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BEYOND Unsinkable

The Real Molly Brown

By Laura Harbold | HUMANITIES, May/June 2007 | Volume 28, Number 3

Margaret Tobin Brown enjoyed the rumors people spread about her, says Kerri Atter, director of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, Colorado. “She knew they said she burned up money in her stove. But she just laughed it off. She said, 'As long as they're talking about me, I don't care what they say.'”

Brown's fondness for the spotlight is the foundation of her outrageous, larger-than-life reputation. Most famous for surviving the Titanic disaster, Brown is often characterized as a brash social climber who stood out like a sore thumb among America's upper class. Like Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, Molly Brown has become a legendary figure of the American West.

Even the name “Molly” is part of the legend, says Kristen Iversen, author of the 1999 biography Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth. In 1960, Richard Morris wrote a hit musical called The Unsinkable Molly Brown. “Her name was Margaret,” Iversen says. “They changed it to Molly because it was easier to sing.” The nickname stuck, and so did Morris's refashioning of Brown as an uneducated gold digger who sings and dances her way to success. “The saloon-girl myth is very common in women's history,” says Iversen , who believes the stereotype obscures women's real contributions.

The Molly Brown House Museum aims to introduce visitors to the real Margaret Tobin Brown in a new NEH-funded exhibition, which opens June 23. “Molly Brown: The Biography of a Changing Nation” places Brown in the context of Progressive Era America.

“She came from a background of equal rights for all—animals, children, black, white, Irish, Protestant, Catholic,” Atter says. “She was always acting as an advocate for people who didn't have a voice.” Brown used her wealth and influence to raise money and spark publicity about issues such as women's suffrage, workers' rights, and the juvenile justice system.

“Brown had a true reforming ethos,” says Modupe Labode, chief historian at the Colorado Historical Society. “People are familiar with women activists like Jane Addams, but less so with the women who supplied the money for these projects, like Margaret Brown.”

Brown was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1867. Her mother, Johanna Tobin, was an Irish Catholic immigrant who insisted that Margaret receive an eighth-grade education, three years more than the average for women. John, her father, was an abolitionist involved with the Underground Railroad. “The children grew up believing it was their civic duty to help Irish Catholics and African Americans, both highly marginalized groups at the time,” Atter says.

When Margaret was eighteen, she moved to Leadville, Colorado, with her brother and sister, inspired by tales of overnight success in the untamed West. She made a meager but adequate living as a seamstress until she met James Joseph “J. J.” Brown, a thirty-one-year-old miner, at a church picnic. They were married shortly after Margaret turned nineteen.

The Browns enjoyed modest success, raising two children, Lawrence and Helen, in a home in central Leadville. J. J. became superintendent of the Ibex Mining Company, directing the construction of a new shaft in a mine called the Little Johnny. In 1893, he struck gold. The Little Johnny yielded the largest vein of pure gold the Leadville mining community had ever seen. J. J. became a major Ibex stockholder, and the Browns moved to a large, ornate home in Denver.

Designed by William Lang in 1893, the house at 1340 Pennsylvania Street had electricity, indoor plumbing, and telephone lines. Although the building was modest compared to the residences of other wealthy Denver businessmen, the Browns' home has undergone the same imaginative embellishment as Brown herself. “There's a legend that Margaret's house had a ballroom on the third floor, an idea that's been influenced by movies,” Labode explains.

The Molly Brown House Museum offers guided tours, which explain the original uses of each room. “ But we don't want it to become a mausoleum for furniture or tell the same story over and over,” Labode says. The museum's changing exhibits place Brown's life in historical context and cover topics ranging from Victorian women's fashions to the cultural movements of the Roaring Twenties.

The museum highlights Brown's dedication to social activism. “ Brown helped to establish many of the things that make Denver Denver,” says Annie Robb Levinsky, assistant director of the museum.

Brown founded the Denver Dumb Friends League, one of the first humane societies in the nation, and was instrumental in raising money for the expansion of St. Joseph's Hospital. Partnering with Judge Ben Lindsey, Brown also established a punishment and rehabilitation system for child offenders that Iversen calls “a blueprint of the juvenile justice system as it exists today.” In 1912, Brown was vacationing in Europe when she received word that her grandson was ill. Eager to return to his side, she booked a ticket for the Titanic's maiden voyage. When the ship struck ice, Brown was herded into a lifeboat with twenty-three other passengers, mostly women. She and her fellow survivors rowed through the night until they were rescued at dawn by the crew of the RMS Carpathia.

Amid the chaos and confusion on the deck of the Carpathia, Brown took charge. She organized the distribution of blankets and food, compiled a list of survivors, and raised more than ten thousand dollars from first-class passengers before the Carpathia reached New York. Brown became president of the Titanic Survivors' Committee. After she described the Brown luck, she got the nickname “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown.”

Brown's newfound fame allowed her to wield increasing influence in national politics, particularly in the area of workers' rights. Having experienced the precariousness of mine work in the early years of her marriage, she never lost compassion for the workers and their families. Miners worked long hours, often seven days a week, without healthcare or insurance. In 1913, tensions between workers and mine owners boiled over in Ludlow, Colorado. When Ludlow mine owners refused to negotiate with the Miners' Union about inadequate food and housing, more than eleven thousand workers went on strike. Miners and their families were turned out of company-owned housing, and they resorted to living in tent camps near the mine.

The standoff escalated. When the Miners' Union refused to surrender two petty criminals, the National Guard fired into the crowd, killing five men. That night, the Guard doused the miners' tents in oil and burned them to the ground. Nearly a dozen children were killed in the blaze on April 20, 1914. The events, which came to be known as the Ludlow Massacre, outraged the nation and compelled Brown to act. She poured her energy into fundraising, sending nurses, shoes, and clothing to Ludlow. She spearheaded an investigation into the miners' deaths and pleaded with John D. Rockefeller Jr. to resolve the dispute between the union and the mine owners. “He listened to her,” Iversen says. “Rockefeller came to Colorado and things changed.”

In 1914, six years before women received the right to vote in the United States, Brown announced her candidacy for a seat in the Senate. “Some people laughed at her, but she wasn't doing it for a lark,” Labode says. “She had certainly thought about what she was doing.”

Brown's Senate bid never came to fruition. The Great War descended on Europe, and Brown was called abroad to serve as director of the American Committee for Devastated France. She oversaw the work of female ambulance drivers and aid givers and organized the distribution of food and clothing in bomb-ravaged villages. Brown was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her work during the First World War.

In the final years of her life, Brown pursued her love of theater. “She was determined to keep trying new things,” Labode says. Brown studied acting in Paris and landed roles in The Merchant of Venice and Cleopatra. She received the Palm of the Academy of France in 1929 for her achievements in theater and began to teach acting to young women in New York City.

“The myth is that Brown was an uneducated hillbilly-type person, but that's simply not true,” Iversen says. Brown pursued education throughout her life. She spent a year studying literature and languages at the Carnegie Institute and often hired private tutors at her Denver home. “People think these mining towns are isolated, but they actually had a relatively sophisticated cultural life,” Iversen explains.

Characterizations like Morris's The Unsinkable Molly Brown are a product of women's changing roles in the 1950s and 1960s, Atter says. “Women were moving back into the home, so they recharacterized Brown as a woman who was trying to create the perfect domestic sphere, to throw the perfect party,” she explains. Atter hopes the Molly Brown House Museum will dispel this characterization and introduce visitors to an educated, well-traveled social activist who influenced national and even international politics.

“We want to use historical context to illuminate the strong, interesting individual she was,” Atter says, “but also to show that there were other women who supported suffrage and women's roles outside the home. She wasn't just a grand woman who did things in a vacuum. She was one of us.”

About the Author

Laura Harbold is a writer in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Funding Information

The Molly Brown House Museum received $80,000 in NEH funding for the exhibition Molly Brown: The Biography of a Changing Nation," which opened June 23.