Mrs. Margaret (Molly) Brown is perhaps the most famous Titanic survivor.  Having been portrayed by such Hollywood powerhouses as Kathy Bates and Debbie Reynolds, “the Unsinkable Molly Brown” is a figure with which many people are familiar.  Who was Mrs. Brown, and what actions caused her name to become synonymous with heroic women of the early twentieth century?

Margaret Brown was born Margaret Tobin to Irish immigrants in Hannibal, Missouri in 1867.  This year Margaret Tobin Brown would have been 145 years old on July 18th. Her family was working class, and Maggie (as she was called before she married) worked stripping tobacco leaves to help support them.  When she was eighteen, she moved with her sister to Leadville, Colorado to establish a blacksmith shop.  It was in Leadville where she would meet her future husband James Joseph (“J.J.”) Brown. Brown was a miner who was also the child of Irish immigrants.  They were married on September 1, 1886 and had two children: Lawrence Palmer (1887) and Catherine Ellen (1889).   J.J. would go on to revitalize the Leadville economy after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act in 1893 by helping transition the Little Johnny Mine from silver to gold.  For his work, Mr. Brown was given 12,500 stock shares and a seat on the company board, making him one of the most successful mining men in the country at that time. 

While her husband busied himself with the mining industry, Margaret Brown became increasingly involved in the local early feminist movement and helped establish the Colorado Chapter of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.  She also donated her time at a local soup kitchen, which fed families of the local miners.  When financial success moved the Browns to Denver, Margaret became a founding member of the Denver Woman’s Club, which advocated literacy, education, suffrage, and human rights both locally and nationally.  She helped raise funds for both the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, as well as St. Joseph’s Hospital, and worked with Judge Ben Lindsay to establish the first Juvenile Court in the country.  She studied literature, language, and drama at the Carnegie Institute in New York, and in addition to raising her own two children, raised her brother’s three daughters.

Margaret Brown also established herself in the political arena.  She ran for Senate in 1912, eight years before women had a right to vote in the United States.  In 1914, she helped organize an international women’s rights conference in Newport, Rhode Island, which was attended by activists from around the globe.  She also worked on behalf of labor rights, particularly following the Ludlow Massacre in 1914.

Molly Brown and the Titanic Disaster

On board Titanic, Margaret Brown continued to express her love for humanity by helping load lifeboats before she was persuaded into Lifeboat 6.  She encouraged the other women in her boat not to give up hope, work together, and continue rowing until help was sighted.  Once aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, Brown immediately began work to help other survivors of the wreck.  By the time the ship docked in New York, she had established the Survivor’s Committee, been elected chairperson, and had raised almost $10,000 for the impoverished survivors.

On May 29, 1912, Brown presented Captain Rostron of the Carpathia with a silver cup for his heroism, as well as medals to every member of his ship’s crew.  She also aided in the erection of the Titanic Memorial in Washington DC.  Despite her standing as the head of the Survivor’s Committee, Brown did not testify at the US Titanic Hearings.

Margaret Brown truly was unsinkable, as she used her celebrity status as a platform to advocate those issues which were nearest to her heart: labor rights, women’s rights, childhood literacy, and historic preservation.  She died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on October 26, 1932.  No one who knew her personally ever referred to her as “Molly”.