“When Charles says you’ll be fine, you will.” “Yeah, not like when Doc says it and it’s the kiss of death.”
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Airdate: January 29, 1975
Written by Michael Landon
Story by William Keys and Michael Landon
Directed by William F. Claxton
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Everybody in town gets typhus, and Charles, Doc and Reverend Alden invent epidemiology to deal with it. “The one with the rats.”
RECAP: No self-indulgent preamble today, let’s just jump in. We open on an old man pulling sacks labeled CORN MEAL out of a shed.
(They also seem to bear the Orkin pest control logo. Not a good omen, that.)
The music is light . . . but decidedly uneasy in tone.
The old man exits the shed . . . and we see a rat climbing up the pile of sacks, suddenly accompanied by some hideous jittery violins à la The Omen. (“Oh good, we haven’t had a horror one in a while,” said my stepson Roman.)
And a horror one this will be indeed . . . for this is “Plague”!
Outside, the old man helps a younger man load the cornmeal onto his cart.
The younger man thanks the old man, saying his low corn prices are saving the lives of poor families like his. “We could never afford Hanson’s prices,” he scoffs.
WILL: Mr. Hanson is quite the Titan of Industry. Lumber, cornmeal, property, oxen, building services . . .
DAGNY: Yeah, he’s more than just a millwright. Millwright, or miller?
WILL: I think he’s a miller. A millwright makes parts for a mill . . . right?
But the old man defends Hanson, saying he just happened to get a good deal on the corn and was happy to pass it on to his customers. (We shall discuss his culpability in what happens – or lack thereof – later.)
The younger man, whose name, we’ll learn, is Boulton, thanks him again and departs.
Boulton then leads his horse and cart through the thoroughfare, Mr. Hanson watching him from the millyard. Charles and Mr. Edwards are loafing nearby, but the boss isn’t bothered. Instead, he complains about how “Peterson” (presumably the old man) is undercutting him on the price of corn. He’s mystified, since his own prices are as low as he can make them without losing money.
When Hanson goes back into his office, Mr. Edwards leans over and confesses he’s going to try Peterson’s low-price corn himself. Charles makes no judgments.
We then cut to a nice little house under some big oak trees. If you assumed it was Christy Kennedy’s house, I’ll forgive you, because it once was.
But on this occasion, it’s meant to serve as the modest residence of the Boulton family. We see a youngish woman placing what looks like a can of linseed oil into the fire. (Kellogg’s Linseed – milled by Spencer Kellogg starting in 1879; no relation to the famous cereal inventor and nutcase John Harvey Kellogg.)
(By coincidence, just this week a new article posted about J.H. Kellogg and his wacky/repulsive dietary theories.)
But back to the story. Just when the Forensic Files fans amongst us have deduced the young woman’s an arsonist about to blow up the house, she turns the oilcan around. We see it’s been emptied so it can be used to put bread pans in the oven.
She pulls out one such pan: and mmm-mmm, it’s cornbread! We shall see this story has a rather mean sense of irony at times (Landon’s contribution no doubt). Agrees with our family’s sensibilities quite well, though.
She opens the door and announces supper’s ready. Mr. Boulton (whose Christian name is apparently Eric) comes running into the house chasing a boy of about ten.
Mrs. Boulton (first name Sylvie), who looks a bit like Nia Peeples, pulls another loaf out of the fire. No side dishes, I guess, but the kid is still impressed.
“We can have two loaves whenever we want,” boasts the dad. “Thanks to Mr. Peterson!” adds the mom.
Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Mr. Boulton then folds his hands to pray, saying, “Thank you for bringing Mr. Peterson to our town. Bless him, and keep him from harm.” Their only request!
Boulton has a very weird Trump-style hairdo.
Meanwhile at the Little House, the Ingallses are also having supper.
Laura tells Pa she has a toothache. Caroline says it’s probably a result of “snitching sugar out of the cupboard.” I wasn’t familiar with this use of snitch, but I guess it checks out.
Karen Grassle sounds like she has a bad cold this week; she looks tired too.
Then we get an unexpected stretch of rapid-fire comic dialogue:
CAROLINE: Sweets are the worst thing in the world for your teeth.
LAURA: Candy’s sweet, isn’t it?
CAROLINE: Yes, and very much of it is very bad for your teeth.
LAURA: Well, Nellie and Willie eat candy all the time, even for lunch sometimes, and their teeth are fine.
MARY: I know Willie’s are. He bit me once.
CHARLES: He bit you?
CHARLES: Well, if he does it again, I want you to cuff him good.
CHARLES: I don’t like that. I won’t have any biting. He needs a lesson.
CAROLINE: Your father’s right, if he bites you again, “cuff him good.”
MARY: I already did.
Then Mary reveals Nellie told her Mrs. Oleson’s teeth are false. The whole thing’s rather funny, like an Amy Sherman-Palladino scene, but it’s not the usual style of this show.
DAGNY: It also bothers me how Ma folds to Pa so quickly.
WILL: But she does it sarcastically, so if you want to you can go, “Oh, ha ha, she doesn’t really mean it.”
DAGNY: That’s right. The show tries to have it both ways.
WILL: It’s true.
We then cut to Laura having her tooth examined at Doc Baker’s. He frets one day a patient will bite his finger off.
DAGNY: Is he speaking as the pediatrician now, or as the vet?
He also mentions the Tooth Fairy. My daughter Olive wanted to know if they had the legend of the Tooth Fairy back then, and it seems they more or less did. Plus it started in Scandinavia, so it’s as likely to have been in Minnesota at the time as anywhere else in the nation.
Doc is getting ready to pull Laura’s tooth when Mr. Boulton comes in saying his son has a fever. Doc says he’ll come out to check on them later that day.
Then Doc gets a bottle out of a cabinet and turns back to Laura. Pa suppresses a laugh, because he’s seen Doc’s “break glass while you’re hurtin’ ’em” trick before.
As promised, that afternoon Doc drives out to the Boulton place. Interesting to get two Doc Baker stories in a row.
Doc asks the sick kid, whose name is Paul, a few generic questions and takes his temperature.
WILL: He has to use his watch to make sure the thermometer’s in long enough? Couldn’t he just estimate?
DAGNY: . . . He’s taking his pulse!
Clearly alarmed by what he sees, he refuses to tell them how high Paul’s temperature is.
Doc then sends the dad into town to get some ice to bring the boy’s fever down. No sooner has he gone than Mrs. Boulton, who wasn’t looking too well when Doc arrived, collapses into his arms.
Meanwhile, in the cornmeal bag by the fire, we see a horrible insect of some sort crawling around, as well as what are presumably rat droppings.
That night, Laura and Mary have a conversation so idiotic I’m not going to tell you anything about it.
Back at the Boulton house, Doc is piling ice into Paul’s bed. Reducing a child’s fever this way is frowned upon now, though I remember a friend of mine having it done to him when we were kids in the 1980s. (“Oh, I know somebody my age whose parents did it too,” said Olive. “He said it was torture.”)
Doc says Paul should cope with the cold by imagining he’s “an Eskimo” – an outdated term considered offensive today (and by many people in the 1970s as well, though probably not in the 1870s). He also tells him he’ll “be just fine.”
Suddenly Mr. Boulton calls Doc to the other room, where Mrs. Boulton is also encased in ice. Finding no pulse, Doc simply says, “I’ll be with the boy.” Nice, Doc. I mean, I realize you’re on the rebound, but a little sympathy would be completely appropriate here.
Horrified, Mr. Boulton sinks into a chair and stares wildly.
Okay . . . now it’s “Bringing in the Sheaves” time!
In church today are the Ingallses and the Olesons. Miss Beadle and Mr. Hanson are sitting together (in your face, Hiram!).
H. Quincy Fusspot and his dad Johnny Cash Fusspot are also there.
Reverend Alden’s platitudes and banalities are interrupted by the arrival of Doc Baker, who looks like shit.
Doc announces Sylvie Boulton has died. Everyone looks horrified except Nellie, who perhaps has some private grudge against her, and Carrie, who stares ahead brainlessly with unchanging expression. (The latter might still be the dummy from last week.)
Doc announces until he’s determined the cause of death, people should quarantine at home. As I’m writing this in the summer of 2021, the real world is still in varying levels of quarantine, and some people have apparently found it difficult to watch this episode (as well as Season 3’s “Quarantine”) on account of that.
Readers of this blog will know by now, though, that in our house we’re made of awfully stern stuff.
Mr. Hanson pipes up then, asking, “What do you think it is, Doctor?”
OLIVE: Ooh, he’s calling him “Doctor” now.
WILL: I noticed that too.
Doc says he fears it’s typhus. “Oh no,” says Miss Beadle gravely. J.C. Fusspot reaches over to comfort little Quincy.
Typhus was a mass killer well into the Twentieth Century. A bacterial infection spread to humans by insect bites, the disease was difficult to diagnose because of its similarity to less dangerous viral conditions like the flu.
Typhoid fever is apparently a totally different ailment altogether, though with similar symptoms (hence the name).
Then we come back again . . . and oh no. It’s windy.
(We’ve seen the wind used previously as a predictor of disaster on this show; and there will be many more such stories to come.)
In the common room, Pa is waving his gun around. Is he going to pick off any plague victims who seek shelter there?
No, he’s simply going shootin’ at some food. He makes the kids promise to pretend to be having school whilst he’s gone. (Just like we all did in the current pandemic.)
Laura asks how people get typhus, and Pa says it’s from fleas carried by rats.
In fact, in the Nineteenth Century the disease was actually spread by body lice. (I’m looking at you, Arnold Lundstrom.)
Anyways, Pa also says dogs can’t carry the typhus fleas – but apparently that’s not true.
British Caroline appears and says “I’ll walk you out,” though Charles is standing right next to the door, and I believe he knows the way.
All Caroline wants, though, is to say Carrie’s decided she doesn’t want to eat rabbit anymore.
WILL: What a fool. Rabbit is delicious.
ROMAN: Another example of Carrie’s idiocy.
DAGNY: I can’t believe they had Caroline go outside just to tell him that.
Today Charles is riding one of the draft horses (something we’ve never seen before).
He sees a disturbing sight: an apparently driverless wagon crossing a field.
OLIVE [as CHARLES]: “Hey, free stuff!”
When he approaches, he sees the driver has actually collapsed, and there’s a passenger (or body) in the back.
The driver is an old man who was in the church scene, but we’ve never seen him before that. Charles addresses him as “Carl.” Just how many Carls can this community sustain?
Carl the dying-of-typhus guy is alive, but not doing too well. (I suppose that goes without saying.)
He’s doing a community wellness check. Caroline reassures him they’re okay.
You know, this is the first story where I really like Doc. By the end of Season 1, he’s settled down into the beloved character we all remember from the rest of the series. He stops cracking grampaw jokes every 15 seconds and trying to date twenty-year-olds and just does his damn job.
Returning to town, Doc sees Dying-of-Typhus Carl’s horses and wagon parked outside his office. He comes inside to find Charles has brought Carl and his wife in. They’re both alive, but moanin’ and groanin’.
Once again, Doc tells his dying patients (later identified as the Harper family) they’re “gonna be fine, just fine.”
Doc discovers Carl has a [chicken-pox-type] rash – another sign of typhus. Doc says the church will be their field hospital and starts listing the things they’ll need to treat people.
He asks where Rev. Alden is staying (remember, Walnut Grove isn’t his only parish). Charles says with Amy Hearn.
WILL: This is like the second or third time Amy Hearn has been mentioned since the funeral episode. They should have made her a regular. It’s hard to believe if she’s alive and still living in town she wouldn’t play a larger role in these stories.
ROMAN: Yeah, in this one she could pretend to have typhus and somehow that helps flush out the source of the infection.
But I’m not sure how well that was understood in the 1870s; this interesting article suggests in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, anyways, it was believed to be communicable via people’s sweat. (Then again, if that’s what they believed, why does Charles tell the girls about the rats and fleas?)
Well, Charles accepts his fate and rushes to the Mercantile to warn the Olesons. Apparently he and Nels are no longer on a first-name basis. Not sure why – possibly because he failed to talk Doc into buying an engagement ring from the store?
Feud or no, Nels says he’ll donate all the blankets and crap they have in the store to the cause. Good old Nels.
Bravely facing the wind, Charles rides home. Keeping his family socially distant, he tells them about Carl the dying-of-typhus guy and his dying-of-typhus wife, adding for the interest of people like me that he picked them up “near Willow Lake.”
When he mentions the typhus outbreak has been confirmed, Caroline says, “Oh my God, no.” I suppose she could be literally addressing the Deity, but Grassle’s delivery has the air of nametaking-in-vain about it, which seems out of character.
Charles says having been exposed, he’s going to have to stay away from the house till the epidemic’s over. Caroline looks stunned, but then smiles widely and says, “Take care of yourself.” Either she’s being brave, or she’s just realized the laudanum police are going to be out of the house for a while.
Charles takes off.
OLIVE: Go get ’em, Chonky!
WILL: So is Charles just like “screw the road” here? He’s riding straight up the hill.
ROMAN: It’s Chonky’s decision. Chonky is an off-road horse.
Next, we see Rev. Alden has defied the stay-at-home order to come help take care of the sick. (Jehoshaphat too.) The show wisely skips what must have been a very tedious process of moving the pews out of the church, and cuts directly to the Rev tending Mrs. Harper. The camera angle is unusual; Claxton must have enjoyed the opportunity to shoot from the floor.
OLIVE: The Rev is eatin’ this up.
WILL: Yeah, he’s a death hag all right.
Doc directs Charles to go pick up the Boulton kid and start spreading the word about the hospital. Then he talks to Aldi about the grisly task of disposing of the dead.
When Charles arrives at the Boulton house, he finds David Rose has tuned up the harpsichord again and is using it to scary effect.
Mr. Boulton and the kid, however, are nowhere to be found.
Charles goes around the back of the house, and finds a nightmare scene: Boulton sitting under a tree, cradling the lifeless body of his son. “Is this a vision?” said Olive.
It is not a vision. Boulton has gone mad. He greets Charles pleasantly and starts talking about how it was “too nice a day” to send Paul to school. (The weather is still horrific, by the way – a twisted touch.)
(You actually see the kid move his thumb at one point during Boulton’s ramblings, but I never mind mistakes of that sort. It’s make-believe, after all.)
Charles tries to talk sense to him, but Boulton suddenly snaps at him and says the boy is asleep. (“This is like Pet Sematary,” said Dagny.)
Looking sick, Charles plays along and leaves.
DAGNY: Now, this time period was bad for child mortality. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be traumatic . . . but how come whenever a kid dies in this town, the parent goes completely insane?
WILL: Ma and Pa didn’t.
Next he stops at Mr. Edwards’s house, which we get a good look at for the first time. It’s actually much bigger and nicer than one would expect. Then again, I guess he and Charles built a similar place in Kansas, so he’s got the skillz.
Charles catches Edwards up on the plot. Mr. E wants to come help in the hospital, laughing off any threat to himself.
WILL: Do you notice anything odd about Mr. Edwards’s behavior in this scene?
OLIVE: He’s not drunk?
WILL: No, not that. He lost his family in an epidemic . . . . Remember, he had a PTSD freakout when Laura got the flu?
DAGNY: Yeah, this should be more difficult for him. His family died of smallpox, and now he’s like “Typhus, schmyphus.”
He really doesn’t seem to remember any of that, and Charles doesn’t remind him, just says he’d rather his “best friend” stay safe in case anything happens to him.
Mr. Edwards reluctantly agrees, then mentions the corn dodgers again. (All right, Landon, we’re tracking with you.)
Charles arrives back to find the Rev boiling sheets. They help a man named Tom Carter get into the church, but we don’t get a great look at him. (He has a mustache, but isn’t Mustache Man.)
Anyways, Doc says that makes eleven patients so far. He expresses frustration that they can’t determine how the disease is spreading, noting patients are coming from all over and have had no contact with each other.
Back at the Little House, the family is having dinner whilst Voiceover Laura sums up everybody’s emotional state for the audience.
Charles shows up, and everybody but Carrie rushes out to see him. He asks if he could have a little “salt-rising bread,” an old-timey recipe I’ve never tasted.
The girls go inside and Charles and Caroline catch up a bit. Charles is bummed out by all the death and disease. Caroline encourages him to trust in his faith. He smiles and tells her she’s beautiful, and they laugh that social distancing reminds them of their formal courtship.
Charles mentions Caroline’s parents and says he’d like to see them again someday. (They will . . . her ma will be in her coffin, but they will.)
Charles abruptly says goodbye and drives off.
Back at the church, Doc and Aldi are dabbing patients’ brows and the like.
OLIVE: This is like that movie I just watched, Outbreak. The Governor of Minnesota should fire-bomb Walnut Grove to stop the spread.
Charles returns and Doc tells him they’ve three new patients. Charles volunteers to get some more ice for them.
At the ice house, he descends stairs to the sort of dugout basement where the ice is stored. It isn’t exactly what I pictured.
WILL: This is a beautifully lit shot. It’s pretty ambitious for Little House.
DAGNY: Yes. The acting’s unusually good in this one, too.
Charles chops some ice off a small block on the floor. There really isn’t much left.
When Charles returns, he glances at the new patients on the floor and stops dead. Doc Baker says, “He rode in this afternoon.”
Before we even see who it is, a French horn starts playing a mournful version of “Old Dan Tucker.” Yes, it’s Mr. Edwards, a-shiverin’ and a-shudderin’ under a sheet.
(I know I said the arrangement of “ODT” that plays when he and Grace Snider broke up was the saddest I’d ever heard, but this beats even that.) (Speaking of which, where the hell is Grace?)
Commercial. When we come back, the wind is still whooshing through the Walnut Grove thoroughfare. In a grotesque touch, a rocking chair on the Post Office porch appears to be rocking itself.
Back in the ice house, Doc, in silhouette, is chopping more ice. Charles’s gigantic shadow appears, dwarfing him.
DAGNY: Yeah, they should have a scene down here every episode from now on.
Seriously, the way this scene is lit and shot is even better than the last ice-house scene.
Charles encourages Doc to sit down and rest. Once again, Doc says desperately, “If only we could find the source.” I have to say, for all their concern, they’re not doing much actual investigating of the outbreak. For crying out loud, WE saw the rat shit and fleas at the Boulton place.
They return to the church, where we get a kind of self-indulgent scene in which Charles talks to a sick girl played by his real-life daughter, Leslie Landon. Fans know Leslie will go on to play (the 1000-percent boring) Miss Plum later in the series.
Charles reassures Leslie (the character is also named Leslie) that her parents haven’t gotten sick; in fact, he stopped by their place this morning and found they were BAKING CORNBREAD.
Leslie makes a macabre crack that anyone who dies in a church automatically goes to Heaven, so she isn’t worried about herself.
WILL: Do you think it would be weird to do a scene like this with your child?
By the way, we argued about whether Leslie dies at the end of this scene or just goes to sleep.
OLIVE: She lives. When Charles says you’ll be fine, you will.
ROMAN: Yeah. Not like when Doc says it and it’s the kiss of death.
Across the room, Doc covers up the face of a patient who’s just died. Charles bends over to talk to Mr. Edwards, who says, “Well, nurse, whaddya think?” (which is cute).
Edwards says he’s feeling a little better, leading to this exchange:
CHARLES: If those corn dodgers of yours don’t kill you, I guess nothin’ will.
EDWARDS: You’re just sayin’ that because I used Peterson’s cornmeal instead of your flour.
An extremely unlikely conversation, but I guess we’ve only got five minutes left and they have to get us to the solution somehow.
And yup, Charles realizes the cheap cornmeal is the link between several of the victims. He and Doc race to the Feed and Seed. It wasn’t clear to this point, but apparently Peterson has been serving in the executive position vacated by Shifty O’Crafty at the beginning of the season.
They find Peterson passed out but alive in the office.
WILL: How responsible do you think he is for the epidemic? At the beginning, he really seemed to genuinely want to help people with his cheap corn. It’s not like he was selling them rotten food.
DAGNY: No, it’s his fault. He had to know about the rats. The rats spoiled the grain, but he sold it anyway. Hang him.
While his ultimate fate is left unknown, I think it’s safe to assume he doesn’t survive the episode anyway, since we never see him again.
Grabbing the keys to the grain shed, Charles and Doc rush to open it . . . and to THE SCARIEST MUSIC I’VE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE, they throw open the door to find it overflowing with rats.
DAGNY: Doc actually looks young here.
They slam the door closed. “All this time, it’s a hundred yards away,” says Doc in disgust. “We’ll get Peterson to the church . . . burn this place to the ground!”
WILL: Wow, it’s a Hammer vampire movie all of a sudden.
WILL: I can’t believe they’re burning a building down in the middle of town in this windstorm.
DAGNY: They have no choice. But do they really burn down the Feed and Seed? Don’t they still have it after this?
But it appears they’re actually just burning down the grain shed. (Do they actually think the rats won’t get away? How do they think they came in, through the front door?)
Time passes, but (rather surprisingly) the wind doesn’t stop. We see Laura, Mary and Carrie literally fighting to keep the laundry from blowing away in the yard.
Outside, Doc, Rev. Alden, Charles and Edwards congratulate each other on facing down a very difficult situation. Charles invites Edwards to join them for his first supper back at home, and won’t take no for an answer.
When they arrive at the Little House, everyone comes out to greet them, Caroline doing her arm-flailing run.
Even Carrie lumbers out of the house this time. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!
STYLE WATCH: Charles appears to go commando again.
THE VERDICT: This one really lives up to its reputation. The horror bits are very scary, the acting is great (especially Kevin Hagen’s), there’s a big body count, and it’s beautifully directed and filmed. It’s also got a weird comic edge that adds to the fun quite a bit.
“Good Little House stories like this don’t need any help from us,” said Dagny.
Agreed. And if you can make it through the “Old Dan Tucker” French horn solo without crying, you’re not human.
UP NEXT: Circus Man