Unsinkable Molly Brown, Tougher than Titanic
By: John Shepler
Late in the evening of April 14, 1912, Maggie Brown was absorbed in her reading, anxiously nearing the end of her book. Suddenly, something crashed at the window overhead and threw her from her brass bed to the floor below. The "unsinkable" Titanic had just grazed the side of an iceberg, ripping a 300 foot gash in the ship's hull. "Get your life-saver," gasped a man in the hall, his face a ghostly white.
Before she knew it, Maggie was on deck and being dropped four feet into a lowering lifeboat. There were 14 women in the boat and one shivering quartermaster who insisted that the Titanic, now listing before its final plunge, would surely suck them down no matter how hard they rowed away. Maggie took a dim view of his tirade. She grabbed the oars and took command, ordering another young woman to help her row.
Those who knew Margaret Tobin Brown would have expected nothing less from the flamboyant "uncrowned queen of smart Parisian Society." She was a spunky American who once boasted that she knew "everyone worth knowing from Moscow to the Bosphorus." She corresponded with Edward, Duke of Windsor and studied at New York's Carnegie Institute. Among her closest friends was the Princess Dolgorouki, an exiled Russian princess who was sister-in-law of the Czar. Margaret "Maggie" Brown owned the best of everything and traveled in some of the highest social circles. Yet, it might have been her working class background more than anything that saved her that night on the icy Atlantic.
Margaret Tobin wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth. It's unlikely anyone in her family even owned one. She grew up in Mark Twain's home town of Hannibal, Missouri, in a one bedroom frame house near the Mississippi River with five brothers and sisters. Her father, John Tobin, had emigrated from Ireland as a boy and worked at the Hannibal Gas Works. What Maggie lacked in material wealth growing up, she made up for in ambition and an active imagination. She claimed to have been childhood buddies with Mark Twain, an unlikely story, although she may have met Twain while she worked as a waitress in one of the town's hotels. When she and her brother Daniel took off to seek their fortune in the mining boom town of Leadville, Colorado, Maggie reported that their wagon train had been attacked and robbed by no less than Jessie James.
The excitement and romance of gold-rush Leadville suited Maggie, and it wasn't long before she was courting a handsome mining engineer named James J. Brown. She and J.J. began their married life in his two-room log cabin near the mine and had two children, Lawrence Palmer known as Larry and Catherine Ellen, also known as Helen. By then, most of her family was living in Leadville. These were happy times for the Tobins and Browns, as J.J. advanced in the Ibex Company and applied his engineering skills to solve a problem of cave-ins in the Little Jonny Mine. His success helped open what was called the world's richest gold strike. Suddenly Maggie and J.J. Brown were literally swimming in money. Maggie, who always wanted to marry a rich man and live the high life, had arrived.
In 1894, the Browns bought a mansion in Denver's chic Capitol Hill neighborhood. She was 27 and yearned to be accepted in Denver's snobby social circles. Initially rebuffed as unsophisticated nouveau riche, she persisted with gusto. Her clothes were the best, her parties the most lavish. This is when the family began traveling the world, learning about art and culture and making high class friends abroad who could come and impress the stuffed shirts of Denver. The Browns did become listed in the city's social directory, but never were invited into the elite "Sacred 36," the creme de la creme of the town's old guard. Their dirt-poor beginnings and Maggie's outspoken personality were greater factors than their almost limitless wealth.
Maggie's European tour of 1912 was interrupted by news that her grandson, Lawrence Palmer, Jr., was ill. She immediately booked first class passage on the Titanic, ready to enjoy the privileged six day crossing that $4,350 could buy. Five days into the trip, Maggie found herself almost instantly transported from reclining in a luxurious stateroom to bobbing around in a tipsy lifeboat in pitch black and freezing cold, with an officer who was ready to declare them all dead people. Maggie was used to rejection, used to dealing with odd characters, but not used to failure. If this man wasn't going to save the ship, she was, with his help or in spite of it.
Maggie kept them warm by rowing and their hopes high with her indomitable spirit, until the lights of the Carpathia appeared to save them at 4:30 a. m. On board that ship she helped organize the rescue efforts, made survivor lists and got them radioed to the families, and formed a committee of other wealthy survivors to raise money for destitute victims of the sinking. By the time they reached New York, she had collected almost $10,000 in pledges.
So how did Maggie Brown acquire her famous nickname? Asked by reporters how she managed to survive the Titanic disaster, Maggie quipped "Typical Brown luck. We're unsinkable." She never did go by the name Molly. That was added decades later when her life was dramatized by the Broadway stage play and movie called "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." Although the script bears only a passing resemblance to her real story, it makes her larger than life and a household name. She would have liked it that way.
Books of Interest:
Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth by Kristen Iverson, with a forward by Muffet Brown, Maggie's great granddaughter. This is an extensively researched biography, the first really serious study of this fascinating woman who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most talked about people of the century.
Titanic Survivor The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters by Violet Jessop and John Maxtone-Graham. Violet Jessop was probably the only rescued person with a toothbrush after the Britannic struck a mine and sank. But then she had been on the Titanic four years earlier and remembered what she had missed... In 1934, she wrote her memoirs. Few, if any, ocean liner stewardesses ever wrote their memoirs; hence, Violet Jessop's life story is doubly valuable - one of a kind as well a articulate, authoritative and informative. From her unique vantage point, whetherin pantry or glory hole, on deck or in a lifeboat, we are suddenly privy to below-stairs life aboard the great ocean liners.
Also visit these related sites:
Molly Brown Birthplace and Museum - A photo tour of the house where Molly was born in Hannibal, Missouri. Also some interesting history about Hannibal and how you can visit the museum.
Violet Jessop, Survivor of the Titanic, Olympic and Britannic Shipwrecks -The amazing story of another Titanic survivor.
CQD Titanic - The Start of Wireless Disaster Communications.
Encyclopedia Titanica - An in-depth resource for anyone interested in the Titanic. Contains over 2,000 biographies, 700 related documents, 1,000 photos, ship's deck plans, movies and animation. Serious researchers and casual browsers will find what they are looking for here.
Note: Photo of Molly Brown after her rescue from the sinking Titanic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
(c) 1999 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: April 11, 1999 as part of A Positive Light