• Real Zombies in London
  • bubonic-plague

    As a writer, I’ve always been interested in zombies. I love The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and all that scary stuff. But as a history enthusiast I also love the idea that zombie stories are based on true events.

    This might sound like a crazy theory, but hear me out. A few years ago, I started researching Plague London in 1665 for my new thriller. And I came to the conclusion that the zombie virus might not be entirely made up. It might have some basis in the plague epidemics which swept through China and Europe from the 11th century.

    Early reports of plague are patchy. But by 1665 the Black Death in London was reasonably well documented. And as I plunged myself into original letters and reports of those times, I uncovered some really interesting evidence. From first person accounts it sounded as though real-life zombies have walked the streets of London. But the zombie virus and all the terror it brought, was known as plague.

    Here’s the evidence I found.

    First the flesh will die…

    Plague can strike quickly. Incredibly quickly. A person can complain of a headache, and hours later be wracked with the full-scale infection. And what happens to the victim once plague has taken hold?

    Firstly, the actual flesh begins to rot. Large black buboils, or sores, form in the groin and armpits. The fingertips blacken, and festering legions appear all over the body.

    As the immune system is slowly overwhelmed, blood congeals in the extremities, causing horrific blacked feet and fingers as we can see in contemporary images.



    The man above contracted plague in Oregon, whilst wrestling a mouse out of the throat of his cat. The cat bit him, and he was on life support for a month, before having his fingers and toes amputated.

    Doctors can’t be completely sure he had plague of course, but, you can see for yourself from the pictures. It seems likely.

    What is also obvious to me, is how zombie-like and grotesque these injuries are. But if you want further proof, take a look at this recent plague victim. He died when a suspected terrorist viral attack backfired.


    Pretty compelling? To me, this man looks exactly like the victim of a real zombie virus.

    The walking dead

    Ok, so these people might look like zombies. But how did we know they acted like them? Again, accounts from 1666 paint a pretty clear picture. Plague victims took two to seven days to die. And the disease is described as the worst kind of agony. Those living in London during plague time report how eerie the streets were, wracked with agonised screams of the infected.

    But there’s more. The intense pain of a plague death lead sufferers to leave their homes in search of help. What kind of help were they expecting? Not a band-aid or a morphine shot that’s for sure. These people knew they weren’t going to survive. What they wanted, was some kindly citizen to take pity on them, and put them to death.

    Remember that suicide in this period was a mortal sin. If you took matters into your own hands, all those years in church were wasted. You were going straight to hell. But in the death throes of plague, sufferers turned desperate. And many felt that a bullet or blow to the head from someone else, wouldn’t slow their entry to heaven.

    So they took to the streets, screaming in pain and searching for uninfected Londoners to take pity on them. Or priests to deliver their last rites. And as you might imagine, those who weren’t infected ran from these staggering, gibbering walking corpses. Well, you would.

    Real zombie virus

    So what did I learn from my research? Apart from the staggeringly stupid plague cures sold in 1666 (of which more in my next blog), I was truly amazed by how many similarities to zombies were found in plague accounts.

    The result was reflected in The Thief Taker. And I used a lot of contemporary zombie films and books to inspire the plot, as well as historical research. It was fascinating to me, that a real-life zombie apocalypse happened right under our noses. Killing one fifth of all Londoners no less – an insane figure when you realise that at least half of all citizens fled the city.

    For a thriller writer there is no greater fun than finding truth is stranger than fiction. And believe it or not, my hardest task in writing The Thief Taker was making the amazing facts of those times seem believable.

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