Four thousand buried fools and murderers, a chapel in ruins, and disappearing graves covered with ivy. The old cemetery for the insane in Prague has been abandoned for half a century. Nevertheless, its scary reputation makes it more and more attractive, and not only as a top Halloween destination.
The online discussions ricochet with gossip about negative energy and inexplicable events connected with this place. Driving through the streets, empty due to a bank holiday, I recall the history of the graveyard. Opened in 1906, the Bohnice Cemetery was designated as the last resting place of the insane patients detained in a newly opened asylum. According to the records, the first person buried here was an eleven year old boy. In 1913, the asylum had almost 2.000 patients. The only fully preserved gravestone in the cemetery was erected during that period. It belongs to Maria Tuma, who died in 1912 at the age of 29 because of a “brain decline” – an unspecified mental illness. At the time, diagnoses were made on the basis of estimates, and treatments were rather experimental. They included electric shock therapy, doses of sedatives, hydrotherapy, hot baths, and being wrapped in cold cloths. Many doctors were convinced that mental disorders might have physical causes, and neural malfunctioning thus could be treated with external incentives. If the patients did not calm down, they were restrained with straitjackets or placed in isolation – typically in a small room with nothing but bare walls and a bed. The doctors cured general paresis (late stage syphilis) by giving patients blood infected with malaria. This caused high fevers and sometimes killed the bacteria, yet with very unpleasant side effects. This therapy was also used in cases of mania or schizophrenia, where it was useless. If the patients died, their bodies were supposedly buried in the cemetery by other – still living – patients.
Ghost Celebrities and Refugees
I turn onto a side road and travel the last remaining kilometre. If the ghosts are real, I will have an opportunity to meet real VIPs in a moment. Possibly the cemetery contains the grave of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin whose deed set the First World War in motion. There is also a place where murderers were buried, supposedly including the brutal killer of Otýlie Vranská. The body of this twenty two year old woman was cut into pieces and packed in two suitcases that were sent to Bratislava and Košice in Slovakia. One of the suspects was detained in the asylum, where he committed suicide. The graveyard also hosts 48 deceased refugees with mental disorders who were evacuated from Trident during World War I. Most of them died of typhoid fever.
I arrive at the graveyard gate, which is now locked. The place became derelict after 1963 and quickly fell into decay, although rumours say that some semi-legal funerals took place here during the 1970s.
The only dread comes from the living
In the 1980s the deserted cemetery was a place for secret satanic rituals. The current keeper of the graveyard, Jiří Vítek, has admitted to the media that photo-traps recorded participants in such a séance as late as 2008. Apart from spiritualists, ordinary people have been attracted to the graveyard as well. Crosses have been stolen and sold for iron; tombstones have been taken and incorporated into stairs or pathways in private houses. Additionally, the graveyard has slowly turned into a junk yard.
Jumping over the wall, I enter the burial ground. Immediately, I am in the middle of a restless sea of ivy and fallen, yellowish leaves. The frequent “waves” on this sea are mounds of soil covered in green that were used to fill in individual graves. “Stick to the main road, do not wander among the graves unless you want your leg to sink and get stuck in a tomb, right inside the rib cage of an unknown maniac,” advises an unknown blogger in her viral diary. My first and also very hesitant step actually causes a strange cracking. However, those are just plastic bottles and empty cans of beer hidden in the ivy. There must have been a party. Respectfully, I proceed among former graves to a ruined chapel and morgue. In the very centre of the graveyard, there is an opened grave. Would it be worse to meet the one who used to be inside, or the one who opened it?
Finally Rest in Peace?
I find also the only readable tombstone – the one of Maria Tuma. The surroundings of the impressive chapel ruin are rather well-kept. The graveyard keeper, Jiří Vítek, with other volunteers has cleaned the entire graveyard and restored this place, too. He tries to raise money for a publication about the history of the graveyard and organizes guided tours, even night tours, of the grounds. The latter are extremely popular. In several interviews, Jiří Vítek has admitted that many people feel strange during these tours. Other visitors to the graveyard have stated they felt nervous, inexplicably warm or cold, or experienced various aches or anomalies with cameras or cell phones. I have no such problems, though I fully recognize that being here at 8 am has its advantages. Although the place is visually wonderful, I realise that I am looking forward to leaving it. My eyes keep returning to the graveyard gate to confirm that there is no one watching me.
While leaving, I note that there is another cemetery just next to this one. This is a cemetery for deceased pets. The paths are carefully maintained there, and toys or pictures of dogs and cats cover carefully tended graves – a slightly ironical contrast. Two hundred meters from the cemetery, I meet two lads with professional cameras walking towards the cemetery of the insane. It turns slowly from a forgotten piece of land reclaimed by nature into a sensation frequented by ghost hunters and thrill seekers.