What Really Happened: Poveglia

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Words by Jakob von der Lippe
Illustration by Camilla Eustance

There’s an island in the Venetian Lagoon in Northern Italy, which is so haunted,  people actually aren’t allowed to go there. I’m not even kidding. The island of Poveglia, with its incredibly long and dark history, has been cordoned off from public access by the Italian Government since the late 1960s. Poveglia is, for a tiny little island, absolutely packed full of a long history of human suffering, kind of like Ramsay Street from Neighbours but with less Toadie. Just like Toadie, however, the ghosts of Poveglia seem doomed to forever repeat and relive their suffering. Seriously though, Toady has been on Neighbours since 1995; I looked it up. Here’s a conspiracy theory for you: that dude needs a new fucking job! Anyways, Poveglia has basically seen the highest concentration of human suffering an absolutely tiny patch of land could support, and its current and very seriously enforced cordon by the Italian government suggests to me something is seriously up. The cover story is that the island is too covered in the debris of countless failed settlements to travel around safely, but come on, there’s totally ghosts there. Any other explanation would be boring.

The carnage that is the long, bloody history of Poveglia started in 420 CE, when Poveglia was the temporary home of mainland Italian refugees fleeing the barbarian invasions that were the fashion at the time. The refugee life on Poveglia was not an easy one, largely due to lack of food and fuel on the island. At least they were alive though. For the next thousand years, Poveglia actually grew into a pretty nice place to live, with its population booming from the 9th century onwards. For a town founded out of the horrors of a barbarian invasion, the then unhaunted island seems to be doing ok. However, in 1379, Poveglia was assaulted by the Genoan fleet, and much of its population summarily massacred. Shortly after, visitors to the island report seeing ghostly figures wandering the ruins of the old settlement. This kicked off the beginnings of Poveglia’s hauntings, and boy, this only got worse. For the next 200 years, the island sat uninhabited, with rumours of spirits haunting the island essentially turning Poveglia into the Adelaide of the Venetian Lagoon. In 1527, the Doge of Venice tried to pawn the island off to some monks, but they outright refused the gift. This place had such a bad reputation back then that even “free island” was not incentive enough to live there; let that sink in.

Shit hadn’t even got that bad yet. Over the next couple hundred years, the island briefly became a fort nobody wanted to be stationed in and a customs checkpoint nobody wanted to work at. Ghost sightings did not let up. Almost as if the people didn’t want to be there, the second a plague ship made dock in 1793, the whole island turned into a gigantic plague pit for the next 20 years. Of course, trying to escape the island’s creepy reputation by making it a holding cell for the sick and dying is like putting out a fire with gasolene. While official records recount that very few died there, the island was quite literally riddled with pits full of the dead, suggesting that there was absolutely no governing body during its long span as a plague station. The sick and dying were quite literally left to rot out their final days in agony, with little to no aid. Poveglia was hell on earth for the approximately 75,000-100,000 people who died there between 1793 and 1814.

Somehow, it got worse and Poveglia became an asylum for the “criminally deranged” in 1922, ticking every single box on the Scooby-Doo villain check-list. However, the asylum closed down suddenly in 1968, with local legend reporting some reasonably messed up shit. Apparently one of the overseeing doctors was torturing patients and, during a riot at the asylum, he was pushed from a bell tower. Unnamed and most likely fictional witnesses reported seeing him survive the fall only to be strangled to death by a white mist that rose out of the ground. Probably a story, but, hell, it gets the point across. Just remember, the Italian government really doesn’t want you going there. They even refused to sell it off earlier this year to a private owner. Ghosts, man. Ghosts.

Seriously, though, Toadie is an Australian icon.