Advancing into the later stages of life, some turn their thoughts to immortality, whether through achievement, offspring, or religion. Many more focus on simply having enough dough to sustain themselves with dignity to the end. Annie Edson Taylor took aim at both goals.
In 1901, she was approaching her sixty-third birthday. She had long fended for herself, an adventurous entrepreneur in an age when most women were still locked into dependency. But life offered scant opportunity for an aging free spirit.
“If I could do something no one else in the world had ever done,” she said to herself, “I could make some money honestly and quickly.” She had lost the slim figure and light step of youth, which had allowed her to get by as a dance instructor. She sat alone at her home in Bay City, Michigan, and mulled her prospects.
“The idea came to me like a flash of light,” she remembered. “Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.”
The feat has become a cliché, but to this day only sixteen individuals have gone over — eleven survived. Even the great showman P.T. Barnum, who first thought of the stunt in 1856, never had the nerve to try it. At the dawn of the twentieth century, no one had yet dared take the plunge.
Niagara sang a siren call to daredevils. They walked across the gorge on tightropes and rode rafts and barrels through the fearsome rapids below the cataract. Niagara was nature stripped naked, a torrent where all the water of the Great Lakes heaved over a drop of more than a hundred fifty feet and crashed to the bottom in a swirl of mists and rainbows.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Auburn, New York, Anna Edson had loved to read adventure stories. At eighteen, she married David Taylor, but he died soon after the wedding. She studied to be a teacher, one of the few professions open to women, and landed a job in San Antonio, still the wild west. She was the victim of a stagecoach robbery there. The thief said if she refused to hand over her money, “I’ll blow your brains out.” Reluctant to part with her savings, she claimed to have answered, “Blow away!”
She moved to the city of New York and remade herself as a dance, physical culture and etiquette instructor. Afterward, she lived a restless, nomadic existence teaching in various cities around the country. She seemed to attract adventure, surviving an earthquake in Charleston and a fire in Chattanooga.
Now she would undertake her greatest adventure, defying death. Niagara had long attracted honeymooners, but it also drew the suicidal. More than a thousand people had ended their lives there. Taylor admitted she preferred to die rather than enter the poor house. She knew that ”it would be fame and fortune or instant death.”
She designed her barrel herself and had a cooper construct it — four and a half feet tall, built of heavy oak staves bound with ten iron hoops. She hired a carnival promoter as manager and announced that she would make the attempt in October 1901. She cut twenty-one years off her age, insisting she was forty-two.
She would take off from an island about a mile above the Falls. She climbed into the barrel with a couple of cushions for protection. A boy attached a bicycle pump to one of the narrow air holes and soon asserted that he had crammed in enough air to “last her for a week.” The holes were corked, and Annie Taylor began to speed down the channel, alone and in darkness.
The rapids above the falls were rugged enough, dropping forty feet over one precipice, flipping and turning the barrel, which had a hundred-pound anvil attached to the bottom for ballast. Rocks along the Canadian shore threatened to smash it to pieces. As she approached the precipice, Annie heard the thunder of the mighty Horseshoe Falls. The barrel seemed to hesitate, she said, then plunged.
She lived. Her manager arranged for a two-hundred-dollar appearance at the Pan-American Exposition, which was going on in nearby Buffalo (President William McKinley had been assassinated there a month earlier). She sold photos of herself with her barrel.
But her income from the spectacle soon dried up. She was no Barnum. She refused to appear in tawdry dime museums. “If she had been a beautiful girl, why we could have made thousands,” her manager said before deserting her, taking her iconic barrel with him.
Annie Taylor achieved immortality of a sort, but it offered a thin cushion as she bounced through her later years. She had a replica of the barrel made and became a familiar figure on the streets of Niagara Falls, where she sold postcard illustrations and had her picture taken with tourists.
Later, she offered the public quack electrical treatments and, as she went blind, her services as a clairvoyant. Her livelihood dwindled, and she was stunned that someone who had “done what no other woman in the world had nerve to do” should end up a pauper.
In 1921, at age eighty-three, she found herself in the county infirmary — the poor house. “If all my plans materialize,” she announced, “I shall not remain here long.” She died two months later.
Photos, from above: Niagara Falls, 1859 (photo William England); Annie Edson Taylor and her Niagara Falls barrel Queen of The Mist; Niagara Falls; and an Annie Edson Taylor promotional photo.
A version of this story was first published at Jack Kelly’s website Talking to America.