c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
When the famed “Unsinkable Molly Brown” of Denver became even more famous as a heroine on the sinking Titanic, news reports about her were most fitting. Previously shunned by Denver’s elite society, Margaret Tobin Brown, wife of a mining milionaire, at last had her day. To the “Sacred 86” and Denver’s other elite circles, she was uncouth, uneducated, and worth no more than a smear campaign launched by Polly Pry of the Denver Post. But her Titanic fame endeared her to the world.
From her posh Denver hotel room after her horrific experience on the sinking ship, Molly told the press that she had boarded the Titanic in a rush to get back to Colorado to see her grandson. The child had been born in the mining town of Victor just five months before. In an effort to see the sickly youngster, Maggie later said, she boarded the ill-fated ship and sailed into history. Sailed into folklore is more like it. For as much as she relished being vindicated and recognized at last, Maggie’s motives behind her statement are questionable. Not only did she initially tell the press she had planned to visit her native home of Hannibal Missouri, but Maggie had already written a letter to her sister there in anticipation of her visit.
In Hannibal, Maggie’s beginnings were as humble as it gets. Both of her parents were uneducated Irish immigrants who had come to America to make a better life for themselves. Each was widowed. The two met and married in Hannibal. Maggie’s father, John Tobin, earned about $1.75 per day digging ditches for Hannibal Gasworks. In 1860, he managed to purchase a tiny house in the “Irish Shanty” section of town. Here, Maggie was born in 1867 and raised with three brothers and sisters, plus two half-siblings.
The Tobins lived a typical, poor Irish lifestyle. Their five room house contained such essentials as a small wood stove in the kitchen, oil lamps and hand-made furniture. There were a few chickens and a cow. Maggie’s mother Johanna favored smoking a clay pipe. These were facts the wealthy ladies of Denver later liked to point out after Maggie married and struck it rich. What they left out was the fact that Maggie attended the O’Leary Private School across the street from her home. Her aunts, Mary and Margaret, were teachers. Maggie attended classes through age 13, receiving an ample amount of schooling for the 1870’s.
Upon leaving school, Maggie procured a job at the Garth tobacco factory. Next, she moved in with her half sister, Katie Becker. The Beckers lived in a two story home in a working class neighborhood. Later, Maggie turned to waitressing, working first at the Continental Hotel and later at the Park Hotel. Historians doubt Maggie’s later story that she met Mark Twain, another famous Hannibalite who came home for a visit in 1882. However, there is a possibility she waited on him at the hotel. True or not, the tale was added to Maggie’s repertoire of wonderful stories. Other stories regarding Twain included hunting and fishing with him, being on a boat with him, and even being rescued by him during a cyclone! This lady loved a good story.
In 1883, Molly’s sister Mary and her husband, Jack Laundrigan, moved to Leadville. Three years later, nineteen-year-old Maggie and her brother Daniel joined them. Upon arriving in Leadville, Maggie and Daniel stayed with their sister. Soon after, Maggie married J.J. Brown and the two made history as Brown’s interests in mining turned him into a millionaire.
Maggie returned to Hannibal in 1887 to give birth to a son, Lawrence Palmer Brown. Perhaps she was having the first of many spats with J.J., as theirs was a stormy relationship. In 1889, according to the Molly Brown House Museum in Hannibal, the rest of Maggie’s family followed her to Leadville. By most accounts, only Kate Becker remained in Hannibal. Maggie’s parents lived the remainder of their lives in Denver, and upon their respective deaths were shipped back to Hannibal for burial.
The Browns moved to Denver to, and lived among the rich. But their wealth, the public decided, was undeserved. The picture of poor little Irish Maggie Tobin lucking out and striking it rich infuriated the upper class society ladies. At every opportunity, these same ladies worked with the media to put Maggie in her place. It is no wonder she began telling stories and doing outlandish things to attract attention. Among her sins was alternating the time of her two children between expensive boarding schools and trips abroad. Both Denver society and J.J. frowned on the practice with a vengeance.
Maggie’s one downfall was that she defied the very status she was seeking. Her lavish parties to which nobody came echoed with her brazen mid-western voice. She was not elegant, handsome or genteel. Many of the wild tales she spun were obvious fibs. The very fact that Maggie Brown did not act the part of her elite female counterparts set her aside from the rest. When she occasionally defended herself, in poorly-spelled letters to the editor of the Denver Post, her adversaries saw an opportunity to poke further fun at her.
Maggie spent the majority of the winter of 1911-12 abroad with her daughter Helen, who was in a German boarding school. The two visited Egypt and Europe. Just previous to that winter, Maggie’s son Lawrence had moved to Victor and worked as a miner. His marriage to a common gal, Eileen Horton, put a strain on the relationship with his father. Jumping on the media bandwagon, the Victor Record published a taunting headline which read, “Peeves Rich Dad; Now He Must Dig for Living.” In reality, the doting Maggie sent Lawrence money on the sly.
On November 21, 1911, Eileen gave birth to a son, Lawrence Palmer Jr. The child wasn’t faring well at Victor’s high altitude, and Eileen took the baby home to Kansas City shortly after Christmas in 1911. By late March “rumor had abounded that the baby died,” said Maggie’s great-granddaughter, Muffet Brown. Who started the rumor is unclear, but it was through a letter from a friend of Helen’s, not any family member, that Maggie discovered her new grandson was in ill-health. She would later tell the press that the letter was what spurred her to action and seek passage back to America.
Here is where Magie’s tale falls apart. A letter sent from Colorado would have to be taken by train to the eastern seaboard to await disbursement by ship to Europe. That meant months before any correspondence arrived. Telegrams by this time were the speediest method for wiring emergency messages. Had the baby become worse, Maggie would have been notified immediately. By the time Maggie heard the news, she had plenty of time to wire back to the states and get verification of the baby’s condition.
According to historian Caroline Bancroft, Maggie booked last minute passage on the Titanic upon hearing of the maiden voyage from John Jacob Astor and his wife Madeline. “Because of her frequent trips in former years she was able to get on the sailing list at the last moment.” said Bancroft. Helen did not accompany her mother, and the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver maintains that Maggie had written from Paris to her sister Kate that she would be coming to Hannibal for a visit upon her return from Europe – not Victor, as she later claimed.
Within two days of the ship’s sinking, the Hannibal Courier-Post ran a story about Maggie’s Titanic adventure, noting “Hannibal Woman Has Sister Among Survivors”. The story related how “Mrs. Brown had expected to spend several weeks in Hannibal during this spring and summer. Three weeks ago she wrote her sister from Paris, stating that the party would sail for America in a few days and that she expected to stop over in Hannibal for a long visit on her way home in Denver.” There was no mention of Maggie’s sick grandbaby.
Upon reaching New York on April 18, Bancroft maintained Maggie checked into the Ritz-Carlton and wired home for money. J.J. was in Arizona at the time, “using the name Bacon in an effort to dodge Maggie’s demands,” according to the historian. J.J.’s secretary in Denver ultimately wired traveling funds. When she got to Denver, Maggie next found comfort in a luxurious suite at the Brown Palace Hotel. Newspaper reporters and admirers mingled with message boys bringing handfuls of telegrams and letters, according to Bancroft.
It was probably at this time that Maggie changed her story and reported she cut her travels short to return to America because her grandson was sick. She also felt free to embellish on her Titanic adventures, the details of which grew longer and more unbelievable the more she spoke of them. Because of her harrowing experience, Maggie gained her long-awaited acceptance into proper Denver society. She at last had the public’s ear, and was talking into it as fast as she could.
By the time things had settlted down, both Lawrence and Eileen had left Victor. Lawrence was working in Oregon, and Eileen was en route with the baby. If she made a stop in Denver to see her mother-in-law, there is no record of the visit. The child, nicknamed “Pat”, survived and lived a long healthy life. He died in California in 1976.
As for the idea that Maggie could have been bringing clothes for Lawrence as was portrayed in 1998’s Titanic film, Margaret Brown did not claim any men’s clothing on her insurance voucher. She was, however, reimbursed by the Titanic’s White Star Line for the other possessions she lost. And did Maggie ever make it to Victor? Certainly not. Furthermore, there is little evidence that she ever saw her grandbaby at all. Eileen and Larry’s marriage was stormy at best; the couple divorced in 1915, remarried in 1917 and divorced again in 1927. Larry ultimately married Hollywood actress Mildred Gregory. The couple lived in California before returning to Leadville.
Within a year of the Titanic disaster, Maggie was renting a cottage in Newport, Rhode Island, where she was later evicted for back rent. During her post-titanic years, Maggie continued traveling. Her last visit to Hannibal was probably in 1926, when she attended the unveiling of a statue depicting Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When she died in 1932, only about $1,500 was left of the Brown fortune.
Today, the Molly Brown House in Denver has been restored and maintained as a museum. Likewise, the Molly Brown Dinner Theatre in Hannibal is expanding and entertains guests with stories of her life. And the Molly Brown Birthplace and Museum on Mark Twain Avenue in Hannibal has undergone at least two restorations. The latter, with its clapboard siding and fresh paint, hardly resembles the place Maggie grew up in. It’s o.k. though. Maggie would no doubt like it the way it is, perhaps even borrowing a bit of Twain-lore about how she finagled the neighborhood kids into helping paint it. She’d like that story.