Lifeboat six was launched at 1.10am, an hour-and-a-half after the Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City on 15 April 1912. Margaret "Molly" Brown was one of the last occupants of the lifeboat, forced on board by a crewman as it was lowered into the frigid Atlantic waters below. Although an unlikely candidate for fame, Brown was to become an international heroine.
Brown, born Margaret Tobin in 1867 in the town of Hannibal, Missouri, was returning from a European trip on board the Titanic. Chaos ensued as the ship began to sink; it became clear there were few too lifeboat places to accommodate passengers and poor evacuation meant many boats were only partially full when launched.
Passengers were forced back on to the crowded deck as the crew sent flares into the night sky. Lifeboat six, when it was finally launched, contained only 28 people out of a possible 65.
Brown was helping to load others into lifeboats when she was eventually forced to board lifeboat six. Quartermaster Robert Hitchens was placed in charge of the craft, along with the lookout Frederick Fleet. Yet while it was being lowered, pleas from women in the boat for additional oarsmen led Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen, of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, to shimmy down the ropes into the lifeboat at the last minute.
Relations on board were strained throughout the night. As the lifeboat pulled away from the stricken Titanic, Brown urged Hitchens to turn the lifeboat around to rescue those stranded in the icy water. She was demanding, unrelenting against Hitchens's increasing anger towards her - but Brown was no stranger to fighting her cause.
While her children were young, Brown had been a member of the early feminist movement in her home of Leadville, Colorado. She had also established the Colorado Chapter of the National American Women's Suffrage Association – a formidable achievement in an era of patriarchal dominance. It is unknown whether lifeboat six did turn back but, according to reports, Brown helped rescue a drowning sailor and several other victims.
As the cries of those in the water died out, Brown asked Hitchens to let the women row to keep them warm. Ignoring his complaints, she began to hand out oars anyway. He swore at her, protesting, and at one point moving to physically restrain her.
She told him to stay put or she would throw him overboard. Taking an oar, Brown organised the women in shifts, two to an oar. She regaled the anxious survivors in the freezing cold with stories of her life in the Old West to lift their spirits.
Lifeboat six was one of the last to reach the Carpathia, coming alongside at 8am. Brown, although cold and exhausted, began to take action. Having learnt French, Italian and German, she consoled survivors who spoke little English – rifling through the ship to find extra blankets and supplies for women sleeping in the dining room and corridors.
Brown, having travelled alone, realised many women had lost everything: husbands, children, money and valuables. They were to start a new life in an unknown country with nothing.
Rallying the first-class passengers of the Carpathia, she established the Survivor's Committee, was elected as chair and raised almost $10,000 for destitute female survivors before the steamship reached New York harbour. She remained on board after the ship reached the dock, translating for passengers who needed medical assistance.
"After being brined, salted and pickled in mid-ocean I am now high and dry," Brown wrote in a letter to her daughter. "I have had flowers, letters, telegrams from people until I am befuddled. They are petitioning Congress to give me a medal... If I must call a specialist to examine my head it is due to the title of Heroine of the Titanic."
Brown's actions on board the Titanic, lifeboat six and the Carpathia launched her into international fame. The press dubbed her "the unsinkable Molly Brown" – which would later become the title of the American 1964 musical based on Brown's life, with the lead played by Debbie Reynolds.
Using her fame to promote women's rights, Brown became active in politics and in 1914, became the first woman to run for the United States Congress. She helped erect the Titanic memorial in Washington and continued to serve on the Survivors' Committee, enraged that as a woman she was prevented from participating in hearings.
Her philanthropic work continued after the outbreak of the First World War. When the war broke out, Brown travelled to France and helped establish a relief station for soldiers. She was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 1932 for her work for Titanic survivors, her organisation of the Alliance Francais and her relief efforts during World War One.
In 1932, "the unsinkable Molly Brown" died from a brain tumour and was in the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, New York.