A flaming miser and a top hat wearing beggar wander Prague at night
Old Town is quite crowded at night with a variety of headless ghosts, flaming ghosts, otherworldly animals and water sprites, if all the legends are taken at face value. Prague even has its share of skeletons who refuse to stay put.
Perhaps the most famous is the flaming skeleton of Karlova Street. When a great fire hit the area near Charles Bridge, all of the residents worked together to try to put it out or make sure that everyone made it out of the buildings and to safety at Old Town Square or the Bridge. There was one exception, though. A money lender put all of his gold coins into a sack and tried to make it out of the area with no regard for anyone else. The moneylender was not a popular person. He took advantage of people’s misfortunes by charging high interest and, when they couldn’t keep up payments, foreclosing on whatever property they had and selling it to the highest bidder.
Gold is rather heavy, at least according to experts. Most people only ever handle it in small quantities. If anyone has any extra, please give it to us so we can check its weight and verify this aspect of the legend.
The bag proved too much for the miser but he refused to put it down or even lighten it by throwing some coins away. People were too busy getting buckets of water from the river or saving babies from the flames to see exactly what happened to him after he set off from his home toward Charles Bridge. When the flames were finally put out and people returned to salvage what was left, nobody came to the money lender’s house, which ironically was virtually untouched by the fire.
Some say he had a heart attack and died, others that the bag broke and he ran straight into the flames to get the rolling coins. Others still that the earth opened and swallowed him up or a building collapsed on him.
In any event, he realized too late that he would have been safer going in the other direction. From time to time, his flaming skeleton with fiery eyes and a sack of gold appears at night to strangers, begging for help to get to Old Town Square. If anyone would help him, he would be freed from his curse. But so far, nobody has offered to carry the flaming bag of gold for him. His appearances are infrequent, usually coming before a fire or flood affects the city.
Once the sightings began, a few people belatedly claimed to have seen him transform into a fiery skeleton and then be dragged away by the Devil himself, but none of these so-called witnesses were from the area. Tragedies always bring fame-seekers trying to insert themselves into a good story.
Old Town still has another famous restless skeleton. This one is a bit fancier than most others. Vincenc, who was two meters tall, was the servant to an elderly anatomy instructor named Dr. Spurný at Charles University. The professor longed to have such a fine and tall skeleton in the university collection and made Vincenc an offer for his lovely bones once he passed away. Vincenc thought for sure he would outlive the professor and took the offer, thinking he could keep his skeleton and the money — an astounding 30 gold coins, a fortune in the 18th century when the tale takes place.
The university had a large collection of skeletons of all kinds, but none was as fine as the tall and healthy servant Vincenc.
Dr. Spurný did not have to wait long to claim his prize. For those who think the master was going to resort to foul play to get at Vincenc’s bones, you have guessed wrong. The tall servant was the author of his own demise. He never had much money at one time before, and took it out with him to celebrate. He drank far too much and bragged of his good fortune in one of the shadier pubs near the Karolinum, the main building of the university.
Robbers followed him into the street and stabbed him repeatedly, and took off with his money.
Dr. Spurný was pleased to see that none of the bones were damaged. He thought Vincenc a fool though, for wasting his good fortune so quickly. Instead of putting Vincenc’s fine frame in a place of honor in the university collection, he dressed the skeleton up in a top hat and gave it an ebony walking stick with a gold grip. The skeleton was placed just inside the doorway of the professor’s apartment as a grim joke.
From midnight to 1 am the skeleton can be seen begging for coins, holding out his top hat and leaning on his walking stick. He hopes to collect enough money to buy his skeleton back from the university so he can rest in peace. But he has made no progress as the few coins he gets always fall through his hands when he tries to count them.
More skeletons, but boring unflaming ones without top hats and canes, can be found near the Theatre on the Balustrade at the square called Anenské náměstí. The area used to be a cemetery, and it was dug up with little respect for its residents. The skeletons wander at night in a large crowd looking for their home, which they will never find. Reports of sightings have been few recently, perhaps because people simply mistake them for another group of drunken tourists making noise in the night while they search for their hotel.
They — the skeletons, not the tourists — are not to be confused with another ghost on the same square, a church bell ringer who stole candles so he could sell them. He appears on occasion with flaming finger tips, as a warning against candle theft.
Karlova Street is one of the oldest in the city, leading from Charles Bridge to Old Town Square. It dates back to at least the 12th century. Charles Bridge was built in 1357, replacing the earlier Judith Bridge, which stood from 1172 until 1342. Old Town Square has been the main center of the city since the mid-1300s, though some building on the square are even older.
Prague has seen a number of fires, although the one in 1689 was one of the biggest. It burned a significant part of the city and created an opportunity to rebuild whole neighborhoods. Old Town can be seen in flames on The Tower, one of the Major Arcana cards in The Tarot of Prague. The image is from the 1648 sacking of Prague by the Swedish Army at the end of the the Thirty Years’ War.
Charles University was founded in 1348 and its medical faculty is one of the oldest existing departments, and the oldest medical school in Central Europe. The Karolinum, one of its main buildings, is located at Ovocný trh, the same square that has the Estates Theatre, where Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni.
The school does indeed have a skeleton collection, and it is sometimes open to the public as part of the Museum of Human and Comparative Anatomy of the First Faculty of Medicine of Charles University. It has a rather bizarre array of deformed infant skeletons, death masks, mummies, exotic skeletons from primitive cultures and primate skeletons. None has a top hat or cane.
Anenské náměstí is near the former St. Anne’s Church, which has long been deconsecrated. It was a church from 1316 to 1782. Most churches at the time had cemeteries in the surrounding yard, but as real estate started to command high prices, the cemeteries were moved to the suburbs. This explains why the Malá Strana Cemetery (Malostranský hřbitov) is in Prague 5, outside the former city walls and far from Malá Strana. It was established in 1680 during a plague to keep mass graves out of the populated area. Olšany Cemetery (Olšanské hřbitovy) in Prague 3 was also created in 1680 due to the same plague. Once the plague subsided, both continued to be used, and cemeteries in the city center were abolished.
The only significant cemetery left in Old Town and Malá Strana is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Several churches, though, still have tombs inside the church walls and in their crypts.
Main image: Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette by Vincent van Gogh. Source: Wikimedia commons