The sinking of the Titantic – an April tragedy
March 15, 2010
Margaret Tobin Brown of Denver, Colo., was the daughter of Irish immigrants who lived in Hannibal, Mo. She’d never used the name “Molly” – her friends called her “Maggie.” But after the “Titanic” incident, Carolyn Bancroft, a romance writer, and a Denver Post reporter both gave her that nickname and it caught on. After the play, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” appeared onstage, the name “Molly” was now hers for life, whether she liked it or not.
She had legally separated from her husband in 1909, three years before her trip as a passenger on the Titanic, but the official passenger manifest shows she still signed “Mrs. James Joseph Brown of Denver, Colo.” Although she and husband, “J.J.” had toured Europe years earlier, he was older and preferred the simplicity of Leadville, Colo., where he’d made his fortune. Some of his earliest mining buddies still lived there. Margaret remembered her poor log cabin Leadville days, but now loved living in Denver, her charity club work, entertaining friends and traveling.
Their daughter, Catherine Ellen Brown, nicknamed Helen, was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris and she’d sailed over to see her. She invited Helen to tour Europe with her, followed by a trip to Egypt where the two women joined up with Margaret’s eastern friends, including rich 47-year-old John Jacob Astor and his 18-year-old bride.
While they were in Egypt, her son Larry had wired her that Lawrence Palmer Brown Jr., her first grandson, was very ill. She left Egypt, returning to Cherbourg, France, and booked herself on the earliest ship, the Titanic, for the ship’s maiden voyage. Her ticket cost $4,350 for the expected six-day voyage from Cherbourg. Daughter Helen decided not to go with her, staying in Europe.
On April 12, 1912, on their fourth day at sea, the unpredictable happened only minutes before midnight. The elegant, mighty Titantic, traveling at full-speed to reach New York early, hit an iceberg, ripping a hole in the side of the passenger steamship. It couldn’t be repaired to hold up against the intense strength of the frigid water rushing in. The crew hastily lowered lifeboats, but there were not enough boats to hold all the 2,223 passengers on board their nine decks.
Only women and children were allowed onboard the available boats, a Navy tradition. The fortunate ones escaped the turmoil on deck as the lifeboats dropped down into the dark night while people screamed and cried above them. Cold and scared, they faced the frightening terror of the unknown immediately below them, as the boats slapped the surface of the frigid ocean’s water.
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The ship’s crewmen radioed desperately for help from any other vessels out there. RMS Carpathia 60 miles away, heard the message and responded, but it took them four hours to reach them from the first message. Meanwhile, the majestic and wounded Titanic was stranded in the towering iceberg-clogged waters of the North Atlantic.
In their rush, some of the lifeboats were lowered half empty, although passengers pleaded with crewmen to be allowed to board. A total of 1,517 died that night, which included some in lifeboats who had been pulled out of the icy water but were near death at the time. It took a total of two hours and four minutes for the ship to break apart and sink.
Mrs. John Jacob Astor, her maid, and her nurse survived. She was pregnant and the couple decided to book the Titantic in Cherbourg to return home early. Mr. Astor asked to be allowed to accompany his wife in the lifeboat “because of her fragile condition” but was refused. He watched them row away, remaining on top deck. Officials presumed he died on deck when one of the smokestacks broke onto the deck, crushing him and others.
Mrs. James Joseph Brown, aka Molly Brown, aka Maggie Brown, was 44 years old. She shared her lush fur coat with a woman in their lifeboat No. 6 where they sat shivering, as the oarsman frantically rowed away from the tilting, slowly sinking ocean liner. Some reporters wrote that “Mrs. Brown carried a pistol in her cowboy boot and was prepared to use it if they didn’t row.” Since she was from “the wilds of Colorado,” most readers believed it.
When the “Carpathia” rescued them, she was one of only 705 survivors pulled from the lifeboats. Maggie Brown helped establish a Survivors’ Committee and as chairman of the committee, they raised $10,000 in cash and pledges for the destitute survivors, many of them made widows and orphans. When the ship docked at Hudson River Pier No. 4, there was a crowd estimated at 30,000 people awaiting them. A newspaper reporter asked her to explain how she had survived the tragedy. She replied, “It was the Brown luck” and formally announced the fundraising for the survivors.
In 1922, her husband, who was living in New York City at daughter Helen’s home, died. Margaret sadly proclaimed
to the press, “I’ve never met a finer, bigger, more world-like man than James Joseph Brown.”
In 1932, 20 years after the sinking of the Titanic, she died in her sleep at New York’s Barbizon Hotel. Her daughter arranged that her mother was buried beside her father. Their grave, topped with a single, tall granite tombstone, is located in Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, Long Island, New York.