I’m constantly reminded through events in life that a person cannot believe everything he or she reads, hears, sees, or remembers. The most recent and flagrant occurrence of this rule happened to me while researching the altercation between T. J. O’Donnell, a Denver attorney, and the publisher/owner of the Denver Post, Fred G. Bonfils in February 1914.
My close and dear friend Dorothy O’Ryan, granddaughter of T. J. O’Donnell, was relating to me the story of the altercation between the two men when we decided to take the bus to the Denver City Library and look up the event in two of the city’s newspapers of that time. Much to my surprise The Denver Post and The Denver Times told very different accounts of the event.
The Denver Post, owned by con man Fred Bonfils and Bartender Harry Tammen, said that O’Donnell had been the attacker where The Denver Times stated just the opposite, Bonfils was the attacker. I was at first amazed at the discrepancy between the two papers but after reading their two views and discussing it with one of the well read librarians and Dorothy, I came to accept the account written in the Times over what Bonfils wrote in his Denver Post. You can go here to see an example of the type of men Bonfils and Tammen were.
While in discussion with the librarian I asked him if there was something written about the 1914 event that I could read. After a few seconds of thought he suggested I check out a book by Gene Fowler titled Timber Line published in 1933. Fowler had been a reporter for Bonfils and Tammen at the Post and many of the short stories in the book were about the two men. He thought he remembered the O’Donnell/Bonfils incident in the book. Dorothy and I went down to the stacks and found a 1st printing of the book then headed to her home where I read Fowler’s version of the event.
Fowler’s version of the event pretty much matched what I had read in The Denver Times. I felt pretty confident in what Dorothy had told me and what had really happened that February day in Denver were pretty close to reality.
That same evening I started reading other stories in Timber Line and came across one titled “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown”. I assumed it was about the same character that the movie “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was about. I started reading it and sure enough the movie must have been based on the same person. I found the story very amusing and finished the twelve-page story about Mrs. Brown in no time. I talked to Dorothy about it and she suggested we take a short trip the next day down to the Brown Mansion near the heart of Old Denver. We agreed and made plans for the next day.
It’s a beautiful old mansion but by today’s standards I would not consider it a mansion but a beautiful old period stone house (sixteen-room house at 1340 Pennsylvania Street). We had to wait a few minutes for the next guided tour by the curator but once she got started I began to wonder if she was talking about the same Margaret Brown, Fowler had written about. The names were the same but not much else matched. Needless to say I was astonished but the tour was very informative and at times entertaining.
That evening I started searching the Internet for more information on Molly Brown. I needed to find out who was telling the truth, Fowler or others?
The following is Gene Fowler’s version of “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown” as he presented it in chapter 25 of his book Timber Line.
THE UNSINKABLE MRS. BROWN by Gene Fowler
Mrs. Margaret Tobin Brown encountered the hoots of her Western sisters. But she hoisted herself by the bootstraps of heroism into huge Denver Post headlines.
Molly Brown was as naively colorful as she was brave. She mistook her own enormous zest for a symptom of artistic ability, her ingenuous thirst for human relationship as evidence of social grace. She was received abroad by titled big-wigs because of her lack of worm-eaten sophistication. That was as hidebound as it was provincial.
This vital Amazon lived a novel of Eulenspiegel dimensions. Her father was old Shaemus Tobin. Molly liked to fancy her sire an Irish peer, but he was in fact a tin-roof Celt of the Missouri Rive bottoms. Old Shaemus was a man more ready of song then of cash, red-haired and tempestuous.
A cyclone occasioned Molly’s birth two months before the laws of nature warranted such an event. The mother, father and two sons had scurried into a cellar while the twister tucked their shanty under its arm and raced like a monstrous halfback over a gigantic field.
Old Shaemus fashioned a crude incubator for the seven-months baby, then collected a new supply of scantlings and tin cans for another shanty. The mother died and Shaemus borrowed a goat as Molly’s wet nurse.
Molly’s premature arrival on earth was in key with her aggressive temperament, butt the frailty of the tiny infant in no way augured a maturity of power and redheaded vigor. She grew up in the river bottoms near Hannibal, Missouri, hated house work, particularly that of a shanty, and spent all her days hunting in winter and fishing in summer.
When she was twelve years old, Molly became acquainted with Mark Twain. Mr. Clemens, too had been fishing. He at once saw her for what she was, a female Huckleberry Finn. He admired her flaming red pigtails, her almost fierce blue eyes, and invited her to fish from his rowboat. She delightedly gave up her home-made raft to angle from the bow of the author’s punt.
Mr. Clemens found that Molly didn’t have the most remote idea that she was a girl. She could whistle like a calliope, and before Mr. Clemens could gather his celebrated its together, she had disrobed completely and dived overboard, with an absence of mock modesty that characterized her entire life. She engaged in porpoise-like maneuvers, laughing and shouting and blowing water, but came to grief. Her head stuck in the mud, and Mr. Clemens pulled her out, half drowned.
She looked like some weird clay model as he began scraping mud from her eyes. He helped her on with her garments, and from that day, Mark Twain was Molly’s god.
When Molly was fifteen, she concluded that the shanties of Hannibal held no promise of adventure. She and her brothers packed a single carpet bag and ran away from home. They traveled by stagecoach to Colorado, arriving in the gold camp of Leadville.
She did not know how to cook – nor did she wish to learn that art – but went to work as a
pot-walloper, in the cabins of miners. She washed their dishes, rearranged the bedding on their bunks, and sometimes acted as nurse for sourdough prospectors. She and her brothers pitched a discarded tent at the end of State Street, a noisy avenue of honkytonks, saloons with long bars and gambling hells.
The rigors of the mining camp only strengthened the body and courage of this illiterate hoyden, Three weeks after her arrival she met and married John J. Brown, called “Leadville Johnny” by intimates at the Saddle Rock Saloon in Harris Street.
Leadville Johnny was thirty-seven years old, as homely as a hippopotamus-although not so fat – unlettered, open-fisted, and had red hair. He seldom was in funds, but when luck infrequently came his way was foremost among the belly-up-to-the-bar boys. Homely or not, he had a way with the dance-hall girls.
In less than two months after his marriage to fifteen-year-old Molly, Leadville Johnny struck pay dirt. He was offered three hundred thousand dollars cash for his claim. He accepted, imposing but on condition.
“Pay me off in thousand-dollar bills,” he said. “I want to take it home and toss it into the lap of the prettiest gal in this here camp.”
He came bellowing into the cabin, did a bear dance with his young wife, then gave her the money, all of it. He found it necessary to explain at length just how much money three hundred thousand dollars was – a genuine fortune! Her mind did not go beyond a silver dollar at most.
“I want you to see it; to hold it,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t put in a safe. But you got to hid it, even if it all yours.”
“Where?” asked Molly.
“You figure that out, honey, It’s yours. I’m goin down to celebrate at the Saddle Rock.”
He kissed her and was gone to receive the back-slapping of Saddle Rock pals. In an hour he had forgotten that he was a rich man; he was having such a good time of it. He stayed at the saloon until early morning and was brought home by two of his intimates. He was sober enough to make two requests. One was that the “boys” would not disturb his pretty young wife; the other that they fetch some kindling and start a fire.
“I’m freezin’ plum to death.” Said Leadville Johnny.
The boys put him on a bunk, then made a fire. Molly, rousing from deep sleep, had and uneasy feeling. She sniffed as the new fire sent wisps of smoke through crevices of the stove. She felt the mounting heat. They she screamed. She got up, while her husband’s pals retreated hastily from the cabin. She scorched her fingers on the stove lids. She couldn’t find a lifter and used a steel-pronged fork instead. She almost set herself and the cabin on fire. She delved among the burning sticks, but it was too late. Of all places, she hidden the money in the stove, and now her fortune had gone up the flue; three hundred thousand dollars floating in the Leadville morning sky.
Johnny rallied somewhat and announced that he was freezing to death. Then he wanted to know if his wife was freezing, too. If so, she should come sleep bedside him. For half and hours she wept, yammered and howled in his year. When it did penetrate his haze that the money had been burned, he sat up and said:
“Don’t you worry a bit honey, I’ll get more. Lots more.” Then her reiterated the fact – or fancy that he was freezing plumb to death.
Molly began to shower kisses on Leadville Johnny’s red head, his face and lips. It appears that she had not been screaming and wailing because of the lost fortune, but for fear that her husband would be angry.
When Johnny sobered up next morning, he actually laughed about the loss. “It just goes to show how much I think of you,” he said.
“There’s plenty more.”
“Lots of men would be mad,” she said.
Leadville Johnny slapped his chest grandly. “Mad” I’ll show you how mad I am. As soon as I get a drink into me, I’ll go right out and get a bigger and better claim. Where’d you put the bottle, honey?”
Fantastic as it may seem, Leadville Johnny went out that very afternoon and located “The Little Johnny,” one of the greatest producers of gold in Colorado history. It is estimated that he took twenty million dollars from this bonanza.
“Nope,” he said to the men who had bought his other property, “I won’t sell this one.”
“There’s another three hundred thousand if you do,” his bidders said.
“Nope, let’s have a drink instead.”
“Why won’t you sell?”
He slapped his chest. “I don’t trust chimneys. It’s safer in the ground.”
The meaning of money began to dawn on Molly. It was the commencement, critics said, of her progress from Leadville to lorgnettes. The Browns moved “up the hill,” where mine owner and bankers had mansions. Leadville Johnny went the limit in building a house for his bride. As a climactic touch, he laid concrete floors in every room of the house, and embedded silver dollar, edge to edge, in the cement surfaces!
Leadville now was not big enough for Molly. She had heard of Denver society, of the gay balls and salons.
“Denver it is, then,” said Johnny. “Just name the thing you want, and Big Johnny (slapping his chest) and Little Johnny (pointing in the direction of his claim) will get it for you.”
The Browns built a mansion in Pennsylvania Avenue, Denver’s Capitol Hill, where the elite resided. Leadville Johnny contemplated paving his place with gold pieces, but was dissuaded. He compromised by having two huge lions make by a cemetery sculptor. The lions were placed flanking the doorway.
The new mansion was a “show Place”, where rubberneck – “Seeing Denver” – buses paused and tourists stared while a spieler narrated the drama of the Little Johnny. Inside its stone halls, conniving sponger and fake grand dukes partook of the Browns bounty. But so inexhaustible were the Little Johnny’s veins that the attacks of the leeches were hardly felt.
The town’s preening dowagers would have none of this redheaded upstart from the hills. Not one of them – their own husbands but once removed from the pick-handle and the stope – was kind enough to advise Molly in her social adolescence. Still in her teens, unschooled and impetuous, how was she to know the emptiness of display?
She hired the largest orchestras, gave the costliest balls, drove the finest horses, but met with snobbery. She often attended, uninvited, the social functions of her neighbors. Indeed, she became such a nuisance as a “gate crasher” that the ladies decided to crush her.
As part of a cat-like hoax, Molly was solicited to write a dissertation on Denver’s society. This she did, laboring at a desk inlaid with gold from the Little Johnny shaft. Her husband admitted his inability to judge literary works, but said he guessed she knew what she was doing.
“As for me,” said Leadville Johnny, “I’d rather be back this minute at the Saddle Rock.”
Molly’s ?article? appeared in a magazine owned and edited by Polly Pry. The effort was published, word for word, as written by Mrs. J. J. Brown. She was very proud of it until the whole of the city’s upper crust began heaving with merriment. The new author’s misspellings, fantastic verbiage and artless philosophies were there for all to see.
At last conscious of her ignorance, and shamed by her social shortcomings, Molly left town. Johnny said he guessed he’d stay home.
“I never knowd how to spell and never claimed to,” he said, “and as far as society is concerned, I ain’t aimin’ that low. Good-bye, honey, and don’t forget the name of our bank. It’s all yours.”
Denver saw nothing of Mrs. Brown for nearly eight years, and heard little. It was something of a sensation, then, when she returned to the city, gowned in Parisian creations. More, the word spread that Molly had two French maids, with whom she conversed fluently in their native language. Indeed, during seven and a half years in European capitals, she had become proficient in five languages – she who left town unable to spell in English!
There were other incredible surprises for the home-towners. Molly had made friends with the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, had received stage lessons, and even contemplated playing the Bernhardt role in L’Aiglon. She had received instruction in painting and singing and had appeared with some success in a charity concert in London and had sung aboard an ocean liner on the voyage from Southampton to New York City.
The hardest blow to her critics, however, was the fact that celebrities and titled foreigners made the Brown home their headquarters while visiting Denver.
But despite her education in the polite arts, Molly Brown’s real nature was manifest at all times. She permitted herself the luxury of forthright speech, and, if in the mood, used slang and cursed like a pit boss. Her detractors, still unable to stomach her social ambitions, described her as “eccentric.”
“Sure I’m eccentric,” she said. “But I have a heart as big as a ham.”
When Leadville Johnny refused to “gad about” in Europe and elsewhere, they separated. But he never shut her off from his great purse. He still loved and wanted her to have a good time. All he desired for himself was privacy and the privilege of sitting with his shoes off in the parlor.
Mrs. Brown acquired a seventy-room house and estate near, New York City. She entertained the Astors and other Eastern notables – all of which agonize her Denver scoffers.
In April of 1912, the hometown, which had refused flatly to receive Molly as a social equal, passionately acclaimed her as its very own heroine.
Suddenly her virtues were sung in nearly every paragraph of a front-page layout in the Post. She became known as “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown.” The New York press called her “the Lady Margaret of the Titanic.”
Now that Mrs. Brown had received the accolade in alien fields, her townsmen’s praises resounded like songs in a beer stube.
The tardy cheers for Mrs. Brown were in keeping with the psychology of the provinces. Similarly, Eugene Field had been tolerated as an amiable prankster, a thistle-down jinglier and something of a sot during his Denver interlude. Then, his fame having been certified abroad, and death having corroborated his genius, Denver was the first of cities to rear a monument to his memory.
Perhaps it was an instinctive feeling for another free and generous soul that led Mrs. Brown to purchase Field’s old Denver home and sit it aside, a shrine for children.
Mrs. Brown was thirty-nine years old when she left Liverpool for New York on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Instead of a girlish slimness, she now was ruggedly and generously fleshed. Nevertheless, she still bubbled with a seldom-varying vitality.
She sang in the ship’s concert and was popular with the traveling notables despite her growing eccentricities. She amused some and terrified others with pistol-feats, one of which consisted of tossing five oranges or grapefruits over the rail and puncturing each one before it reached the surface of the sea.
Although she spent great sums on clothes, she no longer paid attention to their detail or how she wore them. And, when she traveled, comfort, and not a desire to appear chic, was her primary consideration.
So, when Molly decided to take a few turns of the deck before retiring, she came from her cabin prepared for battle with the night sea air. She had on extra-heavy woolies, with bloomers bought in Switzerland (her favorite kind), two jersey petticoats, a plaid cashmere dress down to the heels of her English calfskin boots, a sportsman’s cap, tied on with a woolen scarf, knotted in toothache style beneath her chin, golf stockings presented by a seventy-year old admirer, the Duke Charlot of France, a muff of Russian sables, in which she absent-mindedly had left her Colt’s automatic pistol – and over these frost-defying garments she wore a sixty-thousand chinchilla opera cloak.
If anyone was prepared for Artic gales, Mrs. Brown was that person. She was not, however, prepared for a collision with an iceberg.
In fact, she was on the point of sending a deck steward below with her cumbersome pistol when the crash came.
In history of that tragedy, her name appears as one who knew no fear. She did much to calm the women and children. Perhaps she was overzealous, for it is recorded that she refused to enter a lifeboat until all other women and their young ones had been cared for, and that crew members literally had to throw her into a boat.
Once in the boat, however, she didn’t wait for approval – she seized command. There were only five men aboard, and about twenty women and children.
“Start rowing, ” she told the men, “and head the bow into the sea.”
Keeping an eye on the rowers, she began removing her cloths. Her chinchilla coat she treated as though it were a blanket worth a few dollars. She used it to cover three small and shivering children, One by one she divested herself of heroic woolens. She “rationed” her garments to the women who were the oldest and most frail. It was said she presented a fantastic sigh in the light flares, half standing among the terrified passengers, stripped down to her corset, the beloved Swiss bloomers, the Duke of Charlot’s golf stockings and her stout shoes.
One of the rowers seemed on the verge of collapse. “My heart,” he said.
“God damn your heart!” said The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown. “Work those oars.”
She herself now took an oar and began to row. She chose a position in the bow, where she could watch her crew. Her pistol was lashed to her waist with a rope.
The heart-troubled rower now gasped and almost lost his oar.
“My heart,” he said. “It’s getting worse!”
The Unsinkable one roared: “Keep rowing or I’ll blow you guts out and throw you overboard! Take your choice.”
The man – who really did have a fatty condition of the heart – kept rowing. Mrs. Brown sprouted big blisters on her hands. But she didn’t quit. Then her palms began to bleed. She cut strips of her Swiss bloomers and taped her hands. She kept rowing. And swearing.
At times, when the morale of her passengers was at its lowest, she would sing.
“The God damned critics say I can’t sing,” she howled. “Well, just listen to this”:
And she sang from various operas.
“We’ll have and Italian opera now,” she said one time. “Just let anyone say it’s no good.”
And so did the others. They knew she would throw anyone overboard who dared quit, exhaustion or no exhaustion.
She told stories. She gave a history of the Little Johnny. She told of the time she hid three thousand dollars in a camp stove, and how it went up the flue.
“How much is three hundred thousand dollars?” she asked. “I’ll tell you. It’s nothing. Some of you people – the guy here with the heart trouble that I’m curing with oars – are rich. I’m rich. What in hell of it. What are your riches or mine doing for us this minute? And you can’t wear the Social Register for water wings, can you? Keep rowing, you sons of bitches, or I’ll toss you overboard!”
When they were picked up at sea, and everyone was praising Mrs. Brown, she was asked:
“How did you manage it?”
“Just typical Brown luck,” she replied. “I’m unsinkable.”
And ever after she was known as “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown.”
Perhaps because it is the thing most lacking, heroism lifts anyone above caste. Still, the Denver social tabbies would not admit Mrs. Brown to their select functions. But now she no longer cared. She went in for thrills.
She took world tours and explored far places, always meeting adventure half way. Once she almost perished in a monsoon in the China seas. At another time she was in a hotel fire in Florida. But the Unsinkable one was Unburnable as well. She rescued four women and three children from that fire.
In France she was given a Legion of Honor ribbon, with the rank of chevalier, in recognition of her charities in general and her work in establishing a museum for the relics of Sarah Bernhardt in particular.
She now was legally separated from old Leadville Johnny. But still he had not tied the purse stings. Molly could go where she wanted and do what she wanted. It was his way. As for him, he stayed in the parlor with his shoes off, or bent the elbow a bit with old-time pals. The Little Johnny continued to pour out gold as from a cornucopia.
Although her husband was a mine owner, Mrs. Brown always took the side of labor, and sent food, clothing and money to the families of strikers.
During the World War she contributed heavily for the welfare of soldiers and for the hospitalization of wounded warriors of the Allied arms. If she had been hooted by a handful of social snobs in her home town, she now received the prayers of thousands of soldiers. The Allied nations awarded her the medals it was possible for a civilian woman to receive. She was recipient of personal congratulations and the thanks of kings and princes.
After the war she took another of her world tours. When reporters met her in New York, she said:
“I’m getting to be more of al lady every day. In Honolulu I learned to play the uke. In Siam I mastered the native dances. In Switzerland I learned to yodel. Want to hear me:”
And she astonished the customs guards by breaking into Alpine melody.
Rumors were circulated that the Duke of Charlot was planning go marry her – old Leadville Johnny having died in his stocking feet, – and Mrs. Brown confirmed the report. Forty-eight hours she declared the romance ended.
“Me marry that old geezer?” she said. “Never! Give me every time the rugged men of the West. The men of Europe – why, in France they’re only perfumed and unbathed gallants; in England, only brandy-soaked British gents. Pooh! Pooph! Pooph! And a bottle of run.”
In keeping with his character, Leadville Johnny, a multi-millionaire, left no will. There was an unpretty fight now. The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown was left floating with little financial ballast. Her eccentricities were cited; her charities construed as loose business affairs. She was awarded the life-income of one hundred thousand dollars annually.
“Just to think,” she said with a gay smile, “and I burned up three times that much in one bonfire.”
Mrs. Margaret Tobin Brown died in October 1932. Apoplexy was the cause. She had been singing in her town apartment at the Barbizon Club, in East Sixty-third Street, New York City, then became dizzy and faint.
She was buried at Hempstead, Long Island, in surroundings that she loved almost as well as she had loved her Colorado hills.