A May – December romance went horribly wrong in the House at Death in Prague’s Old Town.
Prague’s street Dlouhá třída, now lined with touristy bars and expensive shops, was once where the wealthy elite lived. It stretches from Old Town Square to where the city wall once stood, and while its name means “long,” it is now just average in size. But one house has a startling name: the House at Death.
A wealthy couple lived in a fine house at Dlouha 923/5, just a short walk from the square. They hoped for a long time to have a child, but without success. Unexpectedly they had a son, who they treated like a little prince.
When the boy was about a year or so old, he was left unattended to sleep near an unlatched window. The mother was talking to some neighbors at the front of the house and lost track of the time. When she went back in to check on her son, he was gone.
She didn’t panic at first, thinking perhaps the maid had moved the baby, or some other logical explanation. Babies just didn’t vanish.
But the little tyke was nowhere to be found.
She began to ask people in the street if they had seen anything. One person finally remembered a band of vagabonds had been bothering people around the market in Old Town Square and generally acting suspiciously, the way traveling packs of vagabonds do. Nobody saw them near the house, but these were the sort of people who could be virtually invisible when they wanted to be.
The mother told the city patrols of her plight, but by the time word reached the Old Town gates, the vagabonds had slipped through.
Years passed, and the couple had no more children. There was never any news of the missing son or the vagabonds. The husband died young, and left an attractive middle-aged widow.
To make some money and to cure her loneliness, the widow rented out one of the spare rooms. A young man who was new to town rented it. After a while, the young man and the widow became close and decided to marry, despite the unusual age difference.
The young man had traveled all of his life, and knew little of his real family. He had been adopted from parents who had too many children to take care of, and that was about all he knew.
When he heard the tale of the widow’s missing son, he grew curious about his own past. He sought out the travelers who raised him to find out more about his real parents, and if he could meet them.
When the travelers found out he had settled in Prague, they gave him a chilly reception and told him he should leave that city and not return.
One of the very old women, near death, took him aside and whispered the truth to him. He was in fact kidnapped, from a fine house in Prague, and not sold off by a poor family. The travelers had planned to ransom him but they grew scared once the army got involved in the search. Instead, they kept him and avoided returning to Prague for many years.
The house they kidnapped him from was on Dlouhá třída, the old toothless hag said. There was no doubt that he was the missing son, and he had accidentally married his own mother. He returned home and told his wife / mother what he had discovered.
The couple decided to keep the news to themselves. The widow was happy at the return of her son, but horrified by the mistaken marriage. They considered divorce, but were at their wits end trying to decide what the right thing to do was.
But one of them must have told someone, because word soon spread around town and reached the ears of the authorities.
Incest at the time was considered one of the most serious crimes, and ignorance was not accepted as a defense.
The son was executed in front of the house, despite public outcry for leniency based on the strange circumstances. The building became known as House at Death (dům U smrti), and for a while there was a painting of the execution above the door.
A modern apartment building with an art gallery now stands there, with no visible reminders of the tragedy.
There is a second explanation for the name, and it also does not give the building good PR. It is said by some to be where “patient zero” lived, the first person to die of the plague before it ravaged the city. Several plagues hit the city, including one in 1680 that killed one-third of the population.
Dlouhá třída is an old street dating back to about the 10th century. It follows a curved path, and led from Old Town Square to German markets in New Town, once that area was established in 1348 by Emperor Charles IV. The street runs right to the edge of Old Town, ending on Revoluční Street.
Old Town had a wall and a moat surrounding it until New Town was founded in the 14th century by Charles IV. After that, a new wall around New Town protected the city for a few more centuries.
The current house at Dlouha 923/5 is in the Art Nouveau style, built sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. The facade is not particularly remarkable, and compared to its neighbors, the house’s upper floors are looking a bit shabby.
What happened to the House at Death is not recorded, but the area did have several devastating fires over the centuries including a large one in 1689 that cleared out entire streets in Old Town.
Several older buildings with elaborate courtyards do survive on Dlouha, such as the House at the Golden Tree (Dům U Zlatého stromu) dating from the 16th century, which had a small brewery.
The ground floor has an art gallery that represents several notable modern artists, and has had solo shows from David Černý, known for his Pink Tank and rotating head of Franz Kafka.
Among the famous residents of Dlouha 923/5 was the lawyer Josef von Azzoni, an Austro-Hungarian nobleman who worked in the 1750s on compiling the Codex Theresianus, a massive draft of laws that, though never approved, became influential on later laws.
Von Azzoni sought to become a judge in Bohemia and Moravia — he also had ties to Brno — but this was rejected in part because he did not speak Czech, only German.
Myths of children kidnapped by wandering Roma were quite common in past centuries, going back as far as the 15th century. The idea was often used in cautionary tales to scare children to behave, or else they will be snatched. It also features in pulp fiction stories and other aspects of popular culture.
At times the accusations have led mobs into violence, without any solid evidence. The idea still makes headlines in tabloid newspapers, but the stories often turn out to be highly exaggerated.
The story of the House at Death also has obvious echoes with the Greek tale of Oedipus, who also married his mother by mistake.