Forget scarlet fever: What really blinded Mary Ingalls

Anybody who has spent much time with children's literature knows that scarlet fever blinded Mary Ingalls.

But scarlet fever doesn't cause blindness.

Mary really did become blind, though, in real life as well as in the books, so what was the real culprit? A paper published this week in the journal Pediatrics speculates that it could have been viral meningoencephalitis — inflammation in the brain and in the membranes that surround the central nervous system.

There are several possible causes. In Europe and Asia, ticks can spread a virus that causes meningoencephalitis. West Nile virus can cause it, as well. So can the mumps. And so can herpes simplex type 1 — the oral herpes virus that is present in the vast majority of people.

Which means that this story not only has ties to the other Little House history pieces we've run here at Boing Boing — the meteorology of the Long Winter, and the crazy connection between the Ingalls' and a family of serial killers — it's also, possibly, another example of a heroine from children's fiction who had herpes.

The full paper, sadly, is behind a paywall. But The New York Times' Motherlode blog has a nice summary of it.

Image: Wikipedia editor Lrcg2012, via CC

The Meteorology of Little House on the Prairie

If you read The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder's novel about narrowly avoiding starving to death during a ferocious winter on the South Dakota prairie, then you'll remember how the trains stopped running because of the snowfall. In fact, that's a big part of why Laura and her family were so hungry — their harvest had been lean and the train carried the supplies they were dependent upon.

I'd never had a real clear idea of what "the train can't get through" really meant, not being totally clear on how to adjust snow-clearing expectations from today back to the 1880s. But, as it turns out, when the train company said they couldn't get the trains through, they were not messing around. The above image, from the Minnesota Historical Society, shows you the kind of snowfall we're talking about. That picture was taken in southern Minnesota, during the same winter — 1880-1881 — that nearly killed Laura Ingalls Wilder. Please note the dude standing on top of the train. He really gives you the overwhelming sense of scale.

Last year, Barbara Mayes-Boustead, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, actually looked at the records we have for temperatures and snowfall from that winter, most of which come from military forts and major cities miles away from the small town of DeSmet, where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived. Mayes-Boustead found that the story in the book matches up reasonably accurately with actual data.

She's got a series of short audio commentaries on the winter of 1880-1881 and how it plays out in the Little House books, including a really fascinating one about the climate patterns and probably created those many months of blizzards. By looking at weather patterns from the time and at the climate systems we associate with weather like that today, Mayes-Boustead says that we can probably blame the Long Winter on a combination of a strong negative North Atlantic Oscillation — a pattern in the jet stream that sucks icy air from the Arctic down into the Midwestern US — and an El Nino year — which tends to make that same region of the county wetter than usual.

Listen to all of Barbara Mayes-Boustead's recorded presentations

Little House on the Prairie, serial killers, and the nature of memoir

Over the weekend, I read a couple of the posts blogger Ana Mardoll has been writing in which she deconstructs some of the weirder/more objectionable elements of the Little House books. That sent me looking for an essay I'd read several years ago on the actual history of how the Osage people were removed from southeastern Kansas ... which is given a prominent, if rather warped, role in Little House on the Prairie.

I didn't find that essay, but I did find several references to a story I had never, ever heard before. Turns out, the Ingalls family's sojourn in Kansas might have overlapped with that of a family of serial killers. At the American Indians in Children's Literature blog, Debbie Reese writes about stumbling across the story in the transcript of a speech Laura Ingalls Wilder gave in 1937. Here's an excerpt from that transcript:

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

... In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.”

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