People Who Inspire: The “Unsinkable” Maggie Brown
Margaret Brown was more than just an American Socialite and Philanthropist; she was a woman with a big heart and a love for people. Maggie had a humble beginning which may have given her the concern for the less fortunate that made her famous. Born as Margaret Tobin on July 18, 1867 in Hannibal, Missouri, to Irish Catholic immigrant parents living in a two room house, she had three brothers, a sister and two half sisters. Her parents were both widowed very young.
When Margaret was eighteen she and her older brother Daniel moved to Leadville, Colorado, with her sister Mary Ann and her sister’s husband. In those days mining in Colorado offered many a chance at a good job in the industry or in businesses that served the miners and their families. Maggie lived with her brother in a small house and found work in a department store. Margaret eventually met and married J.J. Brown.
Maggie had a chance to marry rich men that made their fortune in mining and tried courting her. Instead, she married a self-educated entrepreneur. When asked about that she stated:
“I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how I had determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give to the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim, but he was poor. 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. So I married Jim Brown.”
The couple were married on September 1, 1886 in Leadville at the Annunciation Church. Over the next three years they had two children, Larry and Helen. In 1893 everything changed for the Brown Family. J.J. was responsible for the discovery of gold at the Little Jonny Silver Mine owned by Ibex Mining. Switching from silver to gold production made the company rich and turned around the ninety percent unemployment rate among miners in Leadville. Ibex gave him 12,500 shares of stock and a position on their Board of Directors.
Margaret donated her time and effort to working in a soup kitchen that served the needy families of Miners down on their luck. She was outspoken when it came to woman’s rights and very active in the Suffrage movement to gain women the right to vote. Maggie assisted in fundraising efforts for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (completed in 1911). She also worked with Judge Ben Lindsey to help destitute children and establish the United States’ first juvenile court, which formed the model for the modern U.S. juvenile courts system.
Margaret’s social views were not supported by her husband who had very sexist beliefs about the role of women in marriage and society. Sadly, these views were typical among most wealthy men and their socialite wives in those days. Although it never happened to her, women were regularly and legally whipped by their husbands for most any infraction. These might include serving dinner late, having a messy house or failing to properly supervise children. Maggie also managed to annoy J.J. and others by wearing oversized women’s hats to draw attention to herself and her causes.
In less than a year the Browns were wealthy and in 1894 they bought a Victorian Mansion in Denver. In 1897 they built a summer home near Bear Creek in Southwest Denver. Margaret helped establish the Denver Women’s Club with other wealthy wives. The club’s mission was to improve the lives of women through education and philanthropy. Maggie embraced her new role by getting involved with the arts and becoming fluent in French, German, Italian, and Russian.
Margaret Brown became a wealthy socialite, but she despised snobs. Maggie gave successful parties attended by many of Denver’s well known socialites. However, even after starting an association which celebrated French Culture (which was a favorite of wealthy women in those days), she was unable to gain entry into Denver’s most elite women’s group, Sacred 36. Members of that group attended exclusive parties and dinners hosted by Louise Sneed Hill. Brown called her “the snobbiest woman in Denver”.
Maggie’s early feminist views constantly annoyed her husband and some of the more influential members of Denver Society. In 1909 Margaret and J.J. signed a separation agreement. As religious Catholics they never divorced, but lived apart for the remainder of their lives. The two still communicated in a friendly way and cared for one another. Margaret received a cash settlement, maintained possession of their homes and received a $700 monthly allowance to continue her travels and social work.
Margaret Brown spent 1912 traveling throughout the Middle East and Europe. While in France she received a message from Denver saying that her eldest grandchild was seriously ill. She booked First Class passage on the RMS Titanic which was the very next passenger ship leaving for New York. Her daughter Helen was supposed to accompany her, but she decided to stay in Paris to continue her studies. Brown was transported to the Titanic aboard the tender SS Nomadic at Cherbourg, France, on the evening of April 10, 1912.
On April 15, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg at around 11:40 pm. Less than three hours later it slipped below the surface. During the rush to save as many as possible, Maggie helped other passengers get into their lifeboats, refusing to board her own. She was finally persuaded to leave the ship in Lifeboat No. 6. The brash Brown was later called “unsinkable” by a newspaper which reported on her stubborn refusal to leave the ship until she had helped as many as possible to board lifeboats, as well as her other actions to save lives and help survivors.
As the Titanic sank Maggie urged Quartermaster Robert Hichens to turn the half empty lifeboat around and look for survivors. Hichens was afraid the lifeboat would either be pulled down by suction from the Titanic or swamped by people trying to get into it, so he refused her request. Passengers from her life boat later told the press that Brown then threatened to throw the crewman overboard. After the Titanic Survivors were picked up by the RMS Carpathia, Brown organized a committee of First Class Passengers to help Second and Third Class Passengers. They provided essentials and even arranged for counseling.
Margaret Brown ran for a Senate seat from Colorado in 1914. She abruptly ended her campaign to return to France to work with the American Committee for Devastated France during World War I. Afterward, she used her new found fame as “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown” to speak out for literacy among women and children, and better working conditions for Miners. Maggie also continued to push for women’s rights and raise money for worthy causes like the Red Cross.
During the 1920s Maggie fulfilled a lifelong ambition and became an actress. The desire the public had to meet her because of all the publicity she received brought people out in large numbers. Her fame as a Titanic survivor and her outspoken brashness made her an instant success in the world of theater. She outlived her husband, but on October 26, 1932, Margaret Brown died in her sleep at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City. An autopsy revealed that she died because of a brain tumor. She was buried with J.J. Brown in the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, Long Island, New York.
Margaret Brown’s fame as a heroic Titanic survivor helped her promote historic preservation, and commemoration of the bravery and chivalry displayed by the men aboard the Titanic. During World War I she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France and helped wounded French and American soldiers. She was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur for her actions, activism, and philanthropy.