Halloween Day 9: The Vampire Plague of Venice
31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, every day is Halloween. Stop by the blog every day this month for true tales of the unquiet dead. Come for the severed heads, stay for the book bound in human skin. Every story is true, and each one is a real place you can visit. We dare you.
It’s bad enough when the plague rolls into town, but the citizens of Venice apparently also did battle with vampires.
In 1629-1630 the black death descended on Italy, killing as many as 280,000 people. In isolated and crowded Venice, the disease hit hard, taking nearly a third of the population: 46,000 lives out of a population of just 140,000. The death and resulting chaos deeply brought the once great maritime empire to its knees.
In an attempt to prevent disasters like this, Venice had long ago built two quarantine islands on the outskirts of the city, known as Lazzaretto Vecchio (Old Quarantine) and Lazzaretto Nuovo (New Quarantine). During normal times, these islands functioned primarily as a filter, waylaying incoming ships as they entered the city so that crew and goods could be inspected for signs of disease.
But in the desperate times that came with the outbreak of the black death, citizens were taken by force and marooned on the islands, where they were left to die. Mass graves containing thousands of bodies have been uncovered on both islands in recent years.
But more distressingly than plague bodies, recent excavations also uncovered the skull of a woman with a brick jammed in her mouth, leaving her in an eternal scream. This was the prescribed method in the mid 17th century for dealing with “Shroud Eaters”, a type of vampire also known as “The Chewing Dead”. These particular vampires were believed to be able to cause death and disease from the comfort of their own graves, laying there in the dark, possessed and chewing at their burial garments. Vigilant citizens who somehow noticed unsettling masticating sounds emerging from the grave, or spotted the blood-stained mouths of the recently dead (a naturally occurring side effect of decomposition) took it upon themselves to put an end to the Shroud Eater’s reign of terror by inserting a brick in their mouth.
Although stories of the chewing dead and the treatments for them had long been a part of vampire lore, finding actual evidence of the practice is extremely rare.