It’s said that someone once bet Ernest Hemingway that he couldn’t write a six-word short story that could make people cry (God knows how that scenario came about). To that challenge, Hemingway came up with this: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” He supposedly won 10 dollars. Like most anecdotes like this one, there is no legitimate proof it ever happened. But the sentiment remains, the things we leave behind can tell a story.
Whether you subscribe to the notion of psychic ability, ghostly echoes of the past, forensic remnants or just the concept that history has a way of catching up with us; Poveglia is an Island riddled with memory. Because ironically for the longest time, it was a place where people were sent to be forgotten. A place to suffer, where their screams would not be heard.
It’s believed that in the late 16th Century, during a resurgence of an epidemic, Poveglia (among several other islands of the Venetian Lagoon) was used as a dumping ground for the deceased and a place of quarantine for the infected. Black smoke rose almost continuously from the island with the incineration of the dead.
As fear of infection grew, in an effort to minimize the plague spreading again, in the year 1777 AD the island became a first port of contact to enter the City of Venice. Only after thorough inspection could seafarers progress to the capital. Around 1790, two ships were found to be harboring infected so every last passenger aboard was quarantined to Poveglia.
In 10 years, those survivors had either all died or somehow (in very rare instances) overcame the sickness. By this time, it was the dawn of the 19th Century. It’s estimated that between 100, 000 and 160, 000 were buried in the plague pits of the island. To this day, it’s reported on rare occasions charred human bones have been found washed upon the rocky shores. Even in death, failing to escape the island’s clutches.
The Island was left alone for a time, until 1922, when the quarantine buildings were converted into an asylum for the mentally ill. Then a different kind of suffering began. Legend has it one of the doctors performed cruel experiments and lobotomies on the patients. The tallest structure on the island was a church, that was converted into a bell tower, then a lighthouse. In some variations of the legends surrounding Poveglia, the Doctor, riddled with guilt took his own life by leaping from the lighthouse. Other variations suggest he was thrown.
Abandoned and in ruins now, Poveglia is private property and not open to the public. Yet still in recent years, some claim they can hear wailing coming from the island in the night and the chiming of the bell tower that was removed in 1806.
Whether you believe the spirits of these tortured, doomed souls dwell on the island or not, Poveglia is haunted. It’s haunted with an abysmally dark history, adorned with the countless suffering individuals who faced the realization they would never leave the island alive. A place where the earth consumed more than its fill of corpses. Where the ash of incinerated human remains has intertwined with the soil so much so, that this small island in itself has become a geographical culmination of death and despair.
The island of Poveglia remembers.