If most of what you know about “Molly” Brown comes from the movies, you no doubt picture her as a country bumpkin muddling her way through society, always wanting to be part of the “in” crowd, but never quite managing to find acceptance.
But these popular myths are wrong.
Margaret (she never went by “Molly”) spoke multiple languages, was a popular Denver socialite, did much of the fundraising to help build the magnificent Immaculate Conception Cathedral, participated in the suffragette movement, was influential in drawing attention to and resolving the Ludlow Labor Conflict, and ran for the senate before women could even vote. She was a philanthropist, a globe-trotter, political activist, and even an actress.
The young, devoutly Catholic Margaret met and married mining engineer J.J. Brown in Leadville in 1886. Even then, she was working in soup kitchens, hoping to assist those less fortunate than herself. Nearly a decade later, she and her husband became millionaires when, after the silver crash, gold was discovered in their mine. Their marriage was tempestuous and ended in a private, quiet separation in 1909. Margaret retained their famous Philadelphia Avenue Denver home, and continued to spend much of her time involved in philanthropic endeavors (centered around helping the poor, building orphanages, and even setting up a proper juvenile court system), in extensive reading (she particularly admired Titanic’s extensive library), and in traveling.
She was traveling Egypt in the companionship of J.J. Astor (the wealthiest man in the world) and his wife, along with her daughter, when she received word that her grandson was ill, and decided to cut her trip short. Like many others, she booked passage on the first ship sailing for America—Titanic, and boarded in Cherbourg, France, on the evening of April 10th.
The night of April 14, 1912, Margaret was reading in bed when the ship struck ice; she barely noticed the jolt, but knew something was wrong by the ashen, terrified face of the porter who told her to get her lifebelt. She was “dropped” into a lifeboat, and after an altercation with Hitchens, the man in control of Lifeboat Six, at her instigation she and the other occupants rowed throughout the night to keep warm. On board their rescue vessel, Carpathia, Margaret used her knowledge of multiple languages to comfort survivors. She realized most of the survivors had lost everything, and by the time the Carpathia reached New York, Margaret had already set up a fund for the widows and received over $10,000 in donations from the ship’s wealthier passengers.
After her death, her Philadelphia Avenue house in Denver was nearly torn down, until a preservation society adopted it. Many of the rooms have been restored with her own possessions (or those from the period, such as a desk that once belonged to William Seward in J.J.’s study). Touring the house, to a visitor the smaller rooms are much different from the lavish wealth of modern society, but her taste is undeniable. It is not the home of an uncultured hick, but a woman who devoted her life to the Biblical principle of “do unto others…” Margaret deserves to be remembered not merely as a survivor of Titanic, but an outgoing activist in social reform. From when she had little to when she had much, her unfailing generosity toward those less fortunate is worth remembering every bit as much as the legend of the “unsinkable” Molly Brown.
Read more about her, and take a visual tour of her home, here.