the land from the government, which is off limits to visitors. Private buyers have, on occasion, bought the island, moved in and then booked it the fuck out shortly thereafter, perpetuating the mythology of this black mark on the planet. To this day, Italy shows no sign of relinquishing the location to anyone. Business deals go sour. People move in and more out and it’s said that one such buyer beat a hasty retreat when their daughter sustained a mysterious facial injury requiring 20 stitches. Since that time, Poveglia has remained closed and rotting.
Mass grave - a plague pit with some 1,500 skeletons near Poveglia on Lazzaretto Vecchio. Image Source: Forensic Geology.
A Poveglian skull with a rock forced in its mouth - evidence that workers believed the corpse had become a vampire. The rock was meant to prevent the corpse (which would still have had flesh on it when this ritual was performed) from drinking blood. Image Source: Forensic Geology.
During plague epidemics, people became convinced that Poveglia was home to vampires. Forensic Geology:
Further from Forensic Geology:During the worst outbreaks, the islands were quickly overrun with the dead and dying, who were hastily shoveled into grave pits, and when those were full, burned. 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. ... According to an MSNBC article, during epidemics, mass graves were often reopened to bury fresh corpses and diggers would chance upon older bodies that were bloated, with blood seeping out of their mouth and with an inexplicable hole in the shroud used to cover their face.
"These characteristics are all tied to the decomposition of bodies," Borrini said. But they saw a fat, dead person, full of blood and with a hole in the shroud, so they would say: 'This guy is alive, he's drinking blood and eating his shroud.'" Modern forensic science shows the bloating is caused by a buildup of gases, while fluid seeping from the mouth is pushed up by decomposing organs, Borrini said. The shroud would have been consumed by bacteria found in the mouth area, he said. At the time however, what passed for scientific texts taught that "shroud-eaters" were vampires who fed on the cloth and cast a spell that would spread the plague in order to increase their ranks. 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.
Many people have reported ghostly phenomena on the island, and locals and non-locals alike believe Poveglia is home to angry, vengeful spirits who cannot rest. It is a place where thousands upon thousands of dead souls, so the stories go, have no peace.The soil on Poveglia island, combined with the charred remains of the bodies, formed a layer of sticky ash on the land. The top layer of ash has dried in the sun to form a fine dust that swirls in the breeze and catches in lungs. Part of the island core consists of a layer of human remains. Fishermen avoid this area, as the chances of catching a body part or two are high. ... Most boats refuse to call at the death isle, another of its names, but those who have landed report treading on ashes, hearing screaming, seeing moving shadows and having the urgent desire to flee. ... A few people have dodged the light police patrol that guards the island, and all have sworn never to return. They say the moans and screams that reverberate around the island are unbearable, fishermen tell of seeing mystery lights on the island. There is a feeling of the most intense evil, and one misguided thrill-seeker, upon entering the deserted hospital, was told by a loud disembodied voice, "Leave immediately and do not return."
The bottom part of Poveglia's triad of connected islands is called the Octagon. Image Source: Forensic Geology.
Poveglia is a magnet for ghost hunters and paranormal investigators. Below the jump, see the results when a team of three American ghost hunters, Zak Bagans, Nick Groff, and Aaron Goodwin, spent the night there for the program Ghost Adventures, with only their electronic detection equipment to keep them company.
Bagans introduces the Travel Channel program, explaining that he is no longer a skeptic about paranormal phenomena:
My name is Zak Bagans. I never believed in ghosts until I came face to face with one. So I set out on a quest to capture what I once saw onto video. With no big camera crews following us around, I am joined only by my fellow investigator Nick Groff and our equipment tech Aaron Goodwin. The three of us will travel to some of the most highly active paranormal locations, where we will spend an entire night, being locked down from dusk until dawn. Raw; extreme; these are our Ghost Adventures.
In the first part of the Ghost Adventures episode, the Italian guide introduces Poveglia as a "black hole." One of the best parts of the investigation, imo, occurs before it even begins, when the guide gives them a chilling warning just before he leaves.
Ghost Adventures, Poveglia episode, Part 1. Video Source: Youtube.
Bagans is known for a confrontational style when addressing spirits he considers to be hostile. His aggressive requests, made in Italian to Poveglia's otherworldly presences in the pitch black of night, are surprising. There's a lot of shouting and bravado here, which to be honest had me rooting for the ghosts. But I think the ghost hunters' yelling may reflect the fact that they were genuinely frightened and (at some point) not just acting. But there's nothing in this program that could not have been created artificially. All the same, I wouldn't go to Poveglia in the middle of the night and challenge the darkness to come and get me!
There are some visitors' photos of Poveglia on Google Earth, which show that even in broad daylight, the island remains a sad place, a place of death and grief that can never be healed, and it has been so for almost 1,200 years. Perhaps it should be left alone in its utter desolation - its secrets best left kept - and its persistently unsettled atmosphere should remain unexplored, a dark warning to the curious.
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