Books and television series, even those based on true events, sometimes stretch the truth or invent new stories to be more entertaining. This blur between fact and fiction results in people knowing little about real-life figures who become the subjects of popular works of media.
Such is the case when it comes to Mary Ingalls.
Mary Amelia Ingalls was born on January 10, 1865 in Pepin County, Wisconsin. She and her father, Charles, shared a birthday. Two years later, Charles and his wife, Caroline, welcomed another daughter, Laura. They eventually had two more daughters, Carrie and Grace.
Laura would grow up to become Laura Ingalls Wilder, the famous author who told her life story in her Little House book series. Those books were later used as the inspiration for The Little House on the Prairie TV series, which aired from 1974-1983.
While Laura fictionalized some details of her life story in her books, the TV series took things a step further by inventing new characters and storylines. One such storyline was connected to Mary, who was portrayed by Melissa Sue Anderson in the show.
Since the Little House series was so popular, many people knew nothing more about Mary Ingalls than what they saw in the show. They had no idea the real Mary lived a drastically different life than the character on TV.
So what’s the truth about Mary Ingalls, as far as we know?
Other than what Laura has to say about Mary’s earlier years in her books, not much is known about the eldest Ingalls sister until 1879. That was the year Mary fell ill and ended up losing her vision at the age of 14.
As Laura wrote in her book By the Shores of Silver Lake:
“Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma all had scarlet fever. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes and Mary was blind.”
While Laura wrote it was “scarlet fever” that caused Mary to go blind, this is no longer believed to be the case. The journal Pediatrics, as cited by NBC News, states “viral meningoencephalitis” was likely the cause of her blindness.
— CNN (@CNN) February 4, 2016
According to the official Little House on the Prairie website, Mary’s “blindness greatly impacted the whole family.” Her parents began saving money to give Mary the specialized education she needed.
Mary was eventually able to attend the Iowa School for the Blind in 1881. The school did wonders for Mary’s self-confidence, and she graduated in 1889.
Following graduation, Mary moved back in with her parents in De Smet, South Dakota. Charles died in 1902, followed by Caroline in 1924.
After her mother died, Mary lived with her sister, Grace, for a while. She then went to visit her sister, Carrie, in Keystone, South Dakota. During her visit, Mary suffered a stroke and died of pneumonia on October 20, 1928 at the age of 63.
Mary was buried in the Ingalls family plot in De Smet Cemetery next to her parents. Her headstone reads “Daughter Mary Ingalls,” and lists her year of birth and year of death.
Those of you who watched The Little House on the Prairie TV series probably have a big question to ask right now…what happened to Mary’s husband? After all, a huge plotline in the show revolved around Mary’s romance with a blind teacher named Adam Kendall.
Well, time to burst your bubble…the real-life Mary Ingalls didn’t have a husband.
This is just one of many ways the real Mary’s life differed from the Mary character Melissa Sue Anderson played on TV:
- For starters, the TV show delayed the onset of Mary’s blindness. According to the Little House website, this was “for fear it would limit storyline options.”
- As we learned earlier, the real Mary attended the School for the Blind for several years. But the TV show only had her at the school for a short time.
- Adam Kendall, Mary’s husband in the show, was a fictional character. He never existed in real life. The real Mary Ingalls never married, and never started a family. (In the show, her and Adam had a baby who was killed in a fire).
- The show depicts Mary becoming a teacher at the School for the Blind. However, the real Mary never became a teacher, and as mentioned earlier, lived with either her parents or sisters for the rest of her adult life.
- In the show, Mary and Adam move to New York after Adam regains his sight and becomes a lawyer. The real Mary never lived in New York, and spent the last years of her life in South Dakota.
While the real Mary Ingalls’ life was quite different than that of her TV counterpart’s, her life was remarkable nonetheless. She overcame an incredible physical challenge, earned her education, and served as a companion to her parents in the later years of their lives.
Mary died just four years before Laura published her first Little House book, Little House in the Big Woods. She died never knowing she’d one day become known as one of the most famous big sisters of all time.
But Mary died having lived a life that would go on to inspire thousands of people over the course of multiple generations…and counting.