On October 24, 1901, a handsome 63-year-old woman, Annie Edson Taylor was taken by rowboat towards the famed Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls.
At the edge of the rapids, she removed her hat, street skirt, and coat and crawled into a 4-foot, 4-inch wooden barrel that had been towed alongside her.
Two cushions are tossed in for padding and she straps herself to an eye bolt in the bottom of the barrel. The top lid is screwed shut. She is alone in a darkened barrel bobbing downriver towards the perilous falls. If you are like me, you are wondering, “What was this woman thinking?!”
Born in 1838, Annie was one of eleven children. She was a dreamy girl who preferred to play outdoor sports over dolls and possessed a vivid imagination.
Married at 18, only to be widowed shortly after the wedding, Annie began her new life traveling across the United States. She stayed with friends when the opportunity arose, finding teaching jobs wherever she happened to be. Etiquette, piano and dance lessons were her specialties.
Her travel destinations often brought new experiences and adventure. While living in South Carolina, she persevered through an earthquake. A house fire in Chattanooga, Tennessee destroyed her home, but not her spirit. After a trip to New Mexico, Annie’s return stagecoach to Texas was held up by robbers. When a gun was pressed against the side of her head demanding she hand over her money, she refused in typical Annie fashion to give up her stash of $800 hidden in her skirts.
“Blow away, I would as soon be without my brains as without money”, she told her would be assailants. Startled by her uncooperative nature, the robbers released her unharmed. Money was important to this widowed, self-sufficient woman. Money equaled independence and that was of the utmost importance to Annie.
In 1898, Annie settled near Saginaw Bay, Michigan and taught etiquette and cotillion lessons to the children of the elite families. As the children grew, her business declined and she cast about for new money-making propositions. She wanted to earn it honestly and quickly. She was motivated to put some money aside for her retirement and to help two of her friends, one widowed with young children and the other with a delicate health condition.
After reading in the newspapers about the upcoming Pan-American Exposition and visitors heading to Niagara Falls, she claimed her idea “hit her like a flash of light.” She would go over the falls in a barrel.
Never mind that no one had ever done this before. Annie was determined. “I did not think it wrong, as there was nothing immodest in the act, nor did it involve the life of anyone but myself.” Annie reportedly said her age was 40, and not 63; her true age when the venture was publicized.
In her typical independent fashion, Annie took full ownership of her plan. She designed a prototype of her barrel using a paper pattern. It was sewn together with twine. The dimensions were 12 inches at the head, 34 inches in the middle and 15 inches in the foot. The barrel was made of white Kentucky oak with ten hoops and riveted every four inches.
In her memoir, Annie writes about how suffocating it felt for her when she went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Thankfully, her courage prevailed and she claimed the rapids were “nothing, but a pleasant sensation.” She bobbed and bounced over the rocks, sometimes submerging completely under the water only to pop back up to the surface.
That is until the barrel paused at the brink of the falls and Annie plunged 158 feet into what she called the “boiling cauldron below.” She describes this part of her descent as “one of absolute horror, and I knew when I struck the water of the lower river. That’s when I began to suffer.”
“The barrel whirled like a dasher in a churn,” Annie said, after this violent passage. She fell unconscious, likely from the lack of oxygen. John Ross, the engineer of the Maid of the Mist boat recovered the barrel and wrenched the top off the barrel. “The woman is alive!” he said. Annie answered, “Yes she is, though much hurt and confused.”
Upon her recovery from this harrowing feat, her manager reportedly left town with her barrel in his possession. Annie was terribly upset by this news, as she had hoped to use the barrel as a prop in her planned lectures afterward.
The manager could have been arrested for manslaughter if Annie had not survived. Shortly after her amazing stunt, laws were enacted on both the Canadian and American sides to ban similar stunts from occurring.
For a short time, Annie enjoyed the fame her amazing feat brought, but soon interest in her died down and she left Niagara in search of more lucrative opportunities.
Annie returned to Niagara a decade later to sell her memoir, hoping to improve her financial situation once again. When asked if she would go over the falls a second time, Annie said: “I would rather face a cannon than go over the falls again.”
Sadly, Annie’s final years were spent in relative poverty and she died alone on April 29, 1921. She is buried in nearby Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls.
This is a forlorn ending for a woman who displayed such courage and an incredible sense of adventure. Her story is one of fierce independence, imagination, and courage. Annie was the first person, the oldest and the only female to have survived going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.