Did you know… Maggie Brown?

Maggie “Molly” Brown

Maggie Tobin Brown (July 18, 1867 – October 26, 1932) was born in Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, “Mark Twain”. She came from an Irish Catholic background. Her parents had both been married before and widowed so Maggie was born late in life for them – her father John was 44, and her mother, Johanna, 42. She had two older siblings from previous marriages, but her brother Michael died when she was only three years old.

Maggie was always spunky and adventurous, inclined to get her own way. She loved her parents but chafed under their rules. She valued her father’s hard work, coming from County Cork, Ireland to Missouri, and taking whatever labor jobs he could find to feed the family. As she grew to adulthood, she aspired to marry a rich man, to ease her father’s labors. When the family moved to Leadville, Colorado in 1898, she dropped that aspiration. She met JJ Brown and fell head over heels in love. After some internal struggle, she decided it best to marry a man for love rather than for money.

James J Brown

JJ was an astute businessman with a mining engineer background. He had already tried mining in Georgetown, Aspen, and Ashcroft Colorado, as well as a stint in the placer mines of the Dakotas. Together with partners, he started the Little Johnny Mine or Ibex Mine in Leadville, Colorado – and struck it rich. Maggie now had both the man she loved, and the rich husband she had wanted for her father’s sake. The mine produced silver, and the couple prospered, hiring help and moving to Denver. Then in 1893, the nationwide panic hit, devaluing silver. JJ was not deterred however, and put his skills to use to find a new way to mine gold and copper out of Little Johnny, and be profitable.

“Adjusting to the trappings of a society lady, Brown became well-immersed in the arts and fluent in French, German, Italian, and Russian. Brown co-founded a branch in Denver of the Alliance Francaise to promote her love of French culture.  Brown gave parties that were attended by Denver socialites, but she was unable to gain entry into the most elite group, Sacred 36, who attended exclusive bridge parties and dinners held by Louise Sneed Hill.[8] Brown called her ‘the snobbiest woman in Denver’. “


As Maggie became more involved in philanthropy and society, she and JJ grew apart. They signed a secret formal separation agreement giving her their two Denver houses and an allowance equivalent to $21,000 a month in today’s money. Maggie and JJ never reconciled, but never formally divorced. She worked tirelessly for children and helped establish the juvenile court system in Denver. Her high society contacts brought a friendship with the John Jacob Astor family, and she traveled to Paris in early 1912 to visit her daughter, Catherine, aka “Helen”, who was studying art at the Sorbonne.

A cable disturbed her French vacation with the news that her eldest grandchild Lawerence was seriously ill. Maggie booked the first available berth back to New York, which turned out to be aboard the HMS Titanic. The Titanic sank early on April 15, 1912, at around 2:20 a.m. Maggie, who also liked to be called Molly, went around the ship helping people from their cabins, directing them to lifeboats, until she was finally persuaded to board lifeboat number six. Once in, she took an oar to help escape the suction from the ship sinking. She wanted to go back and save more people, but the quartermaster, Robert Hichens, refused. She argued and threatened, coming close to blows. He also tried to prevent the boat from rowing to the Carpathia that had come to save them, saying that it had come to pick up bodies. Later boards of inquiry accused him of having been drunk. He claimed to be following orders. At any rate, Maggie had quite enough of him and suggested that either he shut up, or the lifeboat passengers would throw him overboard, as she took command. By then it was too late to go back, but under her leadership, the lifeboat made it to the Carpathia.

Painting, HMS Titanic Royal Museums Greenwich

In the aftermath, Maggie, or “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” as the press styled her, became famous for her courage and tenacity. Hichens faced reprimand, later attempted to murder a business partner, and his wife left him. Maggie’s grandson, Lawerence, the cause of her journey, lived until 1976.

Maggie spent the remainder of her life fighting for various causes, particularly women’s suffrage, children, and the treatment of returning soldiers after World War 1, both in America and France. She was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur for her charitable work. Books were written about her, and a 1964 film, greatly altered from history, called “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” depicted her life, as well as numerous other films. In Cameron’s 1997 Titanic, her name was changed to Katherine Bates.

JJ died in 1922, without a will, which caused a bitter squabble between Maggie and her children over the estate. It was resolved, and they reconciled. Maggie developed a brain tumor, and died on October 26, 1932, in New York City’s Barbizon Hotel. In 1985, she was inducted posthumously into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. Her great-grandchildren and other descendants still live in New York, Colorado, and California.

  1. Davida Chazan

    Um… couple of corrections – in the movie “Titanic” she was played by the actress Kathy Bates, and they called her Molly Brown in the film. Also, the 1964 movie musical was made after it was a hit stage musical in 1960. Her full real name was Margaret, not Maggie, but she like to be called Molly.