Margaret Brown In Life And Legend

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The stately Denver mansion at 1340 Pennsylvania St. is known as the Molly Brown House, though no one by that name ever lived there. Margaret Tobin Brown, the home’s best-known occupant, never went by Molly during her lifetime. 

Of course, the historians of Historic Denver Inc. who operate the Molly Brown House Museum know what her real name was, but they keep the misnomer because most potential visitors don’t. That points to Brown’s unusual distinction: She was perhaps the most famous woman in Colorado history, yet most of what people know about her isn’t true.

The hit musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown cemented the faulty facts about its real-life heroine: that she was born during a tornado and raised by a drunken father; she was an illiterate tomboy who headed out to Colorado on the advice of Mark Twain and became a saloon singer; after marrying prospector Johnny Brown, she hid $300,000 in paper money inside a pot-bellied stove, where it all burned; she became wealthy but was shunned by the other rich women of Denver until she survived the sinking of the Titanic.

Brown really did survive the Titanic, but most of the rest never really happened.

Her real story is more meaningful than the made-up melodrama. Brown was an iconoclast who upended convention. She made headlines in her fight for social justice in an era when respectable women kept their names out of the newspapers except for the announcements of their birth, marriage and death.

Brown was, in every sense, unsinkable.

Margaret Tobin was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1867, about 14 years after Mark Twain left his own boyhood home there. The daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, Brown received an eighth-grade education – more than was expected of children at the time – before getting a job at a local cigar factory stripping tobacco leaves. 

As a girl, Brown dreamed of marrying a rich man so her father wouldn’t have to  work long hours stoking furnaces at the Hannibal Gas Works to support the family. “I used to think that the zenith of happiness would be to have my father come to his home after a pleasant day and find his slippers warmed and waiting for him,” she said.

At 18, she followed her half sister to the mining boomtown of Leadville, Colorado. There she made a living sewing carpets and draperies at Daniels Fisher & Smith Dry Goods on Harrison Avenue.

While attending a Catholic church picnic, Brown met James Joseph “J.J.” Brown, a young Irish mining engineer. It didn’t take long for J.J. to start courting Margaret – whose auburn hair was as vibrant as her gregarious Irish personality – even though there was a 13-year age difference between the two.

There was one problem with the match: J.J. wasn’t rich. “I loved Jim, but he was poor,” Brown said. “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.” They married just months after meeting and soon had two children, Lawrence and Helen. 

Leadville lived and died on silver mining. When the price of silver crashed in 1893, it seemed that the Browns might never move up in the world. The Ibex Mining Co., where J.J. was a minor stockholder and chief of mining operations, decided to dig for gold instead of silver. The miners quickly ran into trouble in Ibex Shaft No. 1, a mine known as the Little Jonny, when they encountered a layer of dolomite sand, making it impossible to put up support timbers.

J.J. came up with an ingenious solution, using hay bales to support the unstable mine walls. Shortly thereafter, the miners struck gold – lots of it. “It is practically a lake of ore,” a Colorado School of Mines professor said. The Little Jonny yielded 135 tons of quality ore per day, reviving the prospects of the Browns, the mining company and the city of Leadville itself.

With J.J. awarded an eighth share of Ibex Mining Co., the Browns became rich practically overnight. Within a year, they had moved into their mansion in the capital city, where Brown, then 26 years old, was soon joined by her parents – she had achieved her dream of giving her father a life of leisure.


For the rest of the story see the March/April 2018 issue of Colorado Life.

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