THE WOMAN WHO WENT OVER NIAGARA FALLS IN A BARREL
You’re turning 63. How should you celebrate? With a cake with candles? A family get-together? Maybe a party?
How about crawling into a wooden barrel, having it screwed shut, then plunging 60-feet over one of the world’s great natural wonders? Which, by the way, nobody else has ever lived to tell about.
A woman did that nearly 120 years ago, the crowning achievement in her quirky life. Here’s what happened.
Annie Edson Taylor was a tomboy growing up. One of 11 children raised on a farm in Upstate New York, she preferred outdoors and sports to dolls and dresses. She was a dreamer whose imagination constantly sprouted new ideas.
She married at age 18. Annie quickly regretted it, but not for long. Their only child died in infancy and her husband passed away soon afterward.
It was hard for a woman to support herself in the 19th Century. Annie bounced around the country from one job to another, with interesting experiences woven in between. She survived a house fire in Chattanooga, a small earthquake in South Carolina, and even a stagecoach robbery out West. (Refusing to hand over the $800 hidden in her dress—all the money she had—Annie told the robbers, “Blow away!”)
She eventually settled in Bay City, Michigan and scratched out a living by operating a charm school where she taught kids table manners and dance basics. But soon pupils dwindled, along with her bank account. Annie began worrying how she would support herself in old age.
Then, as she later wrote, “the idea came to me like a flash of lightning. Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.” At an age when most people are contemplating retirement, she began contemplating a stunt the bravest daredevils wouldn’t attempt.
Her rationale wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. The Pan-American Exposition (a kind of World’s Fair) was being held next door in Buffalo, New York. A large contingent of reporters was there. If she survived, the news coverage would make Annie an instant celebrity. That could mean a book deal and lecture tours and enough money for her final years.
But there was a huge qualifier. “If.” If she survived the plunge. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have to worry about anything ever again.
So Annie headed to Niagara Falls. She designed a special white oak barrel and had it built by a company that made beer kegs. Three feet at its widest part with tapered ends and metal hoops to secure it, plus a small anvil to keep it weighted down. An old mattress was the only padding.
Word of what she was attempting spread. A crowd gathered as she crawled into the barrel late on Thursday afternoon—her 63rd birthday (although she adamantly insisted to reporters later she was in her 40s). At 4:30 p. m. the barrel was screwed shut and dropped into the water. Inside, Annie clung to her lucky heart-shaped pillow. And probably prayed.
In about 15 minutes, it was all over. The barrel went over the Falls, briefly submerged, then bobbed to the surface. Boatmen hauled it onto their vessel and unscrewed the lid. A rescuer peered inside and then shouted, “Good God! She’s alive!”
Annie had indeed survived the 167-foot fall. Her only injury was a cut on her forehead as she was removed from the barrel.
She then told reporters, “I would rather face a cannon than go over the Falls again.”
Annie got the fame she desired. Her photo and story were in newspapers from coast to coast. One admirer even wrote a poem called Goddess of Water.
“This great heroine of our nation
has won both fortune and fame.
Now people all over creation
will praise this illustrious dame.”
(Ok, Shakespeare it’s not. But how many poems have been written about you?)
Then, as quickly as celebrity status arrived, the public forgot Annie. Her fifteen minutes of fame didn’t even last fifteen minutes. There was no fortune as she’d hoped. In a final insult, someone even stole her most prized possession: her special barrel.
Annie spent her last years selling a booklet she wrote about her adventure for a dime. She was impoverished when she died in 1921 at age 82.
So when it comes time to turn 63, go with a birthday cake instead of a stunt. Trust me on this.
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Love your writing style and the quaint stories and characters you write about. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for your kind words, Susan. It’s that type of feedback that keeps writers writing! I appreciate it.