The Unsinkably Catholic Molly Brown, Heroine of the Titanic

The Unsinkable Margaret Brown was a woman who put others first.

Molly Brown presents an award to Capt. Arthur Henry Rostron of the Carpathia for his participation in the rescue of Titanic survivors.
Molly Brown presents an award to Capt. Arthur Henry Rostron of the Carpathia for his participation in the rescue of Titanic survivors. (photo: Bain News Service)

Most people know Molly Brown (1867-1932) was an RMS Titanic survivor but her unsinkability is only a small achievement as achievements go. Molly was as devout a Catholic as they come, and not only did her Faith serve her well in life but she served her Faith even better.

Born Margaret Tobin in Hannibal, Missouri, the daughter of poor but devout Irish immigrant farmers, she was one of eight children in a large, rambling, Catholic family.

She grew up in a two-room cottage a few blocks from the Mississippi River and attended an elementary school operated by her aunt, Mary O'Leary. As a teenager, she worked at Garth's Tobacco Company in Hannibal stripping tobacco leaves.

At age 18, Margaret relocated to Leadville, Colorado with several siblings and other family members where they shared a two-room log cabin and established a blacksmith shop. Margaret's brother Daniel Tobin, worked in the mines and advanced to become a successful mine promoter. Margaret went to work for Daniels and Fisher Mercantile department store in Leadville in the Carpets and Draperies Department. She soon met her soon to become husband, James Joseph "J.J." Brown (1854–1922)―an enterprising, self-educated son of Irish Catholic immigrants. 

She would often joke that she married J.J. despite his poverty. Though she had planned to land herself a rich man, she only had eyes for someone who couldn't possibly provide for her and her family to the degree she had hoped.

The two were married in Leadville's Annunciation Church on September 1, 1886. The union produced two children―Lawrence Palmer (1887) and Catherine "Helen" Ellen (1889).

After Lawrence's birth, the Browns bought a house in Leadville and were eventually joined by members of both their families.

While her children were still young, Margaret established the Colorado Chapter of the National American Women's Suffrage Association. In addition, she worked in soup kitchens to assist families of Leadville miners. When the Sherman Silver Act was repealed in 1893, Leadville was thrust into a deep depression and the unemployment rate rose to 90 percent of the population.

J.J. had already become superintendent of all the Ibex mining properties when he was struck with an idea. He sincerely believed that the Little Jonny Mine might produce gold in addition to silver. He successfully used a timber-and-hay bale method to hold back the dolomite sand that had prevented the miners from reaching the gold at the lower depths of the mine. By October 29, 1893, the Little Jonny Mine was shipping 135 tons of gold-rich ore per day and, for his efforts, Brown was awarded 12,500 shares of stock and a seat on the board. He soon became one of the most successful mining engineers in America.

Due to J.J.'s success, the Browns acquired an outrageous amount of wealth. However, Margaret's newly found wealth didn’t stop her from volunteering in the Leadville soup kitchens to assist miners' families. 

Margaret soon became a founding member of the Denver Woman's Club which advocated for literacy, education, suffrage, and human rights. In 1911, she raised funds to build the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, St. Joseph's Hospital and elementary schools, both Catholic and public. She also raised her brother Daniel's three daughters―Grace, Florence, and Helen Tobin―whose mother had died when they were young.

But Margaret, or Maggie as she was better known, wasn't through. She teamed up with Judge Ben Lindsey to help poor kids and establish the first Juvenile Court in America. Her efforts eventually became the basis for today's U.S. juvenile court system. 

It was at this time when she attended New York City's Carnegie Institute where she studied literature, language and drama.

In 1909, after 23 years of marriage, Margaret and J.J. chose to separate. They never reconciled but they continued to care for each other for the remainder of their lives. 

The Titanic produced many heroes, both sung and unsung, such as Fr. Thomas Roussel Byles, but none have fired the public imagination as did Margaret.

And as to her reason for being on the Titanic, it wasn't to reconcile with her husband as the play and movie versions suggest. Rather, it was out of her concern for her grandson, Lawrence Palmer Brown, Jr.'s, health. She booked a trip back to America to care for him.

The Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, but as the ship went down, she assisted in the ship's evacuation. When the situation became dire, Margaret was ushered to Lifeboat #6 where she grabbed an oar to assist in the rowing. Spying survivors in the water, the socialite and philanthropist insisted that the rescue boat be turned around to search for survivors in the water. History doesn't record whether Quartermaster Robert Hichens, the crewman assigned Lifeboat #6, acquiesced to the Margaret's demands.

She was rescued by the Carpathia and, aboard that ship, she helped raise money, even soliciting it from the richer Titanic passengers, for the survivors — especially the indigent poor. 

By the time the Carpathia reached New York, Margaret had helped establish the Survivor's Committee and raised almost $10,000 for destitute survivors. She remained aboard the Carpathia until all Titanic survivors had met with friends, family, or received emergency assistance. 

She was indeed unsinkable.

In later years Margaret erected the Washington, DC Titanic memorial, place wreaths on the graves of victims in the cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and continued to serve on the Survivor's Committee.

Margaret used her newfound fame as a platform to talk about important issues including labor rights, women's rights, education and literacy for children. She also served as a mediator between striking Ludlow miners and the mine's owners. When World War I broke out, she assisted the Red Cross by setting up facilities in her Newport, Rhode Island home. During the war, she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France to help rebuild devastated areas behind the front line, and worked with wounded French and American soldiers.

From the late 1920s into the '30s, Margaret had a successful career as an actress. She regularly appeared on the stage in L’Aiglon.

Margaret Brown died of a brain tumor in her sleep on October 26, 1932 at the height of the Great Depression at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City, where she was performing. She's buried along with her husband J.J. in the Catholic Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, New York.

Cloris Leachman (1957), Debbie Reynolds (1964) and Kathy Bates (1997) all portrayed the Unsinkable Molly Brown in various film and stage adaptations.

I can recommend watching The Unsinkable Molly Brown but only so that the reader might better distinguish Margaret's faux Hollywood persona from the reality, which is by far more inspiring. Among other things, she never went by the name of "Molly", nor was she ostracized by society or rejected by her family. By all accounts, she was a caring, loving generous and faith-filled woman.

The Unsinkable Margaret Brown was a woman who put others first. Fame and fortune didn't separate her from the duty she felt in assisting those in need. Such was her Catholic faith in action.