In a world saturated with everyday people doing dangerous, and often stupid, stunts for money; it might be difficult to even consider what it was like before “Jackass,” “Fear Factor,” YouTube, or even Evel Knievel. Way back when people did dangerous things with merely the hope it might make them rich and famous.
Meet Annie Edson Taylor: the 63-year-old woman who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel, because she wanted to become financially stable.
Annie Edson was born October 24, 1838, one of eight children to Merrick and Lucretia Edson. She grew up to become a schoolteacher; married David Taylor, and they had a son who died in infancy. Soon after losing her son, her husband passed; and in her widowhood she moved around a lot looking for work.
There is no recorded information on what led up to Taylor’s decision to be the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls, other than her desire to be financially secure. She had no known previous experience as a daredevil prior to the decision… But there it was. Several factors impeded the initial launch of Taylor herself, not the least of which was the reluctance of those around her to participate in what they perceived as a suicide attempt. Some reports state that two days prior to Taylor’s own journey, she sent a cat down the Falls in the barrel to test out the barrel itself. While it’s true a cat is seen in several of the pictures of Taylor and her barrel, and all reports that include the cat claim the cat had a 17 minute trip down the Falls and survived, there is no record of the cat’s name. And anyone who has ever tried to stuff a cat into an enclosed space might have a hard time believing this account.
But on October 24, 1901; her 63rd birthday, Annie Edson Taylor, wearing a long black dress and flowered hat and armed with a lucky heart-shaped pillow, climbed into a 4.5 foot high, Kentucky oak and iron barrel custom-fitted with a leather harness and a mattress/or cushions inside. (Reports vary.) Air was injected with a bicycle pump, the knot-hole plugged with a simple cork, the lid screwed down over her head, and she was set adrift near the American shore. The whole journey took less than 20 minutes including the time it took rescuers to reach the barrel at the bottom of the Falls. Taylor emerged relatively unscathed, except for a cut on her forehead caused by the removal of the barrel lid. Thus, she became the first person in history to fall over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.
Taylor did find a modicum of wealth and fame following her historic trip by writing a memoir; but after her own manager stole her barrel and ran away, she spent most of her money trying and succeeding to track the barrel back down. Eventually, she opened a souvenir stand near the Falls and made a small living taking pictures with tourists, among other endeavors.
On April 29, 1921, Annie Edson Taylor passed away in the Niagara County Infirmary at age 82. She is buried in the “Stunter’s Rest” section of Oakwood Cemetery, in Niagara Falls, New York.
Taylor’s historic journey has been chronicled in several places across our culture, including a musical that ran Off the West End in London and Off-Broadway in America, a poem by John Wall Barger, and a children’s book, among others.
Think about all of this for a minute. A woman, in 1901, was the first person in history to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. You just can’t make this stuff up.