“There are three ghosts here, three ghosts and a unicorn” – tracing haunted Prague with Raymond Johnston

Raymond Johnston, photo: Ian Willoughby

One attraction for visitors to Prague is the city’s unusually rich history of magic and alchemy. The Czech capital also has more than its fair share of haunted places – around 130 in the Old and New Towns alone, according to American Raymond Johnston. A well-known journalist in Prague for many years, Johnston has now created an interactive map chiefly intended for smartphones that makes it easy to get on the trail of the city’s phantoms and legends. As we sat recently outside the 14th century St. Peter’s Church at Na Poříčí, he explained how the map came about.

Raymond Johnston,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I was just trying to organise the stories for myself, because I was trying to take pictures and I was always finding out that I missed a place right nearby.

“So I figured if I made a map for myself it would be really useful.

“Everyone I showed it to wanted a copy, so I had to make it more useful – to put little stories with every point.

“But it really started with my own research.”

How long did it take you to compile the map?

“Originally two weeks, but it’s a work in progress and it always will be.

“I’m still working on it, still adding things all the time.”

How do you do your research?

“I’ve got a bunch of books in English and in Czech and I also find things online.

“But I try to weed out the recently made-up stories, the fake stories, from stories that have some history or some background to them.

“I want to keep it with real legends, and not just PR things that people made up to promote their hotel or whatever.”

Are there many of those?

“There’s a couple. There’s a couple of fake ghost stories around town.”

Give me an example.

“There’s a new ‘ghost haunted’ bar that just opened and I can’t find those stories anywhere.”

And your map is related to an annual tour of “magic Prague”, is that right?

“Yes, the company I work for, Baba Studio, runs a tour. It’ll be in April.

Ghosts and legends of Prague
“It’s a weeklong tour mainly aimed at foreigners coming here and they book out an entire hotel.

“They don’t only do Prague, they also do Kutná Hora and some other places.

“So it’s a really full week of seeing things, but everything has some magical or esoteric or historical connotation in that aspect.”

Where do they go? What are the most popular sites on the tour?

“It’s the places you would mainly go along in the tourist area, but of course everything is different.

“You go along the Charles Bridge, the Castle Area, Kampa and some of the churches around town, as well as some places out of town.

“But what they hear is not the same as you would get on other tours.”

Typically when they come have they got knowledge of any of Prague’s legends? I presume they must know the Golem, for example?

“Yes, they know some of the background. And the website I work for is to give them a chance to read up a little more on the background.

Golem and Rabbi Loew,  painting by Mikoláš Aleš
“But yes, they all have a little bit of knowledge or a little bit of interest, or they wouldn’t come here.”

Who are the people who come on the tour?

“They come from the US, they come from other parts of Europe, I think there were some people from Australia and South America last time.

“They usually have some interest in esoteric things like tarot card reading, fortune telling and things like that.

“But it’s open to everybody who just wants a different side of the history.

“And we don’t only cover ghosts: We have where alchemists lived, where real fortune tellers lived.

“There was a woman on the Golden Lane at Prague Castle who predicted the Germans would lose WWII.

“The Nazis tried to get her to recant that and she refused and was actually killed for that.

“So we have her on the map, along with several other people.

“We have where John Dee and Edward Kelley are supposed to have lived. They were real alchemists who came here. And also various people associated with the court of Rudolph II.

“So we try to mix in real people and some other things as well – not just the ghosts.”

Do you believe in alchemy?

“I think alchemy was really interesting.

“You couldn’t make a scientific discover unless you made a corresponding spiritual discover within yourself.

John Dee
“When you look at atomic power, if we had matured ourselves enough to be able to handle that it would have been so much better.

“If we had said, Yes, we have atomic power, but we must make ourselves worthy of it, worthy of this gift, then we could have avoided Hiroshima.

“So I think there is something to alchemy, if you look at it that way. There was some real science being done, along with the mumbo jumbo aspect, as people would call it now.

“There was a value to that. They were searching for something deep in the soul, as well as something real and physical in the scientific world.”

Getting back to your map, would Czechs know the legends and ghosts that appear on it?

“They know some of them, but I think people are surprised by the volume of them.

“Between the Old Town and the New Town there are 130 haunted houses, which is a lot. When I mapped them I was surprised how many there were.

“We have gotten a lot of interest from Czech people; there was a small article in Metro about it and some Czech websites mentioned it. So they don’t know all the legends, but they are interested.”

How can you use this map? You can open it on your mobile and use it Google Maps?

“Yes, you can open it on your smartphone and follow it around like any other map.

“And when you come to a point you can touch on it and it gives you a small, one- or two-sentence story about it.

“Some of them have links to a larger story on a website. That part we’re still building up, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to where every point will have a larger story.”

Church of St. Peter,  photo: Katerina Ayzpurvit
We’re outside the Church of St. Peter at Na Poříčí. Why did you want to meet here? What are the stories associated with this church?

“Actually, outside the centre, this is one of the most haunted places. There are three ghosts here, three ghosts and a unicorn.

“The first ghost was a grave digger, during one of the plagues. He was also a card player and his friends died.

“He just wished to the devil that he could have one more game with his friends, so of course the devil quickly obliged him and he had one more game with his friends.

“Now he wanders the area, cursed as a ghost and trying to get more people to play with him. But it’s a high stakes game – if you lose, you lose your soul.

“There’s a harlot, a woman of the night, who was chased by a policeman down the street and tried to jump over a fence and got killed by an attack dog.

“She was afraid her father in Kutná Hora would find out what she was doing for a living. So if anybody reassures her that her father won’t find out, she’ll be set free from being a ghost.

“The third thing is that there’s a magical light.

“This used to be a cemetery, until all the urban cemeteries got moved out of the centre of town, and a magical light will appear over where there’s a buried treasure in someone’s tomb. That’s according to the story – I’ve never seen it.

“Then the last thing is that a magician down the street summoned up a unicorn and quickly lost control of it, as he didn’t know enough magic.

Devil's column at Vyšehrad,  photo: Frederik Velinský
“The unicorn ran off and sometimes comes back here, according to the legend. Again I’ve never seen it.”

What are the parts of the city with the highest concentrations of ghosts and legends?

“Vyšehrad has an awful lot. Then from Prague Castle and Loretánské náměstí down Nerudova St. across the Charles Bridge and into Old Town Square.

“So the main tourist route, but that was also the most heavily populated area way back in history, so that would make sense.”

I notice from the map that there are several legends or ghosts associated with Charles Bridge.

“Yes, there are a lot. There are plenty that everyone knows, like the one time they brought hardboiled eggs instead of regular eggs to help make the concrete.

“Supposedly there’s a golden sword buried in the bridge and Saint Wenceslas will come when the country is in its most dire need and take the sword to the mountain Blaník and lead a ghost army to save the country. That’s also a well-known story.

“One of the statues is of a Turkish person and there’s supposedly a small prison there that has people trapped in it.

“Apparently he comes off the statue at night and wanders around the town and tries to find people to put into his dungeon there.

“I know that’s a bit of a racist story – some ghost stories have a little bit of an old-fashioned tone to them.

“There’s someone who stole and old-fashioned bicycle near the bridge, rode into the river and drowned and became a ghost. He can be freed if he returns to the biking club; the thing is, the biking club no longer exists.”

Isn’t it also the case that on Charles Bridge there’s a statue that it’s supposed to be lucky to rub? But this is a relatively new thing – it doesn’t have a history, right?

“Yes. I’ve traced that back to around 1990. Capitalism was new here and some college students wanted to make some money and began charging people 50 hellers to touch the statue for good luck.

Statue of John of Nepomuk on Charles Bridge,  photo: Jana Šustová
“That’s where that started. Because if you look at pictures from even the 1950s, none of that is rubbed shiny. And if it had been going on for hundreds of years, it would show in the pictures; it would be rubbed shiny, and it’s not.

“So I’ve actually traced that back to around 1990.

“It’s very popular. And there are three or four places now where people touch, because the tour guides have to break the crowds up to touch different things – because everyone wants to touch something for good luck.

“So there are three or four places people touch, not just the statue of John of Nepomuk, where they touch the dog for luck. I think that was the first.”

What are the most popular stories with visitors to Prague?

“The one I hear tour guides telling most is on the side of City Hall, where there’s the statue of the Black Knight.

“That’s a ghost. In fact, it’s one of the few statues of a ghost anywhere in the world.

“He was a knight who killed his fiancé in a jealous rage and through various things got turned into stone.

“He can be released only once every 100 years, if a woman of true heart kisses him. But nobody knows what the day is, so good luck.”

Are there any stories that you yourself particularly like?

“There’s the ghost of an angry turkey on Kampa. Around Easter you’re not supposed to eat meat on the Friday but the mill keeper there couldn’t wait. He ate the turkey on Friday and choked and died right away.

“But he didn’t come back as a ghost. The turkey did. And apparently it flames and is very angry on some Good Fridays, though he hasn’t been seen recently.”

Are there are any of these stories or legends that are especially gruesome?

“Yes. There are quite a few headless horsemen. There are a lot of people who killed their fiancés, so you wind up with a lot of headless women walking around.

“There are several related to wars. There’s a ghoul or a zombie in Stromovka left over from the uprising of 1848.

“He eats raw fish and sometimes comes out of the lake and tries to catch people. But he’s so slow he can’t ever catch anybody.”

Black Knight on Platnéřská St,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
What about the funniest names? Perhaps by the very nature of translating the names, some of them do sound kind of hilarious in English, especially when you see them on Google Maps alongside the normal names of hotels or cafés. I noticed for example the headless wife who wears a pot, the strangling Jewess and, my favourite, the smelly half-witted knacker.

“I think in Czech you do get people being known by strange names, but they do sound a bit funny in English.

“The woman who wears a pot for her head died from a plague and her husband cut her head off and put a pot there instead, hoping nobody would notice. Now she wanders around with a pot on her head.

“The smelly half-witted knacker was a kind of child molester who worked in a rendering shop, so he smelled bad from working with dead animals all the time.”

You should call him the smelly child molesting half-witted knacker.

“[Laughs] You could say that, but I don’t think it would help raise his popularity very much.”

What’s your own relationship to ghosts and the supernatural, Raymond?

“Well, I find it a really interesting history and I’d like to keep that history going. I don’t want it be forgotten.

“But I myself would need a lot more convincing to think that ghosts really exist.

“I’ve not ever seen them. I’ve not ever found them at the places they’re supposed to be at the times they’re supposed to be there.

“But I think it’s a history. Prague is known as the magic city and I think we should keep that magic open to people, so people know what it was like here.

“I mean, this was a big part of people’s lives a long time ago: horoscopes, fortune telling, ghosts, witches, even vampires were huge here. Now nobody remembers that.”

The map of Prague’s ghosts and legends can be seen here: https://goo.gl/QbQgFV