Not all women adventurers did it just for the adventure. Some, like Ada Blackjack and Annie Edson Taylor, did it for money. And maybe fame.
Annie was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. And she survived!
She also wins the “shortest adventure” award in the Women Adventurers Club with her 17-minute adventure.
Before She Climbed into that Barrel
October 24, 1838 (remember this date), Annie Edson was born in Auburn, New York, one of 8 children. It was said that she was a tomboy, preferring to play outdoor sports with the boys.
Her family had money and she got pretty much whatever she wanted. Even after her father’s death, the family had enough to live on…and more.
She became a schoolteacher and met her husband, David Taylor. They had a son who died in infancy and her husband died soon after.
Annie had to work hard to find jobs. She learned to teach dance and became an instructor. She wandered around the Midwest teaching dancing, music, and manners. She had a dance school in Bay City Michigan.
It sounds like a tough life for a widow in the late 19th century. She had some money from her parents, but her inheritance dwindled each year and she was always needing money. She worried about how she would live when she couldn’t work anymore. I’m not sure they talked about “retirement” back then. Who could afford to retire? Maybe, as my mother used to say, they feared ending up in the “poorhouse.”
Annie’s Brave Adventure
At 63, Annie was living in Bay City, Michigan, and feeling the pain of having run out of money.
“For a woman who had had money all her life and been used to refinded [sic] surroundings and the society of cultured people, it is horrible to be poor.” *
She read about Niagara Falls and she claims the answer – “Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel!” – came to her in a flash of light.
Annie began by learning how to make barrels and she came up with a barrel design for her trip. Then she found a promoter, Frank Russell, and they signed a contract. Gotta have a promoter! The event was promoted in Bay City, and the barrel was displayed in a window; he initially didn’t give out her name, to keep up the suspense, I guess.
A reporter met them at the train depot and asked her questions. She said she was not contemplating suicide. Her answer shows some interesting facts that she had learned:
“I entertain the utmost confidence that I shall succeed in going over the Falls without any harm resulting to me. The barrel is good and strong and the inside will be cushioned so that the rolling movement will do me no harm. Besides, I shall have straps to hold fast to. There will be a weight in one end of the barrel so that air can be admitted through a valve in the upper end where my head will be located.”
In case you wondered what would happen if too much water came in through the hole (I did), she said the valve would be open until she came to the falls when it would be closed. That means she would have limited air for the time she was going over the falls.
She estimated she could live for about an hour in the barrel and she figured it wouldn’t take anywhere near that much time. The barrel, she said, would have to start more than a mile above the falls.
Then they headed to Niagara Falls. Annie wanted her death-defying feat to take place on her birthday (remember the date? October 24).
Just to make sure the barrel was falls-worthy, they tested it the day before her trip, with a cat. (I know, some of you are cringing at that. I just tell ’em as I see ’em.) Both cat and barrel came out just fine from the experience.
Annie Over the Falls
And all was ready. Russell put a mattress inside and filled the barrel with air from a bicycle pump. She entered it clutching her lucky pillow. (She would have been better off if she had worn a lucky football helmet.)
By 3:50 p.m. on October 24, as reported in the New York Times, Annie-in-the-barrel was being towed to a specific place in Canada. At 4:05 the barrel was set adrift and she was on her own.
Weighted with a 200-pound anvil, the boat was said to have “floated nicely” in the water, in spite of, or maybe because of, the swift current. It passed over Horseshoe Falls on the Candian side.
Over she went at 4:23, and in less than a minute she was at the base of the falls and going downstream. Finally at 4;40 (17 minutes later!) the barrel was captured.
Annie got out alive and conscious, but she was in shock. She had a cut on the back of her scalp and complained of pain between her shoulders, but she was remarkably well. Her first words:
“I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I went unconscious.” And, “Nobody ought ever to do that again.”
Of course, they didn’t listen. Many others went over the fall after her. But she was the first.
A Legacy of Fame – But Little Money
For the moment, she was triumphant, looking forward to fame and fortune. She went around for a while promoting herself by selling memorabilia and her signature. Her manager ran away with her barrel and she used most of her savings to try to find him. “But, she lingered for the rest of her life as an impoverished victor.”**
She died in 1921 in an infirmary. Her grave is in the “Stunters Rest” section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.
“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!–
I spilled into it from every pore,
in the blackness of its roar.
You might also be interested in Queen of the Falls, a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. (If the art work looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he also wrote Jumanji). The images are lovely, warm and funny.
A poetic video about Annie and her adventure is available at panix.com, with poetry by Joan Murray.
*The Lady Who Conquered Niagara: The Annie Edson Taylor Story. Dwight Whalen, Edson Genealogical Association, 1990.
**Annie Edson Taylor (1839-1921). Bay-Journal, Bay City, Michigan.
The Niagara Falls Public Library has more photos of Annie and her trip over the falls.
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