Who was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? Her name was Annie Edson Taylor. She was a 63-year-old school teacher from Michigan, of all the unassuming things. She was the first person to win the ultimate gamble against Niagara. She went over the falls in a barrel… and survived.
Who Was Annie Edson Taylor?
It was October 24th, 1901. Ms. Taylor had come to Niagara, ready to risk her life for adventure, fame and fortune… or mostly just the fortune part. You see, Annie had gotten herself into a bit of monetary trouble. Specifically, she was broke.
She had grown up comfortably enough, but it ended there. She spent her adult life wandering. She traversed the American continent 8 times, living and working from coast to coast and even making it as far south as Mexico City. It was unusual, to say the least, for a woman in the 1800’s to venture alone into such far flung places.
I like to believe that Annie was a restless soul. That she was infected with Fernweh; that unquenchable desire to roam.
Annie was briefly married, but her young husband was killed in the civil war and their only child perished in infancy. So, she journeyed wherever her curiosity and prospects took her.
Unfortunately, this behavior didn’t result in financial stability. She usually made just enough to cover her expenses, and sometimes not even that. Her inheritance was gone. Retirement loomed closer every day and Annie loathed the idea of living out her remaining years in the poor house.
So, she hatched a plan; a big, bold plan that would grab the world’s attention and rocket her to celebrity, endorsements, world tours and financial stability. She would become the first person to successfully plunge over Niagara Falls and live to tell the tale.
Her plan was meticulously devised. She contracted the construction of a special barrel, just her size. It was padded with a mattress and pillows and equipped with a harness to secure her throughout the ordeal. She inserted a breathing tube that could be sealed shut as she approached the precipice. She even had the bottom of the barrel specially weighted, so it would remain upright in the river’s current.
Next, she signed with an agent who began promoting the spectacle far and wide.
The day before the big event, Annie did a sort of trial run. She sealed her cat in the barrel and pushed it over Niagara Falls. When the cat resurfaced in the river below, alive and well, the operation was deemed a “go.” All preparations moved forward.
Not everyone was happy about Annie’s daredevil aspirations. The local authorities threatened Annie’s agent that they would arrest him and charge him personally with murder, should Annie perish during her great leap. Still, Annie was not deterred.
On the big day, Annie climbed into her barrel along with her cat (either the luckiest or unluckiest PTSD-ridden feline in the world). They were towed out into the middle of the river and cut loose.
The rest is history.
What were Annie Edson Taylor’s first words after emerging successfully from her barrel?
“No one ought ever do that again.”
The cat kept its thoughts to itself.
What Happened to Annie Edson Taylor?
Unfortunately, Annie’s death defying feat did not result in the fortune that she had hoped. Rather, the court of public opinion deemed an older woman too unconvincing as a hero.
An event promoter absconded with Annie’s barrel, choosing to take it on tour instead of her. Annie made a little money posing for photos and speaking publicly about her experience, but it never amounted to much. She died penniless in 1921.
How many people have gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel?
In total, 13 have taken the plunge, with only 9 surviving. After Annie, the second person to take the plunge was Bobby Leach.
Although he broke both kneecaps and his jaw in the plunge, the public found him a fitting hero. He went on tour to collect the fame and fortune that Annie rightfully deserved.
While touring New Zealand, Bobby injured himself by slipping on an orange peel and died from the resulting gangrene complications.
If that isn’t some sort of karma, I don’t know what is…
The next attempt was made by Englishman Charles G. Stephens. Charles outfitted his barrel with an anvil for ballast. He then tied himself to the anvil.
When the barrel resurfaced, the anvil was gone. The only item that remained was Charles’ right arm.
Annie’s foresight and ingenuity is even more impressive by comparison. She was not only the first woman to conquer Niagara (in a time when female roles were so tightly scripted) she was the first person… and for that, she will live on in history forever.
A few years ago, I stood on the ship’s deck, right at the place where Annie’s barrel resurfaced after her plunge. My family and I had sailed into the mouth of the falls, aboard the famous Maid of the Mist. The noise of the thundering water was deafening – nothing “mist” like about it. The water flew in our faces like we’d stumbled into a hurricane. Others on board hid behind the ship’s wall to shield themselves from the liquid shrapnel.
I got soaked, but I couldn’t look away from the site of Annie’s history-making plunge. Even now, I am awed at the sheer gutsyness of her feat. How did she ever summon the courage to do it?
Of course she had thought up an ingenious mechanism to improve her odds of survival. She had invested the time and energy to plan and execute. But I can’t comprehend the sheer moxie it must have taken, as she heard the river crashing and watched its water disappearing over the edge, to get in that barrel and shut the lid.
So here’s to Annie Edson Taylor, hero of Niagara Falls.