Thursday, March 8, 2012

Titanic Centennial: The Unsinkable Maggie Brown

Margaret "Molly" Brown (1867-1932)
Margaret Brown (nobody actually called her Molly) played herself that night on board Titanic's lifeboat No. 6. The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters recorded her story, but left out some interesting details. One reason I think this book is important is that it was rushed to print in 1912 before the sensation grew cold. Some facts in the book have been challenged--others have been altered during the subsequent 100 years. Here is Maggie Brown's story from the book, with my footnotes added from facts gleaned from the Wikipedia link above:

The boat in which Mrs. J.J. Brown, of Denver, Col., was saved contained only three men in all, and only one rowed. He was a half-frozen seaman who was tumbled into the boat at the last minute.[1] The women wrapped him in blankets and set him at an oar to start his blood. The second man was too old to be of any use.[2] The third was a coward.[3]
Strange to say, there was room in this boat for ten other people. Ten brave men would have received the warmest welcome of their lives if they had been there. The coward, being a quartermaster and the assigned head of the boat, sat in the stern and steered. He was terrified, and the women had to fight against his pessimism while they tugged at the oars.
The women sat two at each oar. One held the oar in place, the other did the pulling. Mrs. Brown coached them and cheered them on. She told them that the exercise would keep the chill out of their veins, and she spoke hopefully of the likelihood that some vessel would answer the wireless calls. Over the frightful danger of the situation the spirit of this woman soared.

And the coward sat in his stern seat, terrified, his tongue loosened with fright. He assured them there was no chance in the world. He had fourteen years' experience, and he knew. First, they would have to row one and a half miles at least to get out of the sphere of suction, if they did not want to go down. They would be lost, and nobody would ever find them.
'Oh, we shall be picked up sooner or later,' said some of the braver ones. 'No,' said the man, there was no bread in the boat, no water; they would starve--all that big boatload wandering the high seas with nothing to eat, perhaps for days.
'Don't,' cried Mrs. Brown. 'Keep that to yourself, if you feel that way. For the sake of these women and children, be a man. We have a smooth sea and a fighting chance. Be a man.'

But the coward only knew that there was no compass and no chart aboard. They sighted what they thought was a fishing smack on the horizon, showing dimming in the early dawn.[4] The man at the rudder steered toward it, and the women bent to their oars again. They covered several miles in this way--but the smack faded into the distance. They could not see it any longer. And the coward said everything was over.

They rowed back nine weary miles. Then the coward thought they must stop rowing, and lie in the trough of the waves until the Carpathia should appear.[5] The women tried it for a few moments, and then felt the cold creeping into their bodies. Though exhausted from the hard physical labor they thought work was better than freezing.

'Row again!' commanded Mrs. Brown.
'No, no, don't,' said the coward.
'We shall freeze,' cried several of the women together. 'We must row. We have rowed all this time. We must keep on or freeze.'

When the coward still demurred, they told him plainly and once for all that if he persisted in wanting them to stop rowing, they were going to throw him overboard and be done with him for good. Something about the look in the eye of that Mississippi-bred oarswoman,[6] who seemed such a force among her fellows, told him that he had better capitulate. And he did.
[1] Fredrick Fleet, then aged 24. Fleet was the lookout in the crow's nest who first spotted the iceberg and alerted the bridge. Depressed the rest of his life, Fleet committed suicide at age 78, distraught over the death of his wife.
[2] Arthur Peuchen then aged 52. Forever afterwards branded a coward, Peuchen died in 1929 after losing his fortune in the stock market.
[3] Quartermaster Robert Hichens, then aged 29. Hichens was manning the helm of the Titanic when she struck the iceberg. Hichens denied all of Brown's cowardice claims (but never sued) as well as later allegations that he had mistakenly exacerbated the collision at the helm. He died in 1940, aged 58.

Both Fleet (lookout) and Hichens (helmsman) are portrayed in this snippet of James Cameron's (1997) Titanic:


[4] This could have been the SS Californian which was only 10 miles distant from the wreck site. There were no small fishing boats that far out at sea.

[5] This must have been hindsight. Neither Mrs Brown nor Hichens would have likely been aware of the rescuing vessel's name until the next morning.

[6] Brown was a native Missourian, not a Mississippian.

Here is more information on Maggie Brown: link

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