Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Margaret Tobin Brown, 1867-1932
By Andrea Malcomb, Director, Molly Brown House Museum
From her birth in a Mississippi River town to elegant Newport, Rhode Island, and from the Colorado mines to the stages of New York and Paris, Margaret "Molly" Brown was a progressive reformer and a strong voice for human rights. Born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1867, Brown first achieved fame after her husband James Joseph Brown, a self-taught mining engineer, struck gold in Colorado's mines in the 1890s.
After the family moved to Denver, her egalitarian spirit led her to the most pressing issues of her day. Brown worked to create Colorado's first juvenile court system, promoted cultural diversity, and became a patron of the arts. She also became Denver's first historic preservationist when she saved poet Eugene Field's home from demolition.
As her skills as a leader, organizer, and fundraiser grew, so did her scope. The national fame she gained after surviving the Titanic disaster in 1912 led her into society's most powerful circles. She negotiated with J.D. Rockefeller over the rights of coal miners in the aftermath of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre and ran for the U.S. Senate, six years before women could vote at the federal level. Although she ultimately withdrew her name before the election due to the onset of World War I, Brown certainly helped pave the way for other female candidates.
In 1914 Brown worked with Alva Vanderbilt Belmont to host an international suffrage conference the "Conference of Great Women," with activists from all social classes invited to attend. The two- week conference attracted women from both the United States and England who renewed their dedication and inspiration for the cause of suffrage. Brown gave an address on opening night and hosted many lectures at her Newport home, Mon Etui. Judge Ben Lindsay who is best known for his world creating Colorado's Juvenile Justice system, also spoke. Additionally, Colorado State Senator, Helen Ring Robinson, attended the conference as Brown's guest. Robinson was one of several women in State office in Colorado after granting women's suffrage in 1893. In an interview, Brown said, "Our men out in Colorado do not question our right to vote. They realize our right to have a speaking part in the affairs of the country in which we, as well as they, must live."
During the war, Brown volunteered in the first motorized ambulance corps. She also worked on relief efforts in devastated areas of France, a country she loved, into the 1920s. She later earned the French Legion of Honor award for her war-time activities. In the wake of her husband J.J.'s death in 1922, Brown focused her energy on personal passions, especially the theater. She performed on stage in Paris, London, and New York in the style of Sarah Bernhardt. It was while living at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City in 1932 that Brown passed away in her sleep at the age of 65.
Obituaries written after her death recount a full life dedicated to humanitarian and social justice causes. Also after her death, the legends began to grow until, thanks to newspaper articles, then plays and movies, "Molly" Brown, a name never used during her life, obscured the true story of a strong and independent woman. Margaret Brown's life illustrates how it is possible for one person to leave a lasting legacy.
Bancroft, Carolyn. The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown. Boulder: Johnson Books, 1961.
Iversen, Kristen. Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth. Boulder: Johnson Books, 1999.
Leonard, Stephen J. & Thomas J. Noel. Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis. Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1990.
Exhibit Wall Text. Molly Brown: Biography of a Changing Nation Exhibit. Molly Brown House Museum. Denver, Colorado. 2007.
Letters between the Brown Family, 1895-1949, contained in 14 boxes, Stephen Hart Library, History Colorado, Denver, Colorado.
Margaret Tobin Brown papers, photographs, and newspaper articles, held in the Western History Department of the Central Denver Public Library, Denver, Colorado.
The Iversen Collection of papers, photographs, and newspaper articles. Molly Brown House Museum archives, Denver, Colorado.
The Vollrath Collection of scrapbooks containing papers, photographs, and newspaper articles. Molly Brown House Museum archives, Denver, Colorado.