Annie Edson Taylor was born on this day in 1838 in Auburn, New York. On October 24th 1901, her sixty-third birthday, she was sealed into a large barrel along with a mattress, a 200 pound anvil and her favourite heart-shaped pillow. She was then set adrift in the Niagara River on her historic journey over the famous Horseshoe Falls.
Annie worked most of her life as a teacher. Her husband had died during the Civil War when she was only twenty-five and their only son died in infancy. She moved around from place to place and in 1901 she was living in Bay City Michigan. As she approached retirement, with her savings dwindling, her future was far from financially secure. She feared spending the remainder of her life in the poorhouse. Probably thinking that she didn’t have much to lose, she came up with a plan that she thought would win her fame and fortune, if she survived. She would be the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
She found a barrel making company who were reluctant to take on the job once they found out what she wanted it for, but eventually supplied her with a custom designed, sturdy oak barrel. Then she contacted Frank M Russell, a well known promoter of carnivals in the Michigan area, who would handle her publicity. Russell contacted the papers in September and in early October the barrel went on display in a local store.
Russell was told that if Annie Taylor should be killed in her attempt, he would face manslaughter charges in both the US and Canada. On October 19th his wife gave an interview to the Bay City Times stating that her husband was making a test run over the falls with an empty barrel. The following day, it was revealed that the barrel had not been empty. There was a cat in it. That day’s newspaper report tells us that the cat sprang out unharmed when the barrel was opened and that the barrel itself was undamaged..
Annie Taylor climbed into her barrel on the afternoon of October 24th. It was weighted with an anvil to keep it floating upright and padded inside with a mattress. The lid was secured and the barrel was pressurised using a bicycle pump. She was cast adrift at 4.05 pm and went over the falls at 4.23 pm. Anxious onlookers downstream waited to catch sight of the barrel, or signs of its wreckage. The barrel was hauled from river below the falls at 4.40 pm. No one expected that Annie would have survived her daredevil plunge. But when the lid was opened, she was not only alive, but conscious. They had to saw through part of the barrel to get her out, but she was able to walk with some assistance. Physically she suffered only a cut behind her right ear and later a pain between her shoulders which had been thrown back in the fall. She was very shaken and had this to say about her experience: “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 Falls.”
Sadly Annie didn’t really achieve the fame and fortune she hoped for in her lifetime. Although she was the first person to ride the Falls in a barrel, a sixty-three year old lady was not really the hero everyone was looking for. Her manager, Russell, ran away with her barrel and displayed it alongside a completely different and more glamorous lady, claiming that she was Annie Taylor. The real Annie spent the rest of her days scratching a living selling souvenirs and posing for photographs with tourists.
The second person to survive going over the falls in a barrel, a man named Bobby Leach, did gain some fame and notoriety from his feat. However, whilst on a publicity tour in New Zealand, he slipped on a piece of orange peel and broke his leg. He later developed gangrene and, although his leg was amputated, he died as a result. So perhaps Annie did get the better deal in the end.
Also I cannot talk about things going over Niagara Falls without mentioning that in 1827, a hotel owner called William Forsyth bought himself a schooner. Into it he put a buffalo, two small bears, two raccoons, a dog and perhaps two foxes, fifteen geese, and an eagle. He set it adrift above the Falls. I don’t know why. I don’t want to know, but it happened. The bears swam to safety, presumably the geese and eagle flew away. The other animals did not fare so well. People are weird.