Biography: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

She was known as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, but the colorful life of Margaret Tobin Brown went much further than the Titanic fame.

The flamboyant Unsinkable Molly Brown was born to Irish immigrant parents on July 18, 1867. She was christened with the name Margaret Tobin and friends and family called her Maggie. Controversy remains to this day over whether she actually ever used the name Molly, or if it was just created of her fame. The consensus seems to be that Maggie was never called Molly in her lifetime, and that Hollywood and the media started the name of Molly circulating.

Maggie's father, John Tobin, fled Ireland when the potato famine was in its height, and came to America. The Tobins were poor and Mrs. Tobin died within a short time. John moved to Hannibal, Missouri where he dug ditches. It was in Hannibal that he met his second wife, and Maggie's mother, Johanna Collins. They parented four children to add to their family formerly consisting of John's daughter, Katie, and Johanna's daughter by a previous marriage.

Maggie attended a school that her mother's sister taught and it was there that she got her basic education. By the time Maggie was 13, it was expected of her to find employment so that she could offer some financial help to the family. That is exactly what she did, and her first job was at a tobacco factory. There were long hours and no child labor laws to protect the young workers.

When Maggie Tobin was 18, she moved with a brother to Leadville, Colorado, where their sister and her husband had located three years prior. Although it was a mining town, and there was definitely a "bad" part of town, Maggie stayed away from those things and worked as clerk in a dry goods store.

The following year, at age 19, Maggie met James Jacob Brown, known as J.J., and they were married in 1886. J.J. was thirteen years older than Maggie and he had been working as a mining engineer.

Life continued to be filled with hard work for the Browns. Two children were born to them, in 1887 and 1889 and named Lawrence and Helen.

In 1893, life as Maggie Tobin Brown had known it was about to change. Because of a method J.J. had developed for mining, a huge strike of gold occurred. J.J. was given part ownership in the mine and suddenly Maggie was not poor for the first time in her life. The Browns were millionaires and the family moved to Denver.

Maggie decided to enrich her education at this time and worked with tutors to learn five languages. She was able to practice her newly learned languages by traveling to countries where she could speak them. Maggie was hired as a travel writer for the Denver newspaper and wrote of her excursions and adventures.

Maggie's thirst for further education didn't stop there. She was very interested in the arts and was one of the first women to be accepted to New York's Carnegie Institute. She studied languages, dramatics, and literature. The arts was not Maggie's only new interest. She became involved with politics and was a women's rights advocate.

Maggie and J.J. separated in 1909 but never legally divorced, nonetheless, there was never a reunion either.

The beginning of 1912 found Maggie and her daughter Helen traveling in Paris with the rich and famous John Jacob Astor and his new wife. While traveling, Maggie received a telegram from her son, Larry, that his infant son, Maggie's first grandchild, was ill. Helen decided to stay in Paris, and Maggie knew she had to return immediately. The Astors had booked passage on a new luxury liner, and Maggie booked herself aboard at the last moment.

Again, life was about to change. Maggie Tobin Brown's passage ticket was to the White Star Line's maiden voyage of the R. M. S. Titanic. Maggie boarded with the Astors at a stopover in France.

Traveling as a first class passenger on the Titanic was luxury unmeasurable. Due to the last minute booking, Maggie was not listed on the ship's passenger roster. She must have felt very fortunate to secure a space for herself on the voyage. The Titanic had been called a floating palace, and indeed it was. Maggie had access to a gymnasium, pool, library, Turkish bath, and even a hospital room equipped with the necessities should surgery be needed for a passenger. Her bill for passage was more than four thousand dollars.

Maggie was lying in bed reading in the late evening hours of April 14, 1912. By 12:15 a.m. of the 15th, lifeboats were being prepared after the Titanic struck an iceberg. Maggie readied herself with extra layers of clothing, some cash in a pocket, and a good luck charm. When lifeboat number six was lowered, Maggie Brown was in it. The number of passengers in the lifeboat was less than half of the capacity it was built to hold.

It is reported that Maggie more or less took charge of rowing duties, and helped in any way she could to assist the others in the lifeboat, mostly women. She knew that they would have to keep warm by rowing and made sure that everyone onboard had their turn. At 2:20 a.m., Maggie watched the great "unsinkable" liner disappeared from sight.

After the ship named Carpathia finally arrived on the scene, Maggie again did whatever she could to help. There were immigrants who had been traveling with third class accommodations on the Titanic, and Maggie's grasp of languages allowed her to converse with them. She helped to put survivor lists together and made sure the lists were radioed to terrified families.

Upon arrival of the Carpathia in New York, Maggie raised funds from the well-to-do passengers to give to the women who had lost husbands, the orphans, and the crew members' families. She added the $500 that she had placed in her pocket aboard the Titanic and had raised nearly $10,000 for the cause in a very short time.

When asked by reporters how she managed to survive the disaster, Maggie is reported to have said "Typical Brown luck. We're unsinkable."

In the years that followed, Maggie continued to be active politically. There was even a run for the United States Senate in 1914, but it did not result in her being elected.

There was involvement during the Mexican War when she helped to start a military regiment for women and she volunteered at an American hospital in France during World War I. Thirteen years after the Titanic tragedy, Maggie once again survived a near disaster by escaping a hotel fire in Palm Beach.

Margaret Tobin Brown died on October 25, 1932. Two strokes had claimed the 65 year old legend. Her fortune was all but gone by that time and she died poor, as she had spent the first few decades of life.

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