The first daredevil to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel wasn’t some brash young man looking to make headlines. It was a 63-year-old school teacher who just wanted to drum up some retirement money by becoming the Queen of the Mist.
Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to make it over Niagara Falls in a barrel, just needed to garner some fame to pay the bills, but it wasn’t always this way. She was born in Auburn, New York in 1838, and lived a very well-to-do upbringing. Sherman Zavitz, the Official Historian of Niagara Falls, Ontario describes Taylor as being “very prim and proper,” relating as evidence a first-hand story he was told, from Edson’s later life, where she berated a child for “eating peanuts in front of a lady.”
Taylor began a career as a teacher after taking a four-year training course, during which she met her husband-to-be, David Taylor, at the age of 18. The couple went on to have a son who perished just days after his birth. Then the family was struck by yet another tragedy when David was killed during the Civil War.
After her husband’s death, Taylor moved around the country taking different teaching jobs. She began living a movable life that left her nearly destitute by her 60s. Not a total nomad, Taylor briefly settled in Bay City, Michigan, opening the first dance studio in the city, before heading back on the road to places like Texas and Mexico City.
Staring down a future in the poorhouse by the turn of the 19th century, Taylor began to dream up ways that she could shore up her bank account for her later years. As Zavitz tells it, Edson was reading a magazine article about daredevils who had ridden out the whirlpool rapids at the bottom of the falls. This gave her the idea to do them all one better and actually go over the falls in a barrel. It would make her famous if she survived. “She never seemed to have any doubt that she would survive.” Zavitz says, “She was a very determined lady. A very upbeat sort of person. A very positive person. So she was quite certain she could do this stuff, and would survive it, and would make a fair bit of money from it.”
The Pan-American Exhibition, a World’s Fair that was headquartered in the area was scheduled to take place from May to November in 1901, so Taylor planned her stunt for October 24th, the date of her 63rd birthday (although she advertised her age as 43). She was confident that her death-defying stunt would turn heads and garner crowds from the massive gathering.
The vessel Taylor chose to ride over the raging falls in was a custom-made pickle barrel of her own design that stood around five feet tall, and a little over three feet wide, weighing only 160 pounds. It was a simple construction that was made of white oak slats held together with iron rings. Inside the thing was a mattress for cushioning, and a leather harness to keep Taylor from bouncing around too much. A 200-pound anvil was also placed in the bottom of the container as a ballast to keep it as upright as possible while it bobbed its way over the falls.
She did not go over the falls without testing out her device either. Two days before taking the plunge herself, Taylor sent her housecat over the falls in her barrel. The cat survived the fall, with nothing but some cuts on the head, and Taylor took possibly her most famous photo with the feline sitting atop the barrel, looking surprisingly calm for a test animal that was almost drowned and/or smashed.
Despite Taylor’s successful test, many of the people she had enlisted to help with the stunt were skeptical. Her manager, Frank M. “Tussy” Russell, was warned that if took part in the spectacle, and Taylor died, he could be prosecuted for manslaughter in both America and Canada. Even on the day of the event, the actual barrel float was delayed a number of times due to fears from the crew that they were assisting in Taylor’s suicide.
Nonetheless, just after 4:00 pm on October 24th, Taylor climbed into her barrel with the help of handlers, and was sealed in with a bicycle pump. A few thousand onlookers watched as she was let off into the current.
The barrel seemed to bob harmlessly as it was pulled towards Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side of the raging rapids. Then the strong pull of the falls took hold of the barrel and accelerated it towards its fateful drop. The barrel was lost from view in the mists of the falls, falling over at some point. Within minutes, the barrel was spit back out, wholly intact, and began drifting further downstream at the bottom of the falls. The barrel finally came to rest against a rock in the river and Taylor’s handlers rushed out to the barrel. After a bit of difficulty, they were able to remove Taylor, whose first words out of the barrel were, “I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I went unconscious.”
Taylor had survived the ordeal a little sore, reeling from shock, but otherwise unhurt save for a cut on her head, which may have happened as she was being pulled out of the barrel. She’d pulled off her daring stunt, and paved the way for over a dozen imitators recreating stunts in barrels of their own. Taylor was ready to sit back and let the riches from her crazy stunt pour in. She had become the Queen of the Mist.
Unfortunately it was only the falls that continued to flow.
After the event, Taylor’s manager ran away with the famous barrel which would presumably have been a key prop to the speaking engagements from which she was making money after the act. “Her stage appearances did not work out that well,” Zavitz notes, “She just didn’t seem to have the kind of charisma or personality or whatever to carry off that kind of thing very well.” While Taylor did garner a small level of fame after the stunt, it did not amount to the windfall she had hoped for. What money she did make was thrown into private investigators tasked with tracking down her purloined barrel. Despite placing herself once again in spitting distance of the poorhouse, the barrel was never definitively recovered.
Taylor continued to make some small money posing for pictures at her souvenir stand, and selling 10 cent booklets telling the story of her life, but would never again attain the wealth of her youth. She died in 1921 at the age of 82, and was buried in a section of a Niagara Falls (New York) cemetery alongside a small group of fellow “stunters.” According to Zavitz, the only reason she didn’t end up in an unmarked pauper grave is thanks to a group of friends and acquaintances in Niagara Falls who took up a collection for her plot and headstone. “She was totally broke at the time of her passing,” he says.
While her bombastic stunt did not garner the fame and fortune of her dreams, Annie Edson Taylor’s adventurous life is not forgotten. “In many ways, I admire the lady,” sayd Zavitz, “Her guts, her courage. I think she’s, in a way, a champion of women’s rights, because in 1901, women did not normally get mixed up in things like that.”