Margaret “Maggie” Tobin Brown
The Unsinkable Molly Brown, born July 18th,
1867, in Hannibal, Missouri, had no idea that Hollywood would one day make her
nickname famous because of her bravery and compassion during the sinking of the
Titanic in 1912. In fact, Molly’s nickname was Maggie. It was Hollywood that
gave her the nickname Molly, long after she passed away.
Maggie’s parents, John and Johanna Tobin were Irish
Immigrants. Her childhood was happy
and full of love, but sorely lacking in money.
John Tobin did manual labor at the Hannibal Gas Works for twenty years,
making $1.75 to $2.00 a day. But in
his “spare time” he was an abolitionist who worked with John Brown before
the Civil War. There are stories
telling of him even running a station for the Underground Railroad. In 1861, before Maggie was born, he joined a local
regiment to fight in the Civil War.
Maggie’s mother, Johanna, believed in education for
everyone. Though the Tobin’s had
little money, Johanna insisted that Maggie and her five siblings attend Mrs.
O’Leary’s grammar school until they were in their early teens. The bill for their education was steep, one dollar per child
per month, but John and Johanna pulled it off.
After Maggie finished her education, she longed to be rich,
not for herself, but she wanted to make life comfortable for her parents.
They had always been so good to her.
Attracted by stories of overnight wealth, Maggie, then 18 years old, and
her little sister Helen, follow her brother, Daniel, to Leadville, Colorado.
Helen later went back to Hannibal, but Maggie stayed, hanging onto her
dream of perhaps marrying a rich Leadville miner. Though Hollywood fictionalizes
her life story in the 1964 motion picture, as a saloon girl who can sing and
dance, in reality she found work at a local dry goods company, Daniels, Fisher
and Smith, sewing carpets and drapes.
In the spring of 1886, Maggie attended a church picnic and
met J.J. Brown, a Leadville miner, who was far from rich.
Maggie fell head over heals for J.J., so she gave up her hopes of
marrying a rich man and settled for love alone.
They married on September 1st, 1889, and moved to Iron Hill,
where J.J. worked. J.J. made a decent living, so Maggie continued her education
and studied piano, singing, reading, and literature.
The couple had two children, a son, Lawrence Palmer Brown,
born August 30th, 1887, and a daughter, Catherine Ellen Brown,
nicknamed Helen, born July 1st, 1889.
Over the next few years, J.J. earned the reputation of
being one of the best mining men in the business.
He was intelligent and worked hard, and it paid off.
A group of Leadville mining men asked J.J. to run their
mining operations, called Ibex Mining Company.
In 1893, after the price of silver fell and gold rose, Ibex wanted to
look for gold ore in the Little Jonny Mine, which was once one of the major
producers of silver and lead in the area. They
immediately hit dolomite sand and the mine caved in, on more than one occasion.
J.J Brown, superintendent of all the Ibex properties,
invented a method of using timber and baled hay to stop the Little Jonny Mine
from caving in. It worked, and tons
of high-grade copper and gold were found. The
vein of gold was so pure it was called the world’s richest strike.
By the end of October, 1893, Little Jonny was shipping 135 tons of gold a
day. Ibex, and the Browns, were millionaires.
J.J and Maggie’s hard work had paid off big.
In 1893, J.J. and Maggie moved to Denver, as many wealthy
miners from Leadville did. They
bought a small mansion at 1340 Pennsylvania Avenue, from Isaac and Mary Large,
who had had the home build by architect William Lang.
The house was 7,600 square feet, but was considered modest during those
days. It was equipped with electric
lights, a phone, indoor pluming, hot and cold running water, and forced air and
heat. The kitchen was big and
modern. Maggie’s parents even had their own room, and there were servant’s
quarters both in the main house and the carriage house.
Rumor has it that Maggie and J.J. were not readily accepted
by Denver society, although, the Denver society pages were full of tales of
goings on at the Brown household. The
public was fascinated with Maggie.
Soon after moving to Denver, the Browns longed for their
simple life in the country, so they bought 400 acres on Bear Creek, about nine
miles from their Denver city home. Today
it is called the “Molly Brown Summer House” and is a big tourist attraction
in Denver, but Maggie called it Avoca, after a poem by her favorite Irish poet,
Sir Thomas Moore, called “The Meeting Of The Waters”.
The Brown’s took two years to build Avoca, but the
architect of the Victorian foursquare mansion is unknown. John Geiger, a masonry contractor, did much of the work at
the Avoca lodge.
The National Historic Register describes the house as:
A two story dipped brick construction with a sandstone
foundation..., which from the outside presents a striking resemblance to the
Brown’s home at 1340 Pennsylvania Ave.
Avoca was a working farm, which produced hay, wheat, fruit,
and sugar beets, as well as a dairy operation, which was built south of the
Avoca Lodge. The dairy barn had a
second floor with sprawling hardwood floors, where Maggie threw parties that
lasted three days. It is rumored
that the guests would arrive by train at Sheridan Junction, then take a hayride
to Avoca on a wagon sent to pick up the guests by J.J. and Maggie. When the
Browns stayed at their home on Pennsylvania Ave. they had fresh milk, butter,
cheese, and fruit from Avoca sent by train daily.
The Denver Times reported the social gatherings at Avoca as
“highlights of the season”. Molly
would always be dressed to the hilt, and was thrilled when her outfit made the
fashion news. Once when it was
pointed out to her that it was improper to wear diamonds in the daytime, she
replied, “ I didn’t think so either, until I had some.”
Maggie enjoyed living large and being on top of the social
scene much more than J.J.. Their
different views on this subject eventually led to the demise of their marriage,
which began to fall apart by the early 1900’s.
By 1905, J.J. had started to sell off pieces of Avoca land, but because
of incomplete records, who took ownership is unknown. In 1906, Louis C. Donley is the listed owner on the deed, and
though the land continued to be divided and sold, Louis Donley lived at Avoca
and ran the dairy farm into the 1920’s. In
1930, Robert V. Fehlmann purchased Avoca Lodge and the remaining land, and his
family took care of it for three generations.
Most likely, The Unsinkable Molly Brown is pleased with the way the
Fehlmann family has kept the legend of Avoca, and Molly Brown, alive.
It was many years after Maggie and J.J. Brown separated
when she took that famous trip on the Titanic.
In April of 1912, Maggie was in Europe with her daughter, Helen, when she
got word that her first grandson, Larry’s son, was sick.
Consequently, she cut her European trip short and booked passage on the
Titanic; $4350 for a first class stateroom for the six-day trip.
Helen stayed in London with friends, so she did not accompany Maggie on
On the night the Titanic hit the iceberg, Maggie had
retired to her stateroom to read. She
was engrossed in her book, when a crash struck her window overhead and knocked
her to the floor. She left the
stateroom and found men running around the halls in their pajamas.
One man, who she later said had a face the color of death and eyes
popping out of his sockets, ran up to her, gasping, and told her to get her life
preserver. She went back into her
stateroom and put on a black velvet two-piece suit with black and white silk
lapels, seven pairs of socks, and a sable stole J.J. had given her back in the
day. She wrapped a silk capote
around her head, grabbed $500 in cash, put on a life jacket, grabbed a blanket
from the bed, and headed for the deck and the lifeboats.
Maggie was used to traveling to remote places, and wasn’t
afraid for her safety. She was an
excellent swimmer and figured at worst, she could swim to a lifeboat.
But while she was helping people into a lifeboat, someone grabbed her and
made her get in too, as the lifeboat was being lowered. He pushed her, and she
feel four feet into lifeboat number 6, arguing all the way that she wanted to
stay and help others.
The lifeboat was supposed to hold 65 passengers, but it was
pushed off the Titanic with only 21 women and 2 men aboard.
Their orders were to row to the light, but when lifeboat hit the water,
they realized there was no light.
Maggie positioned a very heavy oar, and together with
another woman, rowed the lifeboat away from the sinking ship, through water
littered with bodies, furniture, and personal items. They could hear screams and gunshots coming from the ship.
They found out later that the gunshots were really the boilers.
Then suddenly, at 4:30 a.m. April 15th,the boilers exploded,
the sea parted, and the Titanic broke in half and sank.
Approximately 1600 people were lost, of the total 2300 on board.
In Maggie’s lifeboat, the women demanded to go back and
help the survivors, but the Quartermaster refused, telling them that the
drowning victims would mob the lifeboats, pull them over, and everyone would
drown. He made the women take their
ores and ignore those dying around them.
Maggie rowed for two hours, giving out pairs of her socks
to other women and even giving her stole to a woman who was freezing.
She shared her blanket with another woman.
Maggie kept the moral up.
She used her pioneer spirit to keep the others rowing so they would not
freeze. The sea was calm and she
knew they had a good chance of survival. Those
who could not row she kept occupied with conversation.
They were finally rescued by the Carpathia, a great ship
that was able to save from the lifeboats, over half of the thirteen hundred
survivors. Once onboard the
Carpathia, Maggie would not be a victim. She knew most of the survivors had lost
everything. Since she spoke five
languages, she could communicate with foreign passengers and help them find
finacial assistance. She got the
first class survivors to donate to those less fortunate, and by the time the
Carpathia had docked in New York, she had gathered together $10,000.00 to help
Once in New York, Maggie found out her grandson was fine.
She decided to stay in New York to continue helping the less fortunate
Titanic survivors, and was elected president of the survivors committee.
Margaret Tobin Brown returned to Denver a true national
hero. Those high society types who
shunned her now had open arms. She
had finally received the social status she felt she deserved.
J.J had no desire to be accepted by the elite and prestigious, with or
without Maggie. He returned to
Leadville, Colorado, where their life had once been simple.