Read an Excerpt
Although Margaret "The Unsinkable Molly" Brown is well known for her heroic efforts in surviving the Titanic disaster, that historic event doesn't begin to reveal the full measure of who she was or what she accomplished during her fascinating life.
And Margaret-the name "Molly" was a Hollywood invention-was the subject of as many myths as Aesop had fables. The real Margaret Brown is often obscured by her characterization in blockbusters such as "Titanic" and, of course, the Broadway musical. And then there's the movie, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," in which Debbie Reynolds portrayed "Molly" on the screen in 1964.
Margaret was born in 1867 in the "Irish Shanty Town" section of Hannibal, Mo., two months prematurely due to a "cyclone" that struck Hannibal, the earliest barometer of her remarkable resilience. Her father was a poor Irish immigrant who worked at the local gas works.
Molly was raised in a tiny, 480-square-foot house two blocks from the Hannibal gas works with her three brothers and sisters; at night the family's chickens and cow occupied the basement -- there was no money or place for a separate barn.
Molly attended a school run by her aunt until she was 13, then went to work in a tobacco factory stripping tobacco leaves 12 hours a day, six days a week. Working conditions were miserable, and this experience sparked a lifelong advocacy for workers and unions. Margaret subsequently went to work in Hannibal's Park Hotel.
One myth places Hannibal's most famous resident, Mark Twain, side-by-side with Margaret, but he left the city years before she was born. Still, she was enthralled by Twain and his writing, subsequently penning an article about him in a Denver newspaper and arranging a transcription of his works into Braille. She also attended the dedication of the Tom and Huck statue in Hannibal in 1926.
In 1883, Margaret's sister and her husband moved to Leadville, Colo., to work in the silver mines; Molly and her brother followed. Leadville was the greatest of all the Colorado mining regions with a population of 40,000 living at the highest altitude of any American city -- 10,000 feet. Like all mining towns, large or small, it was a rough place to live, populated mostly by men seeking their fortunes-even Doc Holliday, the notorious gunslinger moved there after the fight at the O. K. Corral. But the town was thriving when Margaret arrived: There were 14 smelters and reduction plants, producing $10 million of silver annually. She landed a job as a clerk in Daniel, Fisher and Smith's Emporium, a dry-goods store on Harrison Avenue.
In 1886 she met a 34-year-old mining engineer, James Joseph "J.J." Brown, at a church function.