Two of Prague’s sadder ghost legends tell of people who died while on tour with traveling shows.
Prague has two resident ghosts – a Native American and an African – who died very far from home. Both were involved in traveling shows that embodied the prejudices of the times.
After the western half of the United States was settled by people of European descent, and railroad tracks replaced the wagon trails, some of the pioneers and the Native Americans found work in Wild West shows.
These portrayed a romanticized vision of gunfights and attacks on wagon trains, with the Native Americans cast as villains and making many stunt falls to the sound of blank ammunition.
The European tour of one such show had a stopover in Prague sometime around the turn of the 20th century. The legend says it was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West that set up its circus tents on Štvanice Island, in the middle of the Vltava river.
One of the Native Americans, possible from the Apache or Comanche tribe, developed a lung inflammation, likely a recurrence of tuberculosis, and died while the show was still camped in the city. He spent his final days wishing to the guiding spirits for the strength to return to his ancestral lands for a traditional burial, but it was not to be.
He died on Štvanice Island. Since he was not a Christian, his body could not be buried in any of the local cemeteries. His cowboy and Native American friends from the show made him a grave somewhere on the embankment called Na Františku, with due dignity. His meager possessions were sold off to cover some of of his debts.
But the spirit of the once-proud defender of his lands could not rest easy in such unfamiliar territory. His spirit now turns up on the paved shore on clear evenings to watch the sunset and wish for some way to return home.
He can be helped if someone finds his grave and helps to return his remains to the Southwest, or even sends just one of his possessions. Perhaps his pipe or a piece of turquoise is still floating around once of the city’s antique shops, so there might be a chance if a tourist takes it home, even by accident.
The story of the second ghost is a shameful tale, and it sheds light on a forgotten era in entertainment. Ethnological expositions were fake villages populated by real people from so-called primitive areas. In the 18th and 19th centuries, traveling expositions of African people were popular in Europe. At the time, it was quite a rarity to see someone from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The layouts of the villages and the architecture of the huts weren’t very accurate, and the costumes and props were a blend of many traditions and some invented details. The Africans who lived in the villages were usually tricked with empty promises, and not treated well.
One such traveling village made a stop on Štvanice Island in the 1850s. The show had already been through Germany and Austria, and the Africans — who already spoke several dialects — had picked up some German language.
One man from the Ashanti tribe made friends with a Prague butcher’s daughter, who visited the exhibit on several occasions. They would meet by the fence and talk in German, and he would tell her what life in a village was really like, in contrast to the show they put on.
The young woman’s father, though, was not impressed with the friendship, which had become the source of some mean gossip. The butcher went at night and killed the Ashanti tribesman with a cleaver.
Nobody noticed his absence save for the daughter. The operators of the show didn’t want any scandal, so they dumped the body’s pieces in the river and never said a word to the police. Soon the village moved on to another city.
The Ashanti man, though, stayed behind and haunts the waterfront seeking revenge. He can be freed from his curse on the anniversary of his death by a sympathetic butcher’s daughter, but it is not known exactly how. The date has also been lost to time.
Both of these stories in their original versions are filled with out-dated imagery and tropes that are best not repeated anymore, and these have been left out for this rendition.
But the tales do show that ghost stories included not only local inhabitants, but an array of foreigners who died far from home. Turks also supplied several Prague ghosts such as a merchant who killed his ex-fiance and a man who turned into a dog. A Dutch pirate, a Spanish nobleman, and Swedish, Romanian and French soldiers also figures among the city’s specters.
The tale of the Ashanti ghost is worth repeating because it draws attention to the forgotten and shameful practice of human zoos, something that continued into the 20th century, making an appearance at the Brussels 1958 World’s Fair, and even later.
People in the exhibits were not only from Africa but also South America and Pacific islands. Even in their heyday, the exhibits were the subject of criticism due to their exploitation of human beings. The Prague building called At the Three Savages (U třech divých) once hosted a cabaret show with supposed people from a distant so-called uncivilized land. The legend passed down is that these natives were actually Czech conmen in costumes.
Once the exhibits closed, the residents were seldom able to return home, but were never fully welcomed into the local societies either.
The Wild West shows were perhaps not as bad, but they still served to reinforce caricatures and stereotypes with the one-sided false narratives they told of noble cowboys and ignorant savages.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured Europe eight times, mostly in England and France. The first four tours were between 1887 and 1892, and the last four between 1902 and 1906. The 1906 tour is supposed to have gone past France to Austria, the Balkans, Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine, before returning via Poland, Bohemia, Germany, and Belgium.
Štvanice Island has a long history as a place for entertainment, though not always the most wholesome. The name refers to hunt or chase, and until 1816 people could hunt bears, deer and other animals using dogs. Since this is an island, the animals were trapped in a small area. It has had a succession of sports arenas, starting with wooden ones in the late 17th century.
Štvanice Stadium, built in the 1930s, hosted many important events before being torn down in 2011, never recovering from the 2002 floods. A pool for nudists was also destroyed by the floods and never rebuilt.
The park now hosts international tennis tournaments and has a skatepark. A historical villa serves as a pub near the pillars of the bridge Hlávkův most, which carries traffic above the island. A former winter stadium, in bad repair, serves as an arts and cultural center.
An elaborate refugee camp for aliens from outer space was set up on the island in the summer of 2019 as an art project related to the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space.