A murder plan during the plague had long consequences for an evil servant
Prague’s menagerie of supernatural critters of course includes a black cat. The tale is one of the most gruesome, and not for the faint of heart.
Back during the plague of 1713, the city was in a bad state. Death was everywhere, and even for those it spared life was tough. A young and fairly well-off couple living on Křížalova Street (nowadays called Pánska), near the Horse Market (aka Wenceslas Square) decided to seek safety outside the city walls.
The couple was well off enough to have a servant but the plague had hurt business and put them into hard times. When they decided to run for safety, they didn’t have enough to bring their children — Jura and Petra —with them.
The kids were left behind in the care of Vincenc, the servant, while the couple sought to find safe refuge somewhere that was not yet so hard hit by the return of the Black Death.
Vincenc was told to wait for instructions on where to send Jura and Petra once a safe place was found, but the instructions never came. Soon after they left, the couple succumbed to the illness and wound up in a mass grave. A letter from an official where the deaths occurred arrived rather belatedly, along with a footnote that their belongings had been sold to cover expenses.
The servant was not an obsequious shrinking violet. In fact he was a bit of a hard sort, always looking for an angle to play. He used his job as a servant as cover for his endless nefarious schemes, which his employers remained oblivious to.
With the owners gone, the young children should have inherited the house. Vincenc thought he could usurp them by forging a will leaving the house to himself in the case that the two children died. Then he saw to their deaths, reasoning that nobody would ever bother to examine the corpses. And nobody ever did. He poisoned the children, and left them with plague victims to be quickly disposed of in a pit of quick lime in Olšany Cemeteries.
But that is only the start of the story. Shortly after he laid claim to the house, a rather mangy black cat moved in and made a ruckus. Vincenc tried to catch the cat and evict it, but in the commotion it scratched him. The former servant soon came down with cat scratch fever, and died while raving something incoherent about children and the plague.
The building, now abandoned, was auctioned off. The new owner, František Svobodný, turned it into an inn. It was haunted, though, by Vincenc in the form of a black tomcat with shining red eyes. The innkeeper would have none of it. He trapped the cat and served it up the next day as rabbit stew.
Much to František’s surprise, the cat returned the next day even though the previous day’s stew had barely been finished. The innkeeper made another stew, and the cycle continued for years. František managed to save a tidy sum for his retirement, as he never actually had to pay for any rabbits to make his signature stew.
The original building with an inn no longer stands, and a school dormitory in the Rococo style was built there in the latter half of the 1700s. The cat still haunted the place, mostly at night, but was careful to avoid the cafeteria. Now at night the building is empty, as it houses offices, so the cat is relatively safe.
Vincenc can be freed of his centuries of haunting if a child catches the cat and strokes it behind its ears. But since it now carefully avoids people, the curse may never be broken.
Prague was hit several times by epidemics, with one of the worst being an outbreak of plague in 1713–15 that killed 12,000 people or about one-third of the city’s population. Three plague columns in the city commemorate the event.
Many of Prague’s cemeteries got their starts as mass graves for epidemic victims, as well. Olšany Cemeteries (Olšanské hřbitovy) and the Malá Strana Cemetry (Malostranský hřbitov) both opened in 1680, for example. Another significant outbreak was in 1787, when Emperor Josef II closed all urban cemeteries for health reasons and had burials take place outside the city walls.
What at the time of our story was Křížalova Street is now called Panská Street. It is located just northeast of Wenceslas Square in Prague’s New Town, or Nové Město. This was a planned expansion of Prague started in 1348 by Emperor Charles IV. Its layout was loosely based on that of Jerusalem as part of a plan to make the Prague the holiest city on Earth and the natural location for Jesus to return to for the Last Judgment — but that is another story.
Originally, the street was originally called Nová Street — or New Street — as it is first mentioned in 1380, making it new compared to the rest of New Town, which had been around for over 30 years already. There is a Church of the Holy Cross (Kostel svatého Kříže) at the Na Příkopě end, which after 1680 had been the source of the name Křížalova Street — or Cross Street. While the nearby streets are all very busy, this one is almost always deserted as it leads nowhere special and has very little on it to attract people aside from a museum dedicated to Art Nouveau artist Alfons Mucha.
In the 18th century it went through the names Panská, Velká Panská and Piaristická. The first two referred to manor houses at the lower end of the street. Pan means mister, but also lord. A manor house is a panství. The name Piaristická was because of the religious order that ran the church as well as the school next to it and dormitory behind it, the Piarists.
The school, which used to face onto Na Příkopě Street, has been converted to trendy brand shops and offices. It had a number of notable students over the years, including German writer Rainer Maria Rilke as well as composer Jakub Jan Ryba, poet Karel Hynek Mácha and inventor František Křižík.
The dormitory building, on the location of our story, was built in the years 1760–65. While it is now closed to the public, reportedly the original interiors of the library, refectory and chapel with murals by Josef Hager are preserved. The altarpiece by Felix Ivo Leicher is in the chapel. Most of the interior, as stated, is now used for offices.
In the history of the location there is no mention of an inn. Near the Jindřišská Street end of Panská in an alley called V Cipu there currently is a pool hall and bar. Rabbit stew is not on the menu.