Margaret Brown, better known as ‘the unsinkable Molly Brown’, earned her nickname because she survived the sinking of the Titanic and later went on to become a staunch philanthropist and activist. Known for her adventurous demeanour and steadfast work ethic, she commented on her good fortune in surviving the tragedy, stating that she had ‘typical Brown luck’, and that her family were ‘unsinkable’.
Immortalised in the 1997 film Titanic, Margaret Brown’s legacy is one that continues to fascinate. However, beyond the events of the tragedy of the Titanic itself, Margaret was better known for her social welfare work on behalf of women, children and workers, and for routinely ignoring convention in favour of doing what she felt was right.
Here’s a rundown of the life of the unsinkable – and unforgettable – Molly Brown.
Her early life was unremarkable
Margaret Tobin was born on 18 July 1867, in Hannibal, Missouri. She was never known as ‘Molly’ during her life: the nickname was earned posthumously. She grew up in a humble Irish-Catholic family with several siblings, and took work in a factory at the age of 13.
In 1886, she followed two of her siblings, Daniel Tobin and Mary Ann Collins Landrigan, along with Mary Ann’s husband John Landrigan, to the popular mining town of Leadville, Colorado. Margaret and her brother shared a two-room log cabin, and she found work for a local sewing store.
She married a poor man who later became very rich
While in Leadville, Margaret met James Joseph ‘JJ’ Brown, a mining superintendent who was 12 years her senior. Though he had little money, Margaret loved Brown and gave up her dreams of marrying a wealthy man to marry him in 1886. Of her decision to marry a poor man she wrote, “I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than a wealthy one whose money had attracted me”. The couple had a son and a daughter.
As her husband rose up the ranks of the mining company in Leadville, Brown became an active community member who helped miners and their families and worked to improve the schools in the area. Brown was also known for not being interested in conventional behaviour and dress in line with other prominent town citizens, and enjoyed wearing big hats.
In 1893, the mining company discovered gold at the Little Johnny Mine. This resulted in JJ being given a partnership at the Ibex Mining Company. In a very short period of time, the Browns became millionaires, and the family moved to Denver, where they bought a mansion for around $30,000 (about $900,000 today).
Brown’s activism contributed to a breakdown in her marriage
While in Denver, Margaret was an active community member, founding the Denver Women’s Club, which aimed to improve women’s lives by allowing them to continue in education, and raising money for children’s causes and mine workers. As a society lady, she also learned French, German, Italian and Russian, and in an unheard of feat for women at the time, Brown also ran for a Colorado state senate seat, though she eventually withdrew from the race.
Though she was a popular hostess who also attended parties that were held by socialites, as she had only recently acquired her wealth she was never able to gain entry into the most elite group, the Sacred 36, which was run by a Louise Sneed Hill. Brown described her as the ‘snobbiest woman in Denver’.
Amongst other issues, Brown’s activism caused her marriage to deteriorate, since JJ held sexist views about the role of women and refused to support his wife’s public endeavours. The couple legally separated in 1899, though never officially divorced. In spite of their separation, the pair continued to be great friends throughout their life, and Margaret received financial support from JJ.
She survived the sinking of the Titanic
By 1912, Margaret was single, rich and in search of adventure. She went on a tour of Egypt, Italy and France, and while she was in Paris visiting her daughter as part of the John Jacob Astor IV party, she received word that her eldest grandchild, Lawrence Palmer Brown Jr., was seriously ill. Brown immediately booked a first-class ticket on the first available liner leaving for New York, the RMS Titanic. Her daughter Helen decided to stay in Paris.
On 15 April 1912, disaster struck. “I stretched on the brass bed, at the side of which was a lamp,” Brown later wrote. “So completely absorbed in my reading I gave little thought to the crash that struck at my window overhead and threw me to the floor.” As events unfolded, women and children were called to board the lifeboats. However, Brown stayed on the vessel and helped others escape until a crew member quite literally swept her off her feet and placed her in lifeboat number 6.
While in the lifeboat, she argued with Quartermaster Robert Hichens, urging him to turn back and rescue any survivors in the water, and threatening to throw him in the water when he refused. Though it’s unlikely she was able to turn the boat around and rescue any survivors, she managed to take some control of the lifeboat and convinced Hichens to let the women in the boat row to stay warm.
After a few hours, Brown’s lifeboat was rescued by the RMS Carpathia. There, she helped to pass out blankets and supplies to those who needed them, and used her multiple languages to communicate with those who didn’t speak English.
She helped those who had lost everything on the ship
Brown recognised that in addition to the huge loss of human life, many passengers had lost all of their money and possessions on the ship.
She created a survivors’ committee with other first-class passengers to secure basic necessities for the second and third-class survivors, and even provided informal counselling. By the time the rescue ship reached New York City, she had raised some $10,000.
She later ran for congress
Following her acts of philanthropy and heroism, Brown became something of a national celebrity, so spent the rest of her life finding new causes to champion. In 1914, miners went on strike in Colorado, which caused the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company to harshly retaliate. In response, Brown spoke up for miners’ rights and urged John D. Rockefeller to change his business practices.
Brown also drew a parallel between miners’ rights and women’s rights, pushing for universal suffrage by advocating for ‘rights for all’. In 1914, six years before women were guaranteed the right to vote, she ran for the US Senate. She quit the race when the onset of World War One, choosing instead to run a relief station in France. She later earned France’s prestigious Légion d’Honneur for her service during the war.
At this time, a reporter in New York stated “If I were requested to personify perpetual activity, I believe I’d name Mrs. JJ Brown.”
She became an actress
In 1922, Brown mourned the death of JJ, stating that she’d never met a “finer, bigger, more worthwhile man than JJ Brown”. His death also catalysed a bitter battle with her children over their father’s estate which fractured their relationship, though they later reconciled. In the 1920s and ’30s, Brown became an actress, appearing onstage in L’Aiglon.
On 26 October 1932, she died of a brain tumour at the Barbizon Hotel in New York. Over the 65 years of her life, Brown had experienced poverty, riches, joy and great tragedy, but most of all, was known for her kind spirit and unfailing help for those less fortunate than herself.
She once said, “I am a daughter of adventure”, and is justly remembered so.