On October 24, 1901, Annie Edison Taylor strapped herself into a barrel, traveled down Niagara Falls and lived to tell the tale. With her sights set on fame and fortune, the 63-year-old teacher was the first person –and woman – to go over the falls in a barrel and survive. She staged her daredevil stunt to make money for retirement and celebrate her 63rd birthday. Known as the “Queen of the Mist,” she was successful in inspiring a steady stream of copycats through the years and proving that you can accomplish anything at any age.
Born Annie Edson on October 24, 1838, her family was wealthy thanks to her father’s flourmill business. However, in the first of many family tragedies that she would face in her lifetime, her father died when she was 12 years old. Taylor met her husband, David, when she was 18 and studying to be a teacher. The couple had a son who tragically died a few days after childbirth and then Taylor’s husband died in a Civil War battle in 1864. Although she had a family inheritance, that began to dwindle and her husband’s death left her strapped for cash. She traveled around the United States looking for jobs to regain financial stability. Despite various jobs, including opening up a dance studio in Bay City, MI in the late 1890s, Taylor was nearly destitute in her early sixties. She feared that she would be sent to the poorhouse for her retirement years. That’s when she hatched her “get rich quick or die trying” scheme. She read in a newspaper that the Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair, would be headquartered in Buffalo, NY from May to November 1901. Recognizing that the exposition would draw a huge crowd, Taylor planned her death-defying feat at the nearby Niagara Falls.
After reading about adventurous individuals who had ridden the whirlpool rapids at the base of Niagara Falls, she decided to one up these daredevils – she would go over the falls strapped inside a barrel. After designing and creating a custom-made pickle barrel made of oak and iron that weighed 160 pounds padded with a mattress, with a 200 pound anvil at the bottom to keep her upright, she first tested it out with her cat. Her pet survived the trip unscathed. So,on her 63rd birthday, she climbed into the barrel and 20 minutes later she emerged dazed but alive at the bottom of the 167-foot high falls. Her first words were, “I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I went unconscious.” She also warned against anyone else from attempting the harrowing stunt.
Despite Taylor made it through her stunt alive, her profits failed to roll in as she much as she had hoped. For one, her manager took off with the famous barrel. In fact, the money that she did make after her stunt was spent on private investigators hired to hunt down the stolen barrel. It was never recovered. When she died at 83 years old in 1921, Taylor was impoverished. She was buried in a section of Niagara Falls cemetery next to her fellow infamous “stunters.”
Although Taylor was unable to profit as she planned, her successful 1901 plunge was empowering in a time when women were several decades away from suffrage. Her resourcefulness in the face of tragedy and poverty is an inspiration, although this Niagara Falls trick is not condoned. In fact, it is illegal to even attempt to go over the falls. Although there have been copycats, it is still illegal (and extremely dangerous) to go over Niagara Falls, whatever your mode of transportation.