by Florence Markoff

The story of how she got rich and survived the sinking of the Titanic.

Margaret Tobin Brown in 1900.

The year was 1912. The United States was growing; two more stars were added to the national flag as New Mexico and Arizona joined the union. The Girl Scouts of America was founded in Savannah, Georgia, by Juliette Low. With Camille, starring the world-famous actress, the divine Sarah Bernhardt, the motion picture industry began to flourish; and a spunky Irish woman sang the popular song of the day, "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." Her name was Molly Brown.

Now Molly Brown loved to tell a good story, and when she moved to Newport and rubbed elbows with the rich folk there she entertained them with tales of her adventures and how she struck it rich. She told the stories over and over, and the people who heard them said she was a real honest-to-goodness heroine.

Molly told how she went to Leadville, Colorado, at the height of the Gold Rush boom. There she married Johnny Brown—Leadville Johnny they called him—and lived with him in his little cabin in the hills. When he struck gold and was offered three hundred thousand dollars for his claim, he accepted on one condition: "Pay me in thousand dollar bills. I want to take it home and throw it in the lap of my beautiful wife." He gave Molly the money—all of it—and left for the town saloon to celebrate his good fortune. When he returned, he fetched some kindling wood to start a fire. Molly saw what he was doing and screamed, but it was too late. She had hidden the money in the stove and her $300,000 went up the flue.

But Leadville Johnny didn't worry. There was lots more where that came from. His mine became one of the greatest producers of gold in Colorado history, and the Browns began to live it up. Molly bedecked herself in furs and jewels and moved on to the rich social life of Newport, where she amused the people of wealth with her bad jokes, loud expensive parties, and stories of her early days. They were just the thing to liven up a dull dinner party.

It didn't take long for Molly to get fancy—she traveled with the international set—and on a special day in April 1912 she was on the palatial $7,500,000 White Star liner called the Titanic. It was on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York with 2,223 passengers. When the Titanic struck an iceberg on that bitter cold night and the ship was sinking, Molly boarded lifeboat number 6 in her sable coat, grabbed an oar, and got the frightened passengers to sing... "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

Thanks to Molly, no one died in boat nunber 6. "I'm unsinkable," she declared to waiting reporters in New York. And ever after, when stories of bravery on the Titanic are told, they always talk about the woman from Newport with the indomitable spirit who called herself... the unsinkable Molly Brown.

Providence resident Florence Markoff (1927-2017) was a speaker, performer, storyteller, and radio personality.

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This article last edited January 23, 2003

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