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Heritage Moments: Annie Edson Taylor, Falls daredevil and a widow’s hard choices

Photo courtesy Niagara Falls, Ont., Public Library
The 63-year-old daredevil Annie Edson Taylor, first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, in 1901.

In the days before death benefits, pensions and social security, an aging widow had to fend for herself, even one who was a trained, experienced professional. Self-sufficiency or destitution. Sink or swim.

That’s how it was for Annie Edson Taylor, a schoolteacher from Auburn, N.Y. Her only child died in infancy; her husband died in the Civil War. In the ensuing decades, she moved from place to place, teaching school, giving dancing lessons, Texas, New York City, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Michigan, working incessantly to stave off poverty. By 1901 she was 62 years old, her prospects for continued employment diminished by advancing age in a world with no safety net.

So she hit upon a desperate idea – go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. If she lived, she could make a good living with a lecture tour, addressing big crowds eager to hear her describe her impossible achievement. If she died, well, that was another way to avoid the poorhouse.

Daredevils had shot the Whirlpool Rapids in barrels before – some survived and some did not -- but nobody’d ever tried to go over the actual Falls. “My thought was, if I could do something no one else in the world had ever done, I could make some money honestly and quickly,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It would be fame and fortune or certain death.”

As the great Canadian historian Pierre Berton recounts in “Niagara: A History of the Falls,” Taylor designed a barrel and hired a cooper to build it, closely supervising his work to be certain it was solid and watertight. It was made of Kentucky oak secured by two iron hoops, stood four and a half feet tall and weighed 160 pounds; lined with cushions, it had a harness to keep its passenger strapped in place and an anvil on its floor to keep it upright in the churning water.

Lying about her age, she hired a manager, intent on timing her plunge while the Pan American Exposition in nearby Buffalo was still open. He in turn told the press that his client, Annie Edson Taylor, was “a widow 42 years old, intelligent and venturesome. She has scaled the Alps, made dangerous swimming trips, and explored wild, unknown countries.”

On Oct. 18, 1901, Taylor ran a test of her barrel, now called Queen of the Mist. She had an assistant put her cat in and send it over the Horseshoe Falls. The barrel, when it was retrieved, was intact; its little passenger emerged with barely a scratch.

Credit Library of Congress G.G. Bain Collection
Taylor with her barrel and cat.

On Oct. 24, Taylor was ready to go. Taylor, an assistant named Billy Holleran (others refused to take part in what they saw as Taylor’s suicide) and the barrel were rowed by an experienced Niagara boatman to Grass Island near Grand Island, a mile and a half above the brink. She climbed in and Holleran sealed the lid shut. It was her 63rd birthday.

The boatman towed the Queen of the Mist into the Niagara, said goodbye, and let it loose. The spectators lining both sides of the river saw the barrel bump and dive and rise again as it bobbed through the rapids, heading inexorably for the Horseshoe Falls. Inside, Taylor heard the roar getting louder. She put a cushion under her knees and held on for dear life as she went over the brink. “I felt,” she recalled, “as though all Nature was being annihilated.”

She didn’t feel the impact at the bottom of the waterfall as the barrel plunged deep beneath the surface, but she did feel it shoot upward through the water, a dozen feet into the air. It submerged again, bumped against some rocks and twirled slowly in an eddy. Finally, Taylor, dazed, sensed the lid being pried off and a man shouting, “The woman is alive.”

Several men pulled Taylor out and helped her to the Canadian shore. Bleeding from a cut to her scalp, she waved weakly to the cheering crowd and was taken to her boarding house. She spoke briefly to reporters. “I will never go over the Falls again,” she said. “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.”

Credit Photo by M.H. Zahner, Frances J. Petrie Collection
A dazed Taylor, moments after being pulled from her barrel.

At first, Taylor made some cash off her spectacular exploit. She received $200 for appearing at the Pan Am and another $200 making store appearances in Michigan and Ohio with her cat and barrel. But no lecture tour ever materialized, and she soon went broke. Another manager absconded with the barrel and started touring it with a much younger woman masquerading as the Heroine of Niagara. Within a couple of years Taylor was a fixture outside a restaurant on the American side, sitting alongside a replica barrel, selling postcards and her autobiography to tourists making their way to the Falls.

Taylor scraped by for several more years, an elderly widow on her own. In 1921, at 82, she entered the Niagara County poorhouse at Lockport, where she died, penniless. She was buried in the daredevils section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, her grave and tombstone paid for by friends and admirers.

Fortune eluded Taylor. While she lived, her fame was brief. Yet that fame endured long past her death, even inspiring an epic poem, Joan Murray’s “Queen of the Mist: The Forgotten Heroine of Niagara.” It recreated the few minutes that defined Annie Edson Taylor’s life:

Sealed in my barrel, with an anvil clamped beneath my feet, I sailed upright, listened for Holleran’s tap— twice on the lid staves --then they cut me loose. I rode low, scraped the bottom stones, clipped a rock, caught the current. In a moment I was at the brink, thudding on the cusp— pitching forward, breathless, blind— from a womb of my own making. Niagara!—over me!—under me!

Cast (in order of appearance):
Billy Holleran: Corey Grant
Annie Edson Taylor: Virginia Brannon
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)