Standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls with several newspaper reporters idling nearby, Annie Edson Taylor started to cry. It was October 23, 1901, and the 62-year-old had been causing a stir by proclaiming that she intended to seal herself in a pickle barrel and allow the water current to carry her along the Niagara River to the 177-foot drop over the falls. It was a feat so ill-advised that local authorities threatened her manager, Frank Russell, that he could be charged with manslaughter if his client perished in the process.
Their caution was justified. No one had ever made it over Niagara Falls and lived, with one newspaper describing the act as being undertaken only "in the deliberate commission of a suicide." Taylor had her own reasons for trying, but the delay—the current had been too choppy for the boatmen charged with getting her into the water—lent credence to naysayers who believed she was either a kook or a liar. Disappointed, she began weeping.
The following day, a determined Taylor returned to the site, this time sealing herself in the barrel. For the retired schoolteacher from Michigan, going over the falls was going to be her ticket to a new, better life—assuming she was able to hang on to it.
Situated on the border between the United States and Canada, Niagara Falls is made up of three waterfalls—Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls—that converge into a massive overspill of 6 million cubic feet of water per minute. As with Everest and other great natural wonders, thrill-seekers are rarely content to admire the view. They want to see if they can endure the forces of nature.
In 1829, a man named Sam Patch built a platform that stood 85 feet above the lower Niagara River. He dove into the water and survived. Emboldened, he dove a second time from 130 feet. (A third jump, not into the Niagara but into the High Falls of the Genesee River in Rochester, New York, killed him.) In 1859, a tightrope walker named Jean Francois Gravelet-Blondin successfully inched his way across a wire spread over the Niagara gorge, a feat that ignited a series of copycat attempts.
No one, however, had made an announced attempt to start at the upper river and allow themselves to be carried by the violent current over the crest of the falls. To do so without any kind of special equipment, it seemed, would mean certain death.
None of this appeared to deter Annie Taylor. Born in 1838 in Auburn, New York, Taylor married at 18 and subsequently suffered a series of tragedies. Her son died shortly after birth; her husband was killed in the Civil War. Surviving on an inheritance from her wealthy parents, Taylor began traveling around the country, teaching school and offering dance classes in Bay City, Michigan and elsewhere. As the years went on, her income remained modest while her savings dwindled. Being "poor," she once told a reporter, was something she had not had a chance to grow accustomed to, and considering her financial woes, she "might as well be dead."
While in Bay City in 1899, she happened to overhear a tavern owner brag about having gone over the falls in a padded rubber suit. Taylor found the idea ridiculous, and the man couldn’t substantiate his claim, but it gave her an idea. What if Taylor survived such an attempt? The resulting fame would likely lead to a fortune in speaking engagements, photos, and other publicity.
Whatever fear should have accompanied her plans seemed to be trumped by her fear of poverty. She told the Detroit Free Press that she set about "carefully studying the problem for three months," enlisting the services of a boatman who knew the Niagara River well. The man advised her that she stood the best chance of surviving by being placed in the Horseshoe on the Canadian side, where the water was deepest.
The unlikely daredevil—who told the press she was 43, not 62—set about contracting the West Bay City Cooperage lumber yard to make her a barrel suited for stunt work. The roughly 5-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide oak-and-metal container weighed 160 pounds and included an interior harness to prevent Taylor from being shaken inside like a pinball. A 200-pound ballast was fitted on the bottom to help keep it upright; it would be vacuum-sealed to prevent water from seeping in, but had a valve that allowed for air—enough to keep her alive for an hour, should her rescuers have any trouble locating her.
Since the attempt would be all about publicity, Taylor hired a promoter named Frank Russell to drum up interest. Russell started by displaying the barrel in a store window with a logo on it that read "Queen of the Mist." Talking to reporters, he was coy about the identity of the person who intended to go over the falls. On October 8, he finally revealed it was an ex-schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor. She would make the attempt on October 23—unbeknownst to reporters, the day before her 63rd birthday. The interest was predictably high.
Two days before her scheduled voyage, Taylor found a "volunteer" to test the barrel—her aptly named cat, Niagara. The feline was sealed in the makeshift vessel and sent tumbling over the falls and 177 feet to the river below, where he was retrieved and seemed no worse for the wear.
Of course, a cat was hardly a proof of concept for the survival chances of a 60-something, full-grown woman. Soon, it would be time for Taylor to climb in.
The boatmen who eyed the choppy waters on October 23 and vetoed her first attempt returned the following day and gave their approval: They’d be willing to get into a rowboat and tow Taylor’s barrel into the middle of the Niagara River, where it would float before being picked up by the strong current near the mouth of the falls, toppling over and—hopefully—coming to rest in the lower river below.
In an effort to preserve her modesty, Taylor excused herself and put on a dress more conducive to risking her life—one that ended just under the knees instead of hanging down to her ankles. Her team helped her into the barrel, strapping her into the harness and stuffing the interior with pillows for cushioning before sealing the top shut.
With a crowd of several thousand witnesses gathered below, Taylor was towed out about a mile from the brink and left to fate. The barrel bobbed gently along the river before the force of the falls enveloped it. Accelerating, Taylor didn’t so much go over the falls as she was ejected from it, being propelled forcefully from the mouth and free-falling to the water below.
After a pause, the barrel emerged bobbing in the lower river, and handlers paddled over to it. The barrel was sealed so tight that a worker had to use a hand saw to cut the top off. Peering inside, someone exclaimed, "My God, she’s alive!" A shaken Taylor was helped out, the only visible damage a 3-inch gash on her scalp. (Having later admitted she lost consciousness for a brief time, it’s likely Taylor suffered a concussion.) The stunt made national headlines, which is precisely what Taylor anticipated.
But the expected windfall never came. Russell, who she believed would be instrumental in helping her monetize the stunt, disappeared with the barrel, a key prop in any public setting. Despite hiring private investigators to track its whereabouts, she never located it.
Relegated to selling 10-cent booklets about her experience or charging small fees for photos and appearances, Taylor had risked her life for relatively little reward. She died in 1921 at the age of 82 with so little money that her burial in Niagara, New York was funded as a result of donations.
Despite Taylor’s admonition after going over the falls that "no one ought to ever do that again," several people have tried. Between Taylor’s attempt and 1995, 15 people did so intentionally: 10 survived, an attrition rate that made her attempt all the more spectacular.
Although fortune eluded her, Taylor was right about the stunt attracting fame. She will forever be known as the first daredevil with the stomach and aptitude to have survived the drop—or the second, if you count her cat.