Pardon the pun, but you’re in for a ride. On this day in 1838, Annie Edson Taylor was born; and on this day in 1901, her 63rd birthday, she went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. 167 feet. Of waterfall. In a barrel. Did I mention she was 63 at the time?
Born not far from Niagara Fall, Taylor was a widow by the age of 24 After losing her husband of seven years in the Civil War. As the years passed, Taylor struggled financially working as a teacher and moving from place to place. She landed in Bay City, Michigan and it was there she hatched a plan for future fame, fortune, and happiness: risking life and limb for tourists and sightseers at Niagara Falls. She was so sure of her decision that she hired a manager to drum up publicity for the event.
Lesser daredevils had used barrels to ride the rapids beneath the falls, but none had ever attempted the actual falls themselves. Her barrel was custom built, and there are several varying accounts as to its construction. Some say the barrel was sealed and pressurized with a bicycle pump. Others say the barrel had a hole with a breathing tube. There are versions of the story that mention an anvil for ballast and each account mentions some kind of padding, from mattresses to couch cushions to custom upholstery. One thing is for certain though, she sent her cat over the falls first to test the barrel (no word on whether or not the cat was from Michigan). And after the cat was retrieved, seemingly no worse for wear, Taylor steeled herself for the main event.
On what she claimed was her 43rd birthday, she climbed into her barrel, with her cat, and daring pair was put in the river about a mile upstream of the falls. Twenty minutes later, she went over the falls as onlookers gaped and gasped. For a long 17 minutes the spectators feared they might actually be witnesses, but Taylor was pulled from the river relatively unharmed – just a concussion and a few cuts and bruises. Her cat also made the trip and lived to tell the tale (twice). She said had this to say about her descent:
“If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat… I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”
Unfortunately Taylor did find some fame, but not the fortune that she sought. She had to spend whatever she made tracking down her famous barrel – it was stolen by her manager. She traveled briefly speaking about her adventure but eventually resorted to other means of income such as taking pictures with visitors to the falls and even working as a psychic. She was penniless at the time of her death and is interred in the “Stunter’s Section” of the Niagara Falls cemetery.
As an epilogue to this amazing story I have to point out that only fifteen people are known to have gone over the falls since Taylor did it so many years ago. It is now illegal, and is punishable by incarceration or considerable fine, so please do not try this at home.