The Impervious Margaret Brown

Day 72 of Colourisation Project – July 18

Born this day, (July 18, 1867)  Margaret Tobin Brown was an influential socialite and American human rights activist, philanthropist and actress, better known perhaps for surviving the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  This fact often overshadows the great work and contribution made by Brown before and after the sinking of the ‘indestructible’ Titanic.

There were 2224 people on board the liner when it hit an iceberg and sank on the night of April 14, 1912It was the vessel’s maiden voyage and Brown was one of the 710 survivors of this seemingly impossible catastrophe.

Molly Brown

Library of Congress – Bain Collection – Margaret Brown circa 1900 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Brown wasted no time in assisting survivors on board the Carpathia, the ship which came to the Titanic’s rescue.  (Ironically the Carpathia herself was sunk in the Atlantic on 17 July 1918 after being torpedoed by an Imperial German Navy U-boat off the Irish coast. Five of her crew lost their lives in the sinking.)  Her acts of bravery and selflessness earned her the nickname ‘the Unsinkable Mrs. Brown.’  Her command of French, German, and Russian proved helpful as she remained on board the Carpathia until all survivors had received medical assistance or were reunited with friends and family.

By the time Carpathia reached New York harbor, Brown had already established the Survivor’s Committee, which supported immigrants who had lost everything in the disaster, was elected as its chair, and had raised almost $10,000 for destitute survivors. The Committee also saw a memorial erected to the Titanic survivors in Washington, DC.

It is difficult to believe given the circumstances, that Brown was not allowed to testify in Congressional hearings about the sinking of the Titanic, because she was a woman. Brown responded to this by having her account of events published in several newspapers.

The mythology of ‘Molly’ Brown that unfolded after this tragic event has very little to do with the real life of Margaret Brown. In reality she was never known as ‘Molly;’ it was purely a Hollywood invention. She has had books, biographies and even a musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) devoted to her life’s story, all of which contributed to nourishing the mythology surrounding her.

The mythology does however speak to the spirit of this remarkable woman who worked tirelessly on behalf of women, children and the needy. Before even setting foot on the Titanic, she had already made a significant impact in the world.

Brown and her family lived a very comfortable life in Colorado, after having accumulated considerable wealth through the discovery of silver. In addition to raising two children of her own, she also raised her brother’s three daughters who had lost their mother at a young age.

She helped found the Denver Women’s Club, part of a network of clubs which advocated literacy, education, suffrage, and human rights in Colorado and throughout the United States. Brown was involved in the early feminist movement in Leadville while her children were still young. She was instrumental in setting up the Colorado Chapter of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.

A lifelong advocate of human rights, she also worked in soup kitchens to assist families of Leadville miners. She helped raise funds to build the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver. Brown worked with social reformer, Judge Ben Lindsey towards abolishing child labor and helping destitute children. This alliance led to Brown assisting Lindsey in the establishment of the first Juvenile Court in the USA, which eventually became the foundation for today’s U.S. juvenile court system.

In 1901 Brown was one of the first students of Carnegie Institute in New York, where she studied literature, French, German and Russian, and drama and enjoyed wearing dramatic (by American standards) large hats.

After the tragedy of the Titanic, Brown used her new-found fame as a platform for her social welfare and advocacy work, in particular labor rights, women’s rights, education and literacy for children, as well as for historic preservation.

During World War I, she worked with the Red Cross tending to injured French and American soldiers. She also worked for the American Committee for Devastated France; the Chateau of Blerancourt, a French-American museum outside of Paris, has a commemorative plaque that bears her name.

Brown was one of the first women in the United States to run for political office in the Senate eight years before women even had the right to vote in 1919.

In 1932 she was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her ‘overall good citizenship,’ and for her heroism and relief efforts during World War I.

Brown died of a brain tumor on October 26, 1932, in New York City at the age of 65.

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“After being brined, salted, and pickled in mid ocean I am now high and dry… I have had flowers, letters, telegrams-people until I am befuddled. They are petitioning Congress to give me a medal… If I must call a specialist to examine my head it is due to the title of Heroine of the Titanic.”  –  Margaret Brown

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