Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Margaret Brown’s home in Denver and learn more about this fascinating Titanic survivor and her family.
Given the name Unsinkable Molly Brown in a stage play about her life, Margaret Brown did much more than help row her lifeboat following Titanic’s collision with the iceberg. She raised funds to help survivors, ensured Captain Rostron of the Carpathia received recognition for the rescue efforts, and erected memorials in New York City and Washington D.C. to honor the victims.
Born in 1867, Margaret (Maggie) Ann Tobin hopped a train at the age of 18 and left her family in Hannibal, Missouri to share a cabin with her brother, a miner, in Leadville, Colorado in the hope of finding a husband. She took a job at Leadville’s Daniels and Fisher Mercantile, and met James Joseph (J.J.) Brown at a church picnic. J.J. was a silver miner whose parents had immigrated from Ireland. Margaret and J.J. were married in 1886 and soon welcomed a son, Larry, and a daughter, Helen. Margaret later said those were the happiest years of her life.
Helen, J.J., Margaret, and Larry Brown
While Margaret became active in the women’s suffrage movement in Colorado, the Leadville silver mines suffered under the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. But J.J. Brown had an idea to extract gold from Leadville’s Little Jonny Mine. His idea worked, and the mine began daily shipments of 135 tons of ore. As J.J. became a successful and well-paid mining executive, the family purchased a home in Denver for $30,000. They also bought a vacation home near the mountains.
The Brown's Denver home during the late 19th century
J.J. and Margaret filled their home with an eclectic mix of fine Victorian furniture, art, books, and treasures from their travels abroad. The home had electricity, indoor plumbing, and even a telephone near the formal parlor.
Top row from left: Staircase, Helen's bedroom, Parlor
Bottom row from left: J.J.'s bedroom, Margaret's bedroom
Margaret worked with established organizations dedicated to women’s rights, literacy, and education, or founded them herself. She raised funds to build a local hospital and a cathedral, helped start the first juvenile court in the US, became one of the first women in the US to run for political office, and worked tirelessly for improvements in labor and human rights.
J.J.’s health began to suffer, along with the couple’s marriage. With the children in boarding schools, Margaret spent more of her time in Newport, Rhode Island, where she and J.J. had rented a cottage. In 1909, the couple were separated. Margaret continued her work on the important issues that concerned her. She also traveled extensively and learned five languages. The books in the home's library reflect a wide variety of interests.
In 1912, Margaret and Helen were traveling with John Jacob Astor and his wife in Cairo, Egypt. Margaret received word that her grandson, Larry Jr., was ill. Helen, a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, decided to remain in Europe, but Margaret chose to return to New York with the Astor’s on the Titanic.
Following the collision, Margaret boarded Lifeboat 6. She and other women in the lifeboat helped row and kept the passengers’ spirits up until they were rescued by the Carpathia the next morning. She immediately began raising funds to help the survivors. On my tour of her home, the story was told that Margaret posted a list of the first class passengers and noted the amount of their contributions next to each name. No one wanted to have a blank space next to their name, and by the time the Carpathia reached New York, $10,000 had been pledged.
Carpathia's Captain Rostron with Margaret Brown
Practically overnight, Margaret became known as one of the heroines of the Titanic. She continued working for women’s rights and other causes, and was instrumental in the rebuilding of war-torn areas in France following World War I. She died in New York in 1932 at age 65, and is buried next to J.J. on Long Island, NY.
The Brown’s Denver home, once known as the House of Lions, was often rented out while the family traveled. After J.J.’s death, Margaret was forced to turn it into a boarding house during the Depression, and it was sold after her death for $6,000. It became a rooming house for men, and later, a home for wayward girls. It was scheduled for demolition in 1970, but was saved by a group of concerned citizens who formed Historic Denver Inc. and raised funds for its restoration to its former glory. The home is now open daily for tours, and features many of the Brown family belongings, photographs, and mementos. A display of Titanic memorabilia and the story of the tragedy and Margaret's part in it is also included on the tour.
Souvenirs from the Molly Brown House Museum
My family visiting Molly's house
Contrary to popular belief, Margaret was highly-regarded among most of the upper class during her time. For further reading, please see Unraveling the Myth by Kristen Iverson.
Photo credits: Encyclopedia Titanica, Molly Brown House Museum, Wikipedia.org.