The Unsinkable Miss Brown


Hi! Winnie Griggs here.

A little over a week ago we marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.   It got me to thinking about its most famous tie to the American west, the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”.

The only things I knew about her were fuzzily remembered scenes from the movie so I figured I’d do a little quick research to find out more.

I learned she was born in Hannibal,Missouri on July 18, 1867 and christened Margaret Tobin.  Her father was an Irish immigrant employed as a ditch-digger and the family was on the very low end of the social and financial spectrum.

As a teenager she followed one of her brothers to Leadville, Colorado where he hoped to make his fortune in the silver mines there.  She served as cook for her brother and found work as a seamstress in a local store.

Eventually she met J.J.Brown, a mining superintendent and the two were soon an item.  Of the courtship, one source credits Margaret as saying

“I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how 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. So I married Jim Brown.”  

They were wed in 1886.  They had a son, Lawrence, in 1887 and their daughter Catherine  made her appearance two years later. 

In the early years, Margaret and J.J. struggled financially.  But J.J.’s instrumental involvement in a silver strike in his employer’s mine changed all of that and the Browns became very wealthy indeed.  The family eventually moved to Denver where Margaret, in a nod to the societal conventions, familiarized herself with the arts and became fluent in several foreign languages.

Alas, their love match did not last forever.  In 1909, after 23 years of marriage, J.J. and Margaret separated, though they never divorced and it appears they remained amicable for the remainder of their days.   As part of the separation agreement, Margaret received a very generous settlement and allowance, which allowed her to continue her travels and social work.

Which brings us to her being aboard the ill-fated Titanic.  Margaret was one of the lucky ones who made it aboard a lifeboat.  It is said she helped in the evacuation and that she took up an oar herself to help row the boat away from the wreckage.  She also strongly urged the crewman in charge of the lifeboat to go back to try to see if more people could be saved.  Her exhortations were met with strong opposition due to fears that the boat would be swamped by desperate swimmers.  Reports vary as to whether they did in fact eventually go back and whether or not anyone was rescued.

What’s not in doubt, however, is that when the survivors were rescued by the crew of the Carpathia, she worked tirelessly to help provide physical and emotional comfort to the other survivors.  By the time the ship reached New York, Margaret had established the Survivor’s Committee and raised nearly $10,000 for those survivors who lost everything.  She helped erect the Titanic Memorial in Washington D.C but to her annoyance found that as a woman she was barred from participation in the Titanic hearings.

Margaret was also a philanthropist and activist in other areas.  Some of her more notable contributions:

  • Helped establish the Colorado chapter of the National American Woman Suffrage Association
  • She worked in soup kitchens to help the families of miners
  • Was a charter member of the Denver Woman’s Club
  • Assisted in the fund raising for Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
  • Worked with a  judge to come to the aid of indigent children and to establish the nation’s first juvenile court – this helped form the basis of the current day U.S juvenile court system
  • She twice ran for the U.S Senate
  • During WW I she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France,  helping to establish a relief station for soldiers.  She was later awarded the French Legion Of  Honor.

Oh, and one last interesting fact that I learned – during her lifetime she was called Margaret, Margie and Maggie, but never Molly!

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at or email her at

18 thoughts on “The Unsinkable Miss Brown”

  1. What an interesting woman. In spite of the facts of the movie really being off the mark, I love it! My daughter is planning on taking me to see her home in Denver next trip and I will certainly view it with different thoughts than I would have before reading your research.

  2. Thanks for sharing your research … it was both fun and interesting… I wonder if the name ‘Molly’ the first movie “A Night To Remember” or just an error in reporting the events..

  3. I enjoyed reading your findings on the Unsinkable Molly Brown. What an interesting life. Thanks for sharing Winnie!

  4. Great story. It’s fun learning more about historical figures that are only known on a surface level. I wonder if she got rich in time to help her father have a comfortable old age?

  5. Fun post, Winnie. I love cheering for spunky gals who aren’t afraid to put their money to good use. I remember the musical and the over-the-top hick personality, but if she dedicated herself to the arts and learned several different languages, the woman must have been extremely intelligent and socially aware. I’m glad she survived and went on to do so much good.

  6. Connie – how neat that you’re going to have a chance to visit her home! I love being able to immerse myself in history that way!

    CateS – I tried to find how the media came up with the name Molly and never found anything. But it does have a catchy ring to it.

  7. LoriD – Glad you enjoyed the post! And yes, the woman led a remakable life.

    Mary – being the romantic that I am, I like to imagine that she DID have the opportunity to shower her dad in luxury before he passed on.

  8. Of course, I’ll probably always think of her as looking like Debbie Reynolds — I so loved that movie. It was great to see the real thing, Winnie! 🙂

  9. Awesome post, Winnie. I love that she helped the survivors and was such a charitable person. And I did know she was never Molly LOL.

    I love the 1997 Titanic movie. Seems they got some of it a little bit right.

    Loved this! xoxo

  10. Karen W – Yes spunky is a good way to describe her – just like the heroine from one of our books!

    Karen Kay – I enjoyed that move too! It’s been ages since I watched thought – I may have to rent it for another viewing soon!

  11. Winnie, Thanks for another interesting post. It is sad and infuriating that after all she did related to the Titanic and the victims, not to mention the fact that she was there, for her not to be able to testify because she was a woman is ludicrous.
    She was certainly an individual and a good person.

  12. Patricia – yes, that fact stood out to me as well – you would think someone who was as involved and intelligent as she was would have been welcomed into the hearings. I dare say she could have added a great deal of value to the proceedings.

  13. Thanks Winnie for sharing her remarkable story. She was quite a lady! What an interesting life she led…not always good…but she apparently made lemonade out of lemons! Too bad she wasn’t allowed into the Titanic proceedings. I am sure she would have set some of those men on their ears…but then again… Maybe that is why they didn’t !! 🙂

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