The Wild West of Yester-Year

Margaret "Molly" Brown
By Rachel Kovaciny

When I was ten or eleven, I got briefly obsessed with the movie The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Debbie Reynolds was one of my favorite actresses in my tweens, and I loved anything set in the Old West, so the movie was a guaranteed hit with me. I remember looking her up in a library book about famous western women and being shocked to discover they never called her Molly. Others knew her as Maggie! The press gave her the nickname Molly after she died.

Maggie Brown was born Maggie Tobin in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1867. As a teen, Maggie worked at a tobacco factory in Hannibal before heading west with her brother Daniel, her half-sister Mary Ann, and Mary Ann’s husband John. They settled in the booming mining town of Leadville, Colorado, where Maggie found a job at a mercantile. Maggie met and fell in love with mining superintendent James Joseph Brown, better known as JJ. Her husband had spent several years learning about mining, studying things like geology and different mining techniques so he could improve his chances of striking it rich. The nineteen-year-old Maggie married the thirty-one-year-old JJ that same year. They lived in Leadville for a time before moving closer to the mines. While JJ advanced up the ranks in the mining corporation, Maggie worked at a soup kitchen for nearby families and got involved in the woman’s suffrage movement. Maggie and JJ had a son and a daughter while living in the Leadville area. Though busy with her children, Maggie continued to get involved in community affairs, helping improve local schools and helping needy miner families.

In 1893, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act lead to the “Silver Crash,” and many miners went bankrupt. But JJ had continued learning about geology and mineralogy, and he discovered gold in a mine called the Little Johnny. Its owners rewarded him richly, and the Browns moved to Denver the following year, now millionaires. Maggie had never tried to fit in with Leadville society. Her love of helping the unfortunate, crusading for women’s suffrage, and wearing outrageously large hats all marked her as different from other leading Leadville women. When the Browns moved to Denver, the only thing that changed was now that Maggie and JJ were millionaires. Nobody in the upper crust could ignore her. Thanks to the silver crash, Denver’s slums were teeming with jobless and even homeless miners and their families. Maggie Brown had plenty of opportunities to help people now. She co-founded the Denver Women’s Club, whose purpose was to help women improve the lives of other women through education and philanthropy. She also worked closely with Progressive judge Ben Lindsey to found one of the country’s first juvenile court systems.


In 1901, Maggie Brown did something virtually unheard of: she ran for public office. In fact, she ran for the Colorado state senate! Though she withdrew from the race before election day, the experience gave her a taste for politics, and she tried unsuccessfully to run for U.S. Congress more than once. Around this time, she developed a love of languages, learning to speak French, German, Italian, and Russian fluently. By 1909, Maggie and JJ’s marriage had unraveled. They separated legally that year, though they never formally divorced. Maggie loved to travel, so in 1912, she embarked on a world tour with her daughter and their friends, John Jacob and Madeleine Astor. While abroad, she received word her grandson was ill back home. Determined to reach him as soon as possible, she boarded the first available ship back to the US: the RMS Titanic. Which, as we all know, did not make it back to America.

The night the Titanic sank, Maggie Brown took command of lifeboat #6. When the RMS Carpathia arrived to rescue them, Brown used her knowledge of many foreign languages to help the survivors communicate with the Carpathia’s crew. She also convinced her fellow first-class passengers to donate money to help the poorer survivors begin life anew once they reached the US. By the time they arrived in New York, she had raised $10,000. Surviving the Titanic made Maggie Brown famous across the country. Newspapers called her “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown,” and she leveraged her newfound fame in favor of her favorite causes, women’s suffrage and helping the poor, especially children. When World War One broke out, she worked with the Red Cross and later traveled to France as part of the American Committee for Devastated France. The grateful French bestowed the French Legion of Honor on her for her efforts. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Maggie Brown became an actress. Inspired by the great Sarah Bernhardt, she appeared regularly on stage in Paris and New York until her death in 1932 from a brain tumor. Maggie is buried beside her estranged husband JJ in Westbury, New York.

You can still tour the Brown home in Denver, Colorado, or even take a virtual tour if you’d like! Check out for details.