A century later, camera-shy wartime humanitarian Margaret Brown inspires Colorado’s young women and men, like us. Her life’s work gives reason for a grand celebration.
Story by Julie Bielenberg
Photographs by Chad Chisholm
An older generation associates the nearly mythical “Unsinkable Molly Brown” with the celebrated survivor of the RMS Titanic shipwreck in 1912. Women of my generation grew up watching the Titanic movie, distracted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Each generation is less aware that “Molly” Margaret (Tobin) Brown birthed two children, traveled the world, survived two other near-fatal shipwrecks and a hotel fire, and changed the course of American politics. How could one woman accomplish such feats? And how could we overlook them?
It humbles me that my children and I could walk through her Capitol Hill neighborhood and visit her Denver home, tour her museum and feel the relics of her life. We partook in this activity early in 2014 on a blizzard-blown Saturday morning. The snow was whipping around outside, and I knew if Margaret was home, she would have had a roaring fire for her own children in this very room we were entering. My son, Hank, and I unzipped our jackets and began to learn how and why we were sitting at 1340 Pennsylvania St. in Denver. It was America’s “new” water system that brought Margaret Tobin’s family out West, closer to Denver. Her parents, Irish Catholic immigrants, followed America’s newest riches to the industrialization of the Missouri River.
“Previously, Margaret’s father John Tobin settled near Harper’s Ferry, W.V., and joined abolitionist John Brown to liberate slaves,” said Andrea Malcomb, director of Historic Denver Inc.’s Molly Brown House Museum. “Other family stories relate to the fact that he worked at an Underground Railroad station to get runaway slaves across the Pennsylvania border. Margaret’s mother Johanna was a descendant of O’Donovan Rossa, an Irishman exiled to America for his militant efforts in the Irish resistance of the 1860s.”
The family’s migration followed the banks of the Mississippi River. Born in Hannibal, Mo., in 1867, Margaret attended school until age 13 before she went to work in the riverside tobacco plants—an impressive education for a first-generation immigrant family. When we later ponder her life and achievements, it’s astounding she was able to influence so many people and learn so many languages with so little schooling.
In her very late teens, Margaret, her sister and brother-in-law visited her brother Daniel in Leadville, the nation’s silver headquarters. Like other “boomtowns,” Leadville was multi-ethnic and exciting, rowdy with politics, alcohol, and prostitution. Margaret took a job as sales clerk at Daniels, Fisher, and Smith’s Emporium, and became active in the Irish Catholic Church. She eventually married another first-generation son of Irish immigrants, James Joseph (J.J.) Brown. Together they welcomed a son in 1887, then daughter in 1889.
Our family visited Leadville last summer and toured some of the places Margaret and her family traversed daily. The hardships she faced, in some of the harshest conditions in America, astound me. As a contemporary, multi-tasking woman, I am flabbergasted at what she endured before turning 27. Mrs. J.J. Brown did not have the access to my tools and technology, yet her breath of determinism never faltered, even with what us modern moms would call “a full plate.” Margaret not only managed her own home but also helped other miner and immigrant families, and worked to improve the local Leadville schools.
The Browns experienced even more hardship with the silver price crash of October 1893. Yet J.J. Brown proved as resourceful as his wife, creating technology to dig even deeper into the mines to reach gold. “By the end of the month he had the Little Johnny mine producing 135 tons of gold ore a day,” Malcomb said. Now rich from stocks and bonuses, J.J. moved the family to Pennsylvania Street in Denver. Just blocks from the State Capitol and hub of Colorado politics, Margaret thrived. She became a charter member of the Denver Woman’s Club and pioneering member of other crucial charity organizations including the founder of the Denver Dumb Friends League. She also began traveling to exotic locations around the world to pursue her humanitarian and cultural passions. Margaret became fluent in five languages at this point in her life.
After 23 years of marriage, the Browns ended their union and privately signed an agreement in 1909 that awarded Margaret a monthly allowance of what today would equal $20,000. That large sum helped maintain the Denver home and carry on her philanthropic work globally.
Even while using her affluence to visit spectacular places, Margaret’s compassion never wavered. “She shows us … that you can be … a person intoxicated with the material abundance of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, and you can also be a person of conscience and a person of concern and compassion and willingness to act for the well-being of others,” said Patricia Nelson Limerick, faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West & Professor of History, University of Colorado.
I hope I can instill the fragile balance of perseverance and drive in my children, as Margaret did. This is what makes Margaret’s next accolade endearing.
Margaret worked to establish the first juvenile court system in the United States that is the framework for our modern-day juvenile system. She understood the plight of destitute children and immigrants from her time on the banks of the Mississippi to the mines of Leadville. At this time, she had also taken on responsibility of raising the three daughters from her brother Daniel’s marriage, after the girls’ mother died.
Margaret made three runs for political office, the last in 1914, six years before women had the right to vote. But she would soon shift her attention to relief efforts in the Great War, volunteering for the American Committee for Devastated France, driving ambulances to help the soldiers. France later awarded her an honor for her humanitarian efforts.
J.J. died in 1922, and with that loss Margaret moved away from her mining roots in Colorado. Back east, Margaret made one more miraculous escape. “Margaret was staying at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1925 when fire broke out and again she helped everyone to safety,” Malcomb said. “A friend of Margaret’s is quoted as saying ‘She must be a combination of fish and phoenix. She’s been through fire and water before; she’s hit the high spots of danger and come through unharmed. She must have a charmed existence.’”
Sitting in the Molly Brown House, Hank and I imagine that the home fire Molly would have started to warm us on a winter day is now dying down, leaving us to reflect upon and admire Brown’s understated elegance, class, and endurance, birthed in a strong-willed family.
Julie Bielenberg is a Denver-based writer.
Chad Chisholm is a Denver-based photographer.
Women of Margaret’s era, including Molly herself, wore a traveling hat everywhere, from cars to ships to museums, as a status symbol. Their dress’s rich fabrics, like the one featured at left, a pattern Molly wore, reflected the growing materialistic trends rising in America after WWI. And the classic 1920s Gatsby-inspired flapper outfit below, one of Molly’s fashions, abounded in delicate white lace and removable sleeves, celebrating women’s freedom. Art deco-style jewelry from the Molly Brown House Museum lends itself well to the roaring ‘20s in America.
Before Titanic: a near miss
Andrea Malcomb, director of Historic Denver Inc.’s Molly Brown House Museum, tells the story:
“Margaret Brown was traveling with John Jacob, Madeline Astor and her daughter Helen, on a Mediterranean tour which included Egypt. This group had also been on a ship in the Indian Ocean that nearly capsized during a typhoon before continuing to Cairo.”
Upon finishing her travels and arrival in France, Margaret received a wire that her grandson was sick. She booked immediate passage on the RMS Titanic with her traveling companions Jacob and Astor. John Jacob went down with the ship. This sinking symbol of human feat was met with the strength of a woman, mother, hero that could not be sunk.
The Molly Brown House will celebrate both the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and the important role American women played in providing humanitarian aid. Visit mollybrown.org for more information on museum tours, hours and event-related items.