Molly Brown’s Unsinkable Wild West Rags-to-Riches Story
By Karen Harris
The Unsinkable Molly Brown is forever associated with the RMS Titanic, the ill-fated luxury liner that struck an iceberg and sank in 1912, but her story is firmly one of the American West.
Thanks to Debbie Reynolds’ portrayal of her in the 1964 musical film The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Kathy Bates’s rendition of her in James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic, Molly Brown earned a reputation as a tell-it-like-it-is, rough-around-the-edges, nouveau riche woman who refused to conform to the mannerisms of the wealthy elite.
In truth, she was all of those things and more. In many ways, Molly Brown’s life was the success story that every Old West prospector dreamed of — and she was a shining example of charity and philanthropy.
Here are some fascinating facts about Molly Brown’s life before and after she boarded the RMS Titanic and sailed into history.
Her Name Wasn’t Molly
The name “Molly” doesn’t appear on Molly Brown’s birth certificate, and no one ever called her by that name. Her birth name was Margaret, and she was called Maggie by her friends and family.
Historians found only one obscure reference to her having another nickname — “Mollie” — in a 1929 letter. It really wasn’t until years after her death in 1932 that Margaret transformed into Molly. When Richard Morris wrote the book on which the 1960 Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown was based, he fictionalized the life of Titanic survivor, Margaret Brown, using a 1933 book, Timberline, by Gene Fowler as his main source.
The problem was that Morris’s fictional account was based on Fowler’s fictional account of the city of Denver in the Gold Rush days. Fowler included a fictional character, based on the real Margaret Brown, whom he called “Molly Brown” and depicted as a crass, gun-slinging, Old West tomboy.
From these two less-than-historical sources, the legend of the Unsinkable Molly Brown was born.
She was the Daughter of Poor, Irish Catholic Immigrants
Molly Brown was born Margaret Tobin on July 18, 1867, in Hannibal, Missouri. Her parents, John Tobin and Johanna Collins Tobin, were Catholic immigrants from Ireland. Both married before and both had been widowed.
When they married, they each brought a stepchild — Catherine Bridget Tobin and Mary Ann Collins. John and Johanna Tobin went on to have five children together: Daniel, Michael, Willian, Helen, and Margaret.
With all those mouths to feed, the Tobin family was quite poor, yet the children learned the value of hard work and the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs. John Tobin was an outspoken abolitionist who strongly supported the Underground Railroad.
“One can imagine that John, who witnessed the subjugation of his fellow Irishmen at the hands of the British, would have been sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved black population of the United States,” wrote Ken and Lisa Marks in Molly Brown from Hannibal, Missouri.
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She Started Working When she was Just 13
Margaret’s attended a private Catholic school, conveniently located across the street from her family’s tiny, four-room cottage. Her teacher was Mary O’Leary, who was also Margaret’s aunt.
When she was 13 years old, Margaret completed her schooling and graduated with an eighth-grade education. To help support her family, the young girl took a job at a local tobacco manufacturer, Garth Tobacco Company of Hannibal.
Most young girls who were employed at the company were hired as tobacco leaf strippers, so it’s likely that this was Margaret’s job too, though she rarely spoke about her first job and never included it in her writings.
She Headed West from Missouri to Colorado
The grueling work at the tobacco company, the crowded conditions at her family’s cottages, and the constant worry over money left a lasting impression on Margaret Brown: she made it clear that her goal was to marry for money.
With limited options in Hannibal, Missouri, Margaret took the first opportunity to leave her hometown. In 1886, when she was just 18 years old, Margaret joined a few of her siblings — her brother Daniel, stepsister Mary Ann, and Mary Ann’s husband, John Landrigan — and moved to Colorado.
They settled in Leadville, a town southwest of Denver. Margaret took a job at a dry goods store in town and spent her days sewing curtains and carpets.
She Planned to Marry for Money, but Love Got in the Way
In Leadville, Margaret met a local mining foreman, James Joseph Brown, who was called J.J. The two began to court and, to Margaret’s dismay, she realized she was in love with him.
Poor Margaret was in a quandary. She later wrote that she hoped to marry a wealthy man so she could provide her parents with the security and comfort they lacked. Yet the man she fell in love with was also a poor, working class man. As she wrote, “Finally, I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me.”
The couple wed on September 1, 1886, at the Leadville Annunciation Church. The following year, Margaret gave birth to her first child, a son named Lawrence. A daughter, Catherine Ellen, was born two years later.
Margaret and J.J. Brown also took in three of Margaret’s nieces — Grace, Florence, and Helen Tobin — and raised them as their own. Margaret Brown resigned herself to a life of poverty, just like her parents, but fate had different plans.
Gold, Silver, and the Financial Panic of 1893
The last decade and a half of the 1800s was a tumultuous time in the Old West, when Margaret and J.J. Brown were starting their lives together.
As a miner, J.J. Brown’s livelihood was impacted by decisions being made in far-off Washington, D.C. During the late 19th century, there was significant nationwide debate over the country’s system of currency. Many people living in the western half of the U.S. advocated for the unlimited coinage of silver alongside gold. They believed that increasing the circulation of silver coins would help inflate the money supply, stimulate economic growth, and assist debtors, particularly farmers, who were struggling with high debts and low prices for their crops.
In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act into law. This act, sponsored by and named for Senator John Sherman of Ohio, was intended to increase the money supply in the U.S. by expanding the circulation of silver coins.
The Act required the government to buy large quantities of silver — about 4.5 million ounces every month — and to issue Treasury notes in exchange. The notes, however, could be redeemed for either gold or silver, and the holder of the note could pick which one they wanted when redeeming their Treasury notes.
The passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act caused financial concerns. Individual investors and foreign governments responded by redeeming their Treasury notes for gold. The country’s gold reserves were hit hard while the value of silver declined, all leading to a financial crisis known as the Panic of 1893.
Before that year was over, the government repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. By 1900, the county officially adopted the Gold Standard Act, which firmly established gold as the basis for the U.S. monetary system.
It was at the height of this financial chaos that Molly Brown’s fortunes took an unexpected turn.
The Browns Strike It Rich
J.J. Brown worked for the Ibex Mining Company and as part of his employment arrangement, he also was a part owner of the mine and a board member of the company.
The company owned several mines, including the Little Jonny Mine where J.J. worked. The Little Jonny Mine, however, was a silver mine. When silver prices plummeted in 1893, this mine, and most others in Colorado, closed. It was a tough time to be a silver miner in Colorado. In Leadville, for example, more than 90% of miners were out of jobs after the Panic of 1893.
J.J. Brown was one of the lucky ones. His employer, Ibex Mining, kept him on and tasked him with finding a way to shore up the shafts at the Little Jonny Mine so further exploration and mining could take place.
He designed and implemented a method of using timbers and hay bales to prevent cave ins, and when the mine reopened, miners discovered veins of high-quality gold and copper. Miners began extracting more than 130 tons of gold ore from the mine every day, making it one of the biggest gold strikes of the period. The new influx of gold helped Colorado bounce back from the Panic of 1893.
For his efforts, J.J. Brown was handsomely rewarded. He was given 12,500 shares in the Ibex Mining Company and a lucrative salary. Almost overnight, J.J. and Margaret Brown became very, very wealthy.
Molly Gave Back to the Community
With their newly acquired wealth came status, though the Browns were often criticized for being “nouveau riche,” or new money.
Members of Denver’s upper elite — people who did nothing to acquire their own wealth except to be born into the right families — scoffed at people like the Browns, who earned their riches through hard work.
The Browns tried to ingratiate themselves with the rich and famous of Denver, by buying a gorgeous mansion in the city, for example, and added a summer home outside of town. But they also did things that differentiated them from their fellow millionaires.
“Now with more money in her pocket than she had ever seen in her life Maggie Brown, the former pot walloper of Leadville, set out to crash the high society circles of Denver,” wrote Louise Cheney in Golden West.
Margaret Brown worked to support the social causes that were important to her. She advocated for women’s suffrage and for social programs that would improve the lives of women and children. She spent her days volunteering in soup kitchens to make sure the wives and children of out-of-work miners were fed.
She devoted her life to championing the causes related to workers’ rights, voting rights, and education equality through her activism, philanthropy, and charitable work.
She Made Denver a Better Place
The old-money circles of the wealthy elite in Denver may have tried to keep Margaret Brown at arm’s length, but she was ready and eager to do what she could to make Denver a better place for everyone.
She was instrumental in the creation of the city’s first animal shelter, for example, which is still in operation today. She was a founding member of the Denver Women’s Club and a member of the Political Equality League. Because of her efforts, the former home of author Eugene Field, which was slated for demolition, was spared and preserved as a museum. This was Denver’s first historic preservation project.
Margaret even joined forces with Judge Ben B. Lindsey to create one of the first juvenile courts in the country. She even ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Colorado State Senate in 1914.
She Gave Generously to the Victims and Survivors of the Ludlow Mine Massacre
In 1913 and 1914, coal miners, mining companies, and the United Mine Workers Union in Colorado were involved in a lengthy and violent labor struggle that became known as the Colorado Coalfield War.
Tensions came to a head when more than 10,000 miners walked off the job with support from their union. In response, the mining companies got support from the state government to use force and intimidation to get the striking workers back on the job.
On April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard was called to an encampment near Ludlow, Colorado, and attacked the camp, which included the wives and children of striking mine workers, with machine guns and heavy artillery. A tent caught fire, killing two women and 11 children, some just infants. The tragic event rallied the nation and shined a light on workers’ struggles.
J.J. Brown may have been in upper management in the mining industry, but Margaret Brown staunchly supported the miners and their cause. Following the Ludlow Mine Massacre, she generously gave money to help the needy families of striking mine workers.
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She Used Her Money to Invest in Herself
Molly Brown also became devoted to self-improvement. She hired a tutor to learn about classic literature, and studied until she was fluent in several languages, including French, Italian, Russian, and German.
She was well-read and stayed abreast of current news and issues. Margaret and J.J. both loved to experience other cultures, so they used some of their new-found wealth to travel the world, with adventures in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
This all made Margaret a great conversationalist who could hold her own among the privileged intellectuals of the old-money elite.
And, Then There Was Her Famous Boat Ride
Despite their financial prosperity, after some time, Margaret and J.J. Brown’s marriage was crumbling. The gregarious Margaret loved to attend social functions, travel, and socialize with people. J.J., who was more introverted, preferred the quiet solitude of home.
They began to live separate lives, but never divorced. They were, after all, Catholic. Margaret kept up her travels and social schedule without her husband, which is why she was traveling alone when she boarded the RMS Titanic bound for New York City in April 1912. It was unusual for a woman to travel alone in those days, but Margaret Brown was no ordinary woman.
Molly Brown Really Was Unsinkable
When the luxury liner struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, and began to sink, women and children were ushered into lifeboats. Titanic Second officer Charles Lightoller gave Brown little choice in abandoning the sinking vessel.
“He grabbed hold of her with the words ‘You are going, too,’ and physically maneuvered her into the lifeboat,” wrote Andrew Wilson in Shadow of the Titanic.
Margaret landed, quite literally, in lifeboat 6, which was piloted by one of the ship’s crewmen, Robert Hichens. Hichens, by all accounts, was a rude and condescending man, even in the face of impending disaster.
The lifeboat passengers later reported that he refused to help row the boat, but there was a much bigger problem going on, forcing Margaret Brown to take a stand.
When Hichens ordered lifeboat 6 to be lowered into the water and rowed clear of the sinking Titanic, there were 23 passengers on board. But the lifeboat had a capacity of 65.
Margaret was quick to point this out to Hichens, though her words made no difference. She then rallied the others on the lifeboat to implore Hichens to return to the Titanic to save other passengers. He refused. He also refused to help people in the water.
Hichens later offered excuses for his behavior, stating that his goal was to get the lifeboat far enough away that it would not get sucked down with the Titanic and that he was concerned that if he stopped to help one person in the water, his lifeboat would get overrun with others trying to escape the icy waters.
None of this, however, was conveyed to Margaret Brown or the others in the lifeboat. They reported that Hichens showed no regard for the great loss of life and no compassion to help others. At one point, Margaret was so fed up with Hichens that she threatened to throw him overboard.
She Helped Keep Her Fellow Lifeboat Passengers Alive
That frigid night, Margaret Brown and her fellow lifeboat passengers were in danger of freezing to death. When their lifeboat came across another lifeboat, Robert Hichens ordered the two crafts to be roped together.
But as the cold set in, Margaret insisted that the boats separate. She took one of the oars and began to paddle the boat herself. The activity warmed her up, so she ordered the others to take turns rowing to get their blood moving and keep them from freezing.
In the wee hours of dawn, lifeboat 6 came across a survivor clinging to a piece of wreckage. They helped the man into the boat, then Margaret offered her coat to the man and commanded him to start rowing. Some of the others were shocked that she would immediately put the poor man to work, but she recognized that the man was suffering from hypothermia. Rowing actually saved the man’s life.
Shortly after daybreak, the survivors on lifeboat 6 were rescued by the RMS Carpathia.
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She Organized the First Relief for Titanic Survivors
Still on the RMS Carpathia with other Titanic survivors, Margaret Brown went to work organizing a group of survivors from first class to pull together to aid the second- and third-class survivors.
Before the ship even docked in port, she had a plan in place to secure the basic necessities of the less-wealthy survivors. She even included informal counseling to help the survivors cope with their loss and work through their trauma.
“Margaret Brown tried to help a woman who kept screaming out for her child and she eventually asked the doctor to give the distraught woman a sedative since she was pulling out strands of her hair in panic,” wrote Hugh Brewster in Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage.
Life After the Titanic
Although news accounts of the sinking of the Titanic painted Margaret Brown as a heroine of the tragedy, she didn’t really see it that way. She maintained that her actions were not heroic — she was just being a decent human being.
This event did increase Margaret’s name recognition, but she returned to the routines of Denver and to her charity work. In our pop culture portrayals of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, we get only a caricature of this fascinating woman, and one that is not based entirely on historical facts.
Molly Brown was “new money,” a little unrefined, and a straight talker, to be sure. She was less the gun-toting, crass, potty mouth and more the big-hearted, charitable, intelligent, progressive-thinking woman who made the most of her rags-to-riches opportunities in the West.
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References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints when possible.
- Barnhouse, M. A. (2015). Lost Denver (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing.
- Brewster, H. (2013). Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World. Broadway Books.
- Cheney, L. (1965, May). The Real Molly Brown. Golden West, 1(4), 10–72.
- Iversen, K. (2018). Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth. Johnson Books.
- Lohse, J. B. (2006). Unsinkable: The Molly Brown Story. Filter Press.
- Marks, K., & Marks, L. (2013). Molly Brown from Hannibal, Missouri: Her Life in the Gilded Age. The History Press.
- Marshall, L. (2019). Sinking of the Titanic: The Greatest Disaster At Sea – Special Edition with Additional Photographs. Skyhorse Publishing.
- Pharo, A. (1961, Winter). Lady from Leadville. Frontier Times, 36(1), 39–64.
- Rossignol, K. (2015). Titanic 1912: The original news reporting of the sinking of the Titanic. Privateer Clause Publishing Co.
- Wilson, A. (2013). Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived. Atria Books.
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.