It was noted little at all, not even here, where the deed was done, but 80 years ago last week Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.
Many earlier stuntmen and women here had tried assorted death-defying feats. The great Blondin, whose real name was Francois Gravelet, had walked over the falls on a tightrope. A few had shot the rapids and whirlpools on barrels and rafts and such. One woman had--for the public becomes so easily jaded--walked a tightrope across Niagara with peach baskets on her feet. But no one, before the sharp autumn day of 1901, had dared Annie's way of braving what one of the newspapers termed "the greatest and most appalling work of nature in the world."
She'd planned it all carefully, too. She found a carriage maker to make a stout barrel with a harness inside. She put a lead weight at the bottom and a pillow for her head. She even, the day, before, tested her barrel by placing a cat inside and giving it the old heave-ho. Not very nice, particularly as the cat died, but, as we will see, Annie was often not a particularly nice person. She lied. She cheated. The stunt, she herself said, was simply to make a buck. So of course she died 20 years later in the county home dead broke.
And yet, as another paper said at the time, there was "something sublime about her daring."
"I will not say goodbye, but au revoir," she said to the thousands who came to see her off, "for I am confident we shall meet again."
After the stunt, although described in the Niagara Falls Gazette as "a trifle hysterical," she likewise gave a fine conference to the press.
"I made the trip voluntarily, but I would not do it again for a million dollars," she said. Also, "I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the falls."
People do such marvelous things these days--parachuting onto or off of the World Trade Center, reading the new John Irving book on the wing of a plane--that it is easy to assume with our fine technology we must have the only word on daredevilry, but this is not so. Niagara Falls, before the turn of the century, served as a magnet for stunters--quite a few of them, the feminists will be pleased to note, female. One Martha E. Wagenfluhrer went through the rapids of Niagara in a barrel the month before Annie's venture. The following day another woman, Maude Willard, forfeited her life when she tried the same.
Nineteen hundred and one was a good year for stunters, owing to the presence of the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, a short trip away.
Into this arena, in late October, came Annie. If you can trust her autobiographical pamphlet--and the people of the Niagara Falls Historical Society caution that Annie liked to exaggerate--she had, even prior to her stunt, led an interesting life. A widow at age 20, she'd survived an earthquake, traveled cross country, been a ladies' companion and dance instructor and taught school. Once, traveling out west by stagecoach, she was attacked by robbers and, according to her account, valiantly resisted their threats.
"Blaze away," she said. "I would as soon be without brains as without funds."
By 1900, when Annie claimed to be 42 and was at least a decade older, she was having hard times. She had been burned out of a home in Chattanooga; she had lost money she had invested with a clergyman. Nor were people willing to help.
"When I was younger and a good deal better looking than I am now, I could make money easier. People are more willing to help a young woman than they are a woman in middle life," wrote Annie of this time in the New York Journal. Nonetheless, she was not prepared to give up.
"Now I am a little proud," she says. "I didn't want to lower my social standard, for I have always associated with the best class of people, the cultured and the refined. To hold my place in the world I must have money, but how to get it?"
The answer came to her one evening while reading the papers. "No one has ever gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It will be fame and fortune or instant death. I resolved firmly from that moment to do it."
She sketched a diagram of the barrel, found the carriage maker to execute the plan. She traveled to Niagara from her home in Bay City, Mich., and, though the town coroner came to warn her against the stunt, went ahead with it. After they took her out of the barrel, she had a cut on her head, and later announced to doctors she thought she might wish to cry, but otherwise seemed all right. "Have I really gone over the falls?" were her first words.
Later on, according to Niagara historian Teresa Lasher, she failed to honor her contract with the carriage maker to go on tour with him and the barrel, hiding out instead in Niagara Falls. Also, in later years, there is evidence she ran a whorehouse and welshed on her coal bills.
She never got rich. Seven years after her stunt she was hawking the story of her life in the streets of Niagara Falls. Twenty years later, she died in the county poorhouse. There was talk of putting her in a pauper's grave, but that never had to happen. Some people in Niagara Falls put up the money for a small pink and white marble tombstone.
They buried her in Stunter's Row, next to the valiant Capt. Mathew Webb, who died in 1883, age 35, after an unsuccesful attempt to swim the rapids, and next to Carlisle Graham, the first man to run the rapids on a raft. Graham, who had helped Annie out of her barrel after her stunt, had been her friend. And on Annie's grave, they wrote a simple epitaph.
"First to go over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel and live--October 24, 1901," it says, listing, interestingly, not the date of her death but the date of her triumph.