Poveglia is one of 166 small islets in the Venice lagoon. Perhaps as expected from the “Island of Ghosts,” it has a long history, going back as far as 2000 BCE. In those times, it is believed that it was inhabited by the Euganei people, better known as proto-Italians. Sadly, due to the passage of time, we know very little about these earliest settlers. However, we do know that by 421 AD, they were no longer on the island, as this is when Venetians moved onto the island. But what would make people leave the mainland? Simply put, the Huns.
The Germanic and Hun hordes were tearing across the Roman Empire at this time, leaving devastation in their wake. So it was an easy choice for those early Italians; after all, an island is much easier to defend. They were able to block off the main entrances and withstand the Hun invasion — which is more than many mainland people could say! The Huns moved on, leaving the inhabitants of Poveglia to live in relative peace. By the 9th century, the population was growing steadily, helped in no small part by the death of the doge in 864. His hundreds of slaves fled to the island to live freely in the aftermath of his death.
Life continued steadily until 1379, when the island was evacuated by the Venetian navy. They wanted the island for a defense position in the lagoon, and so built the octagonal fort that stands to this day. However, it would not stay a naval base for long.
In the 15th century, the plague was ravaging Europe, and the island was once again transformed. Poveglia was transformed into a lazaretto, a quarantine station. This is also when the term “quarantine” became what it is — any boats coming to Venice were waylaid for 40 days on the island. After that time period, any healthy people were allowed into the city. The rest were left there to die. However, Poveglia was not just a quarantine station; it was also a crematorium at this time. It is estimated that upwards of 160,000 corpses were burned on the island, leading to the local (scientifically untrue) legend that 50% of the island’s dirt is actually human ash. These corpses included those who had died on the island and corpses from Venice, as Venetians did not want to pollute their air with the smell of burning corpses. Given the beliefs of the time, this is understandable, but it certainly did little for morale on the island!
You would think that the plague history would be enough to earn this island its “most haunted” title, but its history does not end there. Between 1922 and 1968, an asylum was run on the island. As with most mental health facilities, initial intentions were good. Early asylums were created to provide a place of healing for the mentally ill. However, as population increased and funds ran low, the asylum took a turn for the worse. Conditions were horrible; patients lived in filthy, cramped conditions and were treated as less than human. Those being treated complained of spirits and disembodied screams that kept them awake at night. But worst yet was the sadistic doctor, called ‘Paolo’ by Venetian locals. He allegedly performed horrific surgeries (including lobotomies) without anesthesia or regard for hygiene. Many of these took place up in the bell tower, from which he later either jumped or was thrown to his death.
With all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why many aspiring ghost hunters were drawn to this island. Even without its alleged spirits, the mouldering remains of the asylum would be enough of a draw for many. Locals warn against travelling there, and more so against staying the night. Some ghosts, they report, are alright — but beware the doctor. He is known to push visitors and move furniture around in the night. Some even say that you can hear the bell tower tolling at night — even though the bell is long gone. Brave souls would commission local fishermen to sail them out to the island for the night, only to come back the next day shaken to their cores by the island’s overwhelming sense of evil. However, any aspiring paranormalists should be warned: the island is no longer available for visiting.
In 2014, businessman Luigi Brugnaro bought the island for £400,000 from the Italian government. It was one of five apparently haunted locations being sold to help relieve the country’s massive public debt. His plans for the island are unknown, but they are certain to be expensive. Estimates list the cost of updating the island’s buildings at around £16.25 million. Whatever he decides to do with it, paranormal enthusiasts hope that the island will one day soon again be available for public visits. Its history and hauntings are too rich to ignore.