Better known to history as “the unsinkable Molly Brown,” Margaret Tobin Brown is arguably one of the most famous survivors of the RMS Titanic. On that fateful voyage, she helped others into lifeboats before boarding Lifeboat No. 6 herself, then encouraged fellow passengers on it to search for other survivors.
But when it comes to this legendary figure, where’s the line between truth and myth? Her actions in 1912 have since been dramatized in television shows, a musical, and multiple films, including James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, Titanic. Here, we’re setting aside her larger-than-life persona in pop culture and sticking to the facts.
1. She wasn’t actually called Molly.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Brown is her name; she was born Margaret, not Molly. While it’s sometimes said she didn’t earn the Molly moniker until after her death in 1932, historians found instances of her being called Mollie (with an -ie) in 1929, though the reasons for that new nickname are unknown. The Molly name really got started with Gene Fowler’s 1933 book, Timber Line. Within the book, Fowler neatly summarizes many of the myths about her, claiming that Brown was born two months premature during a tornado (a claim that was also made in her 1932 obituary by the Associated Press, but has since been disproven) and that she was illiterate.
These characterizations—and the name Molly—later influenced The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a 1960 musical by Richard Morris and Meredith Willson (this was also done in part for copyright distinctions), as well as the 1964 film adaptation and later, in James Cameron’s Titanic. While the name is a huge part of her legend, in her real life, Brown was referred to more formally as Margaret or Maggie.
2. She started working at a tobacco company at age 13.
Born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1867 to Irish immigrants, Margaret Brown (née Tobin) did not come into the world wealthy. She was one of six children—two of whom were from her parents’ previous marriages (their respective first spouses both died and they married each other). The family home was a small, four-room cottage, and she attended a local private school where she was taught by her aunt, Mary O’Leary. She graduated at the age of 13 with an eighth-grade education, then promptly began working at the Garth Tobacco Company, which was located in the center of her hometown. She’s believed to have worked as a tobacco leaf stripper, but never wrote or spoke much about her experiences.
3. She married for love.
In 1886 at the age of 18, Margaret moved to Leadville, Colorado, and began working at a local department store. It was in Leadville, circa spring 1886, that she met James Joseph “J.J.” Brown, a local mining foreman.
After a brief courtship, the pair were married on September 1, 1886. It was ultimately a love match for her. “I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown,” she said of her husband. “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.”
4. The Browns were “new money.”
Soon after marrying, the Browns moved into a two-room cabin in Stumpftown, Colorado, which was closer to the mines where J.J. worked. Margaret began taking reading and literature classes with a tutor, and in August 1887, the couple welcomed their first child, Lawrence (known as Larry).
Less than two years later, in July 1889, their daughter, Catherine (known as Helen), was born. By then, the Browns had relocated to 322 West Seventh Street in Leadville, and by all accounts, the pair lived a comfortable, albeit modest, life—until 1893, when J.J. unearthed a new way of retrieving gold from the bottom of the Little Jonny Mine, which was owned by the Ibex Mining Company.
This was a significant move, as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had put a strain on the U.S. government’s gold reserves, contributing to the Panic of 1893. Thanks to his discovery, J.J. was given 12,500 shares in Ibex and a place on the company’s board of directors, and became a very rich man. With this stroke of good fortune, the Browns effectively became what was known as "new money," meaning their wealth was acquired rather than inherited.
5. Molly Brown did important political and philanthropic work.
Before J.J. struck gold at the Little Jonny Mine, Margaret worked in soup kitchens to help local mining families. She’s even believed to have been involved in the Colorado chapter of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
She continued her charitable work after the family relocated to Denver in 1894 and purchased a Queen Anne-style home for $30,000 (equivalent to about $931,000 in 2022 dollars). She later became a charter member of the Denver Women’s Club, joined the Political Equality League, helped create Denver’s first animal shelter (which is still in existence today), and collaborated with Judge Ben B. Lindsey to put one of the first U.S. juvenile courts into motion.
Brown also ran for political office several times, including a bid for a Colorado state Senate seat in 1914, although she didn’t win. In the immediate aftermath of the Titanic tragedy, she even offered to volunteer for the Red Cross as a war nurse and purchase medical supplies for World War I field hospitals.
6. Her marriage was unhappy.
In addition to her political and philanthropic work, Brown studied at the Carnegie Institute in 1901, throwing herself into language and literature. She also studied acting in Paris and New York.
Yet despite their newfound wealth and the opportunities it afforded them, the marriage between Margaret and J.J. was fraught with disagreements. In 1898, J.J. suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed for a time; while he recovered, his health was never entirely the same and years later, a friend of Margaret’s claimed he experienced “peculiar delusions” and was “constantly pulling the family hearse as chief mourner.”
Privately, the couple reached a legal separation in August 1909, with Margaret gaining ownership of the Denver house they had shared, as well as a $25,000 trust fund. By January 1910, the split was front-page news: “The prime cause of the trouble has been that J.J. Brown dislikes society,” The San Francisco Examiner wrote, before later adding: “Perhaps no woman in society has ever spent more money or time in becoming ‘cultivated’ than has Mrs. Brown.” Despite the rift between them, the pair never legally divorced (they were devout Catholics) and remained married until J.J.’s death in 1922.
7. Molly Brown was traveling on the Titanic alone.
With her marriage all but over, Brown began traveling. She visited Egypt with John Jacob Astor IV and his new wife, Madeleine, and then went to Europe. While she was in Paris with her daughter, she received word that her infant grandson was ill and decided to head back to the U.S. to help her son. Her daughter stayed behind (she was studying at the Sorbonne), but Brown quickly booked passage on the one ship that would have seemed certain at the time to get her back to the U.S. the fastest: the RMS Titanic. It was unusual for the times for a woman to travel alone, and a fateful choice that would change the course of her life.
8. On the Titanic, she exercised by boxing.
Brown was active and enjoyed exercising. During her voyage on the Titanic, she used the ship’s gymnasium and favored the punching bag, as she enjoyed boxing as a form of exercise. In fact, she liked boxing so much that she had a leather punching bag set up in her renovated carriage house.
9. She helped Titanic passengers into lifeboats before being forced into one herself.
While many myths persist about Brown, her actions on April 15, 1912—the night the Titanic sank—are not counted among them. In an interview with The New York Times published less than a week after the sinking, she recounted her experiences, claiming that at first, the “whole thing was so formal that it was difficult for [anyone] to realize that it was a tragedy.”
While others chatted on deck and laughed as the first lifeboats were deployed in the water, Brown soon began helping put other women into a lifeboat. “Somehow,” she said, “I did not seem to care about the thing of being saved.” It wasn’t until two American merchants, Edward P. Calderhead and James McGough, “practically threw” her into Lifeboat No. 6 that she was rescued herself. “I owe my life to them,” she told the Times.
10. Molly Brown didn’t actually see the Titanic sink—but she did encourage her lifeboat's crew to help other survivors.
Brown spent a total of seven hours on Lifeboat No. 6, and noticed quickly that it “could have carried several more.” Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who was in charge of the boat, was determined to row away from the sinking steamer. Brown told the Times that she took off her lifejacket—reasoning she’d rather drown quickly than stay afloat in the freezing-cold water—and grabbed an oar herself, then later made the other passengers row, as it helped keep them all warm.
While Brown didn’t see the Titanic sink—she claimed that Lifeboat No. 6 was at least a mile and a half away by the time it did—she noted that a “great sweep of water” went over the boat, and at that time, the other passengers on her lifeboat all knew “the steamer was gone.”
Hichens was reluctant to return to search for survivors, although there was plenty of room on the boat. “He told us we had no chance,” she recalled to the Times. “After he had explained that we had no food, no water, and no compass[,] I told him to be still or he would go overboard.”
Shortly thereafter, other lifeboats became visible, and by dawn, Brown and her fellow Titanic survivors could see they were surrounded by icebergs. Brown recalled saving one man from the wreckage, whom she then “put to work” with rowing, and even placed some of her own clothing around him for warmth. The other passengers aboard Lifeboat No. 6, the Times reported, referred to “Lady Margaret” as “the strength of them all,” for her bravery in the face of the disaster, and with that, the legend of “the unsinkable” Molly Brown was born.
11. Her good luck charm was an Egyptian statue.
Before Brown boarded the Titanic, she had bought herself a small, turquoise-colored statue in Egypt as a good luck charm. In gratitude, she later gave the small token to Captain Arthur Henry Rostron of the RMS Carpathia, the ship that rescued the Titanic castaways. As part of a committee of Titanic survivors, Brown also helped present Rostron with a silver cup, as well as gold, silver, and bronze medals to him, his officers, and the crew in honor of their heroism and service, The New York Times reported. He kept Brown’s good luck charm for the rest of his life.