Margaret Tobin, also known as Molly Brown, was born on 18th July 1867 in Hannibal, Missouri, to parents John Tobin and Johanna Collins, who were both Irish immigrants. Before Margaret was born, her father was widowed with one daughter, Catherine Bridget, whilst her mother was also widowed with a daughter, Mary Ann. Johanna and John had four children together: Daniel (1863), Margaret (1867), William (1869) and Helen (1871).
Molly attended a grammar school ran by her aunt until she left to work in a factory. In 1886, at the age of 18, she left Missouri for Leadville, Colorado, to follow her sister, Mary, and brother, Daniel. While Daniel began working in the mines, Molly worked in the Carpets and Draperies department for Daniels and Fisher Mercantile.
In the early summer of 1886, Molly met James Joseph (J.J) Brown, who was a miner and his parents were also Irish immigrants. Molly and J.J married just a few months later on 1st September 1886 at the Annunciation Church in Leadville, and would begin married life living in J.J’s cabin in the small, Irish community in Leadville called Stumpftown.
The married couple welcomed a son, Laurence Palmer, in 1887, and bought a house in Leadville the same year. Members of both the families soon joined them in their new home. In 1889, J.J and Molly Brown added another addition to the family, their daughter, Helen. While the children were young, Molly was passionately involved in the early feminist movement and the Colorado Chapter of the National American Women’s suffrage Association. She also regularly worked in the soup kitchens to assist the families of Leadville miners.
Whilst Leadville fell into a depression following the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act in 1893, J.J Brown had an idea. He believed that the Little Jonny Mine would soon become a gold producer instead of silver, and so developed a timber and hay bale method that could keep back the dolomite sand that was preventing them from reaching the gold hidden in the lowest depths of the mine. His plan worked, as Little Jonny was shifting 135 tons of ore a day by October 1893, providing J.J Brown with 12,500 shares of stock and a seat on the board. As a result, he quickly become one of the most successful and respected men in the mining industry.
The turn of luck resulted in the Browns buying a home in Pennsylvania Street in Denver on 6th April 1894. They also built a summer home called Avoca Lodge. Molly soon became the founding member of the Denver Women’s Club, which was an advocate for literacy, education, human rights and suffrage not only in Colorado, but the United States. She also worked tirelessly to raise money for St. Joseph’s Hospital and to build the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. Her charitable work didn’t stop there, as she worked alongside Judge Ben Lindsey to help destitute children, whilst helping to establish the first Juvenile Court in the USA, which became the basis for the modern day juvenile court system.
Molly was also well educated, as she went on to attend the Carnegie Institute in New York to study literature, language and drama. A woman of intelligence, love and compassion, Molly Brown helped to raise her brother Daniel’s three children following the death of his wife.
In 1909, after 23 years of marriage, Molly and her husband J.J ended their marriage. Molly signed a private separation agreement that provided her with a cash settlement, a $700 monthly allowance and the possession of their home in Pennsylvania.
The RMS Titanic
Molly Brown was an avid traveller, aiming to expand her horizons by seeing as much of the world as possible. During a trip abroad, she learnt that her grandson, Laurence Palmer Brown Jnr., was ill, so decided to travel back to the United States on RMS Titanic, which took its maiden voyage on 10th April 1914.
Disaster struck aboard the vessel at 11.40pm on 14th April 1914, when RMS Titanic hit an iceberg, forcing it to sink in a matter of hours. Molly would later be hailed a hero, as she helped other passengers onto the lifeboats before finally being convinced to climb aboard lifeboat 6. She also urged for the lifeboats to return to the scene to save more people, but her pleading was rejected by Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who believed the boat would either be pulled down by the suction or that people would attempt to swamp the boat to save their own lives.
Molly Brown with Captain Rostron of the Carpathia
Aboard RMS Carpathia, the vessel that rescued RMS Titanic‘s survivors, she would do whatever she could to help on the ship. Her heroic acts were later acknowledged in the news, earning her the nickname “the Unsinkable Molly Brown”. Her fame helped to benefit the causes close to her heart, including women’s suffrage and workers’ rights.
Life After the Titanic
Molly Brown was a force to be reckoned with. On top of being an advocate for women’s rights, she was the first women in the US to run for political office, running for the Senate 8 years before women were granted the right to vote. In addition, Molly and Alva Vanderbilt organised an international women’s rights conference at Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, on 25th July 1914. Human rights activists all over the world flocked to the event.
Throughout WWI, the Unsinkable Molly Brown worked for the American Committee for Devastated France, which aimed to rebuild areas behind the front line, whilst helping wounded American and French soldiers. For her activism and philanthropy work, she received the French Legion of Honour.
Margaret “Molly” Brown died on 26th October 1932 of a brain tumour. She has been portrayed on film on numerous occasions, and the Broadway Musical and the adapted film, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was based on her life. She is buried in the Cemetery of Holy Rood in Westbury, New York.