Imagine the sight and sound of the cascading crashing chaos of Niagara Falls. Then imagine being sealed inside a barrel four and a half feet tall, I guess about as big as a small fridge-freezer, and taking the plunge. Down over the frothing falls into the savage rapids below. Me neither! Not in a gazillion years. Not even if you paid me £837 million.
But this is what a lady called Annie Edson Taylor did though, in 1901 on her 63rd birthday in the hope she would become rich and famous. She got inside her barrel and fell nearly 160 feet, hurtling toward the rocks and raging water below, to a crowd of 1000s who gasped nervously as she plummeted…
What’s also incredible is that she survived! She also became the first, and oldest, person to accomplish the task. She is also the only woman to have done it alone. After she was fished out of the water, she told reporters that she would “caution anyone against attempting the feat.”
The “Goddess of Water” as she was nicknamed had found herself fast running out of money after work as a teacher dried up. Learning about the crowds of people that visited Niagara Falls and intrigued by the idea of daredevil stunts which were fashionable at the time, she decided to do something drastic. “The idea came to me like a flash of light: Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel,” a New York Times article says Taylor wrote in a souvenir memoir, Over the Falls, which she later sold for 10 cents a copy at a stand near the site of her stunt.
Although Annie’s biggest goal wasn’t surviving the plunge. According to Chris Van Allsburg, the author of a book about Annie, Queen of the Falls (he also wrote Jumanji and The Polar Express), “her biggest goal … was selling herself as a viable candidate to become a media sensation”, so she hired a manager – a Bay City carnival barker named Frank Russell – to whip up publicity for her stunt, which he did successfully.
Hundreds went to see her barrel on display in a big hotel lobby for 10 days before her fateful ride; while hordes of reporters met Annie’s train as she arrived in Niagara Falls before October 24, when Annie climbed into the barrel and prepared to be towed to her launching point in the middle of the river, where thousands waited to see if she would survive.
A nail-biting 20 minutes after plunging into the falls, the barrel bobbed back up on the surface of the water; Annie emerging alive and uninjured, except for a small cut on her head. She instantly became front-page news.
Unfortunately for Annie though, her good luck didn’t last long, her manager disappeared shortly afterwards with her barrel. Russell exploited it himself to reap the rewards, pretending that a young woman half Taylor’s age had in fact performed the stunt. Annie spent most of her savings hiring private detectives to get her barrel back, who eventually found it in Chicago, before losing track of it again permanently.
Taylor also fast became yesterday’s news and tried her hand at everything not to end up back where she started: poverty stricken. From dabbling in the New York Stock Exchange to working as a fortune teller, sadly nothing worked out. Apparently she ended her days selling a memoir she wrote about her feat and posing for tourist postcards at her Niagara souvenir stand.
Taylor died on April 29, 1921, aged 82, and is buried next to English-born daredevil Carlisle D Graham in the “Stunter’s Rest” section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.
Niagara Falls image via here.