On April 15, 1912, the brand new passenger liner Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg.
More than 1,500 people died, and the legend of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” was born, providing an Old West connection to one of the worst maritime disasters in history.
Her story is a remarkable one, starting in 1867, when Margaret Tobin was born to Irish immigrants in Hannibal, Missouri. In her mid-teens, Margaret moved to the booming mining town of Leadville, Colorado. She worked at a department store and attended the Catholic church.
One of her fellow parishioners was J.J. Brown, a self-taught mining engineer who was 12 years her senior. They married in 1886, when she was 19. They lived a far from glamorous existence in a cabin near the mines, but Margaret later called them the best years of her life.
That life changed in 1893, when J.J.—a mine superintendent—discovered gold in a claim owned by his employer, the Ibex Mining Company. Ibex was grateful; they gave him shares in the company, and the Browns became overnight millionaires.
They soon moved to Denver, where they built a mansion. Margaret, who was always socially conscious, became involved in poor relief, historic preservation and juvenile justice. Over the years, their interests diverged. J.J. and Margaret legally separated in 1909, but the devout Irish Catholics never divorced.
In 1912, while Margaret was touring Europe, she received a telegram that her grandson was ill. The fastest ship available to take her to the States was the Titanic. She was reading in bed when the collision occurred.
Once on deck, Margaret helped direct passengers to lifeboats. Then someone picked her up and dropped her in one of the boats—an action that saved her life. Several hours elapsed before the Carpathia crew rescued them.
Aboard the Carpathia, Margaret, who spoke five languages, translated to allow crew members to communicate with the survivors. She also raised $10,000 to help destitute survivors, forming the Survivor’s Committee and becoming its chairperson. When the ship reached the U.S., she made sure that other Titanic passengers were reunited with family or friends. She was the last to leave the ship that day. She would later be the force behind the Titanic Memorial in Washington, D.C.
When the ship docked at New York, Mrs. Brown acquired part of her nickname. Surrounded by reporters asking how she had survived, she told them: “Typical Brown luck. We’re unsinkable.”
Although Margaret now lived in Newport, Rhode Island, she returned to Denver on a yearly basis. In 1914, she took on a special situation. On April 20, a firefight broke out in Ludlow, Colorado, between striking miners and militia from John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. More than 20 people were killed—including two women and 11 children—in what organized labor called the Ludlow Massacre.
Both sides asked Margaret to help mediate the conflict. It was a tough assignment. Her sympathies were with the strikers, but she understood the positions of the mine owners. She did use media coverage to apply pressure, especially to Rockefeller, who eventually made concessions and reached an agreement with the miners.
In her later years, Margaret found a different stage. She studied drama in Paris and acted there and in New York (to some public acclaim, of course). She died in her sleep in the Big Apple in 1932.
Margaret’s legacy lives in so many areas. Her Denver mansion was rescued from the wrecking ball in 1970 by a group of preservationists (it is now the Molly Brown House Museum). Their efforts led to the formation of Historic Denver, which has been instrumental in the establishment of 45 historic districts and landmarking of more than 325 properties.
As you might expect, the Molly Brown House is hosting a number of events tied to the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster (see sidebar below).
Unsinkable and unforgettable. That’s Margaret Tobin Brown.
DENVER’S 2012 TITANIC EVENTS!
Molly Brown House Museum
The Unsinkable Molly Brown Screening
April 3: Denver Film Center
Great-Granddaughter Recounts Margaret’s Life
April 12: Brown Palace Hotel
Titanic Gala Dinner & Fundraiser
April 14: Oxford Hotel
The Sinking of the Titanic by JACK Quartet
April 15: Newman Center for Performing Arts (take Broadway south to I-25 East)
Titanic in American Culture, 1912-2012 Lecture
April 17: Scottish Rite Masonic Center
Molly’s Birthday Jubilee & Titanic Expo
July 15: Molly Brown House Museum