Monday, April 14, 2008


Molly presenting a Titanic Rescue Award

After posting such a sad post about the Carter House I was hesitant to post any other tragic historical events but I simply could not ignore that today is the anniversary of the sinking of the ill-fated Titanic. However, one survivor that made such a mark in all our hearts was the larger than life Mrs. JJ Brown, otherwise known as " The Unsinkable Molly Brown." I thought it would be nice to pay tribute to Titanic through the life of this courageous woman.

The Victorian era spawned much new wealth in industrialized America, and a popular way the nouveau rich spent their money was to take the "Grand Tour" of Europe often extending the trip to more exotic destinations such as Egypt and Japan. Without the speed of today's airplanes, these trips usually took three months or more to complete. (Such a trip was satirized in Mark Twain's book Innocents Abroad.) In the early months of 1912, Molly and her daughter Helen, who had been attending the Sorbonne in Paris, were taking such a tour with John Jacob Astor and his second wife, 19 year old Madeline (after a rather scandalous divorce.)

Molly had been writing her sister Katie back in Hannibal, that she intended to come for a few weeks' visit that spring. But then she received a telegram from her son Larry that her five-month-old first grandchild was ill. She decided to book passage at the last minute on board Titanic. Daughter Helen decided to stay in Paris for a few more parties. So Molly was traveling without family, but she was joining her friends the Astors.

The cost of the most expensive first-class accommodations was $4350 for the six-day voyage. Other celebrities, who were part of this social event of 1912, included millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim; Charles Hayes, president of the Grand Trunk Railway; Mr. & Mrs. Isadore Straus, owners of Macy's Department Store; and J. Bruce Ismay, co-owner of the White Star Line which had built Titanic. The April 10, 1912 Hannibal Courier Post front page reported the embarkment of Titanic from South Hampton, England. Molly and the Astors boarded at the Cherbourg, France stopover. It was the largest ship ever made--four city blocks long and reaching as high as an eleven -story building. Built with 16 watertight compartments that could stay afloat even if four were flooded, publications of the day referred to Titanic as "unsinkable."

The degree of luxury for passengers like Mrs. J.J. Brown was unsurpassed. Some staterooms had four poster beds and coal-burning fireplaces. The public rooms included palm verandas, a gymnasium, Turkish bath, swimming pool and library. We do not know the exact cabin number for Molly because she booked her passage at the last minute, she was not on the printed roster of passengers. But we know she was on the forward right side of Deck B--the first class deck.

Molly was in bed reading a book, when at 11:40 p.m., April 14, 1912, the lookout, Frederick Fleet, in Titanic's crow's nest phoned the bridge, "Iceberg right ahead!" The impact threw Molly to the floor. Most passengers were unaware of the collision until they noticed the hum of engines had stopped. By 12:15 a.m., the ship was preparing the lifeboats. Molly wisely put on six pairs of wool stockings, a wool suit, fur coat, hat and muff. She put $500 cash in one pocket, and a good luck amulet she had purchased recently on her Egyptian tour in her other pocket.

After helping other women, Molly found herself thrown into Lifeboat No. 6 by two American merchants who said, "You are going, too." The boat with capacity for 65 held fewer than 30 when it was lowered to the water, including lookout Fleet and Quartermaster Hichens who had been at the pilot wheel upon impact.

Frightened Hichens warned the lifeboat would be sucked down when Titanic sank. Molly took charge and grabbed the oars and ordered the women to row toward the light on

the horizon, which they hoped was a rescue ship. Adrift on the cold Atlantic, Molly shared her extra pairs of stockings, and kept the women warm by having them take turns rowing. They watched in horror as the steamer sank at 2:20 a.m., April 15th. She was appalled that Hichens refused to turn the lifeboat back to pick up more survivors.

After almost 6 hours of terror, the ship Carpathia answered the distress call. Once on board, Molly helped organize relief efforts. Her knowledge of foreign languages enabled her to aid the frightened immigrants who had lost everything, including their husbands. Molly voiced her opinion that the "women and children first" policy was tragically immoral. "Women demand equal rights on land--why not on sea?" she asked.

Even when the Carpathia arrived in New York, Molly stayed on board to reassure the terrified foreign women. Since the White Star Line provided no relief to these widows and orphans, nor for the families of the dead crewmembers, Molly raised $10,000 of private money from the wealthy passengers, including the $500 cash she donated, to aid these poor victims. Molly returned to New York on May 29, 1912 to present Captain A.H. Rostron a token of esteem of the Titanic survivors. She also had a medal struck for each of the crew of Carpathia, which depicted a ship plowing through icebergs toward a tossing lifeboat. The story circulated that when first interviewed by reporters in New York, they asked to what she attributed her survival. "Typical Brown luck," she supposedly said, "We're unsinkable." The label stuck, and she became a national celebrity. Even back in Denver, Mrs. Crawford Hill deigned to host a luncheon in her honor.

Molly had to postpone her trip to visit her sister, Katie Becker, in Hannibal. It was reported in the December 18, 1915 Hannibal Courier Post that Molly came to spend the winter with Katie to improve her health as she had been suffering from nervous trouble since she had witnessed the horrible scene of Titanic sinking. It was also reported that Molly finally settled her claim against the White Star Line after almost four years for the sum of $10,000 for the loss of her jewelry, clothes, etc. Titanic turned Molly into a political figure. She spoke out for maritime reform, women's right to vote, and improved conditions for miners. In 1914 she ran for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic-Progressive ticket in the state of Colorado, albeit unsuccessfully.

During the Mexican War, she advocated a military regiment for women, but was dismissed as eccentric. During WWI, Molly went back to France on her own to volunteer at the American Hospital in Paris, working with wounded soldiers. She helped raise money with Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt to import ambulances to France for the war effort. She also entertained the troops, specializing in Sarah Bernhardt roles. For these services, she was named to the French Legion of Honor.

Molly continued to be active, surviving two more ship disasters, and a hotel fire at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. She spent much of her later years in New York where she stayed at the Barbizon Hotel…a place where actresses often roomed. That is where she died on October 25, 1932 at age 65. Her fortune had dwindled to $1500 and her house in Denver, which sold the next year for only $5000. In her last act of charity, she wanted the poor mining children of Leadville, Colorado to have Christmas presents of woolen mittens and boots. She did not live to see her wish carried out by her nephew who distributed the gifts.

From the Molly Brown Museum


DeeDee said...

Rebecca...What an amazing woman this Molly Brown was..and a wonderful read..I enjoyed it completly...Can you imagine for just a moment having that kind of every turn she thought of others..the story has only made me what to know more about her life...thank you for such a beautiful and inspiring story of this Unsinkable Molly Brown...

Dianne said...

I just stopped over from Mary's blog and thought I would see what your about. I love history and I know I am going to love your site. I will be back tomorrow when I have more time to read. This is going to be exciting!

willow said...

Very interesting post, Rebecca. Wow, Kathy Bates was well cast as Molly Brown, in "Titanic" wasn't she? That last photo looks like it could be Kathy!

Rebecca said...


I agree. She was truly amazing. I didn't know much about her post-Titanic Life so it was very interesting to learn about her many achievements and that she had additional close calls with death.

Rebecca said...

Welcome Diane!

Thank you for you kind words and for visiting the blog. Have a cuppa with me anytime!

Rebecca said...


I thought the same thing when I saw that picture. I thought Kathy Bates did an exceptional job in that role. I told my husband last night that with all the great true stories that Molly Brown had, they could've shown that a bit more in the movie. He informed me it probably wouldn't have been the great blockbuster it was if they went that route. I think I would've enjoyed it much more if they had!

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

What a fascinating biography---I read it all the way through, and was amazed at all of her accomplishments. Of course I'd heard of her, but had no idea of her life outside of her Titanic rescue. Truly an intrepid woman, far ahead of her time. Thank you so much for posting this; a remarkable, formidable woman...the world needs more like her.


willow said...

I agree! I would have enjoyed "Titanic" much more if they would have taken the historical Molly Brown route. She was such a colorful person and Kathy Bates is so talented.

Rebecca said...

Yes, Lavinia, we sure could use a few more Molly Brown's. Perhaps they're some out there that we'll get to know someday.

rochambeau said...

Dear Rebecca,
What an informative post about an amazing person. Thank you for taking the time to share this. Molly inspires me.

I'll think of you while sipping tea today.


Bachelor said...

What a great great write up on Molly Brown. Pretty special. I can remember growing up and watching Debbie Reynolds doing a wonderful job in the musical, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"....have a great weekend! :0

david mcmahon said...

Came here from Lavinia Ladyslipper. Great tribute to a life I thought I knew so much about - until I read (and enjoyed) your post.

aims said...

Thank you so very much for this!

When I was in my 20's - I bought a print called 'For Those We Left Behind' by Molly Brown Roberts. It is a picture of three people in a small boat with a ragged sail - all oranges and browns....

I didn't know why I had to have it at that time - but I did. And I have never really known the meaning behind it - until right now.

I cannot thank you enough!

Rebecca said...

Welcome David! Thanks so much for the link to this post on your blog.

Rebecca said...


I'm so glad this post helped you solve a puzzle and provide some answers for you.

Many blessings to you....

Sandi McBride said...

Oh I loved Molly Brown, and I loved each actress that portrayed her, but Debbie she was the best! Great post, rich with history...thank you,