“Don’t call her Molly,” the tour guide admonished our group before we were even allowed off the front porch.
She was never called Molly. Maybe Maggie, as a stretch, when she was little. But never Molly. She preferred Margaret. Our rather tense docent actually carried the equivalent of a cussing jar: forcing herself to put a nickel in every time she misspoke and said Molly.
So began our tour of Denver’s famous – and allegedly haunted – Molly Brown house. Oops. I just wrote Molly. I owe myself a nickel.
Later known far and wide as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” because she survived the Titanic disaster, she was born Margaret Tobin in Hannibal, Missouri in 1867. Her parents were poor Irish Catholic immigrants who were progressive ahead of their times: her father was active in the Underground Railroad and her parents both believed strongly in education for their children. Margaret went to school until she was 13 years old – three years longer than most children received.
Margaret followed her urge to travel west and ended up in Leadville, Colorado, where she worked sewing in a department store. In Leadville, she was moved by the poverty and suffering she saw there and volunteered in a soup kitchen helping miner’s families.
She met J.J. Brown, a mining engineer twelve years her senior, and married him for love. J.J. was one of the few to survive the silver crash, and in fact, found a massive vein of gold deeper in the Little Johnny Mine. The Browns were rich overnight. Margaret and J.J. purchased a home designed by architect William Lang. Built in 1886, the home was known in the neighborhood as the House of Lions because of the famous lion statues out front. Hey, wait. Doesn’t that sign say the “Molly” Brown house…
Margaret’s wealth aided her social activism. She ran for senate, founded the Denver Dumb Friends League, worked to start a juvenile justice system and financed the preservation of historic buildings. She and J.J. traveled widely together. And after their separation in 1909, she traveled widely by herself. She brought back many Eastern and European treasures from her travels. The porch is guarded by an Egyptian sphinx.
Margaret was in France when she received word her grandson was ill, and she booked passage back on the Titanic. According to our tour guide, Margaret had just had her fortune told in Egypt, and was warned to stay away from water.
During the Titanic disaster, Margaret helped evacuate others onto the lifeboats before she was herself deposited in Lifeboat #6. Legend says she grabbed an oar and helped row. She apparently ordered the officers in charge to go back to look for more survivors in the water.
Margaret’s fame only grew after surviving the Titanic and she put it to even more use. She was a mediator during the Ludlow miner strike and massacre in 1914. She worked with Red Cross during WWI, and traveled to France to work with the American Committee for Devastated France. Eventually she moved to New York City where she studied and taught acting.
She was a thoroughly modern Molly. Oh wait. I just mixed musicals. And I owe myself another nickel.
We visited the Molly Brown House (Arrg! Five cents!) on an unseasonably warm day in February. Our tour was packed. We were excited to see what a fairly wealthy home of the time looked like. The house is known as one of Denver’s premier historic sites and one of the most authentically furnished. Plus, it is supposed to be one of Denver’s most haunted locations.
Once we were let inside, we noticed many Eastern treasures from Margaret’s travels. A statue of a Moor holding a calling card tray dominates the foyer. We were lucky to be able to take photos – but no flash was allowed so apologies for the sepia-tone vibe.
A mirror in the downstairs entry way is on the list of haunts. Supposedly, it shows the image of a male servant. Alas, nothing appeared in my photo. Though I did almost fall over an umbrella stand. It was very dark in there.
Two amazing stained-glass windows illuminate the staircase to the second floor.
Most of the family bedrooms are located on the second floor. Margaret’s faces west. Interestingly, each room has a bed and a daybed. The daybed was for naps, so as not to mess up the nicely-made nighttime bed. Margaret and J.J. had separate rooms, common at the time among the wealthy.
People have reported seeing the window blinds raise and lower in Catherine Ellen’s room. Helen, as she was known, was Margaret’s daughter.
Others have seen Margaret’s mother peering out of another upstairs window.
Going down the back servant’s stairs – much less grand and much more precipitous than the front family stairs – we arrived in the kitchen, which is stocked with fascinating period kitchenware. This annunciator struck my fancy: it let servants in the kitchen know where someone else in the house needed assistance.
Moving through the bulter’s pantry with all its silverware and placesettings on gleaming display, we emerged into the dining room.
Allegedly, a lady entity in Victorian dress is occasionally seen and photographed here at the table. She may also be the one responsible for sometimes rearranging the chairs. The only unusual items we noticed were a few mounted deer heads on the wall that had oddly feral expressions. My photos of them turned out too blurry to post. Which is probably for the best.
The library room sported this fascinating phrenology bust. When I asked the tour guide if this was original to the home, she said no, but it was a subject Margaret would have been interested in. Margaret had studied astrology. The guide added that possibly Margaret’s Irish Catholic background also made her a tad superstitious, like her mother.
For example, one of the only items Margaret carried with her onto Lifeboat #6 was an ancient Egyptian ushabti, or shabti. These are small funerary figurines that were placed in tombs to accompany the dead to the afterlife and act as servants. Margaret’s was about three inches long and turquoise-colored. She had purchased it in Cairo. Margaret gave her ushabti talisman to Arthur Rostron, the Captain of the rescue ship the Carpathia. Rostron kept the figurine until he died in 1940. It has ended up as a part of the Titanic Branson Museum in Branson, MO.
There is also a legend that the Titanic was sunk by an ancient Egyptian curse. Was Margaret the source? She was shipping Egyptian antiquities back to the states when she boarded the Titanic. According to this Egyptology News Network article, Margaret Brown set sail with a crate of Egyptian souvenirs and also three crates of Egyptian figures to give to the Denver Museum.
Although I captured nothing paranormal in my photos, and I did not experience any cold spots (other than sitting on the chilly stone front porch waiting for the tour to start) nor did I smell any of J.J.’s phantom cigar smoke, we had a very rewarding visit. Margaret Brown is a fascinating figure in history and the home was exquisite. I also came away with my own ushabti good luck charm – sold in the museum’s gift shop!
And just where did the nickname Molly come from? Our tour guide said that it originated from the 1960 musical by Richard Morris: “Molly” sang better than “Margaret.” Notably, to her credit, our guide never once had to put a nickel in her jar.
The Molly Brown House and Museum, 1340 Pennsylvania St., Denver, CO
The Molly Brown House and Museum
Humanities Magazine: Beyond Unsinkable
Haunted Places in America: Molly Brown House
Haunted Houses.com: Molly Brown House
A Titanic Conspiracy Reader: Mystery of the Titanic Ushabti
Egyptology News Network: EXCLUSIVE Servant of the Deep The Mystery of the Titanic Shabti