HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - The mention of her name raised eyebrows more than a century ago. But one of Huntsville's most well-known citizens is back with some new adventures. Some are true. Some are better left to the imagination.
When Huntsville author Catherine Knowles decided to write a prequel to her first book, “I wanted to take the readers back. I wanted to take everybody, so you feel like you're in the middle of a civil war. You hear and smell the cannons going off,” she said.
She didn't have to look far. “A lot of the main characters that were in the Doughnut Tree that died or were old, I brought them back to life,” she told me while standing in Huntsville’s history Maple Hill Cemetery. Those characters were friends and accomplices to one of Huntsville's best-known personalities.
“Mollie Teal,” she said with a smile. “I just looked at her like she was a hero instead of just a prostitute and a madam.” During her research, Catherine learned things about Mollie that people didn’t talk about years ago. “She was 10 years old and forced into prostitution,” the author said.
“It's what women did in the south during the civil war. There was no food. There was no man to take care of them and protect them. They couldn't take jobs. Women couldn't have bank accounts. Women didn't own property,” she told me. “With their husbands or fathers gone fighting in the war or dying in the war they were left to fend for themselves.”
“White Dove, Adventures of Madam Mollie Teal,” is a historical romance novel. “I take the reader back 150 years to this thrill ride of adventure, of tragedy, of love, of heartbreak, of revenge,” she said. It’s a southern tale that includes fact and fiction. “I had the census report. I had where she paid taxes. I had her probate case, what was left in her home, her personal items,” she said. “And, so I was able in a fictitious way, fill in the blanks and let everybody know a little bit about Mollie.”
Catherine did her homework. “Research to me is the most fun part of writing a book because your imagination can just go and go and go,” she said with a smile.
Mollie Teal's grave is one of the most popular stops during Maple Hill's annual cemetery stroll. “People loved her, but they were still ashamed of her,” Catherine added. When she died in 1899, Mollie left her home at the corner of Gallatin and St Clair to the city of Huntsville. “I mean who does that,” Catherine said. “In my eyes she's a hero.” The house served as Huntsville's first hospital from 1904 to 1926.
Catherine sees Mollie Teal as a tough but kind woman. “The fact that she survived and wasn't a bitter person,” she said. She was a giver to the city in more ways than just her home. She was known to give to all kinds of charities and churches.” But despite her generosity, no one from the local churches would officiate at her funeral. A Birmingham minister made the trip to Huntsville.
“Because of her benevolence that was the founding of Huntsville Hospital, I feel like she is a hero that we can pay homage to for the rest of our lives regardless of the circumstances of her occupation or her life,” Catherine said.
While there are no known photographs of Mollie, she will always be one of the city's most colorful citizens and the book may not be the last time we hear about Mollie. “Scarlett O'Hara never saw the things that Mollie had to endure,” Catherine said, “I think she would make a great movie and I do know a movie producer.”
The Huntsville Botanical Garden will host Catherine for her first book signing Saturday, February 16 from 11 a.m. to 2. "White Dove, Adventures of Madam Mollie Teal" will be available on Amazon and at several Huntsville area businesses. Those include the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville Botanical Garden, Huntsville Museum of Art, Harrison Brothers Hardware, Star Market in 5 Points, Christopher Gifts, Lawren’s, Lee’s Magic Tunnel, Salon Central, Hobbs Island Pit Stop and Ditto Landing.