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!