Imagine that you followed your heart to live an honest life doing what you felt was right: working hard, marrying for love, aiding others, traveling and always, always learning. You were a wife, a mother, a socialite, an activist, a suffragist, and a citizen of the world. You were adored by many, inspired more and lived life in the fullest, kindest way that you could imagine. And, when you died, your impressive life story was altered to one that was almost beyond recognition. Often for the worse!
That’s what happened to Margaret Tobin Brown. You might know her as Molly Brown- the Unsinkable Molly Brown. A woman whose real life story was so much more impressive than the one that was assigned to her after her death.
Margaret Tobin was born a middle child of John and Johanna Tobin in Hannibal, MO on July 18, 1867. Her parents had ridden a wave of Irish Catholic immigration during a Potato Famine and landed in this western railroad stop of a town . John worked as a laborer for a variety of businesses while his children attended school and played in the same woods as another Hannibal resident had years before: Samuel Clemens.
The Tobin children had no more, and no less, than most of their neighbors. It was a frugal childhood, but not the miserable, motherless one of the fables of her life.
And another fable? She wasn’t called Molly, she was called Maggie or Margaret. Molly was just another fabrication to fuel the poor-Irish-upbringing image the media had created for her.
Oh! We could carry on about all the inaccuracies in the story of her life…oh, wait, we do. More details are in the podcast about how she traveled as a teenager to Leadville, CO looking to improve her life. How she worked hard and loyally first at a cigar factory in Hannibal, then in a department store in Leadville. How she wanted a better life for herself and her family and how she married for love, not for money.
Margaret and James (J.J.) Brown set up housekeeping in Leadville. They took on a little domestic help and hired tutors to continue their own education. Margaret’s family from Hannibal moved up, and they all became an integral part of a very tight community. Margaret was very active in civic activities. This wasn’t some dainty, wihte glove wearing woman (although she probably did wear them) she wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves to help those less fortunate than her. She was well liked, and liked many- the Browns were pillars of Leadville society. Soon they added two children to their family, Lawrence and Helen.
Not overnight, and not by sheer luck, J.J. hit it rich. Gold. (This is the only gold digging in Margaret’s story!)
Leadville had been a silver mining town, but politics got in the way and the price of silver had plummeted. J.J’s mine, the Little Johnny Mine, was a boon to the town AND the Browns. They hadn’t been living in squalor, the family was very much middle class. But suddenly, they found themselves in a very different class. They were moving to the big city of Denver.
What was life like for the Browns in Denver? They fit very well into society. Not a tiny elitist portion, but the portion where most of the people of means were hanging. They traveled the world, entertained at home and abroad and educated their children in a variety of very fine schools both in the States and Europe. And Margaret? She was very much a civic minded lady and her former Leadville soup kitchen activites turned grander and more income generating. She was charming, knew the right people and knew how to separate the rich from their money for a good cause- she knew how to get stuff done.
Doesn’t really sound like the activities of a woman who didn’t fit into society, does it? Listen to the podcast for the details of this time in her life, but at some point, Margaret and J.J. separated. They would never divorce, but live together they could not. J.J. was a workaholic, and Margaret, quite busy with her own endeavors as well as the travel (which she adored)- she had outgrown Denver and housewife duties. We name drop big time when we discuss the circles she traveled in but at this point Margaret was dividing her time between Newport, Europe and Denver living large and in charge where ever she went.
Yadda Yadda…she ends up on the Titanic.
Margaret’s actions on that fateful voyage were the stuff movies are made out of. She did help people in her lifeboat, she did attempt to get the lifeboat to return to see if there were survivors, she did row (as did other woman in the lifeboat),she did share her clothing, she was level headed…stripping down to almost nothing, cracking jokes and singing bar songs? Prolly not. But Margaret had spent her life helping people, she was smart and knew how to take command of a situation- those skills all would come into play during the hours in Lifeboat #6.
Once rescued by the Carpathia hours after the Titanic sank, Margaret and her caring ways really sprang into action! No resting in First Class for this woman, she was tending to the needs of all the recued passengers and shaking down the one’s that were traveling on the Carpathia. By the time they docked in New York, she had plans in place to keep track of -and get promised funds to- survivors; she had thousands pledged and plans to get more. With a heart bigger than her hat, she made sure that blame was placed properly, and heroism rewarded.
In the years following the Titanic portion of her life, Margaret continued to travel, was deep in Newport society, attempted to run for a state Senate position, continued to be an advocate for those who she felt needed one, and never stopped learning. She died at the age of 65 in 1932 while in New York studying acting.
Margaret Brown was a multidimensional, big hearted, smart woman with charm and personality. The myths that surround her life, while entertaining, are not nearly as fascinating as the real life of this remarkable woman.
Time Travel With The History Chicks
Books! The first one we loved a lot, had so many,”Wow! She was a rockstar! Who knew!?” moments for us:
The second is a kids’ book, but we thought it did a fun job of telling her philanthropic story (and the photos were terrific):
Near Hannibal? The Molly Brown Birthplace and Museum will show you where she began her adventure and developed the strong character that would propel her through life.
There is a brand new… museum? Theme establishment? Convention center? Birthplace of The Titanic?Not quite sure what it is exactly, but it’s pretty cool looking and sits where the Titanic was built in Belfast, Ireland. Titanic Belfast
Curious about Leadville? We were and found lots of answers here!
What about mining Ghost Towns of Colorado? This site is very fun to poke around on, Coloradopast.com, they have pictures of how the Little Johnny Mine looks today, as well as other signs of Colorado’s past. Links to some other Ghost Towns in the US, and lots of beautiful regional photography as well.
Ok, we carry on about how painful this was for us to watch, but you don’t have to believe us! You can experience the same pain (now that you know the real story of her life):
As always, music comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at Music.mevio.com