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Stories from History: The Isle of Poveglia

Remember, these stories are all a little true, at least as much as anything is.

Most people have heard about Venice - the city of lights. If you're lucky, you've even been able to see it without the overwhelming presence of tourists and the various traps that quickly spring up to take advantage of them. It is only by wandering off the most commonly beaten path that you're able to see the hints of the city that it once was.

It is when you do this that you can see the city that is written about in Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, or that we still hear ghost stories about. When the fog rolls off the canals that wind their way around the city, and you walk along the quiet and cobblestoned streets, you can see where many of these stories come from.

Within the lagoon that Venice resides in, there are a number other islands. One such island is Poveglia. Ever since I first heard about this island, it has latched into my mind where it remains nestled. Over the course of its history it has been a place to contain quarantines, a hospital for the mentally infirm, a fortress to defend the ports of Venice, and most recently a piece of property that the city hopes to sell to an international developer.

One of the most fear inducing things about this place is simply the number of bodies that it is alleged are buried beneath the surface. Some accounts suggest that there are at least 150,000 bodies buried beneath the surface, a staggering amount for the small island.

Gifts and War

The first mentions of the island in history are in the 400s BC, and there were a number of people who lived here over the course of its history. Despite that, there were a number of problems with it for a long time. In 1527, for example, the Venetian Doge attempted to gift the island to a group of monks, but they refused it. After this, they built a series of octagonal forts on the island to be able to defend Venice from enemy ships.

Some of the soldiers who served in this fort reported a number of strange occurrences; sightings of ghosts and other supernatural occurrences. These reports are muddled and strange, but some have suggested that it is because of these complaints and strange claims by the soldiers that the final fort was on a separate island from the other two islands that make up Poveglia.

Plague

In 1776, the island was taken over by the Venetian version of the health authority, and the island began to be used for quarantine and by 1793 the island had an outbreak of plague due to it being used as a place of confinement for ships that had illness on board. Bonaparte eventually gained control of the island in 1805; he demolished the original church and transformed the bell tower into a lighthouse.

Asylum

The island was again used for quarantine, albeit in a different way, in the early twentieth century but in 1922 it became an asylum. The purpose of this development was to, hopefully, be able to provide some long term care and even cures for some individuals suffering from mental illness.

It was not long before the apparent curse of the island rose its ugly head again though. Rumors began to circulate about the head physician of the facility engaging in experiments upon the patients. The asylum closed in 1968, but remains one of the biggest draws for thrill seekers.

Now

Several reality TV shows have been filmed here, and there has been a number of attempts to develop the island. Most recently, in 2014, the Italian government put a 99 year lease up for sale on the island, hoping that a hotel company will be interested in turning the hospital into a tourist attraction or hotel.

Fishermen, to this day, avoid going near the island for fear of snagging human bones in their nets, and there are tales of people sneaking onto the island in the middle of the night, hoping to see the ghosts that others have reported.