None of us know what we would or wouldn’t do in a disaster until it’s upon us. We would probably like to think we would act calmly and preform with courage and valor. Maybe we even hope we will lead others to safety or protect them in horrific circumstances. Perhaps these hopes, fears, and wishes make us think about the disastrous sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 at 2:20 AM.
One person that comes to mind when I think about the sinking of the Titanic is the unlikely heroine, a wild western woman, Margaret Brown. She did what we all hope we would do in the face of a horrific disaster. After her heroic efforts, she later became known as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”. But the Titanic is not the only time Margaret rose to the occasion as a humanitarian and a leader. Settle back in your desk chair or recliner while I tell the tale of the remarkable Margaret Brown.
She was born Margaret Tobin in 1867 in Hannibal, Missouri, the daughter of an impoverished ditch-digger. When she was 18, she travel to Leadville, Colorado to join her brother, Daniel, who worked in the booming silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado. It was there she caught the eye of James Joseph Brown, nicknamed “J.J.”, the manager of a local silver mine. J.J. was an enterprising, self-educated man whose parents, like Molly’s, had emigrated from Ireland. The couple married in 1886. Although Molly had always planned to marry a rich man, she said, “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.”
But things were about to change, The Brown family acquired great wealth when in 1893 J.J.'s mining engineering efforts proved instrumental in the production of a substantial ore seam at the Little Jonny Mine of his employers, Ibex Mining Company, and he was awarded 12,500 shares of stock and a seat on the board. In Leadville, Molly helped by working in soup kitchens to assist miners' families.
In 1894, the Browns moved to Denver, Colorado, which gave the family more social opportunities. Molly became a charter member of the Denver Woman's Club, whose mission was the improvement of women's lives by continuing education and philanthropy. Adjusting to the trappings of a society lady, Molly became immersed in the arts and became fluent in French, German, and Italian. Molly co-founded a branch in Denver of the Alliance Française to promote her love of French culture. I had a hard time learning French in high school. I certainly can’t imagine learning two other languages fluently as well, so I think these accomplishments show how smart and determined Molly Brown was.
Unfortunately, the blue bloods of Denver found Molly to flamboyant and forceful for their taste and she was never accepted into their society. Sadly, after 23 years of marriage, J.J. and Molly privately separated in 1909. The agreement gave Margaret a cash settlement and she maintained possession of the house on Pennsylvania Street in Denver. She also received a $700 monthly allowance (equivalent to $18,374 today) to continue her travels and social work. They continued to stay in touch and cared for one another through the rest of their lives. They had 2 children, Larry and Helen.
Molly Brown continued her social work by assisting in the fund-raising for Denver's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception which was completed in 1911. She worked with Judge Lindsey to help destitute children and establish the United States' first juvenile court which helped form the basis of the modern U.S. juvenile courts system.
And then she boarded the Titanic.
When the ship began to sink into the icy Atlantic on April 15, 1912 at 2:20 AM, Molly helped passengers board the life boats until, she was finally convinced to take a seat in Life Boat #6 to preserve her own life. Because she was instrumental in saving the lives of other passengers, convincing them to row back and save other survivors. Her urgings were met with opposition from Quartermaster Robert Hichens, the crewman in charge of Lifeboat 6. Hichens was fearful that if they did go back, the lifeboat would either be pulled down due to suction or the people in the water would swamp the boat in an effort to get inside. Sources vary as to whether the boat did go back and if they found anyone alive when they did. Molly even took an oar herself to row them to safety on the Carpathian, Margaret Brown became known as “the unsinkable Molly Brown.”
Molly Brown giving Captain Arthur Henry Rostron an award for his service in the rescue of Titanic's surviving passengers
But Molly wasn’t finished. She ran for Senate in 1914 but ended her campaign to return to France to work with the American Committee for Devastated France during WWI.
Later, when J.J. Brown died on September 5, 1922, Margaret told newspapers, "I've never met a finer, bigger, more worthwhile man than J.J. Brown." J.J. died without a will and it caused five years of dispute between Margaret and her two children before they finally settled the estate. Due to their lavish spending J.J. left an estate valued at only $238,000, equal to $3,353,292 today. Molly was to receive $20,000 in cash and securities (equal to $281,789 today), and the interest on a $100,000 trust fund (equal to $1,408,946 today) in her name. Her children, Lawrence and Helen, received the rest. A court case against Helen and Lawrence was settled privately, and Margaret and her children were reconciled at the time of her death in 1932.
Her fame as a well-known Titanic survivor helped her promote the issues she felt strongly about—the rights of workers and women, education and literacy for children, historic preservation, and commemoration of the bravery and chivalry displayed by the men aboard the Titanic. During World War I in France, she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France to rebuild areas behind the front line and helped wounded French and American soldiers. She was awarded the French Légion d'Honneur for her good citizenship including her activism and philanthropy in America. During the last years of her life, she was an actress.
After she died in 1932 (during the Great Depression), her two children sold her estate for $6,000, equal to $109,311 today. She is buried in the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, New York.
Margaret Brown, the unsinkable Molly Brown, will live in our memories forever. Though wealth may have given her the opportunity to be in first class on the HMS Titanic, it was her willingness to act with valor and courage when it was greatly needed, that made her famous and for which we will always honor her in our hearts.
(All photos open domain from Wikipedia)
Sarah J. McNeal