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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Leader in women's suffrage known by her nickname

By Paul Niemann

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[July 30, 2009]  Margaret Tobin (1867-1932) was an interesting lady. She always did things her way, regardless of what society considered proper back in her day.

She was born in Hannibal, Mo. Her parents, John and Johanna, were Irish immigrants. Margaret would later become known by her nickname -- a nickname that was given to her after she died.

Growing up relatively poor, Margaret went to work at age 13 to help support her family. At 19, she followed her half sister to Leadville, Colo., in 1886. Later that year she married James Brown (no, not that James Brown), whom she met at a Catholic church picnic, and she became Margaret Brown. James and Margaret would have a son and a daughter together.

She had originally planned to marry for money rather than love. James did not have much money, but Margaret fell in love with him and chose to marry for love instead. Their fate changed seven years later when James, while working as a superintendent for the Ibex Mining Co., created a way to reduce the number of cave-ins in the mines by using baled hay and timbers.

His method allowed miners to reach gold at the bottom of the mine, and James was awarded 12.5 percent of the company stock and a seat on the board of directors. When the mine produced a huge quantity of gold, the Browns became wealthy overnight. The discovery was considered to be the world's richest gold strike at the time. They moved to Denver the following year.

Margaret Brown was known as a socialite, philanthropist and activist. She was a champion of human rights. One of her achievements was to help women win suffrage, which sounds like a bad thing but is actually a good thing. Working with a local judge, she helped establish the first juvenile court in the United States. She was also one of the first women to run for Congress when she ran for the Senate in 1814, which was eight years before women had the right to vote.

Let's see ... what else can I tell you about Margaret Tobin Brown without giving away her identity?

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Oh, there was one other thing that I almost forgot. She survived a deadly accident on a ship in 1912 in the Atlantic Ocean.

Part of her nickname is based on the fact that she survived. The other part of her nickname was given to her by playwright Richard Morris in 1960 for a Broadway musical. She was never called by this nickname during her life.

And that disastrous accident in 1912 in the Atlantic Ocean? Well, that was the sinking of the Titanic. Margaret Tobin Brown was "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

But you knew that all along, didn't you?

Her strong, independent personality was evident during the Titanic disaster when she helped other passengers into her lifeboat. When there were only two men available on her lifeboat to row it away from the Titanic -- and one of the men was full of despair -- she realized that it could get caught up in the suction effect caused by the sinking of the Titanic. So she took charge and grabbed a set of oars and helped row the passengers to safety.

Altogether, there were 23 passengers with her that she helped rescue. While roughly 20 percent of all the passengers who escaped the sinking Titanic would later die from exposure to the cold, everyone on Margaret "Molly" Brown's boat survived.


Paul Niemann's column has appeared in more than 80 newspapers and counting. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books and can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2009

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