Why is Poveglia Plague Island Off Limits?

Why is Poveglia Plague Island Off Limits?

by Jordan Marie McCaw

In these uncertain, chaotic, isolated times, it’s hard not to think of traveling or at least stepping outside your home without worrying about coming into contact with anyone. Most people may still feel perfectly safe in their homes, while many others are doing everything they can not to go stir crazy.

Imagine living on an island that’s easily defendable from outside forces, like illness or intruders. Having an entire island to yourself and your community, enough space to spread out on a controlled space, sounds like a utopia.

Why is Poveglia Plague Island Off Limits?

Photo: Huffington Post

Photo: Huffington Post

Poveglia is such an island situated near Venice and Lido, Italy. Today the 17-acre island is abandoned, with no one (that we no of) having fled there amidst COVID-19, seeking refuge on an island away from the crowds of the cities.

Poveglia is no stranger to plagues, however, and it’s certainly no stranger to ghosts. The Travel Channel’s episode on Poveglia Plague Island Ghost Adventures explored this very phenomenon.

Records as early as 421 AD recount a community of people living on this island, having escaped from war on the mainland. It’s easy to imagine the security these people felt, isolated on their newfound idyllic piece of land surrounded by water. Historical evidence suggests people remained on the island for generations, the population size dwindling until there was no one left by the 14th century.

By then, the Bubonic plague was devastating everyone in Europe. In a time of intense fear of a dangerous bacterial infection that killed one person out of every three, the people in this area of Italy were desperate to find a way to quarantine the sick. Coming up with the idea to send the sick to Poveglia probably wasn’t a last resort. The island was reportedly abandoned. The only ones who would inhabit it were the sick, while the healthy could escape the terrible fate of the plague on the mainland.

It’s hard to condemn those who sent the sick away to be quarantined on an island. It was for the greater good of the people living in the area. Isolate the sick from the healthy, and the death toll will slow down. But sending anyone who experienced the symptoms of the plague to an isolated island was giving that person a death sentence.

Photo: abandonedplaygrounds.com

Photo: abandonedplaygrounds.com

The horror of the Black Death lessened just in time for it to pick back up again in the 17th century. Again, the sick were quarantined to Poveglia. Again, the dead were piled one on top of the other and then set ablaze. Again, the people on the mainland felt they had no other choice but to damn those who were already seen as dead for having simply contracted the disease.

The mass burnings of the bodies were buried in mass graves, also known as plague pits. According to Atlas Obscura, “The tiny island is said to have hosted over 160,000 infected souls living out their final days and hours there—so many that there are whispers that 50 percent of the soil consists of human remains.”

After the plague, Napoleon used the island for storing military weapons. Then, by 1922, a mental asylum was established on the island.

Disregarding the mass graves on the island for a moment, consider what a tranquil, hospitable place an asylum might be there. It sounds relaxing. It sounds like an opportunity for true rehabilitation. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for the asylum constructed on Poveglia.

To send someone to this asylum was no different than when the sick were sent here during the plague. It was a death sentence. The asylum was oppressive toward its patients, offering no help and instead offering forms of living nightmares. Stories tell of a doctor working at the asylum who experimented on the patients. Travel Channel reported that this very doctor—known to have worked at the asylum in the 1930s—was driven to madness by his work. He became so mad (perhaps driven mad by the ghosts of his experiments or by his experiments themselves), he flung himself off the bell tower at the asylum. Since then, those on the mainland can sometimes hear a bell ringing from the abandoned island, even though the bell had been removed decades ago.

In 2014, an American film crew took a water taxi to the island to spend 24 hours there. The goal was to document the no-doubt ghostly presences lurking on the island’s surface for a film based on the mad doctor of the asylum. When locals heard screams coming from the island, the police were dispatched to bring the Americans back to the mainland. The Ghost Hunters crew even spent a night on the island, apparently picking up all sorts of things on their supernatural equipment.

Photo: Time

Photo: Time

I’m not sure one needs to go hunting for ghosts on Poveglia to know if they’re there. The 160,000 souls that were lost to the plague (and the several more who died at the asylum) is perhaps logical enough to assume there are dark forces haunting the island. The question is if the island will ever be inhabited again.

A few years ago the island was officially put up for sale, with the government hoping to turn it in a cultural or youth center, or even a luxury hotel. Poveglia remains abandoned, however, with no serious bidders desiring to own the 17-acres surrounded by water.

I have a feeling Poveglia will remain that way for a long time. While it may not be inhabited by the living for the unforeseen future, it is surely inhabited by the memories, tragedies, and horrors that have taken place there over the centuries.

 Author bio: Jordan Marie McCaw is a Marketing Coordinator at Blackstone Publishing in Southern Oregon. She also writes a blog titled Recount & Reveal about bizarre historical events, interned at Dark Regions Press, where she proofread books by William F. Nolan and Caitlin R. Kieran, and was a freelance writer for several journalistic publications along the West Coast. Her fiction has appeared in Blood Moon Rising magazine and The Showbear Family Circus.

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