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Ransom Riggs

SOLD! The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia

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Ransom Riggs

In 2010, Ransom Riggs visited the island of Poveglia in the Venice Lagoon—also known as the most haunted island in the world. In April 2014, it was announced that Poveglia would be going up for auction in an effort to help reduce Italy's soaring debt. Yesterday we learned that Italian businessman Luigi Brugnaro won the auction with a bid of €513,000 (roughly $704,000), which allows him to lease the island for 99 years. (A rival community group is asking the government to refuse his bid.) So what exactly does he get? Let's take a look at Ransom's photo tour from 2010:

A quarantine station, a dumping ground for plague victims, more recently a mental hospital -- the tiny island of Poveglia in the Venice Lagoon has served many unpleasant purposes over the years, but today it stands empty, a crumbling collection of abandoned buildings and weeds run riot just two miles from the glittering palaces of the Grand Canal. Legends and rumors about Poveglia are nearly as pervasive as the weeds, and they read like a horror story: that so many people were burned and buried there during the black plague that the soil is 50% human ash; that local fishermen give the island a wide berth for fear of netting the wave-polished bones of ancestors; that the psychiatrist who ran the mental hospital was a butcher and torturer who went mad from guilt and threw himself from the island's belltower, only to survive the fall and be strangled by a "ghostly mist" that emerged from the ground.

Weary of an island in their beloved lagoon being characterized as a "festering blemish ... the waves reluctantly lapping its darkened shores" (from a book called TRUE Hauntings from Around the World, emphasis not mine) or "nothing more than a cesspool of pure dread" (according to the hyperbolic host of a show called Ghost Adventures), Venetians have done what they can to tamp down overheated rumors about Poveglia. They deny being frightened of the place and tend not to mention the plague pits or mental hospital when discussing the island's history; a recent article in Venice magazine claimed that the institutional ruins which dominate Poveglia were nothing more than a rest home for the elderly.

But as long as the island remains tantalizingly off-limits to tourists and crammed with rotting buildings that are just a gondola ride from some of Europe's priciest real estate, rumors will keep flying and people will keep telling scary stories about it. I wanted to sort out the truth from the rumors, the legends from the dismissive shrugs of the locals. In Venice for five days to write about the city for mental_floss (the first installment is here), I couldn't pass up exploring the "island of terror." What I found there was both stranger and more innocuous than anything I had heard.

As it turns out, getting to Poveglia isn't as easy as it sounds. While upwards of three million people descend upon Venice and a few of the more touristy resort islands around it each year, virtually no one goes to Poveglia. According to most travel guides, the island is "not visitable," and the idea of flagging down a water taxi on the Grand Canal and asking for a ride to a far-flung island of abandoned buildings was laughable. (People have tried it; it doesn't work.) It took a few days to find a boat operator who would agree to take me there, and while it wasn't cheap, it included a whole day on the lagoon during which I could visit a few other islands too, if I wanted, and it even included lunch, cooked on a propane burner right on the boat.

Approaching the island, the first thing you see is the bell tower. It's the most visible and also one of the oldest structures on the island, the only remnant of a 12th-century church that was abandoned and destroyed hundreds of years ago. The tower was turned into a lighthouse in the 18th century, and now serves no purpose other than as a landmark (unless you're a suicidal, possibly-legendary mad doctor).

Next you see the island's octagonal battlement, known as "the octagon," which was built in the 14th century to repel Genoese invaders. (The Genoese and Venetians had a bloody rivalry for centuries.) In addition to the countless others who are supposed to have met their untimely ends on Poveglia, the octagon was used by English soldiers during the Napoleonic wars to ambush French commandos. Prisoners were taken ashore and burned (this "almost became a habit," according to one history book) and -- again, this is a rumor -- destroyed French ships still decorate the bottom of the lagoon around the octagon.

We navigate to one side of the octagon and come into a little canal, where the mental hospital is revealed behind a stand of trees. (The building may have served other purposes, but I can only describe it as what it looks like -- somewhere insane people are incarcerated.) We slide up to a landing, tie the boat to a strut of the mental hospital and hop ashore. That's the octagon on the left, the hospital on the right.

The place strikes me as anything but a "cesspool of dread." Maybe it's the sun and the salty air and the teal water everywhere, but even covered with abandoned buildings, it doesn't seem creepy in the least. (Of course, I hadn't gone inside them yet -- past the fences and the warning signs -- so the jury was still out.) I found one local history book that confirmed the island's use as not a retirement home exactly, but as an institution used to house "aged indigents," who I suppose in America would be better known as old homeless people. Still, the picture this book paints of their lives on Poveglia seemed more or less consistent with my cheerful first impressions:

Aged people, who were to be seen sunning themselves happily upon its lawns, or on aged ships, still laid up in a neighboring channel, pitifully streaked with rust and salt, their only attendants the skeleton crews who maintain their engines ...

The aged indigent home was abandoned in 1968 and the island has been empty ever since. Twenty years ago, work crews hastily erected scaffolding all along the main buildings' frontage -- not to fix them up, my guide told me, but merely to delay their falling down. Oh, and this photo puts to rest another rumor: that fishermen won't go near Poveglia. Those sticks placed at intervals along the concrete below -- those are fishing nets.

But the indigent home was merely the last of Poveglia's institutional incarnations. Its first was as a lazaretto, a quarantine island for maritime travelers, one of three in the Venice lagoon. Lazaretto Vecchio, just a stone's throw from Poveglia, opened in 1403, the first institution of its kind. Plague and disease were huge problems in the medieval world, especially in trading centers like Venice. But Venice had some of the strictest sanitary laws anywhere, and even though they didn't understand how germs and infections worked, they knew that isolating sick travelers was an effective way to prevent or lessen the severity of outbreaks. It was Venice that coined the term quarantine, which is derived from the duration travelers were required to stay at a lazaretto before they could be issued a clean bill of health and continue on their way -- forty days. Quaranta giorni.

But confinement in Poveglia's lazaretto wasn't always, or even usually, a death sentence. It was more like purgatory: boring, though not necessarily unpleasant. Most wayfarers had their own room, sometimes even their own little apartment. They were fed well and drank together and they could send and receive mail (though outgoing letters were, according to an 1831 inmate of Poveglia's lazaretto, "stabbed, sprinkled with vinegar, and fumigated" before leaving the island).

But during the full fury of a plague outbreak, of which Venice underwent many, there's little doubt that the lazarettos tuned from Purgatory into Hell. Venice considered itself lucky that, thanks in part to its relatively strict sanitation laws, it lost merely a third of its population during one 16th century outbreak. (The death toll on the mainland of Italy was, by comparison, far worse.) Panicked officials shipped anyone displaying symptoms of plague, be they commoners or nobility, off to the lazarettos. Doctors wore long-nosed masks stuffed with herbs in an attempt to filter sickness from the air they breathed.

During the worst outbreaks, the islands were quickly overrun with the dead and dying, who were hastily shoveled into grave pits, and when those were full, burned. There are surely such grave pits on Poveglia, though their locations are unmarked and unknown. Local lore holds that the part of the island traditionally used for growing food held most of the bodies.

Work crews on nearby Lazaretto Vecchio were digging the foundation for a new museum when they came across one such grave pit, filled with the remains of more than 1,500 plague victims.

Archaeologists immediately set to work examining the grisly find, and discovered something even more shocking: a vampire. Which is to say, someone who was thought to be a vampire back in the 16th century. The tip off: there was a brick shoved between its teeth, which it was believed would starve the vampire, better known in historical parlance as a shroud-eater.

As far as bricks and vampires go, there's a sound, albeit medieval chain of logic at work here. An MSNBC article about the vampire's discovery explains:

During epidemics, mass graves were often reopened to bury fresh corpses and diggers would chance upon older bodies that were bloated, with blood seeping out of their mouth and with an inexplicable hole in the shroud used to cover their face.

"These characteristics are all tied to the decomposition of bodies," Borrini said. "But they saw a fat, dead person, full of blood and with a hole in the shroud, so they would say: 'This guy is alive, he's drinking blood and eating his shroud.'"

Modern forensic science shows the bloating is caused by a buildup of gases, while fluid seeping from the mouth is pushed up by decomposing organs, Borrini said. The shroud would have been consumed by bacteria found in the mouth area, he said. At the time however, what passed for scientific texts taught that "shroud-eaters" were vampires who fed on the cloth and cast a spell that would spread the plague in order to increase their ranks.

To kill the undead creatures, the stake-in-the-heart method popularized by later literature was not enough: A stone or brick had to be forced into the vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death, Borrini said.

Imagine, then, what horrors may lie waiting to be discovered in Poveglia's plague pits, which remain unexplored. Estimates that sound impossible but which I've seen on a number of websites, in a book and on that stupid episode of Ghost Adventures place the number of people who were burned or buried here in the hundreds of thousands. Looking at the numbers, I suppose it's possible: in just the plague of 1576 alone, Venice lost 50,000 people (which, creepily, is the current population of Venice) -- and there were at least twenty-two outbreaks of plague in the two hundred years before that. If that sounds staggering, unimaginable even, it seemed so to Venetians of the middle ages, as well. Here's how a 14th century Italian named Giovanni Bocaccio described it:

The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ships hold and covered with a little earth.

So yeah, I think it's entirely believable that Poveglia's soil is littered with bones. It's entirely common. What's uncommon is to know where they are -- to be able to say yes, that island -- because such were the sanitary laws of Venice that there was actually a place for the sick to go, to be quarantined, and to die.

This jungly part of the island, most recently a small vineyard, is where the pits are thought most likely to be. And speaking of burning things, looks like someone thought this was a good spot for a little campfire action. Who wants a hot dog?

Okay, back to the insane asylum. Which is -- yes -- what was built here in 1922. For some reason, the wikipedia page on Poveglia claims that "the institution in question was not a mental hospital," which is total bunko. How do I know, despite the controversy, that at least part of this place housed mental patients?

Simple: I found the sign.

Also, if you poke around in the bushes a little, you'll find all the bars that used to be on the windows. (I assume they weren't there to keep burglars out, or old people in.)

What's more, the place is very, very institutional feeling, from the drab paint on the peeling walls to the stacks of beds and bedframes I found in several rooms.

There's a little chapel inside the hospital, too, its walls greening with mold, pews broken by vandals. It seems like something you'd only need on an island whose residents were not allowed to leave.

The boundary between indoor and outdoor no longer means much here. There are vines growing into every window, and ceilings collapsed into piles of beams and roofing tiles that are themselves slowly being covered with vegetation.

Despite all this apparent creepiness, I never felt ill at ease while picking through the ruins of Poveglia. It was a bit like I imagine exploring the ruins of Mayan temples would be -- more like you're in a strange kind of park than a horror movie.

The floor of one room was totally covered, a half-inch thick in some places, with the torn-out pages of Italian books.

Some of the more accessible rooms had been spray-painted with graffiti -- evidence, rumor has it, of "raves in the nineties."

Here's a clever play on words.

Despite the grime and debris that seemed to cover everything -- or perhaps because of it -- little details stuck out, like the tile pattern in this once-handsome floor.

Or this door's peeling paint.

There was plenty of evidence around that this had been a large institutional operation responsible for the care and feeding of lots of people -- like this industrial kitchen.

These must have been some of the first electric washing machines available.

I have no idea what this was for, but it looks serious.

This was called il manglia or "the mangler," used for wringing out wet sheets and clothes.

Behind the main hospital building were a few smaller structures that looked like they might've been staff housing. (Perhaps it belonged to the mad doctor himself.) The underbrush had closed around this building so aggressively that I almost didn't see it.

Around the side of the house was this classy granite clawfoot tub. I want one!

Inside the house were a few partially-furnished rooms with sofas moldering in corners and curtains still in the windows. This trunk seemed an especially promising find -- though it was, unfortunately, empty.

This stairwell was in a building filled with sinister-looking industrial equipment. Through the window is the canal and the octagon beyond it.

It led to a roof, where these little observation towers look out onto the lagoon, and given this view, I couldn't help but be cheered. It was strange: if any place in the world was haunted, this place was. But regardless of its history as a burial ground and quarantine hospital and insane asylum and lord knows what else, the weather and the rampant greenery made it feel like a happy place, somewhere I wouldn't mind being stuck for a few weeks, if it were the 16th century and I was suspected of carrying the plague.

Someplace, even, where you might stop for a picnic. Which, in fact, is exactly what I did. When I'd finished exploring the island and returned to the boat, I found that my guide, who'd stayed with the boat while I was gone, had set out a table and prepared a wonderful Venetian feast: sauteed polpo, or octopus, polenta with prawns, a nice fritto mixto, and a risotto made with stinging nettles that she had harvested from the underbrush growing into the windows of the abandoned mental asylum -- all prepared on a single propane-fired hotplate, and followed up with desert wine and some traditional almond cookies. Honestly, it was one of the best meals I had of the five days I was in Venice.

All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon on the most haunted island in Italy.

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This article originally appeared in May, 2010.

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10 Legendary (and Probably Made-Up) Islands
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Often, islands come to represent places of extremes: they serve as utopias, purgatories, or ultimate dream vacation destinations. When it comes to mythological islands, utopias are especially popular. The Greeks had their Fortunate Islands, or Islands of the Blessed, where the luckiest mortals whiled away their time drinking and sporting. The Irish had a similar concept with their Mag Mell, or Plain of Honey, described as an island paradise where deities frolicked and only the most daring mortals occasionally visited. 

But mythology isn't the only engine creating islands that don't actually exist—some of these legendary land masses popped up on maps after miscalculations by early explorers who interpreted icebergs, fog banks, and mirages as real islands. Some of these cartographic “mistakes” may have been intentional—certain islands depicted on medieval maps might have been invented so they could be named after the patrons who funded the explorations. Even explorer Robert E. Peary wasn't immune: Some say he invented "Crocker Land," a supposedly massive island in the Arctic, to secure funding from San Francisco financier George Crocker. Crocker Land didn’t exist, although that didn’t prevent major American organizations (including the American Museum of Natural History) from sponsoring a four-year expedition to find it.

Much like the fictional Crocker Island, here are 10 more imaginary isles, all of which have a place in world history, literature, or mythology—despite not having a place on the map.

1. Isle of Demons 

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Supposedly located off the coast of Newfoundland, this landmass (sometimes depicted as two islands) appeared on 16th century and early 17th century maps, and was named for the mysterious cries and groans mariners reported hearing through the mist.

The island was given a somewhat more solid identity after 1542, when nobleman and adventurer Jean-François Roberval was instructed by the King of France to found settlements along the North Atlantic coast. He brought his niece, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, along for the voyage, but she began a passionate affair with one of Roberval's officers. Annoyed, Roberval put his niece (and maybe the officer—accounts differ), as well as her nurse, ashore on an otherwise unspecified "Isle of Demons" in the St. Lawrence River. Marguerite gave birth on the island, but the child died, as did Marguerite’s lover and nurse. However, the plucky Marguerite survived alone for several years, using her firearms against the wild beasts. After being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France, she reported that she had been beset "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."  

Marguerite’s story appears in several historical accounts, including versions by Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Queen of Navarre. Still, the location of the “Isle of Demons” on which she landed has never been found for certain. Maritime historian and veteran Atlantic sailor Donald Johnson thinks he has identified it as Fichot Island, close to the Strait of Belle Isle at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson notes that Fichot Island lies on Roberval's course, and is home to a breeding colony of gannets—a type of seabird whose guttural cries, heard only while breeding, may have been taken for the sounds of demons.

2. Antillia 


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Also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, Antillia was a 15th century cartographic phenomenon said to lie far west of Spain and Portugal. Stories about its existence are connected to an Iberian legend in which seven Visigothic bishops and their parishioners fled Muslim conquerors in the eighth century, sailing west and eventually discovering an island where they founded seven settlements.  The bishops burned their ships, so they could never return to their former homeland. 

According to some versions of the legend, many people have visited Antillia but no one has ever left; in other versions of the tale, sailors can see the island from a distance, but the land always vanishes once they approach. Spain and Portugal even once squabbled over the island, despite its non-existence, perhaps because its beaches were said to be strewn with precious metals. By the late 15th century, once the North Atlantic was better mapped, references to Antillia disappeared—although it did lend its name to the Spanish Antilles.

3. Atlantis 

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First mentioned by Plato, Atlantis was supposedly a large island that lay "to the west of the Pillars of Hercules" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was said to be a peaceful but powerful kingdom lost beneath the waves after a violent earthquake was released by the gods as punishment for waging war against Athens. There have been many attempts at identifying the island, although it may have been entirely a creation of Plato’s imagination; some archeologists associate it with the Minoan island of Santorini, north of Crete, whose center collapsed after a volcanic eruption and earthquake around 1500 BC. 

4. Aeaea 

In Greek mythology, Aeaea is the floating home of Circe, the goddess of magic. Circe is said to have spent her time on the island, gifted to her by her father, the Sun, waiting for mortal sailors to land so she could seduce them. (Afterwards, the story goes, she would turn them into pigs.) Some classical scholars have identified Aeaea as the Cape Circeium peninsula on the western coast of Italy, which may have been an island in the days of Homer, or may have looked like one because of the marshes surrounding its base.  

5. Hy-Brasil 

Also known as Country o'Breasal, Brazil Rock, Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), and by many other names, Brasil (Gaelic for "Isle of the Blessed") is one of the many mythical islands of Irish folklore, but one that nevertheless made several appearances on real maps.   

Like the Mediterranean's Atlantis, Brasil was said to be a place of perfect contentment and immortality. It was also the domain of Breasal, the High King of the World, who held court there every seven years. Breasal had the ability to make the island rise or sink as he pleased, and normally only let the island be visible when his court was in full swing.  

According to legend, Brasil lay "where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on its other side—usually close enough to see but too far to visit." It first appeared on a map made in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Daloroto, who depicted it as a large area to the southwest of Ireland. (Later maps placed it farther west.) Its shape was usually drawn as a near-perfect circle, bifurcated by a river. Numerous explorers searched for the island, and some, including Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), even claimed to have found it. 

Today, scholars think Brasil may have been a reference to Baffin Island, or to now-sunken lands visible only when sea levels were lower during the last Ice Age, or else an optical illusion produced by layers of hot and cold air refracting light rays.  

6. Baralku 

Among the indigenous Australians of the Yolngu culture, Baralku (or Bralgu) is the island of the dead. The island holds a central place in the Yolngu cosmology—it's where the creator-spirit Barnumbirr is said to live before rising into the sky as the planet Venus each morning. Baralku is also the spot where the three siblings who created the landscape of Australia, the Djanggawul, originated. The island supposedly lies to the east of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, and the Yolngu believe their souls return there after death.

7. Saint Brendan's Isle  

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This piece of land was said to have been discovered by Irish abbot and traveler Saint Brendan and his followers in 512, and to be located in the North Atlantic, somewhere west of Northern Africa. Brendan became famous after the publication of the Latin Navigation of St Brendan, an 8th/9th century text that described his voyage in search of the wonderful "Land of Promise" in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was a medieval best-seller, and gave the saint his nickname, "Brendan the Navigator." The island was said to be thickly wooded, filled with rich fruit and flowers. Tales of St. Brendan's Isle inspired Christopher Columbus, among others, and had an important influence on medieval cartography. Sightings were reported as late as the 18th century.

8. Avalon 

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First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Avalon is the place where the legendary King Arthur's sword is forged, and where he is sent to recover after being wounded in battle. The island was said to be the domain of Arthur's half-sister, sorceress Morgan le Fay, as well as her eight sisters. Starting in the 12th century, Avalon was identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, in connection with Celtic legends about a paradisiacal “island of glass.” Twelfth century monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered Arthur’s bones—although later historians believe their “discovery” was a publicity stunt to raise money for Abbey repairs. 

9. Island of Flame 

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Island of Flame (also known as the Island of Peace) was the magical birthplace of the gods and part of the kingdom of Osiris. It was said to have emerged out of primeval waters and to lay far to the East, beyond the boundaries of the world of the living. Associated with the rising sun, it was a place of everlasting light.  

10. Thule

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For the Greeks and Romans, Thule existed at the northernmost limit of their known world. It first appears in a lost work by the Greek explorer Pytheas, who supposedly found it in the 4th century BC. Polybius says that "Pytheas ... has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot … and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak." Later scholars have interpreted Thule as the Orkneys, Shetlands, Iceland, or possibly Norway, while the Nazis believed Thule was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race.  

Bonus: People Used to Think California was an Island  

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, many Europeans believed that California was an island. Like other islands on this list, the place was reported as being a kind of paradise. In fact, the name "California" first appears in a romantic novel penned by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who described it as an island filled with gold and precious gems, populated by a race of Amazons who rode griffins.  

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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The Town Built On Asbestos (Population: 3)
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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Welcome to Wittenoom, Australia, where the weather is beautiful, the scenery is unparalleled, and toxic substances seep from the earth.

Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Wittenoom was once one of the top blue asbestos mining locations in the world, causing families to flock to the area for jobs. Also known as crocidolite asbestos, blue asbestos was a valuable commodity used for fire protection in ceiling tiles, insulation, electrical work, battery casings, and more. But it was also an incredibly dangerous one—all types of asbestos can cause fatal illnesses, but because crocidolite fibers are as thin as a strand of hair, they’re easily inhaled and may be responsible for more deaths than any other type of asbestos. In Wittenoom—where workers once held asbestos-shoveling contests, and families thought it safe to let their kids play in the stuff—thousands of former residents have died from asbestos-related causes.

The mining industry in Wittenoom was halted in 1966, not necessarily for health reasons, but for economic ones—the company which owned the mines was $2.5 million in debt. Health concerns weren’t really addressed until the late ‘70s, when the government started taking steps to shut the town down completely. Buildings were demolished, the airport was closed, and residents were urged to leave. By 1992, less than 50 citizens remained, and by 2007, it was down to eight. Today, just three brave souls still call Wittenoom home.

Why would three people stay in a town that’s still riddled with cancer-causing materials, a town with no electricity or water, one that has literally been erased from maps by the government because of the danger it poses? They all have different reasons.

Peter Heyward, a resident for more than two decades, stays for the nature and the “silent stillness” of the surroundings. “The hills, the plains, the openness, the quiet. I love the country," he told Australia's The Age in 2007. Since so many buildings were razed, he now has a perfect view of Hamersley Mountain Range.

Mario Hartmann stays put largely because he was unimpressed with the amount of money the government offered to buy him out—$40,000 plus $10,000 in moving costs: “What can you buy with $40,000? They'll have to offer $400,000, what it takes to buy a house somewhere else.”

This year, Lorraine Thomas, a 30-plus year veteran of Wittenoom, told WA Today she refuses to let the potential presence of asbestos scare her away. "It's only the dust that's dangerous," she said, a threat she believes has dissipated after the mines' closures. An official report begs to differ, calling the risk to tourists (of which there are still up to 40 a day) and residents alike "extreme."

Neither Thomas nor her fellow residents have any illnesses relating to the asbestos that still looms large in the area.

For a closer look at the ghost town's holdouts—filmed when there were still eight people residing there—the short documentary Wittenoom is worth a watch:

Wittenoom from Caro Macdonald on Vimeo.

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