Molly Brown (Margaret Tobin) was born on 18 July 1867,1 in Hannibal, Missouri, the daughter of John Tobin and Johanna Collins (2), both Irish immigrants.
Her father, John Tobin, was widowed with one daughter, Catherine Bridget. When he met Johanna Collins, Johanna was also widowed with one daughter, whose name was Mary Ann. John and Johanna married and had four additional children: Daniel (1863), Margaret (1867), William (1869), and Helen (1871).
Margaret grew up in a cottage just blocks from the Mississippi River, and attended the grammar school run by her aunt, Mary O'Leary. As a teenager she worked stripping tobacco leaves at Garth's Tobacco Company in Hannibal.
At the age of eighteen she followed her sister, Mary Ann Tobin Landrigan, and Mary's new husband Jack Landrigan, to Leadville, Colorado, where they established a blacksmith shop. Margaret shared a cabin with her brother, Daniel Tobin, who worked in the mines and eventually became a successful mine promoter. Margaret, known as Maggie until she married, went to work for Daniels and Fisher Mercantile in Leadville, where she worked in the Carpets and Draperies department.
During the early summer of 1886, she met James Joseph ("J.J.") Brown, a miner whose parents had also immigrated from Ireland. They married on 1 September, 1886, at the Annunciation Church in Leadville, and lived in J.J.'s cabin in Stumpftown, a small, primarily Irish community up the hill from Leadville. The Browns had two children: Lawrence Palmer, born in 1887, and Catherine Ellen ("Helen"), born in 1889. After the birth of Lawrence, the Browns bought a house in Leadville and were eventually joined by members of both their families.
While her children were young, Margaret was involved in the early feminist movement in Leadville and the establishment of the Colorado Chapter of the National American Women's Suffrage Association. She also worked in soup kitchens to assist families of Leadville miners. When the Sherman Silver Act was repealed in 1893, Leadville was thrust into a deep depression and the unemployment rate was 90 percent. J.J. Brown, who had become superintendent of all the Ibex mining properties, had an idea. Convinced that the Little Jonny Mine might become a producer of gold rather than silver, he devised a timber-and-hay bale method to hold back the dolomite sand that had prevented them from reaching the gold at the lower depths of the mine. By October 29, 1893, the Little Jonny was shipping 135 tons of ore per day, and Brown was awarded 12,500 shares of stock and a seat on the board. Over the years he became one of the most successful mining men in the country.
On April 6, 1894, the Browns purchased a home on Pennsylvania Street in Denver and built a summer home, Avoca Lodge, in the foothills. Margaret became a founding member of the Denver Woman's Club, part of a network of clubs which advocated literacy, education, suffrage, and human rights in Colorado and throughout the United States. She raised funds to build the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception as well as St. Joseph's Hospital, and worked with Judge Ben Lindsey to help destitute children and establish the first Juvenile Court in the country, which eventually became the basis for today's U.S. juvenile court system. She also attended the Carnegie Institute in New York, where she studied literature, language, and drama. In addition to raising two children of her own, she raised the three daughters of her brother Daniel: Grace, Florence, and Helen Tobin, whose mother had died when they were young in White Pine, Colorado.
Margaret Tobin Brown was one of the first women in the United States to run for political office, and ran for the Senate eight years before women even had the right to vote. On July 25, 1914, with Alva Vanderbilt (Mrs O.H.P.) Belmont, she organized an international women's rights conference at Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, which was attended by human rights activists from around the world. A lifelong advocate of human rights, Margaret was also a prominent figure following the Ludlow Massacre in Trinidad, Colorado, in April 1914, a significant landmark in the history of labor rights in the United States.
By the time Margaret Tobin Brown boarded Titanic at Cherbourg, France, she had already made a significant impact in the world. She and her daughter Helen, who was a student at the Sorbonne, had been traveling throughout Europe and were staying with the John Jacob Astor party in Cairo, Egypt, when Margaret received word that her first grandchild, Lawrence Palmer Brown, Jr., was ill. She decided to leave for New York immediately, and booked passage on the earliest ship: Titanic. At the last minute Helen decided to stay behind in London. Due to her quick decision, very few people, including family, knew that Margaret was on board the Titanic.
After the ship struck the iceberg, Margaret helped load others into lifeboats and eventually was forced to board lifeboat six. She and the other women in lifeboat six worked together to row, keep spirits up, and dispel the gloom that was broadcast by the emotional and unstable Robert Hichens. However, Margaret's most significant work occurred on Carpathia, where she assisted Titanic survivors, and afterwards in New York. By the time the Carpathia reached New York harbour, Margaret had helped establish the Survivor's Committee, been elected as chair, and raised almost $10,000 for destitute survivors. Margaret's language skills in French, German, and Russian were an asset, and she remained on Carpathia until all Titanic survivors had met with friends, family, or medical/emergency assistance. In a letter to her daughter shortly after the Titanic sinking, she wrote:
"After being brined, salted, and pickled in mid ocean I am now high and dry... I have had flowers, letters, telegrams-people until I am befuddled. They are petitioning Congress to give me a medal... If I must call a specialist to examine my head it is due to the title of Heroine of the Titanic."
Her sense of humor prevailed; to her attorney in Denver she wired:
"Thanks for the kind thoughts. Water was fine and swimming good. Neptune was exceedingly kind to me and I am now high and dry."
On May 29, 1912, as chair of the Survivor's Committee Margaret presented a silver loving cup to Captain Rostron of the Carpathia and a medal to each Carpathia crew member. In later years Margaret helped erect the Titanic memorial that stands in Washington, D.C.; visited the cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to place wreaths on the graves of victims; and continued to serve on the Survivor's Committee. She was particularly upset that, as a woman, she was not allowed to testify at the Titanic hearings. In response she wrote her own version of the event which was published in newspapers in Denver, New York, and Paris.
Molly Brown with Captain Rostron of the Carpathia
Margaret used her new fame as a platform to talk about issues that deeply concerned her: labor rights, women's rights, education and literacy for children, and historic preservation. During World War I, she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France to help rebuild devastated areas behind the front line, and worked with wounded French and American soldiers (the Chateau of Blerancourt, a French-American museum outside of Paris, has a commemorative plaque that bears her name). In 1932 she was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her "overall good citizenship," which included helping organize the Alliance Francais, her ongoing work in raising funds for Titanic victims and crew, her work with Judge Ben Lindsey on the Juvenile Court of Denver, and her relief efforts during World War I.
In her latter years Margaret returned to her earlier fascination with drama, particularly Sarah Bernhardt, and studied in Paris in the Bernhardt tradition. She performed to appreciative audiences in Paris and New York.
J.J. Brown died 5 September 1922 in New York.
Margaret Tobin Brown died of a brain tumor on 26 October 1932, at the Barbizon Hotel in New York where she had been working with young actresses. After a simple funeral service Maggie was buried, next to J.J., in Long Island's Holy Rood Cemetery. Their daughter Helen Benziger (née Brown) died in Old Greenwich, Connecticut on 17 October 1993 at the age of 97.
Despite the legend, she was not ostracized by society nor rejected by her family. The myth of "Molly" Brown has very little to do with the real life of Margaret Tobin Brown, although it speaks to her spirit. Margaret was never known as "Molly": the name was a Hollywood invention. The story began in the 1930s with the colorful pen of Denver Post reporter Gene Fowler, who created a folk tale, and sensationalist writer Carolyn Bancroft, who wrote a highly fictional account for a romance magazine that was turned into a booklet. This story enjoyed various radio broadcasts during the 1940s and was the basis for the Broadway play, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown", which eventually became the MGM movie of the same name, starring Debbie Reynolds. Even James Cameron's 1997 film "Titanic" has very little to do with the real story of Margaret Tobin Brown. After attempting to mitigate or correct the legend of "Molly," the Brown family eventually withdrew from the public and refused to speak with writers, reporters, or historians for many years.