The Unsinkable Molly Brown

The Unsinkable Molly Brown

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A look at the extraordinary life of Margaret Brown, best known as 'Unsinkable Molly Brown' after she survived the 1912 RMS Titanic disaster. She later became an activist for workers' and women's rights and made a bid for election six years before women had the right to vote.

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Born July 18, 1867 in Hannibal,
Missouri, Margaret Tobin was the
third youngest in a family of six
children. She was a high spirited,
attractive and exuberant child.
She married James J. Brown in 1886
in Leadville, Colorado. They had two
children and established a wonderful
life in the quaint mining town. They
never imagined that their hard work
at the Little Jonny Mine would pay off
with riches beyond their dreams.
They moved to Denver and
entertained in a lavish style. Molly&rsquos
travels took her to Europe, where on
April 10, 1912 she embarked on a
journey that would change her life
As the Titanic sank to the depths of
the ocean on April 14th, a survivor
now known as the Unsinkable Molly
Brown played a role in saving many
lives. She helped to row her lifeboat
and organized the survivors on the
rescue ship, the Carpathia.
Molly Brown was a remarkable
woman who spoke for maritime
reform, women&rsquos right to vote, a
juvenile justice system and
improving working conditions for
miners. We salute her passionate
spirit, her zest for adventure and her
sense of style.

Unsinkable Margaret Brown

On April 15, 1912, the brand new passenger liner Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg.

More than 1,500 people died, and the legend of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” was born, providing an Old West connection to one of the worst maritime disasters in history.

Her story is a remarkable one, starting in 1867, when Margaret Tobin was born to Irish immigrants in Hannibal, Missouri. In her mid-teens, Margaret moved to the booming mining town of Leadville, Colorado. She worked at a department store and attended the Catholic church.

One of her fellow parishioners was J.J. Brown, a self-taught mining engineer who was 12 years her senior. They married in 1886, when she was 19. They lived a far from glamorous existence in a cabin near the mines, but Margaret later called them the best years of her life.

That life changed in 1893, when J.J.—a mine superintendent—discovered gold in a claim owned by his employer, the Ibex Mining Company. Ibex was grateful they gave him shares in the company, and the Browns became overnight millionaires.

They soon moved to Denver, where they built a mansion. Margaret, who was always socially conscious, became involved in poor relief, historic preservation and juvenile justice. Over the years, their interests diverged. J.J. and Margaret legally separated in 1909, but the devout Irish Catholics never divorced.

In 1912, while Margaret was touring Europe, she received a telegram that her grandson was ill. The fastest ship available to take her to the States was the Titanic. She was reading in bed when the collision occurred.

Once on deck, Margaret helped direct passengers to lifeboats. Then someone picked her up and dropped her in one of the boats—an action that saved her life. Several hours elapsed before the Carpathia crew rescued them.

Aboard the Carpathia, Margaret, who spoke five languages, translated to allow crew members to communicate with the survivors. She also raised $10,000 to help destitute survivors, forming the Survivor’s Committee and becoming its chairperson. When the ship reached the U.S., she made sure that other Titanic passengers were reunited with family or friends. She was the last to leave the ship that day. She would later be the force behind the Titanic Memorial in Washington, D.C.

When the ship docked at New York, Mrs. Brown acquired part of her nickname. Surrounded by reporters asking how she had survived, she told them: “Typical Brown luck. We’re unsinkable.”

Although Margaret now lived in Newport, Rhode Island, she returned to Denver on a yearly basis. In 1914, she took on a special situation. On April 20, a firefight broke out in Ludlow, Colorado, between striking miners and militia from John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. More than 20 people were killed—including two women and 11 children—in what organized labor called the Ludlow Massacre.

Both sides asked Margaret to help mediate the conflict. It was a tough assignment. Her sympathies were with the strikers, but she understood the positions of the mine owners. She did use media coverage to apply pressure, especially to Rockefeller, who eventually made concessions and reached an agreement with the miners.

In her later years, Margaret found a different stage. She studied drama in Paris and acted there and in New York (to some public acclaim, of course). She died in her sleep in the Big Apple in 1932.

Margaret’s legacy lives in so many areas. Her Denver mansion was rescued from the wrecking ball in 1970 by a group of preservationists (it is now the Molly Brown House Museum). Their efforts led to the formation of Historic Denver, which has been instrumental in the establishment of 45 historic districts and landmarking of more than 325 properties.

As you might expect, the Molly Brown House is hosting a number of events tied to the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster (see sidebar below).

Unsinkable and unforgettable. That’s Margaret Tobin Brown.


Titanic-Themed Tours
Molly Brown House Museum

The Unsinkable Molly Brown Screening
April 3: Denver Film Center

Great-Granddaughter Recounts Margaret’s Life
April 12: Brown Palace Hotel

Titanic Gala Dinner & Fundraiser
April 14: Oxford Hotel

The Sinking of the Titanic by JACK Quartet
April 15: Newman Center for Performing Arts (take Broadway south to I-25 East)

Titanic in American Culture, 1912-2012 Lecture
April 17: Scottish Rite Masonic Center

Molly’s Birthday Jubilee & Titanic Expo
July 15: Molly Brown House Museum

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Mark Boardman is the features editor for True West Magazine as well as the editor of The Tombstone Epitaph. He also serves as pastor for Poplar Grove United Methodist Church in Indiana.

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Margaret marries J.J. Brown

Leadville was a real eye-opener for young Margaret. Here miners toiled to find silver and gold in a typical, rough-and-tumble boomtown. Margaret remained resilient, joining the Catholic Annunciation Church and volunteering for the local soup kitchen and other charities. She soon met J.J. Brown, a fellow Irish descendant, at a church picnic. J.J. was gainfully employed as a mining engineer (not, as one of the myths claims, as a prospector) at the Ibex Mining Company. To Margaret, he seemed a suitable enough prospect for marriage. One tale, from Margaret's own descendants, claims J.J. Brown showed up for their first date in a worn, single-horse carriage and that the lady declined to go out with him. The next evening, however, J.J. returned in "an elegant two-horse affair" that Margaret found more acceptable.

Either way everyone in Leadville, according to Margaret's friend Thomas Cahill, "thought it was a wonderful match." Following a summer courtship, Margaret and J.J. were married in September 1886 at the Annunciation Church. J.J. Brown was 31-years-old Margaret was just 19. But the marriage seemed set in stone when the newlyweds set up housekeeping in J.J.'s little two-room cabin at Stumpftown, a mining community near Leadville.

Molly Brown was one of the passengers who survived Titanic

The most intriguing part of the whole Molly Brown story is that she was also one of the passengers who survived the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Brown was a first class passenger of the ship that sailed for its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. A portion of the other first class passengers disliked her because she was “new money”. Back in the day, the term was used to derogatory label those whose wealth has been acquired within their own generation, rather than by family heritage.

Luckily, Molly will be remembered for her courage rather than her status. She was one of the very few people who put tremendous efforts in saving other people’s lives when the ship started sinking and panic overwhelmed everyone.

Rescued lifeboats, all that is left of the great ship Titanic, New York, 1912

The Titanic sank early on April 15th, 1912, at around 2:20 AM, after hitting an iceberg at around 11:40 the night before. As evacuations started to take place, Brown first helped others to get on the lifeboats. She didn’t hurry to jump on one herself.

She made it on the Lifeboat No.6, where she also confronted Quartermaster Rober Hichens, in charge of the lifeboat, to go back and save more people. He feared that if they return, the lifeboat will eventually be pulled down from people who would swamp the boat in an effort to get on it, or from suction in the water

Margaret “Molly” Brown presenting Captain Arthur Rostron of the RMS Carpathia with a loving cup for saving the survivors of Titanic

She went on to take an oar herself in her lifeboat. Due to her efforts in evacuation and courage to look for more survivors, some authors started to call her “the Unsinkable Molly Brown”.

Brown’s efforts paved her way in history. That was first proved with the release of a 1960 Broadway musical based on her life, and a film adaptation in 1964 that was entitled The Unsinkable Molly Brown, where her character was played by Debbie Reynolds .

33 Fierce Facts About The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Survivor Of The Titanic

“There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable.” Phillip Franklin.

To remain “unsinkable” in the face of the unthinkable, it’s safe to say a person needs to have thick skin. Whether the famously dubbed “Unsinkable Molly Brown” truly felt as brave as she looked to her fellow passengers, she is remembered as a woman of indomitable spirit in one of the most famous disasters of the early twentieth century. More than that, a look at Molly’s life both before and in the wake of tragedy reveals her to be a woman ahead of her time.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Biography of a Titanic Survivor

You might recognize The Unsinkable Molly Brown as the moniker of possibly the most famous Titanic survivor, but the fact is that “Molly’s” real name was Margaret Tobin Brown. She’s been featured as a bold, audacious character in multiple Titanic movies, and though she’s certainly best known as a survivor of the Titanic sinking and the source of some snappy quotes, Margaret Brown was an influential socialite and activist who fought for the rights of women, unions and the needy. This condensed biography might help to dispel a few of the myths and solidify the facts surrounding this truly “unsinkable” survivor.

Margaret Tobin Brown was never actually called “Molly” during her lifetime. That nickname came about from the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” movie and stage musical in the 1960s. Born in Hannibal, Missouri as simply Margaret Tobin, “Molly” moved to Colorado at the age of 18, hoping to marry into money. Instead, she fell in love with James Joseph Brown, a mine supervisor who was just as poor as she was. But when J.J. struck gold, the couple became quite wealthy. The lavish house that they moved into together is now a public exhibit celebrating Margaret’s life.

Margaret had been traveling in Europe with her daughter Helen when she received word that her grandson was ill. Wanting to get home to America as soon as possible, she boarded the RMS Titanic, unaware of the disaster that would soon transpire.

When the Titanic struck the iceberg on April 14, Margaret did her best to help people onto the lifeboats before boarding Lifeboat No. 6 along with other passengers and one of the ship’s quartermasters, Robert Hichens. When Hichens refused to turn the lifeboat around to rescue other survivors, claiming that those floating in the water were merely “stiffs,” Margaret fiercely argued with him before finally seizing control of the rudder and ordering the other passengers to row back towards the wreck. When Hichens continued to protest, Margaret threatened to throw him overboard. Not wanting to try his luck swimming in the ice-cold water, Hichens kept his mouth shut.

Eventually, Lifeboat No. 6 was rescued by the Carpathia. Margaret was instrumental in assisting survivors. Before the Carpathia had even arrived in New York, Margaret had raised nearly $10,000 from the first-class passengers to go towards those who had lost everything in the Titanic wreck.

Margaret acquired her famous title after delivering a sly quote to reporters soon after the Titanic disaster: “Typical Brown luck. We’re unsinkable.” Her newfound fame as a Titanic survivor made Margaret’s philanthropy and activism efforts even more successful, and she even dabbled in acting.

Her fortune gradually dwindled, and Margaret Tobin Brown died in 1932 at the age of 65.

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The Sad Story

Under the command of Edward Smith, the ship leaved Southampton with 2224 passengers aboard, including some of the wealthiest people in the world, as well as hundreds of poor emigrants from Europe seeking a new life in North America. The ship had advanced safety features, but there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate all of those aboard. Only 1,178 people can be carried in lifeboats.

Four days into the crossing and about 375 miles (600 km) south of Newfoundland, she hit an iceberg at 11:40 pm ship's time. The glancing collision caused Titanic's hull plates to buckle inwards along her starboard side and opened five of her sixteen watertight compartments to the sea the ship gradually filled with water. Meanwhile, passengers and some crew members were evacuated in lifeboats, many of which were launched only partly loaded.

By 2:20 AM, the giant ship broke apart and foundered, with over 1000 people still aboard. Just under two hours after the sinking, the Cunard liner RMS Carpathia arrived and brought aboard about 705 survivors.

Small Numbers

74: The number of years it took to find the wreck of the Ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Unsinkable, Incorrigible

By the time the Titanic sunk, Molly Brown was accustomed to cruel fates and outrageous fortunes, and perhaps she could not help but see herself in the eyes of the drowned. She was born Margaret Tobin on July 18, 1867, in an impoverished two-room cottage in Missouri to Irish immigrant parents. At the time of her birth, her parents already had four children between them and would have two more. Brown grew up close to her father and always aspired to marry rich so that she could provide for him and give him the highest luxuries life had to offer.

Instead, she fell in love with a poor man. Of her marriage to James Joseph “J.J.” Brown, she said, “I had determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give to the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim, but he was poor. Finally, I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me.” But then the near impossible happened: Brown, possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit, educated himself in the mining trade, and the couple suddenly found themselves fabulously wealthy through the success of his engineering advancements.


It was everything Margaret had hoped for as a child, but she was never completely comfortable as a society woman. She became well versed in art, applied herself to learning a host of languages, and supported a plethora of social programs, including the Denver Women’s Club in Colorado, where she lived. Yet full acceptance eluded her: the most exclusive local society, Sacred 36, refused her entry. Brown would go on to call the club’s leader Louise Sneed Hill “the snobbiest woman in Denver.”

The Unsinkable “Ghost” of Molly Brown

She’s a leading player in the Titanic legacy, the indomitable rich (though rough-around-the-edges) lady who tried to save others. Does her ghost sill roam?

Molly Brown, as many know, was that famous, spunky Titanic survivor who helped tend to others while, bobbing in frigid North Atlantic waters, they awaited the arrival of a rescue ship. Her character has been portrayed in numerous Hollywood films and stage productions by such actresses as Cloris Leachman, Marilu Henner, Debbie Reynolds and Kathy Bates.

She died in 1932. Some believe her ghost lives on.

Who Was Molly Brown?

In short, she was one of many first-generation descendants of Irish immigrants. She was born in 1867 to John and Johanna Tobin in Hannibal, Missouri (a river port well known to aficionados of Mark Twain). She became a child laborer in a factory at age 13 but quickly decided that was not for her. She and a brother, Daniel, fled west and ended up in Leadville, Colorado.

At 19, she married James J. Brown, a mining engineer. He was not well off at the time—but that soon changed. James and Molly struck it rich with a gold mine in the 1890s.

So it was that Molly Brown found herself touring Europe and, in Spring 1912, heading home… aboard the Titanic…

Molly Brown’s Titanic Moment

The legend (which actually isn’t far off the official record) is that the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a passenger aboard the Titanic on its first and only transatlantic voyage from England to America, got off on a lifeboat after the colossal ship struck an iceberg and began sinking. Seeing other passengers and crewmen flailing desperately in the ocean, watching the ship being drawn down in its death throes, she implored the pilot and tenants of her lifeboat to row back and save as many as they could.

By most accounts, her urgings, valiant as they were, went unheeded. Historians never can know how many more Titanic passengers might have been saved, had Molly had her way.

The Carpathia (Capt. Arthur Rostron) arrived in the early morning hours in time to save a few, but not most, Titanic victims.

Does “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” Still Float?

The Browns’ house in Denver, now restored as a museum, reportedly is haunted. Visitors and staff have reported seeing the ghost of Molly in the dining room. Some claim also to have seen her mother Johanna, a butler, and Molly’s cat—and to have smelled smoke from James’ pipe and cigars.

Regardless, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” left an admirable contribution to society. In later life, she gave heavily to charities. During World War I, she helped nurse American soldiers in France.

Molly Brown died 26 October 1932 in New York City. Interestingly, she never was known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” while she lived.

Watch the video: The Unsinkable Molly Brown - Trailer