History from the Road
The Unsinkable Molly Brown
*”I am a daughter of adventure.”
– Margaret Brown, The Denver Post – August 1923*
Hannibal, a small town located along the Mississippi River, in Northeastern Missouri is known for a few things. Most notable is that it is the hometown of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, but we will get back to him in a later post.
Hannibal, the town, not the cannibal, is also the focus of a true crime documentary on Investigation Discovery about the disappearance of a young woman named Christina Whitaker. The documentary does not paint Hannibal as a pleasing picture. The seedy underbelly of the town is infested with drug abuse, sexual abuse, and apparently some shifty acting police officers.
But today, I want to talk about some other bad behavior. This kind of bad behavior is what the late John Lewis would call Good Trouble.
*”As long as they’re talking about me, I don’t care what they say.”
– Margaret Brown to a reporter – circa 1920″*
In Hannibal on July 18, 1867, John and Johanna Tobin named their little bundle of good trouble Margaret Tobin. Margaret was well educated in her childhood, and promptly put to work to help support her family once she reached her teenage years.
Upon reaching adulthood, Margaret followed her older siblings to Leadville, Colorado where she landed a job working in a department store. In Leadville, she met and fell in love with James Joseph Brown. In 1886, Margaret and J.J. were married. Margaret unashamedly admitted that she had dreamed of marrying a rich man, but silly ol’ love got in the way and ruined her plans of riches. Margaret and J.J. went on to have two children, Larry and Helen.
In 1893 Margaret’s dreams of having a wealthy husband finally came true. J.J. Brown had struck it rich in the mines near Leadville. The couple proceeded to build a mansion, and a summer home in the Denver area.
Now that her dress pockets were lined with money, Margaret was finally able to do what she always dreamed of; philanthropy work. Margaret chartered the Denver Woman’s Club, whose mission was improving women’s lives with education, philanthropy, and the suffragist movement. During this time, with intention of upcoming travel, Margaret became well versed in the arts and languages of France, Russia, Germany, and Italy.
Margaret led fundraisers for Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which was completed in 1911. She worked with Colorado Judge Ben Lindsey to establish one of the United States’ first juvenile courts, which became the basis for the entire U.S. juvenile court system.
In 1909, after 23 years of marriage, Margaret and J.J. quietly arranged a legal separation agreement. She would maintain occupation of the mansion and the summer home, while also receiving a monthly allowance, and J.J. would smile and hand it over. Margaret and J.J. would remain friends for the rest of their lives.
In 1912 Margaret and her daughter, Helen, were traveling through France with the John Jacob Astor IV party – rich people doing rich people things. During this time Margaret got word that her eldest grandson had been stricken ill and she booked passage back to the states as soon as possible. Helen was supposed to travel with her, but decided to remain in France to continue her studies. On the evening of April 10, 1912, Margaret was boarded as a first-class passenger on the RMS Titanic. Perhaps you have heard of it?
The unsinkable Titanic sank early in the morning of April 15 after playing a losing game of chicken of the sea with an iceberg. Margaret was in her room reading when the collision took place, and was so engrossed in her novel that she wasn’t aware of any issues until a ship crewmember threw a life preserver through her cabin door and yelled at her to get to the lifeboats.
Margaret spent the next hour assisting other passengers to lifeboats, until she was finally convinced to board one herself. Margaret was assigned to Lifeboat No. 6. Once aboard the lifeboat, Margaret would take it upon herself to help oar the boat away from the sinking behemoth. When it was safe to return, Margaret insisted Lifeboat No. 6 should return to the wreckage and find more people to rescue, as their boat wasn’t full. Quartermaster Robert Hichens denied her request insisting that drowning people would topple their lifeboat, and death would find them all. At one point, Margaret threatened the Quartermaster that she would throw him overboard either way. Whether or not No. 6 returned to help others is unclear, as history tells it both ways.
After being rescued from the Atlantic by the RMS Carpathia, Margaret set to work organizing a survivor’s committee with other first-class survivors. Working with the committee, Margaret managed to raise over $10,000 for the first-, and second-class survivors before they reached New York.
*”Thanks for the kind thoughts. Water was fine and swimming good. Neptune was exceedingly kind to me and I am now high and dry.” – Margaret Brown to her attorney after the sinking of the Titanic.*
After surviving the sinking of the Titanic, Margaret Brown went on to run for office in Colorado in 1914, which was before it was even legal for women to vote. She dropped out of the race before the election so that she could travel back to France and work for the Committee for Devastated France during World War I, which consisted of rebuilding areas behind the front line and helping the French and American wounded soldiers. Once she came back to America, she went on to continue working for the rights of workers and women, children’s education and literacy, and history preservation.
Margaret spent her last few years in New York working as a stage actress. She passed away, much quieter than she lived, in her sleep on October 26, 1932. After her death, Margaret was given the nickname the Unsinkable Molly Brown.
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