The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a guest post by Elizabeth Kerry Mahon
On her third night at sea Margaret Tobin Brown was settling down with a good book in her luxurious stateroom at the forward end of Deck B of the Titanic, when the massive ship experienced a jolt. Startled, Margaret decided to investigate. The engines of the luxury liner on its maiden voyage were eerily silent. “I saw a man whose face was blanched, his eyes protruding, wearing the look of a haunted creature,” she later wrote. “He was gasping for breath, and in an undertone he gasped, ‘Get your lifesaver!’” Rushing back to her room, she grabbed whatever warm clothing she could find: a black velvet two-piece suit, seven pairs of stockings, and a sable stole.
Before she left her room, she grabbed five hundred dollars from the wall safe and strapped on her life jacket. Up on deck, Margaret calmly helped other women and children into the lifeboats, reassuring them that everything was going to be okay. She saw no reason to panic; she had dealt with the rough-and-tumble male-dominated world of Leadville, Colorado, and not just survived but thrived. This was nothing in comparison. Suddenly she was picked up and unceremoniously dropped into a lifeboat along with two dozen other passengers.
Quickly grabbing the oars at quartermaster Robert Hichens’s command, she helped to maneuver the lifeboat around just in time to see the ship break into two and sink into the ocean, disappearing under the ice-laden surface. It was an image that was seared on Margaret’s memory forever. She wanted to go back and look for survivors but Hichens
ordered them to row. He thought they were doomed and said so repeatedly. Margaret admonished him, “Keep it to yourself if you feel that way. We have a smooth sea and a fighting chance!” Margaret encouraged the other passengers to help row. When she saw
that one of the passengers in lifeboat sixteen, which was tethered to theirs, was only wearing pajamas, she wrapped her fur stole around his legs. She was later credited with keeping the passengers from freezing to death.
Margaret’s most famous adventure, on the Titanic, almost didn’t happen. She was in Paris with her daughter, Helen, when she received word that her first grandson was ill. While Helen went off to London, Margaret booked passage on the first ship that she could. After the disaster, when her lifeboat was rescued by the Carpathia, she tried to help others by getting the word out via telegraph to their families. Unfortunately the telegraph office was so backed up the messages were never sent.
Margaret organized a drive and raised ten thousand dollars to help the immigrant survivors who had lost everything. While grieving for the friends she’d lost, Margaret spent days caring for the survivors in New York. For her work, she was hailed as a heroine. She also wasn’t afraid to tell the media exactly who she blamed for the disaster. She blamed the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, for the lack of lifeboats. She also had a bee in her bonnet about what she considered the antiquated notion that women and children should go first, believing it separated families unnecessarily.
Her experience on the Titanic didn‘t keep Margaret from traveling. “I suppose there are some persons who would like me to sit down to devote the rest of my life to bridge,” she said. “Times have changed and there’s no reason why I should, like, my mother at forty, put on my glasses and do little but read.” Margaret ran for the Senate in 1914, but World War I intervened, and her sister’s marriage to a German baron led Margaret to believe her campaign would not be successful. Instead she lectured across the country about her experiences on the Titanic and other subjects, such as women’s rights.
During the war, she helped to create a military hospital in France and provided money for an ambulance corps. For her efforts, she was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal. Margaret Tobin Brown died at the age of sixty-five from an undiagnosed brain tumor. She was buried in Westbury, New York, next to her husband, J.J. Given their love of Colorado, it is ironic that they are buried so far from the state they adored.
The burnishing of Margaret’s myth happened soon after her death. It was columnist Polly Pry who first nicknamed her Molly and called her “Unsinkable” after her adventures on the Titanic. Her legend was further burnished by books, movies and the Broadway and movie musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Flamboyant and theatrical, Margaret Tobin Brown was the closest thing to royalty Denver had ever seen. Heck, she had even hobnobbed with real royalty, been presented at court in England and befriended a member of Russia’s Romanov family. She is as much a part of the myth of the Old West as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Margaret, however, preferred to think of herself as a “daughter of adventure. This means I never experience a dull moment and must be prepared for any eventuality.”