April 15, 2016 marks the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. History lovers may honor the occasion with a moment of silence and/or another viewing of Leo and Kate in the 1997 blockbuster film. The doomed voyage of the Titanic is the most famous disaster of an era still recognizable as Edwardian. Although the ship left Southampton en route to New York City with 2,224 passengers and crew, it is believed only 710 survived. The most well-known survivor is American socialite Margaret Tobin Brown, better known as the ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown. Ironically, she was never called ‘Molly’ in her lifetime. After her death in 1932, two writers created a fictional account of the famous Margaret Brown that enjoyed numerous broadcasts on radio in the 1940s. This became the basis of the 1960 Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. But no matter what name she goes by, the woman known as “Unsinkable” has deservedly attained the status of popular legend.
The daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants John and Johanna Tobin, Margaret was born in Hannibal, Missouri on July 18, 1867. When her formal education ended at age 13, Margaret went to work in a tobacco factory. After she turned 18, Margaret and her siblings moved to Leadville, Colorado. Finding work in a local department store as a sewer in the drapery and carpet department, Margaret announced her intention to marry a rich man. She wanted to marry a man with money in order to help her beloved father who had struggled in poverty for so long. But a chance meeting with a miner at a church picnic changed her mind and she married for love a year later.
Her 31-year-old husband, James Joseph Brown (known as J.J.) was also the son of Irish immigrants. Although hardworking and ambitious, the self-educated J.J. was not rich…at least not yet. By the time he met 19-year-old Margaret in Leadville, J.J. had spent several years learning about mining in the Dakotas and Colorado. When they wed in 1886, J.J. was the Louisville Mine foreman; two years later he was superintendent of a highly productive mining company.
The bride and groom first took up residence in a log cabin in Leadville, but J.J.’s success in mining – and his invention to prevent cave-ins – soon allowed the couple and their two children to move into a more comfortable home. After the discovery of gold and copper at the Little Jonny Mine, the Brown family became fabulously wealthy. Their next change of residence took them to the expensive Capitol Hill neighborhood in Denver where they bought a $30,000 mansion in 1894. Three years later, they bought a second mansion in the Denver foothills called Avoca Lodge, now known as the Margaret Brown Summer House. Margaret brought her parents to live with them in Denver, happy to finally be able to give them a life of leisure. In addition to raising her own son and daughter, she also raised her brother Daniel’s three children after their mother died.
Although now a wealthy woman, Margaret had always tried to help the less fortunate. In Leadville, she worked in soup kitchens set up to assist the families of miners and helped form the Colorado chapter for women’s suffrage. When she moved into her Denver mansion, Margaret became a founding member of the Denver Woman’s Club, an organization dedicated to literacy, education, and the improvement of women’s lives. Because her rise in fortune placed her in another social class, Margaret worked hard to acquire the skills and knowledge to allow her to be viewed as a society lady. Her efforts to immerse herself in the arts and culture paid off. Margaret eventually became fluent in four languages: French, Russian, German and Italian. So deep was her love of French culture, she helped to establish a branch of the Alliance Francaise in Denver.
Despite J.J.’s financial success and Margaret’s philanthropic interests, things were not as pleasant on the marital front. In 1909, the couple legally separated after twenty-three years of marriage; divorce was out of the question for the Irish Catholic Browns. They remained fond of each other, but never again lived as man and wife. J.J. signed over a cash settlement to his wife, along with the two mansions in Denver. To allow Margaret to continue her interest in social work and travel, a monthly allowance of $700 was also given to her; this amounts to a monthly payment of $18,436 today.
Her love of travel took her to England in January 1912. She then toured Europe and Egypt for the next three months. In April, 44-year-old Margaret decided to return home as quickly as possible after learning her five-month-old grandson in America was not feeling well. Because her plans were so last-minute, Margaret bought her ticket for the Titanic the day before it sailed. Along with her steamer trunks, she brought on board crates filled with items she planned to donate to the Denver Museum of Art. And representing her recent Egyptian visit was a small talisman Margaret carried on her for good luck.
Although traveling alone, Margaret did have friends who also booked passage on the ship’s maiden voyage, most notably John Jacob Astor and his wife. As a millionairess, Margaret traveled first class, a situation viewed with disdain by some of her fellow first class passengers. No matter how many mansions she owned or how many languages she spoke, social snobs sometimes regarded her as little more than a hayseed who was lucky enough to come into money.
Yet when the Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40pm on April 14th, it was Margaret Brown who helped many of these snobbish first class passengers into the lifeboats. Margaret was so intent on evacuating other people, she refused to worry about herself. Besides, she had her good luck talisman from Egypt with her (along with $500 and as many clothes as she could put on). Finally, a frustrated crew member picked Margaret up and dropped her into a lifeboat being lowered into the water. In addition to Margaret Brown, Lifeboat No. 6 held American writer and feminist Helen Churchill Candee. When the women in the lifeboat saw only two crewmen were in the boat – Quartermaster Robert Hichens and Frederick Fleet – they begged for an additional oarsman. Second Mate Lightoller asked the crowd milling about him if any male passenger had sailing experience. A Royal Canadian Yacht Club member volunteered. Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen thus became the only male passenger permitted to board a lifeboat by Lightoller.
During the long harrowing night that followed the sinking of the Titanic at 2:20am, things became tense in Lifeboat No. 6. Although Titanic Quartermaster Hichens was technically in charge, he resented the presence of the Canadian Major Peuchen, who outranked him. Afraid Peuchen would take command of the boat, Hichens refused to allow the Canadian to help him row. After Titanic sank, Margaret Brown, Major Peuchen and others in the lifeboat begged Hichens to return so they could rescue those now struggling in the water. But Hichens would not go back, claiming “There’s only a lot of stiffs out there…It’s our lives now, not theirs.”
As an aside, in the 1997 movie, the man portraying Hichens tells Margaret to “Shut your pie hole.” That never happened on Margaret’s boat, but instead took place among the survivors of Lifeboat No. 8. And Kathy Bates’s Molly Brown is easily subdued and silenced by Hichens in the movie lifeboat scene. The real Margaret Brown was much more difficult to intimidate.
When the cries from the dying people in the water eventually fell silent, Margaret asked Hichens to let the women in the lifeboat row in order to help keep them warm. He refused. Margaret had enough of Hichens by this time and began to hand out oars to the ladies in the boat. An angry Hichens tried to physically stop her but Margaret warned that if he laid hands on her, she’d throw him overboard. Other women in the boat chimed in with their support of Margaret. Hichens continued to swear so much at her, the male stoker on board told him, “Don’t you know you’re talking to a lady?”
Margaret Brown now took up an oar herself. She arranged for the women to row in shifts; two women handling one oar. Helen Churchill Candee also took part in the rowing despite the broken ankle she suffered when boarding the lifeboat. Margaret and her fellow passengers reached the Carpathia at 8am, one of the last lifeboats to do so. Once on board the Carpathia, Margaret spent her time taking care of her fellow survivors, handing out food and blankets. Because of her facility with languages, she served as translator for the immigrant women who survived the disaster. The Carpathia had no sooner docked in New York when Margaret set up the Survivor’s Committee and raised nearly $10,000 to help those in financial need. Widespread approval and acclaim greeted the published accounts of Margaret’s brave efforts during the ordeal and she quickly became known as the “Unsinkable” Margaret Brown.
Many surviving crew members were not so lauded. When Lifeboat No. 6 came into view of the Carpathia, the photo taken of the boat reveals only 28 people on board. The lifeboat was designed to carry 65. An official inquiry was held to ascertain exactly what happened during the evacuation. While the combative and frightened Quartermaster Hichens gave his garbled version of events during the inquiry, Margaret and her fellow women passengers in Lifeboat No. 6 could not. As females, they were prohibited from testifying. This so outraged Margaret, she wrote her version of what happened. Margaret’s account was published in newspapers in the U.S. and Europe. It should be noted that Robert Hichens not only was in charge of Lifeboat No. 6, he was steering Titanic when it hit the iceberg. The events of the Titanic so overshadowed his life, Hichens became a heavy drinker and twice attempted suicide.
Margaret used her newfound celebrity to help promote the social causes she had long championed. She fought for the rights of women and workers, and was dedicated to the cause of children’s literacy. The first juvenile court in the U.S. came into being largely due to Margaret Brown and Judge Ben Lindsey’s determination to help poverty stricken children caught up in the legal system. She contributed to the fundraising for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, and worked in many historic preservation efforts. In 1914, she and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont held an international women’s rights conference in Newport, Rhode Island. Margaret also ran for the Senate in 1914 even though women did not yet have the right to vote. She halted her political campaign to go to France during WWI to help wounded soldiers and rebuild war torn areas behind the front line. For her work with the American Committee For Devastated France and her philanthropy in America, Margaret would eventually be awarded the Légion d’Honneur.
Always eager to learn something new, Margaret tried her hand at acting in the last years of her life. After studying the Sarah Bernhardt technique in Paris, Margaret performed in plays in both New York and France. In 1932, 65-year-old Margaret had taken up residence at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City to continue her interest in theater and acting. On October 26, 1932, she died of a brain tumor or stroke at the hotel. She was buried in Cemetery of the Holy Rood on Long Island next to her husband J.J., who died of a heart attack in 1922.
Despite her many causes and interests, Margaret remained dedicated to memorializing those who died on the Titanic and honoring the people who helped the survivors, especially the crew of the Carpathia. And as a thank you for rescuing her, Margaret gave Captain Rostron of the Carpathia her good luck talisman from Egypt. Margaret Brown seemed to have luck to spare – along with a wonderful sense of humor. As just one example, after she arrived in New York on the Carpathia, she sent the following wire to her Denver attorney: “Thanks for the kind thoughts. Water was fine and swimming good. Neptune was exceedingly kind to me and I am now high and dry.” Yep. She was unsinkable.
For further reading:
Butler, Daniel Allen (1998). Unsinkable: The Full Story of RMS Titanic. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books
Wormstedt, Bill; Fitch, Tad (2011). “An Account of the Saving of Those on Board”. In Halpern, Samuel. Report into the Loss of the SS Titanic: A Centennial Reappraisal. Stroud, UK: The History Press.