Annie Edson Taylor said she had no choice. She was down on her luck and running out of money as her charm school business was fading. With swarms of visitors expected to attend the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, Taylor saw an opportunity to reverse her fortune. On her birthday, October 24,1901 she did something no one had ever done before.
Annie Edson Taylor Was A Risk Taker
On the surface, Taylor seemed like the last person who would attempt such a daring stunt. She was short, stout and claimed to be 43 but was 63. And yet, according to her slim memoir titled Over The Falls, Taylor had always taken the unbeaten path.
One of 11 children, Taylor was born on Oct. 24, 1838, to Merrick and Lucretia (Waring) Edson. As a child, she played outside and read adventure books voraciously instead of playing with dolls. She was married at 18 and soon widowed. In a time when solo lady travelers were still considered unseemly, she moved from state to state. She eked out a living mostly on her own.
Bad luck seemed always to find her. Among other calamities, she survived a house fire in Chattanooga, Tennessee and an earthquake in South Carolina. During a stagecoach robbery in Texas, she refused to relinquish several hundred dollars she had hidden in her clothing. According to her memoir, the robbers let her go when she said, “I would as soon be without my brains as without money.”
In 1898 Taylor started a charm school business for children in Bay City, Michigan. But her business was fading as her customers outgrew her. That was when she learned about the Pan-American Exposition.
The Era Of Extreme Stunts
Taylor understood the appeal of the morbid to an audience. She lived in a time like our own, when death-defying stunts drew big crowds. Circuses featured countless acts. To name a few, there were Miss La La and Leona Dare, both spectacular aerialists who were pulled to horrific heights by their teeth. Zazel was shot from cannons across America and Europe. And of course, there were the many tightrope walkers.
Niagara Falls and its dramatic rapids had been the site of extreme stunts through the late 1800s. Blondini walked a tightrope across the falls in 1859. The Great Farini challenged him in 1860, doing it with a washing machine on his back. In 1876 Maria Spelterini did it wearing peach baskets on her feet.
Taylor reasoned that the crowds attending the Pan-American Exposition could be her ticket to a secure future. But she had to do something new. Many people had tried to ride over the falls and several died. She decided to do it in a barrel.
Annie Edson Taylor Designed Her Own Barrel
She knew that the odds were against her survival. But she was determined to give herself the best chance possible. Not one to trust fate, she carefully designed her own barrel and had it built to her specifications. She had no formal training in engineering, but she did have a lot of common sense. She also trusted her intuition and powers of observation.
-Built in Bay City from Kentucky white oak, the barrel needed to be big enough to hold her. It weighed about 160 pounds and stood roughly 4 and ½ feet tall. She could squeeze into the barrel and still have room for protective padding all around her body, particularly her head. She also designed a leather harness for further protection.
-It was crucial to her survival that the barrel stayed upright as much as possible. So she attached an anvil weighing approximately 200 pounds. This would ensure that the barrel would right itself when it rolled over.
-She needed enough air inside the barrel. Her team used a bicycle pump to infuse extra air through a rubber tube into the barrel before she was sealed inside. Emergency air holes were drilled in the top of the barrel and plugged with corks that she could easily punch out in an emergency.
Like any novice engineer worth her salt, Taylor knew that the barrel must be tested in advance. Days before the event, she and her team sent a cat down the rapids in the barrel. The photograph, taken after the cat’s test ride, indicated all systems were a “go.”
Twenty Minutes That Lasted An Eternity
The big day arrived. Annie Edson Taylor and her team readied herself. Among them was a circus promoter she had hired to help her organize the event. A crowd of people jeered as she prepared for her ride. Up until the very last minute, even the county coroner believed she would back out. But Taylor proved herself.
The Boston Journal reported extensively on Taylor’s plunge in a front-page article October 25, 1901.
“Mrs. Taylor’s trip covered a mile ride through the Canadian rapids before she reached the brink of the precipice. Her barrel, stanch as a barrel could be made, was twirled and tossed and buffeted through those delirious waters but escaped serious contact with rocks.”
As it passed through the smoother, swifter waters that rushed over into the abyss it rode in an almost perpendicular position with its upper half out of the water. As it passed over the brink it rode at an angle of about 45 degrees on the outer surface of the deluge and descended as gracefully as a barrel can descend to the white foaming waters 158 feet below.
True to her calculations, the anvil fastened to the bottom of the barrel kept it foot downward, and so it landed. Had it turned over and landed on its head, Mrs. Taylor’s head must have been crushed in and her neck broken.”
“The ride through the rapids occupied 18 minutes. It was 4:23 o’clock when the barrel took its leap. It could not be seen as it struck the water below, because of the spray, but in less than half a minute after it passed over the brink it was seen on the surface of the scum-covered water below the falls. It was carried swiftly down to the green water beyond the scum, then halfway to the Maid of the Mist Landing. It was caught in what is known as the Maid of the Mist Eddy and held there until it floated close to the shore where it was reached by means of a pole and hook and drawn in upon the rocks, at 4:40 o’clock or 17 minutes after it shot the cataract.
Her memoir includes a statement by the captain of the boat that retrieved her.
“We saw the barrel taken from the water and the person of a woman taken from the barrel, and who (contrary to our expectations) was alive, and we confidently believe her to be the only human being that ever went over the Falls of Niagara and lived, and we can certify that the woman known to us since as Mrs. A. E. Taylor was the person taken out of the barrel. k. R. CARTER, Master S. S. “Maid of the Mist.” WILLIAM THOMAS, Mate. “Maid Of the Mist.”
“Ten minutes later the woman was lifted from the barrel, and half an hour later she lay on a cot on First Street, in Niagara Falls, on the American side.
“She thanked God she was alive, thanked all who had helped her in any way, said she would never do it again, but that she was not sorry she had done it, ‘if it would help her financially.’
“She said she had prayed all during the trip except during ‘a few moments’ of unconsciousness just after her descent. The barrel in which Mrs. Taylor made the journey is 41⁄2 feet high and about 3 feet in diameter. A leather harness and cushions inside protected her body. Air was secured through a rubber tube connected with a small opening near the top of the barrel.
Fifteen Minutes Of Fame
Today she would be an instant social media celebrity with millions of hits. Even in 1901 her stunt drew attention.
Sadly, Taylor’s stunt did not pay off as she had hoped. Her manager reportedly took off with her barrel. She did however make an appearance at the closing day of the Exposition on November 2. According to the Buffalo Evening News, as posted on PanAmerica.org, she received thousands of visitors.
There was a continuous stream of humanity, and Sergeant Smith Jackson and his squad of Exposition guards had their hands full keeping the lines straightened out and preventing crushes.
“Mrs. Taylor looks fully the 43 years that she admits. She has the appearance of a woman who has just risen from a sick bed. The cold air seemed to bother her and once or twice she was compelled to leave her receiving stand, to retire behind the big organ in the Temple of Music and get warm by the fires that are always going there.
“Mrs. Taylor did not shake hands with those who passed before her. She just smiled and bowed, and occasionally said something to some little child or older person who displayed some enthusiasm above the average.
“With Mrs. Taylor on the band stand were Capt. Johnson, whose device for strapping her into the barrel saved her life, the barrel itself, the straps, the bicycle pump with which air was forced into the barrel, and the black pussy cat, Niagara, which went over the falls in the barrel on the trial trip Oct. 18.”
But Taylor was not an exuberant speaker. She did make some money posing for pictures. Her memoir sold for ten cents per copy. But she died in 1921, penniless. Friends took up a collection for her to be buried with a headstone at the Niagara Falls cemetery. She rests beside a small group of fellow stunters, some of whom did not conquer the falls as Taylor did. She died in 1921 at the age of 83.
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