Rebecca Ashton “Bettie” Brown, philanthropist and civic leader, was born in Galveston on February 18, 1855, and was the daughter of James Moreau Brown (1821–1895) and Rebecca Ashton (Stoddart) Brown (1831–1907). She was best-known as hostess of Ashton Villa, the three-story brick mansion her father built in Galveston in 1859. J. M. Brown ran a successful hardware store and was president of the Galveston, Houston, and Henderson Railroad. He bequeathed Ashton Villa to his wife, who left it to Bettie, who later bequeathed it to her sister Matilda Brown Sweeney. According to a Brown descendant, it was customary for Brown daughters to inherit the house.
Historian Gary Cartwright described Bettie Brown as “one of the Island’s wealthiest and most independent women… [who] enjoyed shocking the grand dames of Island society.” She smoked and drank at the parties she hosted at Ashton Villa, and the decorations for the lavish celebrations included a red carpet running from the front door to the street. Brown studied painting in Vienna from 1881 to 1883, and her works adorn Ashton Villa. She complained that girls outperformed boys academically, but boys grew up to be voters and girls could not. In 1912 she argued, “every property holder should have the [right to] vote.”
Brown took unaccompanied trips abroad, including a voyage to the Middle East where she happened across Col. William Lewis Moody, Jr., and his wife Libbie Moody. In his travel diary, Moody described a stop in Algiers in which a thunderstorm prompted their return to the ship, and Bettie Brown became separated from them. Moody wrote that his wife was “uneasy for her, but I not a bit. She can take care of herself anywhere.” A small room behind the Gold Room in Ashton Villa was dedicated to “Miss Bettie’s mementos from trips.”
Bettie Brown was very active in civic affairs and held memberships in several literary clubs. By the 1890s she was one of sixteen women who organized the John Sealy Hospital Training School for Nurses. She served on its finance committee of the Board of Lady Managers. The ladies announced their intention to open a nursing school at a Galveston Board of Health meeting, and the board pledged their support. Doctors encouraged the Board of Health to open the nursing school in conjunction with the John Sealy Hospital, which opened in January 1890. Two months later, the nursing school opened with a freshman class of eighteen. Shortly thereafter, the University of Texas Medical Department (UTMD) took over the John Sealy Hospital. The John Sealy Training School for Nurses was amalgamated into the nursing school at UTMD in 1896.
In 1896 Brown’s sister, Matilda Brown Sweeney, filed for divorce from her husband Thomas “on the ground of cruel treatment.” Her petition noted that the children would run from their home to Aunt Bettie in Ashton Villa for protection when their parents fought. Bettie Brown’s decision to remain unmarried was at issue in her sister’s divorce proceedings. Thomas Sweeney’s lawyer accused Brown of inciting the divorce to return her sister and the children to Ashton Villa for companionship. When Thomas’s attorney accused her of having hypnotic powers over Matilda, Bettie replied: “If I had ever possessed any hypnotic power I should have used it on Mr. Sweeney to make him a good husband to my sister whom I idolized.” Matilda was granted a divorce and custody of her three children. While she retained the family home her father had architect Nicholas Clayton design as a wedding gift, she returned to Ashton Villa where she and Bettie raised her children.
During the Galveston hurricane of 1900, Ashton Villa sheltered four generations of the Brown family. Bettie Brown’s niece later recalled watching from upstairs as winds demolished the two-seater swing in the yard. Ashton Villa flooded to the top of its front door but survived the storm. In the aftermath, Bettie drove “over the city as far as practicable” to survey the damage. The Browns took in survivors until other housing became available.
J. M. Brown included his daughter Bettie in his charitable affairs, and his obituary noted his trust in her. Her own charitable contributions were numerous. By the early 1900s she volunteered for the Lasker Home for Homeless Children, a “temporary home for [white] homeless children…who needed shelter from sick, negligent, or abusive parents.” She was in charge of collecting money from its robbery-prone donation boxes around town and served on a committee that researched new locations for the home.
From approximately 1904 until 1918 Bettie Brown served as president of the Board of Lady Managers which supervised the operation of the Letitia Rosenberg Woman’s Home, one of the first Galveston institutions managed by women. The home served elderly white female residents of Galveston, “who were alone—widows, spinsters—without family members in Galveston.” In 1913 the Board of Lady Managers planned a fundraising Tango Ball. Shocked by the idea, the Galveston Ministerial Association urged the board to cancel the event. When they refused, the ministers issued a formal protest in the Galveston Daily News and called the dance “both improper and absolutely harmful to the morals of the community.” Brown responded: “The tango dance, when properly executed, is perfectly harmless….We do not have any fear of the protests hurting the entertainment, so far as its financial success is concerned, but we object to being brought disagreeably before the public.” The Tango raised $669.60, an increase of $291.60 over the 1912 ball.
Rebecca Ashton “Bettie” Brown died at Ashton Villa on September 13, 1920, at the age of sixty-five after a long illness, which her biographer Sherrie S. McLeRoy suggested, based on descriptions listed on Brown’s death certificate, to be Lou Gehrig’s disease. The funeral for Bettie Brown, having adopted the Catholic faith for some time, was held at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston. Her pallbearers included prominent Galvestonians John and George Sealy; W.L. Moody, Jr.; and Sealy Hutchings, Sr. She was buried beside her parents and other family members in Trinity Episcopal Cemetery in Galveston.