Margaret Tobin Brown, a woman immortalized in numerous movies, documentaries, and the Broadway musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” never considered herself anything more than a good citizen. Made famous by her heroic efforts during the sinking of the RMS Titanic, Mrs. Brown used her fame and fortune to better the world. But, even as a young woman, Margaret Brown did what she could to serve humanity. Here are some less known facts about one of America’s most memorable heroines.
SHE WAS NEVER KNOWN AS “MOLLY” DURING HER LIFETIME
Born in 1867, Margaret Brown, known as “Maggie,” by friends and family, came into this world in 1867 to Irish Catholic immigrants John Tobin and Johanna Tobin. She became known as “Molly” with the success of the 1960 Broadway musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” decades after her death.
SHE CAME FROM MODEST ROOTS
Maggie spent her early years in a small cottage on Denkler Ally in Hannibal, Missouri. She never attended school but took lessons with her siblings in the home of her mother’s sister, Mary O’Leary. At 13, Maggie helped support her family by working at a tobacco factory for sometimes 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. At 19, she set out with her sister to Leadville, Colorado to visit their older brother Daniel, who had settled there. Maggie decided to stay and kept house for her brother. She also worked as a waitress and as a sales clerk in a dry-goods store.
THOUGH SET ON MARRYING A RICH MAN, SHE MARRIED FOR LOVE
Maggie is quoted to say, “I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown…I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money attracted me.”
In church one Sunday, Maggie laid eyes on the tall and handsome mining engineer, James Joseph (also known as J.J.) Brown, and fell in love. At 19 years of age, she married the Irishman who was more than 10 years her senior, and the two set up house in a two-room cabin outside of Leadville.
SHE CAME INTO WEALTH OVER-NIGHT
Both Maggie and J.J. worked hard during their young married life. Intelligent and innovative, J.J. Brown rose to manager, then superintendent for the Ibex Mining company and made a decent living. His innovation proved instrumental in developing a technique which allowed for mines to be built deeper into the earth. One such mine, Little Jonny, hit gold in 1893, producing tons of gold ore, and making the Browns and many others at the Ibex Mining company, instant millionaires.
SHE ALWAYS SAW THE IMPORTANCE OF A CAUSE
Even before she lived a life of immense wealth, Maggie always did what she could to help others. As a young wife and mother, she organized soup kitchens and helped other mining families less fortunate than hers. She became involved in politics and spent her efforts in that arena working for better schools and health care for mining families. After her good fortune, she joined many political and charitable organizations and even made a run for Congress— though she had to drop out of the race. Women in Colorado did not even have the right to vote yet, and her chances of winning seemed impossible. Regardless, Maggie continued to work for causes concerning children, public health, food production, education and libraries, women’s suffrage, and animal rights.
She also worked to help establish a juvenile court system in Denver so that children and teens who committed crimes did not have to serve time in the adult population. She helped to establish the Denver Women’s Club, an organization devoted to providing art education in schools, and the development of school libraries.
Having lived a lifetime of helping others, Maggie continued to do so even when her own life was at stake with the sinking of the Titanic. Once aboard Life Boat Six, Maggie, having put on several layers of clothing to shield herself from the frigid temperatures, shared her coat and more with those who had to escape with little to wear. Once they were safely aboard the Carpathia, the ship sent out to retrieve survivors, Maggie worked tirelessly to help her fellow passengers. She paid for telegrams to be sent to survivors’ friends and family, and she organized a ‘survivors fund’ for medical expenses and temporary lodging for those in need. She raised $10,000 before they reached the shores of New York.
FAME DID NOT CHANGE HER
Now famous for her magnanimous spirit and courage, Maggie continued to help with causes close to her heart. In 1913 coal miners in Ludlow, CO went on strike, resulting in a deadly skirmish between the National Guard and the miners. Nineteen people, including eleven children were killed in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre. Maggie sent first aid supplies, food, and clothing to the surviving miners. She sent funds to help settle the strike and investigate the massacre.
During the first world war, Maggie traveled to France with an American relief committee. There, she also worked with the Red Cross. When she returned to New York, Maggie devoted time and resources to help soldiers who’d been injured in the war. Her efforts resulted in France bestowing her with their most esteemed award, the French Legion of Honor.
SHE NEVER ATTENDED SCHOOL, BUT WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED STUDENT
As a young mother, Maggie saw to the education of her children, and herself. After completing her daily chores, she studied literature, piano, and took voice lessons. Later, she hired tutors to help her improve her grammar and writing skills. She traveled to New York to study literature, drama and foreign languages at the Carnegie Institute. She became proficient in five different languages which proved instrumental in helping the International survivors of the Titanic. More of Maggie’s interests included acting, yodeling, classical guitar and the Ukelele.
SHE NEVER CONSIDERED HERSELF A HEROINE
After the Titanic disaster, stories filled newspapers at home and abroad about the heroic efforts of Margaret Brown, but she did not want to be known as a heroine. “I did only the natural thing and not the heroic.” And that is how this amazing, strong and empowered woman, who set an example for everyone, lived her entire life.
Bold Women in Colorado History by Phyllis J. Perry