Who was Molly Brown?
Molly Brown, born as Margaret Tobin, was an American socialite, activist and actress who became famous for surviving the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Even though surviving the sinking of the ill-fated ship became her claim to fame, Brown was already a feminist and social activist engaged in welfare work long before the oceanic disaster happened. Born to working class parents, Brown was no stranger to the difficulties faced by the poor and the middle-class, especially by the women. Her involvement in social work began when as the wife of a mining engineer, she started volunteering in soup kitchens to help families of poor miners. She became member of women’s organizations that worked for the improvement of women’s lives through extensive education. She also tried to enter politics, albeit unsuccessfully. She was one of the passengers aboard the ill-fated Titanic on her maiden voyage and was catapulted to overnight fame when she survived the sinking of the ship. Post-Titanic, she used her new found fame to advocate for the issues she felt strongly about, like women and children’s rights, education, abolishment of illiteracy, historic preservation, etc. During her later years, she also worked as an actress. After her death, she was popularly known as "The Unsinkable Molly Brown".
Childhood & Early Life
Molly was born to Irish Catholic immigrants John Tobin and Johanna Collins in Missouri. She had three siblings and two half-sisters from her parents’ previous marriages. Her parents had migrated following the first wave of industrialization in America.
Her parents supported values like freedom and equality, and had progressive views towards education. Although she attended school only till she was 13, her parents had laid the foundation for life long learning.
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She began working in a factory at the age of 13 to support her family. The life of the working class people was characterized by low wages, job insecurity and long work days.
At the age of 19, she moved to Leadville with her brother and sister in order to find work. There she found work at a dry goods store and also did some sewing work to make ends meet.
She soon married a mining superintendent, many years her senior. Through hard work and good fortune, her husband acquired vast amounts of wealth enabling Molly to devote more time to social activities.
She volunteered in soup kitchens to help the poor miners’ families and facilitated the establishment of the Colorado chapter of the women’s rights organization National American Woman Suffrage Association.
She moved to Colorado with her family in 1894. The move opened up even more social opportunities for Brown and her family. She became a member of the Denver Woman’s Club which aimed to improve women’s lives through continued education and charity work.
Since her husband had become very rich now, the Brown family came to be counted among the city’s elite. She adjusted well to the role of a high society lady and learnt fluent French, German and Russian.
She also had an active interest in politics and ran for the Colorado senate in 1909, but withdrew her candidacy because her husband did not support her political ambitions.
She loved traveling and had made many trips to various parts of the world. It was during one such trip that she was aboard the luxury liner, Titanic, which on her maiden voyage struck an iceberg and sank on 15 April 1912. Brown helped in rescuing many people before she herself was convinced to leave the sinking ship.
She was hailed as a heroine for her role in the Titanic rescue operations and soon she became very famous. Brown used this new-found fame to attract attention to causes that she strongly believed in, like women’s empowerment, children’s right to education, etc.
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Even though she had always been interested in social activities, it was her role in the Titanic rescue operations that established her as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”. When the ship was sinking, she took over rowing duties and helped many people get on the lifeboats.
On the arrival of the ship Carpathia to aid the rescue, she took over the role of a translator and facilitated communication between the foreign tourists and the rescue officials. She also helped in preparing the survivor lists.
After arriving in New York, she continued her work for Titanic survivors by collecting funds to give to those who became widows and orphans by the maritime tragedy; she raised nearly $ 10,000 for this purpose within a short time.
Awards & Achievements
In 1932, she was awarded the French Legion of Honour, the highest decoration in France, for her humanitarian and philanthropic activities, especially for her rescue work in the Titanic tragedy.
Personal Life & Legacy
She married James Joseph Brown in 1886 when she was only 19 years old. They had two children. The couple separated in 1909 though they did not legally divorce. They remained in contact with each other till James’s death in 1922.
She suffered from poor health during her later years, and died on 26 October, 1932 at the age of 65.
The 1960 Broadway play, titled ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ was based on a highly fictionalized account of her life.
She was never known by the name “Molly” during her lifetime, she went by the names of Margaret or Maggie.
Some sources report her to have died from a brain tumour while some others quote stroke as the cause of her death.
Several years after the Titanic tragedy, she survived another tragedy by escaping a hotel fire in Palm Beach.
She became an actress during her last years.