Mollie Teal: Huntsville Hospital’s original planned giver
Content pulled, with permission, from: Historic Huntsville Houses (and we don’t mean homes) by Bob Ward; Alabama Heritage, Number 54, Fall 1999, by The University of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Mollie Teal, businesswoman, doesn't rank as one of the more famous figures in Huntsville history, but she does have her niche in the community's annals. Local historical accounts dutifully note that it was a gift from her that made possible the establishment of the city's first public hospital shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. They point out that this infirmary, the forerunner to Huntsville Hospital, had once been a house owned by Ms. Teal, which she bequeathed to the city at her death in 1899.
What was not mentioned in these histories, at least not before 1972, is the fact that Mollie Teal was the flamboyant madam of a house of prostitution, perhaps the largest and finest "sportin' house" the town ever saw. It was this house – a spacious, ten-room, twostory frame structure at the corner of what are now Gallatin and St. Clair streets – that opened in 1904 as "The Huntsville City Infirmary."
Her gravestone, in a plot near the giant magnolia trees that spread over the Confederate soldiers' section of Huntsville's Maple Hill Cemetery, shows that Mollie Teal (sometimes written "Teel") was born August 20, 1852. She was just nineteen years old when her mother, Mary A Smith, age forty-eight, died in April 1872. No one knows how or where Mollie came to the business of prostitution, but a Wednesday, September 27, 1899, obituary in The Weekly Mercury (one of at least three articles on her that ran in Huntsville newspapers following her death) noted:
She was well known over the state, having lived for a number of years at Montgomery in her youth. For the last fifteen years she has been a resident of this city and built a handsome residence in the southern portion of the city.
In another obituary appearing the following Sunday, October 1, in The Daily Tribune, an individual identified only as "M" offered a personal tribute to the madam. "Miss Mollie Teal," the writer noted, was a "loving daughter," a "lovable girl," and not only a "good woman" but an "angel" whose many deeds of community charity included supporting the schools and the city volunteer fire department. …
Whatever her reputation, several public records indicate that Mollie Teal was a woman of some means and of no little business acumen. Among the early investors in the Dallas Manufacturing Company, which was to open the Dallas Mills textile plant in cotton-rich Huntsville, she bought one share of stock on June 9, 1892, for one hundred dollars. Less than two weeks later, she returned to put down another hundred for a second share. Dallas Mills soon became a major operation in Huntsville, a moneymaker almost from the start. Courthouse records also show that Mollie Teal took out at least two substantial loans against her house, possibly for additions and other improvements, including perhaps the rare indoor bathroom the house boasted when she left it to the city. She also borrowed money on other occasions and records indicate these notes were later "satisfied in full."
Another Huntsvillian, the elderly widow of a doctor in town, remembered her mother's description of Mollie: Mollie was the most attractive person you ever saw. She always dressed well and always carried her little parasol over her shoulders – a very glamorous lady! My mother said Mollie had a fine Victoria, one of those long, black carriages that swooped down in the middle and the driver sat up high in the front. It was pulled by two big black horses, and every afternoon Mollie would go riding.
In 1898, the year before her death at age forty-seven, Mollie drew up her last will and testament, naming Probate Judge S.M. Stewart and Mayor Jere Murphy as executors of her estate, with a Flora Barker, an Eva Gray, and her attorney, Terry O'Reilly, as witnesses. She left her house to a friend, Mollie Greenleaf, for her lifetime, after which the property would go to the City of Huntsville "for the use and benefit of the white public schools, or for a city Hospital as the City authorities may elect." Miss Teal also willed that her "household and kitchen furniture" and "all other personal property be sold for cash" and the proceeds used "to buy a library for said public schools" and otherwise benefit them.
Apparently Miss Greenleaf did not live long after that, for the city of Huntsville gained title to the Teal house about 1904. That was the year it was remodeled and reopened as an infirmary under the guidance of a group of doctors' wives and other women in the community. Mollie Teal had to have been aware of the community's struggle to establish an infirmary. According to newspaper accounts of the day and a 1985 history of medical practice in the area, in 1895 – four years before Mollie's death – seventeen women from the community had privately rented a small cottage, talked the city fathers into chipping in six dollars of the $12.50 monthly rent, hired a skeleton staff of one nurse, an assistant, and a housekeeper, and proceeded to open a rudimentary infirmary. Within months of the little facility's opening, it was relocated to a slightly larger cottage. But while the infirmary ended its first year in the black through fees and donations of cash, foodstuff, linens and such, it remained in cramped quarters by the time of the philanthropic madam's death. In the new quarters provided by Mollie Teal, the infirmary -- operated by an all-female Board of Control -- established its own school of nursing and remained in operation until 1926, when the new, brick Huntsville Hospital opened just two blocks away.
In the 1970s, one of the nurses who had trained at the infirmary recalled that the staff there was very much aware of the history of the place and its departed proprietress: I remember the house had a front screen-door that would sometimes slam and hook itself shut. Whenever that happened, one of the help would laugh and say something to us like, "You better walk straight today-Miss Mollie's up walkin' today and she hooked that door!"
After Huntsville Hospital opened, Mollie's house was sold. It is said to have become a rooming-house, then a nightclub, and shortly afterward it was destroyed in a fire. But other legacies bestowed by Huntsville's most notable madam are probably still in existence – somewhere.
Legend has it that Mollie Teal's last requests included the stipulation that if the City of Huntsville did decide to make a hospital of her house, a sign should be hung over the front door reading "Welcome Back" for the benefit of the men entering as patients or visitors. Was it done? No one knows for sure. But almost a century later, in 1995, "A Centennial Celebration" cookbook issued by the Huntsville Hospital Foundation was titled “Welcome Back” and dedicated to the memory of Miss Mollie.
The 1990s have seen a flood of other public tributes to Madam Teal. In 1992 a large watercolor painting of her house as the City Infirmary was commissioned; today it hangs in a historical display off the Huntsville Hospital's main lobby, with plaque and inscription crediting "Mollie Teal [who] operated the city's most well-known house of ill repute." And in the main lobby, a large "Centennial Globe" includes another graphic depiction of Miss Mollie's house.
The year 1995 also saw a major video production about the institution's history, featuring the hospital's director of marketing and public relations, Ms. Terri Bryson, dressed as Mollie and narrating her story. That same year, a "Souvenir Edition" of Old Huntsville magazine celebrating the hospital's centennial included a brief article on Mollie. Since then, a Hospital Foundation benefit brunch has featured the surprise appearance of a costumed "Mollie" in the person of Leslie Rhett Crosby, granddaughter of the late Harry Moore Rhett, Sr., who donated the land for the original Huntsville Hospital construction. In 1997 Mrs. Crosby reprised her portrayal of Miss Mollie in the city's first annual costumed "Cemetery Stroll," a living tableau staged each spring by the Huntsville Pilgrimage Association. The event highlights Revolutionary and Civil War veterans, Alabama governors, and other historical figures buried in the city's sprawling Maple Hill Cemetery, whose “spirit voices'' speak with attending townspeople and visitors.
More recently, in the community's newfound – and continuing – embrace of Miss Mollie Teal, other ladies have stood at her grave site and readily portrayed Huntsville's history-making magnanimous madam.
Content pulled, with permission, from: Historic Huntsville Houses (and we don’t mean homes) by Bob Ward; Alabama Heritage, Number 54, Fall 1999, by The University of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which was adapted and updated from an article by Bob Ward that appeared in The Huntsville times on April 1, 1972.