Annie Edson Taylor was a remarkable woman. At an age when most people would think about putting their feet up and taking it easy, she decided that she would become the very first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
She was born Annie Edson in Auburn, New York, in 1838, one of the eight children of flour mill owner Merrick Edson. He died when she was eight but the money he left meant supported the family.
She trained as a schoolteacher and during her studies she met and married David Taylor and they had a son who died in infancy. Her husband also died soon after and the widowed Edson Taylor travelled around supporting herself with various teaching jobs. This included opening a dance school in Bay City, Michigan, and then teaching music in Sault Ste. Marie on the Canadian border.
Reaching her sixties and running short of money, Taylor decided that she needed some sort of retirement plan and it was then that she decided that she should be the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel so that she could cash in on the subsequent publicity.
Taylor had a custom barrel made from oak lined with a mattress and with straps for her arms. The problem was that most people thought her scheme was madness and wouldn’t help her to launch her stunt believing that it was nothing short of suicide. To convince people of the feasibility of her idea, Taylor sent a cat over the falls in her barrel to demonstrate that it wouldn’t break up. The cat survived and Taylor posed with it afterwards as you can see in the photograph on the right.
On 24th October 1901, her 63rd birthday, the barrel was put over the side of a rowboat, and Taylor climbed in, along with her lucky heart-shaped pillow. After screwing down the lid, friends used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air in the barrel. The hole used for this was plugged with a cork, and Taylor was set adrift near the American shore, south of Goat Island.
The current carried her over Horseshoe Falls and rescuers reached her and found Taylor unscathed apart from a small gash on her head. But the stunt must have been an ordeal for her. As she said later:
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.
Taylor was able to make a little money from her adventure by giving talks about her experience but what little money she did make was spent on the private detectives she hired to track down her manager who had run off with the barrel. It was eventually found in Chicago but disappeared for good soon after.
She was able to make some money by posing for photographs with tourists at a souvenir stand she set-up at the Falls but it wasn’t quite as lucrative as she imagined it might be. Taylor attempted to write a novel, recreated her stunt on a film that was never shown and even talked about a second attempt that came to nothing.
Taylor died destitute in 1921 at the age of 83 and is buried in the ‘Stunters Section’ of Oakwood Cemetery at Niagara Falls,