Stepping off a steamer in 1872, Mollie Myers would have a unique honor; she was the first white woman in Edwinton, the city that would become Bismarck.
It was through a series of misfortunes that Mollie would arrive in what would become Bismarck. Having been sent down river from Fort Randall, Mollie was undaunted. She would serve for awhile as a servant to a laundress in the 6th, at Sioux City, but intended to travel back up the Missouri.
Catching a steamer headed to Fort Buford, Mollie’s trip would be cut short. Being recognized by the commanding officer at Randall, who informed General Hazen of his orders, as he could not land, with her, in the limits of a military reservation.
They would dock at the first citizen camp they came upon, and Mollie would be escorted off the steamer, at what was known as “Carleton City,” just opposite the river from Fort McKean, which was inhabited by some 200 men.
The event would stick with an early pioneer woman and historian of Bismarck, Linda W. Slaughter. Witnessing Mollie being removed from the steamer, she wrote,
“I had never before seen a woman mistreated, and was shocked and indignant that a woman should have been forced ashore, in such a place and among so many men, but it was soon known that she was a noted person, of a class forbidden at military posts, and known as Dutch Mollie.”
Mollie would settle into the area, making a living as a woman of “ill-repute;” the world’s oldest profession.
Her first year in Bismarck was rough. She would settle in with a woman named Annie, who was said to have been the first black woman in Bismarck, and eventually became a reformed prostitute. Along with giving up her past profession, she also gave up her name, and would then be known as Mollie Stockings.
Changing of the Tides
Early in 1873, the area that would become known as Bismarck was divided into several parties. Various townsites had been claimed, and ill will was building between the factions.
Mollie would end up finding herself smack dab in the middle of the troubles, after meeting Joseph Pennell, and later marrying him. Pennell had made a homestead claim, for the Puget Sound Company, on what many believed to be the rightful townsite based on what the railroad wanted.
With the news that Mollie was keeping house in the P.S. and L.S. headquarters, the unpopularity of the company intensified, and the dislike on the other claimants towards its agent, in particular Colonel George Sweet, rose.
The feud would eventually die down, and Mollie, now known as Alice Pennell, soon left her old name behind, and built herself up as a leader in the Bismarck society, as well as a pillar in the Presbyterian church.
For half a decade, Alice and Pennell would appear to have a happy marriage. As Colonel Lounsberry wrote, “… whatever her faults may have been, provided, for a time at least, an affectionate and acceptable wife to her companion, but er peculiarities led her into misfortune…”
The misfortune Lounsberry spoke of was the divorce of Alice and Pennell, in 1878. The reason for the action is not clear, but it seems as if Alice may have been the one who made the choice to leave, while Pennell brought the suit for divorce.
Announcing the notice of divorce in the Bismarck Tribune, Pennell made the claim that Alice had left his bed and board. He would no longer pay for her debts.
As quickly as she rose to prosperity, the fall was much quicker. Alice would find herself in a financial burden, and on her own. For awhile, she was forced to live as a pauper, which had a great impact on her health.
Struggling to survive, Alice would find herself quickly building up dept. Unable to pay for her medical services, or even wood to keep her warm, her debts would appear before the Board of County Commissioners, who took pity on her.
Others would also lend a hand to Alice. Knowing that she was facing hard times after her divorce, a local minister, Reverend Mr. Miller, of the Episcopal Church, would come to her aide, an act Alice wouldn’t soon forget.
A Final Rebirth
The tides would once again change for Alice, but it may have been too late. Having been associated with Colonel Sweet, when married Pennell, Alice would once again reconnect with him.
Sweet, who had been busy trying to claim land for the railroad, heard that Mollie had recently been divorced from Pennell. Shortly after, Alice appeared to develop psychic powers. The timing couldn’t have been better.
While Sweet was busy with his land claims, he was also facing a severe push back from citizen organizations, who opposed his claims. At the same time, the spiritualist movement was beginning to take hold across the country, and it found a solid foothold with Alice.
Once again, a name change took place, and Madame Alice La Secher was born, a French medium. She would first be introduced to the community of Bismarck by Stanley Huntley, co-owner of the Bismarck Tribune.
Trying to capitalize on the death of John Noonan, and his wife, Mrs. Nash, Huntley introduced Madame Alice as a gifted medium, who had just arrived in Bismarck. The Madame would conduct a seance, supposedly contacting Noonan. The result, an exceedingly dramatic tale, painting Mrs. Nash as a terrible villain.
Establishing Alice as a noteworthy psychic, Sweet would enter into a contract with her. Sweet was to pay the monthly sum of $50, as well as boarding costs for Alice. In return, Alice was to giver her time “in the matter of clairvoyance, mediumship, psychometry, delineations of character, and events in the life of other persons as well as the discovery and finding of lost and stolen property, and the detection of criminals … ,”
Over the next few month, Madame Alice would provided many seances, supported by Sweet, that often terrorized and accused local citizens of ghastly actions. She would become a thorn in the side of a few lawyers, when called to the stand, and eventually would find a good deal of push back as well, in particular from the Episcopal Church.
Having attended one of the Madame’s sittings, Rev. Miller would find himself being threatened with termination from his church. Remembering the support he had shown her, Alice was quick to come to his aide, writing a scathing Letter to the Editor of the Bismarck Tribune.
For Sweet, the investment in Alice eventually paid off. As a result of one of her seances, the citizens’ organization would withdraw their opposition to the location of the townsite. In just a short time, Alice was able to accomplish what Sweet had spent years working towards.
That success would abruptly end. On May 10, 1879, just four month after signing her contract with Sweet, Alice passed away. She had lost her battle against a protracted and severe illness.
In her short time as a medium, she would effectively erase her past, and became known as a remarkable woman. Her obituary in the Bismarck Tribune boasted of Alice as being the first white woman in Bismarck, a caring nurse, and well known across the country for her work in clairvoyance.