In the long and colourful history of truly barmy ideas, going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel must surely rank as one of the barmiest!
Nevertheless, that is just what a 63-year-old schoolteacher by the name of Annie Edson Taylor elected to do on October 24th, 1901. While a number of people have tried to emulate the stunt since – with varying degrees of success – Taylor was the first, and remarkably she lived to tell the tale!
After her husband was killed in the American Civil War, the New York-born Taylor moved around the US seeking sporadic work as a schoolteacher before settling in Michigan around 1898. In the summer of 1901 she read of the growing tourism popularity of two enormous waterfalls on the Niagara river, on the border of North America and Canada. She had also read of the vast wealth enjoyed by America’s emerging number of “celebrities” – people who had achieved fame for whatever reason and flaunted the fortune it apparently brought them.
Strapped for cash and intent on becoming famous, Taylor came up with the perfect attention-grabbing stunt – she would ride the Niagara Falls in a barrel. To add an extra dimension, she elected to dice with death on her birthday. She claimed to be “in her 40s” at the time and it only later emerged that she was actually 63.
Although it seemed a madcap idea, Taylor put a good deal of planning into it. Her sturdy barrel was custom-made from oak and iron, padded inside with a mattress and weighted at the bottom. Two days before her own attempt she sent the barrel over the falls to test its strength, with a domestic cat sealed inside. Contrary to some reports at the time, the cat survived and was later photographed with Taylor.
On October 24th the barrel was towed by a rowboat out into the Niagara River well upstream of the falls. Taylor then climbed inside with her lucky heart-shaped pillow. Friends in the rowboat screwed down the lid and used a bicycle pump to compress air into the barrel through a small hole, which was then plugged with a cork.
Finally, the barrel was cut free, quickly pulled out into the strong current, battered by the raging rapids and heading directly for the lip of the thunderous 188ft Horseshoe Falls.
Onlookers screamed or held their breath as the bobbing barrel tipped over the edge and was lost in the torrent of white water and spray mist. After a few minutes it was spotted in the violently swirling waters at the foot of the falls. Rescuers rowed out to the barrel and towed it ashore, hurriedly unscrewing the lid to reveal Taylor alive, a little dazed, but relatively uninjured except for a small gash to her head. The terrifying trip had taken slightly less than 20 minutes.
After regaining her composure, Taylor told the gathered throng of reporters: “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.”
Despite her dire warning, the stunt sparked a spate of copycat daredevils. Between 1901 and 1995 a further 15 people went over the falls in various contraptions. For five of them it was not only the foolhardiest thing they ever did – it was the last thing they ever did. Even those who survived faced criminal charges and stiff fines, as going over the falls is illegal on both sides of the border.
As for Annie Taylor, her fame was sadly short-lived and never really brought the fortune she had hoped for. In fact, she was forced to spend most of it hiring private detectives to track down her barrel after her unscrupulous agent absconded with it.
Various other enterprises, including an attempt to get a book published about her stunt, amounted to very little and she lived out her days in relative obscurity and always struggling for money. Her final years were spent running a souvenir stand at Niagara Falls and posing for photographs with tourists, for a small fee.
She died aged 82 in April 1921 at the Niagara County Infirmary in Lockport, New York, and is buried in the “Stunters Section” of Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls. The cause of death was said to be that she slipped on a discarded orange peel.