The lure of free gold led a barber down the path to ruin

Sometimes having a decent profession isn’t enough. A barber during the time of Emperor Rudolf II was growing bored with cutting hair and shaving people, and the occasional blood letting or bone setting, since barbers were also amateur doctors.

The rage at the time was alchemy. People were coming to Prague from all across Europe to try to turn base metal into gold, and win the favor of the emperor, while literally making their own fortune. The barber often cut the hair of people headed to the Castle, as his shop was on Karlova Street along the Royal Route.

But he increasingly grew jealous, as he too wanted to go to the Castle. Most of the people he met on their way to the royal court struck him as no more clever or educated than he was. Some could barely read and write.

The barber had set aside some money for his future, but instead he decided to spend it on beakers, scales, a mortar and pestle, magic powders, cryptic treatises, and the like so he could dabble in transmutation of metals.

 Karlova and Liliová

The corner of Karlova and Liliová streets

He figured he should be able to solve the problem in no time, seeing as a barber was practically a doctor after all.

More and more often, he failed to open his barbershop and spent all day trying to discover the secrets of the philosophers’ stone, the red lion and other steps needed to make gold.

But he was not successful. The gold he counted on making to pay off his mounting debts stubbornly refused to materialize in his cauldron.

He lost his customers, who started going to rivals who had more regular hours. Then he lost his house to the moneylenders to cover at least some of his debts. His three beautiful daughters were faced with the choice of living on the streets as beggars or going to work in the local brothel. When they chose the latter option, the barber’s wife killed herself by jumping from one of the parapets on the town wall.

Medieval barber

Medieval barber on a playing card, circa 1455. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

The barber lost his mind. All he had left was his straight razor, and he went out along Karlova Street and Liliová Street looking for customers. But without so much as a chair for them to sit in or warm water to wash their faces, he found no takers.

His own appearance become more and more scary. His hair was all frazzled. His eyes glowed like red and yellow lights. His once fine clothing was in tatters and his hand began to shake from hunger.

His desperation made him bolder and bolder. No matter how many times the guards between Old Town Square and Charles Bridge warned him to behave, he came back with his razor in hand.

One day the inevitable happened. He approached someone with his shaky razor and a fight broke out. The local patrol got involved and at the end the barber was severely injured. He died a few days later.

Karlova Street

Karlova Street

After all the troubles he caused his wife and daughters, his soul was not at rest.

The barber’s wild-eyed ghost goes up and down the intersection of Karlova and Liliová streets, razor still in hand, looking for a customer who wants a close shave and a trim. If he successfully returns to his original profession, his soul could find peace.

But who would risk such a thing?

The ghost has wandered for centuries looking for a brave person who would free the barber’s trapped soul while getting a free haircut in a decidedly retro style at the same time.


Background

Due to another legend about a female barber saving King Wenceslas IV when he was in danger, barbers had an elevated status of respect in Bohemia. The legend refers to the son of King Charles IV, and not the much earlier prince that Wenceslas Square is named after.

The kingfisher encircled by a towel, associated with Wenceslas IV, became the symbol of the barbers guild.

Kingfisher on Charles Bridge

Kingfisher in a cloth circle on Charles Bridge

The Royal Route goes from the Powder Tower over to Old Town Square then down Karlova Street, across Charles Bridge and Nerudova Street up to Prague Castle. It was used for royal processions and today is a major path for tourists.

Some people also call it the Alchemical Route, as visiting alchemists would first have to stay at a hotel near Old Town Square while waiting to see court officials such as Rudolf II’s retainer Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku, who lived at the House at the Stone Lamb (aka House at the Unicorn) across from Old Town Hall. If they were eventually approved, they could practice alchemy and hope to eventually meet the emperor.

Several buildings on the Royal Route still have alchemical symbols on them.

House at the Golden Well

One of the lions on the front of the House at the Golden Well

Karlova Street and Liliová Street have several ghosts including the flaming skeleton of a miser, the drowned maid in the House of the Golden Well and a headless Templar knight on a flaming horse. The surrounding streets have even more, making it one of the most densely haunted areas of the city, at least according to stories.

Barbershops exclusively for men, and featuring male barbers, have made a comeback recently, fueled by the hipster movement. Red-and-white poles can even now be seen on occasion. Previously, barber shops in the Czech Republic, and before that in Czechoslovakia, had primarily female stylists serving both men and women in the same shop. There were some hair styling places that catered mainly to women, especially for fancy hairdos, but not many that were primarily for men until just a few years ago.


An article by Baba Studio with Raymond Johnston. Copyright Baba Studio, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

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