Margaret Tobin Brown (1867–1932)
Margaret Tobin Brown is known to many as “the unsinkable Molly Brown.” She was a wealthy, first-class passenger aboard the Titanic when it sank in 1912. She became famous for her heroism during and after this tragedy.
Margaret Tobin was born in Hannibal, Missouri, on July 18, 1867. Her parents, John Tobin and Johanna Collins, had come from Ireland. They raised a large family in a tiny wooden house just a few blocks from the Mississippi River. Margaret, or Maggie as she was called, finished school at age thirteen and went to work in Garth’s Tobacco Company in Hannibal. She probably picked tobacco leaves from their stems. Later, she worked as a waitress at the Continental Hotel.
Off to Colorado
In 1886, Maggie moved away from Hannibal. She went to Leadville, a fast-growing mining town in Colorado. She wanted to help her parents earn more money. She joined a sister and brother who had already moved there. Maggie worked at a company sewing carpets, draperies, and shades.
Maggie was a friendly and intelligent young woman with red hair and blue eyes. Although she had always wanted to marry a rich man, Maggie soon met and fell in love with a poor miner. His name was James Joseph (“J.J.”) Brown. Maggie and J.J. married on September 1, 1886.
At first the Browns lived outside Leadville in a two-room log cabin. Because J.J. Brown was a very hard-working and smart man, he got better jobs with more responsibility at the mining company. He and Maggie were able to move into a nice house in Leadville after their first child, Lawrence, was born in 1887. Their second child, Catherine Ellen, was born in 1889.
Caring for Others
Margaret always cared about other people. She worked to make life better for miners and their families in Leadville. She helped feed many families when unemployment and hard times hit. She also believed that women should have the right to vote in public elections. Meanwhile, J.J. thought of a way for miners to reach the gold at the lower depths of the Little Jonny Mine. Over the years, J.J. became one of the most successful mining men in the United States. He also became very rich.
In 1894, the Browns moved to an expensive home in Denver. There Margaret continued to help others. She raised money to build a church and hospital. She helped form the Denver Women’s Club, a group that worked to improve education for children and working conditions for miners. Margaret and the club also fought to gain the right to vote.
The Titanic Tragedy
Margaret always wanted to learn more. She went to New York City to study literature, foreign languages, and drama. She traveled around the world. She was trying to get back to the United States when she booked passage on the Titanic. After the ship struck an iceberg, Margaret helped passengers into lifeboats and rowed her own lifeboat to the safety of the Carpathia, the rescue ship.
Margaret worked tirelessly to assist Titanic survivors once they were safely aboard the Carpathia. She helped create the Survivor’s Committee and raised almost $10,000. She used her language skills in French, German, and Russian to gather information about survivors and radio ahead to worried families. She remained on the Carpathia until all the survivors had met with family or friends, or had received medical assistance.
Fighting for Women’s Rights
Margaret became famous for her heroism. But when she was not allowed to testify at the Titanic hearings because she was a woman, Margaret fought even harder for women’s rights. She ran for the U.S. Senate three times, but never won. She organized an important international women’s rights meeting in Newport, Rhode Island. She always gave money to groups that worked to improve the lives of children, women, and workers.
In 1926, Margaret returned to Hannibal to attend the Mark Twain Festival. She helped restore the Twain home and create the Mark Twain Museum. A year later, she purchased the Denver home of Missouri-born writer Eugene Field. She restored it and donated it to the city of Denver.
Final Days and Lasting Impact
Margaret Tobin Brown died in New York City on October 26, 1932, at the age of sixty-five. She had just been awarded the French Legion of Honor for her help in rebuilding France after World War I and her “overall good citizenship.” After her death, her life became the basis of the Broadway play and Hollywood movie, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Although Margaret never used the name “Molly,” she has been called Molly Brown ever since.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 124–25.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989. Volume 1: 247–48.