The “fool’s graveyard” where Mozart was laid to rest in Forman’s Amadeus

The Bohnice "fools’ graveyard" is one of the darkest and most haunting places in Czechia, with a charged atmosphere heightened by the rumours associated with it. We look at some of the unlikely events that took place there.

Photo: Jolana Nováková,  Czech Radio

The facts themselves are spooky enough – this is a graveyard where over 4,600 tortured souls were laid to rest –mental patients from the Bohnice psychiatric hospital, including soldiers who lost their minds in the trenches of the first world war, murderers, people who committed suicide and even children who were not given the last rites because nobody had called a priest in time. Thousands of mounds covered in ivy are a sea of anonymous resting places of people for whom no one cared or who needed to be hidden from the world. It is believed that among those buried here is Gavrilo Princip  - the man who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand d'Este – and thereby sparked World War I.

The “fools’ graveyard” was founded in 1906, three years after the opening of the Prague Bohnice mental hospital, then crudely named “Institution for the Insane”. The graveyard served until 1963 during which time, over four thousand six hundred patients were buried here. At the time, the Bohnice Institution for the Insane was the largest psychiatric hospital in Central Europe. By 1921 it had a capacity for 3,000 patients and a staff of 1,800.

Photo: Jolana Nováková,  Czech Radio

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Bohnice facility resembled a small village - mentally disturbed patients worked the fields and harvested fruit from the orchards. They had children (some of the patients either came pregnant or became pregnant during their hospitalization). Originally there was a small children's graveyard in the nearby forest. Over time, however, it was transformed into a classical graveyard and grew and grew. Patients made coffins for those who died and about 80 patients were buried each year. In 1916 alone, 640 patients died in the typhus epidemic and were buried in the graveyard. The graves were numbered with iron plates and the names of the diseased were recorded in the book of the dead. Some tombstones were later erected by the families of those who died there.

Lunatics, war victims and troublesome relatives lived and died here

Jiří Vítek | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

Given that the mental hospital and graveyard were established in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it is not only Czechs who are buried here. Forty-eight Italian soldiers who lost their minds in the war were also laid to rest here. They were brought here in 1916 when the hospital in Pergine Valsugana, Italy, needed to be turned into a military hospital during the First World War. About five hundred patients were therefore transported to other institutions in various parts of Austria-Hungary. One hundred of them ended up in Prague, 48 of whom were later buried in the graveyard.

Jiří Vítek, the man who helped to preserve the graveyard and knows all about its history says much of this is documented.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“There were even marble plaques with the soldiers’ names in the local chapel, paid for by Benito Mussolini which were placed here in 1932 in the presence of the Italian ambassador. In 2018, a century after the end of the First World War, I was asked to provide the names of the 48 Italians for the Italian government and everything I could find out about them as they were producing a publication about this particular chapter of history.”

It is believed that individual soldiers from Serbia, Bosnia and Russia also ended up here. Historical sources suggest that inconvenient heirs or rich elderly relatives who had lived for too long, illegitimate children and other persons who, although quite sane, found themselves placed in the asylum and were unable to escape, died and found their final resting place here.

Gavrilo Princip- the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand d'Este was likely buried here

Photo: Mario Brvić,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

At first glance, the south-west corner of the graveyard looks ordinary. But history-savvy tourists shudder as they walk through it. For here lie rapists and murderers. The worst criminals of their time are buried in this part of the cemetery.

It is believed that the man who caused World War I - the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand d'Este - Gavrilo Princip, was also buried in these grounds. The Bosnian assassin was just 27 days short of his 20th birthday when he killed Ferdinand d’Este. His youth saved his life, because as a minor under the age of 20 he could not be executed. He was therefore given the highest possible punishment, twenty years in prison, which he served in the Small Fortress in Terezín, where he died of tuberculosis in April 1918. A  gravedigger at the Bohnice cemetery later confessed that in May of 1918 a hasty, previously unannounced burial took place there, in the presence of soldiers from the Terezin fortress. Jiri Vitek says he believes the story to be true.

Photo: Jolana Nováková,  Czech Radio

“On the day of Princip’s death he was the only inmate in the Terezin fortress –that is evident from the records of the fortress. And just hours later a body was secretly laid to rest here with the participation of soldiers from the Terezín fortress. Why early in the morning, why in a place where people don't come to? They buried him in a place that would not become a memorial, because if you need someone to disappear from sight, you put them where nobody will look for them. The fools’ graveyard. The grave was opened after the First World War and the remains were taken to Sarajevo.”

Anyone who committed suicide was also laid to rest here. The Church refused to give the last rites to people who had killed themselves, and they were therefore placed in graves without coffins - wrapped only in linen.

Satanic rituals in the communist 1980s

The cemetery was closed to burials after 1963 and most God-fearing souls would not venture near the place even in daylight. However the abandoned cemetery chapel attracted Satanic worshippers at night. Behind the chapel is a morgue and an underground passageway and it is said that in the 1980s, Satanic rituals took place here, with regular crack-downs by the communist police.

This is where Mozart was laid to rest in Forman’s Amadeus

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

In 1984, the Czech-born film director Miloš Forman used the graveyard’s somber atmosphere as a backdrop for the scene in which Mozart was laid to rest in a mass grave in the Oscar-winning film Amadeus. Jiří Vítek points out the exact place:

“The last scene, when the coffin is being driven down an alley, took place right here. There were two men in cloaks standing there and it's raining hard and they're throwing Amadeus into a mass grave - that was filmed right here."

Amadeus Mozart's death

Margaret Thatcher pays unexpected visit to “fools’ graveyard”

Margaret Thatcher | Photo: Margaret Thatcher Foundation/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Forman was not the only celebrity to visit the abandoned graveyard. In 1996, the former British prime minister, Baroness Thatcher paid an unexpected visit to this unlikely place. Local gardeners recalled how two shiny limousines stopped outside the gates and she stepped out of the car in a smart suit. Jiří Vítek says he was told the story by the locals who helped to locate the grave.

"So like you said, in 1996, Baroness Thatcher arrived here and she stepped out of the limousine and went into the graveyard. She was there to take home the remains of a long lost ancestor of her husband Dennis, who reportedly ended up here as a prisoner of war in WWI. They got the wrong grave twice, and then someone said we had best ask Tattooed Pepík at the pub. He was a local petty thief who refused to work under the communist regime. He used to drink with the former graveyard manager and knew from him where everyone was buried. So they found him and he said he'd show them the right grave for a casket of rum. They gave him the rum and he showed them the right grave. They knew they had found the right one by a decoration or a ring or something.  So the body was exhumed and Lady Thatcher had the remains transported to Britain. From what I know, there have been three exhumations here, two were the bodies of some Russian soldiers, those were taken by the Russian Federation and this was the third.”

Fireman-turned deputy mayor fighting to save the genius loci of the place 

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

In 1989, vandals burned down the local chapel. Then the graveyard began to be used as a dump. Until in 2013, Jiří Vítek –then a local fireman - walked by, was intrigued and decided he had to save the place.

"I had known this place from childhood because I spent all my life here. It was simply part of my neighbourhood. Then one day I passed by the graveyard and I saw the condition it was in. So I started cleaning it up. Together with friends and volunteers, we removed around 40 tons of rubbish and debris from the cemetery, disposed of the charred beams from the caved-in chapel roof and started putting things to rights. I decided to delve deeper into history to find out why people were fascinated by this place and I soon discovered just how much it had witnessed – it is a place that bears testimony to the events that shaped twentieth century history and impacted our nation."

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

Today Jiří Vítek continues to tend to the graveyard as deputy mayor. Thanks to his efforts, in 2018 the “fools’ graveyard” was brought under the administration of the Prague 8 municipality. The graveyard is closed for security reasons, but the municipality plans to organise guided tours for the public in the future. Jiří Vítek’s goal is to prevent insensitive changes that would bring modern benches and solar-powered lamps to an environment where the sense of history is overwhelming. He wants to save the crumbling chapel and, above all, preserve the genius loci of the place.