By Moina Arcee, Jan 27, 2014 Edited July 4 2018
In 1576 a ship arrived at the port of Venice, Italy, carrying spices, silk, and other textiles. The Venetians soon discovered the trade ship was in fact a death ship. Nearly all the crew was dead. The survivors were fatally ill from the bubonic plague, which spread from the ship to the city of Venice, then to the countryside.
It was called the Black Death. The symptoms were fever, vomiting, headache, chills, diarrhea, and large, swollen black boils that leaked pus and blood. The carriers of the plague were fleas, who had received the plague from rats on board the ship. The Black Death was very contagious.
“The mere touching of the clothes,” wrote Boccaccio, “appeared itself to communicate the malady to the toucher. People who were perfectly healthy when they went to bed at night could be dead by morning.”
The bloodstream of the world was trade routes. It was the ships that passed on the plague from one port to another, all around the world. Over centuries the plague claimed millions of lives in Europe. China lost half its population to the plague. India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt were similarly decimated.
In 1576 Venice lost 50,000 people to the plague. It could have been worse if the Venetians had not used the nearby island of Poveglia to send plague victims to. Incoming ships were also waylaid at Poveglia. The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian word quaranta, meaning forty. During the Black Death epidemic ships were required to be isolated at Poveglia for forty days before the crew and passengers could disembark on Venetian soil (Poveglia is a mile offshore from Venice).
Over the centuries thousands upon thousands of plague victims were isolated on the small island of Poveglia. Hardly anyone recovered to return to Venice. Doctors wore masks filled with herbs to prevent the airborne germs from reaching them. Corpses by the thousands were buried in large pits. Too exhausted to dig, the caregivers stacked bodies in huge, ghastly piles, and set them aflame.
Panicked Venetians herded anyone even suspected of having plague symptoms onto boats headed for Poveglia. On the island the victims lay where they fell, the living among the dead: nobility, commoner, peasant, all victims of a terrible disease with agonizing symptoms and no cure.
An estimated 160,000 corpses were buried or burned on Poveglia. Has any part of the world contained as much death as the small island of Poveglia? It is said the soil of Poveglia is an even mixture of dirt and human ash. Some nights the wind seems to carry the howls of tortured souls: begging for mercy, begging for death. By the 1900’s the Black Death was no longer a threat to humanity. In 1922 a psychiatric hospital was built on Poveglia, and those suffering from mental disorders were isolated there. Patients reported seeing ghosts and hearing the cries of plague victims at night. These reports were dismissed as symptoms of the patient’s mental illnesses.
Legend has it that a deranged doctor tortured his patients by performing lobotomies using hammers, chisels, and hand drills. It is also alleged that the doctor performed other acts of cruelty and torture, even cannibalism. The doctor then began seeing and hearing the spirits of the plague victims accusing him of his crimes. Overcome by this experience, the doctor jumped from the bell tower at the top of the psychiatric hospital. A nurse reported that the doctor did not die from the fall. As he lay on the ground a mist rose from the ground and choked the doctor to death.
Another legend claims the doctor’s body was bricked up in the bell tower, and that on quiet nights Venetians can hear the tolling of the bell on Poveglia. The hospital closed down in 1968. Poveglia has not had visitors since, except for a work crew twenty years ago that erected scaffoldings to delay the collapse of the buildings.
Update, April 2014: The government of Italy has hired a public agency called Demanio to auction off Poveglia. A spokesman for Demanio, Stefano Scalera, encourages anyone with an internet connection to visit the Demanio website to find out more about purchasing Poveglia. For convenience, all contracts and documents related to the purchase of Poveglia have been translated into English. Bids are due by May 6.
http://www.History.com, “The Black Death” for the paragraph starting “The mere touching of the clothes”.
“Strange Geographies: The Haunted Island of Poveglia,” mentalfloss.com
http://www.slightly warped.com, “The Island of Madness.”
Curious History.com, Poveglia Island – Haunted, Abandoned and Terrifying. This site is where I got most of the photographs that appear in the article.
Planet save.com, Poveglia Island — Asylum, Ghosts, Plague, And History
NBCnews.com The auction of the most haunted place in the world.