Old Town’s prettiest house is also home to legends of greed and murder
One of the most striking facades on the route from Charles Bridge to Old Town Square is the House at the Golden Well.
And such a beautiful building would be sure to attract a handful of stories over the years. There are two separate ghost stories set there, in addition to a rather overwritten novel from the 1890s that uses the house as a main location. The Witch of Prague, published in 1891, features a mysterious woman who sought the secrets of immortality and who hypnotized men into devotedly serving her.
On top of that, there is another House at the Golden Well across the river in Malá Strana with its own legend.
The pretty house at the corner of Karlova and Seminářská Streets in Old Town long ago was known as the House at the Red Chair, due to a papal nuncio named Philip Cardinal Spinelli living there during the time of Emperor Rudolf II. The house has passed through many hands before and since.
Being close to the river, the house had its own well in the basement. Rumors had circulated that the water in the well had a strange golden glow. Colored lights often were seen as indicators of hidden treasure. Whether the gold in the legend was hidden by the nuncio or from some other source is not known.
A housemaid named Ľubomíra was cleaning in the basement and she bent over to look down the well and get a better glimpse of the golden glow. But she slipped on the wet floor and fell down the well. Her desperate cries for help went unheard and she drowned in the well.
The owners of the house became increasingly angry with her as the day grew to evening and her chores went undone. When dinner failed to be served, the master of the house, in no good mood, went looking for her, starting in the attic.
By the time he got to the basement his mood was foul. He found the maid dead and floating in the well. He yelled at the corpse for ruining his day and forcing him to have a cold dinner. He toyed with the idea of simply burying her quietly but decided the risk was too great. He contacted a doctor to come and examine the body and take it away.
He didn’t pay for a funeral and she was quickly tossed into a common grave. Her relatives lived far away in Slovakia, and he never bothered to tell them as sending a message would have cost money.
The law required that the well be cleaned thoroughly so as not to spread disease. Plagues and cholera were common at the time. The master of the house cleaned it himself so as not to have to waste any money.
He was having no luck getting a new maid, as the circumstances of the death of the former one were a bit suspicious.
When scrubbing the wall of the well, some stones fell lose and he found the long-rumored treasure of gold coins, and kept them for himself, quickly spending them all.
The drowned maid Ľubomíra began to show up that night, soaking wet from head to toe. Her nightly rounds took her up and down the narrow stairs looking for the treasure so she could return it to its hiding place.
The master of the house soon found himself regretting his good fortune, but the treasure was gone and could not be replaced. He had to live with the dripping ghost from the well wandering the halls to the end of his days.
The ghost of Ľubomíra can be freed if one of the original coins is spent to buy her a tombstone or even to light a candle in her memory. But there is no way to know what old gold coin might be part of the treasure.
Another rather cryptic legend says that a Spanish knight and his wife were both murdered in the House of the Golden Well when it was serving as an inn for travelers.
The headless ghosts wandered the house at night for years, but nobody knew how to set them free, or any details of how they were killed.
Eventually, a baker moved in and made gingerbread in various shapes of animals and houses. He kept trying to make new and different ones to keep his customers coming back.
By that time, the story of the Spanish knight had faded into a legend and the headless couple had not been seen for a long time. The baker had heard it, told as an old wives’ tale, but never saw the ghosts.
One year around All Souls Day he made his gingerbread in the shapes of rumored local ghosts, including the Spanish knight and his wife. But he put heads on them.
In the morning, those gingerbread figures were broken and the heads were gone. He tried again the next night, and the results were the same. He asked everyone in the house, but nobody knew what happened to them.
On the third night the baker stayed in the kitchen to catch the vandal.
The ghosts of the Spanish knight and his wife turned up, carrying their heads. The knight told the baker to take a good look so he could make the gingerbread properly and capture a true likeness — or else the ghost would punish him for making light of his plight. But the baker had to work quickly as they only had the one hour between midnight and 1 am to supervise.
The baker was frightened nearly to death, but made a new tray of Spanish knights and ladies.
The spectral couple said they were pleased with the results. The knight then told his story. He and his wife were coming from Spain, which was also under Hapsburg rule at the time, to pay their respects to distant relatives in the Bohemian court and the visit the Infant of Prague, a miraculous statue that had its origins in Spain but was now in a Prague church.
The innkeeper killed the couple to rob them. It was too hard to get the bodies out of the building because the stairs were so narrow so he decided to dismember them. He cut off their heads and threw then into the river first. Then he came back to cut up the rest but decided it would take to long, so he buried the headless corpses in the basement.
But the joke was on the innkeeper. The couple had carefully hidden their traveling money and their lavish gifts for nobles. The innkeeper got nothing for his murderous ways.
The ghost of the knight said that if the bones were finally moved to a proper cemetery, then he could finally be freed and have eternal rest. The baker would even receive a divine reward for helping, the ghost promised.
The baker was so pleased that he avoided the wrath of the headless ghost that he dug up the bones of the couple and paid to have them placed in a real grave, with elaborate baked gingerbread heads in place of the missing ones.
Shortly after the bodies were given a belated burial, the baker decided to make renovations to expand the kitchen. When he knocked down part of a wall to make room for another oven he found the long lost treasure.
The Spanish knight and his wife have not been seen in the House at the Golden Well on Karlova Street since.
On the other side of the Vltava river in Malá Strana is another House at the Golden Well at the somewhat hidden Uzlaté studně Street leading up a hill to Prague Castle. At the bottom of a well next to the house is the Philosopher’s Stone, which can turn any base metal into gold. An alchemist fleeing from Prague Castle tossed it down the well for safekeeping as he made his escape. What happened to the unknown alchemist is a mystery but he never came back for it. Tragedy befalls anyone who tries to retrieve it.
Another legend says that the well and small house belonged to Emperor Rudolf II, and that he let the astronomer Tycho Brahe use it. One night, the astronomer saw a vision of the Virgin Mary at the well. Because of that, he had the well lined with gold leaf. The house, though, is not counted in the usual list of places that Brahe lived.
The house was expanded several times, becoming a tavern and in more modern times a luxury hotel.
The wells no longer exist at either location as they are described in the legend, if they ever existed at all. There is a fountain on Karlova Street next to the house there, and a courtyard with a central fountain at the hotel in Malá Strana.
The House at the Golden Well (Dům U Zlaté studny) in Old Town has been at its location since even before the current street names. The former names for Karlova Street were Nožířská and Ševcovská. The house is also older than the current Baroque facade, which dates to 1713 and is the work of sculptor Jan Oldřich Mayer. The first mention of the building is in 1354, when it changed hands. It was remodeled extensively in the 17th century.
The figures on the facade are the same ones that are usually found on plague columns in the Czech Republic, monuments put up to thank the heavens for the passing of an epidemic. The lower four saints depicted on the building are St Sebastian, St Rocco, St Wenceslas and St Jan Nepomuk. These are placed around a golden eight-pointed star flanked by two rather frightened lions. Above them are St Ignatius of Loyola and St Charles Borromeo (or Francis Xavier or Francesco Borgia, there is some dispute), and at the very top in a resting position is St Rosalia, the patron against epidemics.
Outbreaks of plague were still quite common at the start of the 18th century, and one just ended when the facade was made.
The scared lion can be found on the Two of Swords card in The Tarot of Prague. St Rosalia can be found on the Ten of Swords.
The house currently has a hotel and an exchange office. It is not open to the public as a tourist attraction. The outside, though, is right on the main path from Charles Bridge to Old Town Square, and very hard to miss.
The building was also the home of the witch named Unorna in the somewhat obscure novel The Witch of Prague: A Fantastic Tale by F. Marion Crawford. The book, published in 1891, also takes readers to Týn Church, the original House of the Black Madonna and the Old Jewish Cemetery. Curious readers can easily find copies online, as it is in the public domain. The antiquated style makes getting through it a chore, though. The descriptions of the city are informative, however. The style mixing Prague locations with obscure occult happenings would be picked up by later writers such as Gustav Meyrink, and even to some extent Franz Kafka.
The name Unorna is derived from the Czech word for February. The other main character is called The Wanderer, and he is looking for his lost love. Instead he finds himself turned into the witch’s pawn as she tries to crack the secret of immortality through a mix of hypnosis and transfusions.
Crawford describes The Wanderer following Unorna to the House of the Golden Well: “He knew the house well, for it is distinguished from all others in Prague, both by its shape and its oddly ornamented, unnaturally narrow front. It is built in the figure of an irregular triangle, the blunt apex of one angle facing the little square, the sides being erected on the one hand along the Karlsgasse and on the other upon a narrow alley which leads away towards the Jews’ quarter. Overhanging passages are built out over this dim lane, as though to facilitate the interior communications of the dwelling, and in the shadow beneath them there is a small door studded with iron nails which is invariably shut.”
The description continues: “The main entrance takes in all the scant breadth of the truncated angle which looks towards the monastery. Immediately over it is a great window, above that another, and, highest of all, under the pointed gable, a round and unglazed aperture, within which there is inky darkness. The windows of the first and second stories are flanked by huge figures of saints, standing forth in strangely contorted attitudes, black with the dust of ages, black as all old Prague is black, with the smoke of the brown Bohemian coal, with the dark and unctuous mists of many autumns, with the cruel, petrifying frosts of ten score winters.”
The house has been cleaned up since then, and is now a shade of beige for the most part. In the novel, the inside of the house has large rooms and even a garden. It is hard to see how they would fit in the narrow space suggested by the exterior.
An illustration in an 1890s printing of the novel seems to use the entry to Clam Gallas Palace, located a few streets away, instead of the House at the Golden Well. Clam Gallas Palace, aside from having a forbidding door, does not otherwise match the description of the house in the novel.
Crawford likely really did visit Prague, and wasn’t just basing his account on a map and a guidebook.
He was born in Bagni di Lucca, Italy, in 1854 and spent much of his life in Europe.
He also came from artistic roots. He was the only son of the American sculptor Thomas Crawford and Louisa Cutler Ward, the brother of writer Mary Crawford Fraser (aka Mrs. Hugh Fraser), and the nephew of poet Julia Ward Howe.
He married Elizabeth Berdan, the daughter of the American Civil War Union General Hiram Berdan, in October 1884. He died in 1909.
Most of work is about Italy, and The Witch of Prague is not among his most highly regarded works.
The similarly named House at the Golden Well in Malá Strana is rather off the beaten path, located on a dead-end street called U Zlaté studně (At the Golden Well Street) on a hill just under Prague Castle. The building is named for a stone and metal plaque above the door depicting Jesus Christ at a well. The plaque is by 18th century sculptor Josef Malinský. The original Renaissance house was built in 1589 by architect Oldřich Avostalis. The street name U Zlaté studně dates only to 1922 when the city’s separate districts underwent consolidation. The legend of the Philosopher’s Stone likely arose after the plaque was made to give a more intriguing backstory to the building’s name.