Woman of wonderful nerve

A version of this article appeared in History Magazine.

Annie Edson Taylor was a liar.  She lopped decades off her age, misrepresented her qualifications to teach high school, and alluded to high adventures that never happened. Her scant, eight-page memoir includes yarns about burglars with chloroform and highway robbers. But one thing about Taylor is beyond doubt: on October 24, 1901, this plump 63-year-old widow rode over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls in an oak barrel.  She was the first to attempt the stunt and the first to survive.

As early as 1827 promoters were already exploiting the drama of North America’s most dramatic waterway. That year, local hoteliers sent a schooner over Horseshoe Falls, loaded with live animals.  The hapless menagerie included a buffalo, a pair of small bears, two raccoons, and a tethered eagle.  The bears had the good sense to abandon ship and swim to safety.  The other animals were swept over the brink.  A single goose survived.

Jean Francois Gravelet—The Great Blondin—was the first to traverse Niagara Gorge on a tightrope.  On June 30th, 1859, he crossed 160 feet above the water from the US to the Canadian shore.  Over the next fifteen months he preformed the stunt many times, adding various embellishments.  On one occasion he crossed the rope on stilts.  On another he paused in the middle to cook and eat an omelet.

In 1883, Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, attempted to swim from the downriver side of the falls, through the Whirlpool and the Devil’s Hole rapids. Thousands of spectators watched Webb vanish into the Whirlpool. His body was not seen again for four days.

Carlile Graham, an English cooper, was the first to attempt a barrel stunt at Niagra in 1886.  Like Webb, he began downriver of Horseshoe Falls in an oak-and-iron cask.  He survived the trip through the Whirlpool and rapids and repeated the feat several times, once accompanied by a lady friend.  Graham spoke of someday riding his barrel over the Horseshoe, which stands a sheer 167 feet, but such a stunt seemed certain suicide, and Graham never made the attempt. 

On September 6, 1901, a tipsy vaudeville dancer named Martha Wagenfuhrer rode Graham’s barrel along the same route and became the first woman to perform the stunt solo.  The following day, her companion, Maud Willard, also attempted the feat.  This time the barrel was caught in the Whirlpool for several hours.  When it was finally retrieved, Willard had suffocated.  The fox terrier she had brought along for luck had apparently plugged the only air hole with its nose.  The dog survived.

Enter Annie Edson Taylor, easily the most unlikely, and most fearless, of Niagara’s daredevils.

A month after Maud Willard’s death in the Whirlpool, a front-page story in The Niagara Falls Gazette announced that Mrs. Edson Taylor of Auburn, NY, under the management of event-promoter F. M. Russell, would ride over Horseshoe Falls in an oak cask. Articles planted on ensuing days, announced her promoter’s arrival in town, the barrel’s arrival, and, finally the arrival of the woman, herself. 

Taylor insisted that the barrel she would use was built from her own design.  The cooper, she claimed, at first demurred, but Taylor was insistent.  “He finally consented and I told him exactly what to do,” she told The Cataract Times.  “I stood there all the time and watched him. I had him oil each stave many times.” The drum’s interior was padded and furnished with a leather harness. The bottom barrelhead was fitted with an anvil to keep it upright.  A built-in valve in the upper barrelhead allowed air to be compressed inside using a bicycle pump.  “I have counted the number of respirations per minute,” Taylor told reporters. “I’ve an hour to elapse before I am rescued.”

Taylor’s chances of survival were impossible to calculate; there was no precedent.  In the days leading up to her attempt, the barrel was tested using a cat, but—Schrödingerlike—reports have the cat both alive and dead at the end of the ordeal. Local police threatened to arrest her for attempting suicide if she continued with her plan, but with requisite flair her manager presented letters absolving everyone (including himself) from culpability should his client be killed.

The date advertised for the stunt fell on a Wednesday, but choppy weather forced a one-day postponement.  The next morning dawned clear and windless. By the afternoon, between 20,000 and 50,000 spectators crowded the US and Canadian banks of the river. 

At 2:23, a small fleet of rowboats carried Taylor out to Grass Island. There, hidden by reeds from the men-folk, she removed her outer garments and climbed into her barrel.  She directed her assistants to caulk the cracks of light that showed between the staves until she was in complete darkness.  Once the barrel was prepared to her satisfaction, two rowboats towed her to the middle of the river, far enough upstream that her assistants were in no danger of getting caught in the current.  

Taylor’s chances of survival were impossible to calculate; there was no precedent.  In the days leading up to her attempt, the barrel was tested using a cat, but—Schrödinger like—reports have the cat both alive and dead at the end of the ordeal. 

At 4:05 pm, they cut the barrel loose. 

For nearly twenty minutes the current pulled Taylor blindly along.  Cramped in her barrel, she had no idea how close she might be to The Horseshoe—largest of Niagara’s three falls—

When the plunge came, it was “absolute horror.” But the moments following the drop were even more terrifying.  “The barrel was whirled like a dasher in a churn,” Taylor recalled in her memoir,  “…and thrown violently about, at the same time turned around and around with the greatest velocity, struck on the rocks, and each moment water was forcing itself in at the point where the anvil at the bottom had been imperfectly put on.”

Nearly twenty minutes after the plunge, the barrel was finally secured, and a shaken Taylor was helped into daylight.  Her only injury was a laceration on the right side of her head.

Taylor was an immediate national sensation.  The next day’s Niagara Falls Gazette called her a “woman of wonderful nerve.”

“All former feats at Niagara Falls pale into insignificance in comparison with that accomplished yesterday,” the article raved. “…[T]he world stands aghast at the intrepidity displayed by this woman.”

The New York Times ran a front-page story in the center column above the fold: WOMAN GOES OVER NIAGARA IN A BARREL. TheLos Angeles Times hailed it as a “feat never before accomplished and, indeed, never attempted except in the deliberate commission of suicide.”

As for her assessment of the experience, Taylor told TheChicago Daily Tribune, “I would rather face a cannon, knowing that I would be blown to pieces, than to go over the falls again.”

Taylor was immediately inundated with offers for paid engagement: lecture series, public appearances, and carnival tours—even some marriage proposals.  But within a few days, Taylor was already taking issue with the way her manager was running things.  She was soon insulting Russell in the newspapers, even though a mere nine days after her stunt, she was invited to headline “Farewell Day” at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo.

At that Expo, Taylor sat smiling and nodding, rarely speaking to those who had stood in line to meet her her. "Mrs. Taylor looks fully the 43 years that she admits,” TheBuffalo Evening News observed wryly.  “She has the appearance of a woman who has just risen from a sick bed. The cold air seemed to bother her and once or twice she was compelled to leave her receiving stand, to retire behind the big organ in the Temple of Music and get warm by the fires that are always going there.”

Taylor told TheChicago Daily Tribune, “I would rather face a cannon, knowing that I would be blown to pieces, than to go over the falls again.”

In the weeks that followed, Taylor argued with Russell over the quality of bookings and the payment of accomplices.  There were skirmishes over who should be in charge of the barrel’s safekeeping—an object Taylor considered integral to her personal appearances.  Within weeks her relationship with Russell was rent.

In a spring 1902 letter to the manager of the Lyceum Theater, Taylor, desperate for money, lays the blame for her lack of popularity squarely on Russell: “His villainous temper, worse grammar and spelling disgusted all those with whom he attempted to do business.”  The letter continues: “We returned to Cincinnati but could get no booking.  I think it was because the Wagenfuhrer woman had imposed on the public.”

The Wagenfuhrer woman had indeed “imposed on the public.”  Martha Wagenfuhrer was the woman who had ridden Graham’s barrel through the rapids less than eight weeks before Taylor’s much more spectacular feat.  But Wagenfuhrer had the advantage of being young and attractive, and, as a vaudevillian, she had a brassy stage presence that Taylor couldn’t hope to replicate.  Taylor tended to dress like a dour schoolmarm and ramble through her speaking engagements in a monotone.  Her audiences were unreceptive and less than kind.

According to Charles Parish’s Queen of the Mist, a frustrated F. M. Russell—fired by his unbookable client—signed on as Wagenfuhrer’s manager.  Before long they were touring the Midwest displaying Taylor’s own barrel. A souvenir postcard from the era shows a young, rakish Wagenfuhrer sitting, leaning against a barrel with her arms crossed. On the verso is a bold-print headline: OVER NIAGARA FALLS IN A BARREL.

Dispossessed of her famous barrel, Taylor was forced to commission a replica.  In the spring of 1902, she signed with a new publicist, but few offers came her way, and she quickly faded into bitter obscurity. 

In a 1910 letter to the Niagara Falls Gazette Taylor wrote:  

   If possible leave my name out of all reference to Niagara stunts.  I do not want my name dragged in the mire in connection with any person or persons who are going to do Niagara or take the world by storm….

   I have no antipathy toward anyone.  I have suffered, therefore, ask your paper to leave me alone.

For almost twenty years after her incredible feat, a disaffected and all-but-forgotten Taylor lived in Niagara, hawking miniature souvenir barrels and selling her dime memoirs to tourists.  Near the end of her life she took up quack medical treatments and offered clairvoyant readings to eke out a living.

On March 4, 1921, Annie Edson Taylor, blind, broke and ailing, was admitted to the Niagara County Infirmary, where she died on April 30th.

Seven years after Taylor’s death, the following piece appeared in the Buffalo Express:

Twenty-seven years ago today the Maid of Niagara, Martha Wagenfuhrer, went over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and now, as Mrs. Dennis Gallagher, wife of the world’s former mixed wrestling champion, she is operating a small hotel at Sylvan Beach, New York.  She is writing a book dealing with her experiences in going over the falls.  She has written to Edward Noonan, owner of the Niagara Falls Museum, where the barrel she used to go over the Horseshoe Falls is now on exhibit….

PAUL BUCHANAN lives and writes in Southern California.

The talented Mr. Shrdlu

Today he is all but forgotten, but there was a time when Etaoin Shrdlu showed up daily in newspapers across the US. His name most often appeared in the dense columns of classified ads or the business listings, but it also popped up in stories about political intrigue, society soirees and gruesome crimes. In 1922, The Lawrence Daily Journal identified Shrdlu as a railroad union kingpin. Three years later, TheChicago Daily Tribune listed him as a boy soprano at a major music festival. In 1929 The Newark Advocate referred to Shrdlu as the US Ambassador to Germany.

The breadth of Shrdlu’s athleticism, alone, would have impressed any attentive reader. He was a jock of all trades. The Pampa News had him playing football for Yale. The Bakersfield Californian listed him among promising heavyweight boxers. The San Antonio Express lauded his local dominance in ten-pin bowling. According to the Washington Post, Mr. Shrdlu umpired the Midget Sandlot title game of 1923.

Despite his sundry gifts, Shrdlu had his demons. The Rolfe Arrow was “reliably informed” that Etaoin Shrdlu held the office of Klaliff in the local KKK. The New York Times associated him with series of brutal Klan beatings in Tulsa. The Washington Post named him in an article about a schoolgirl’s kidnapping in 1926. Three years later, the New York World dropped his name in a piece about “secret debauchery” in Washington, DC. For the better part of a century readers were presented with—and baffled by—Etaoin Shrdlu’s oft-reported exploits.

But the name wasn’t actually a name at all. It was purposeful gibberish that came about because of the invention of the linotype machine, a method of “hot metal” typesetting that revolutionized the newspaper industry in the late 19th Century.

This new technology allowed typesetters to assemble complete lines of type[1] at once, rather than composing them, letter-by-letter, out of precast fonts. By punching the keys of the linotype machine, an operator could cast a horizontal slug of type in a lead-based alloy. The slug could be used and then melted down and reset again and again. With this streamlined process, daily newspapers could expand beyond eight pages for the first time.

The typical linotype keyboard had 90 keys—which allowed upper- and lower-case letters, numerals, punctuation marks and an assortment of symbols. When an operator made a mistake in composing a line, he or she would complete the slug and mark it for discarding, usually by running one finger down the first two columns of keys. This would create the nonsense words etaoin shrdlu—a set of letters that would be easy for a proofreader to spot and discard before the page went to print.

But with the time pressures of printing a daily, the nonsense letters often slipped through to the print edition—and the baffling name Etaoin Shrdlu would be muttered over breakfast grapefruit halves from Coronado to Kennebunk.

The name became an inside joke in the newspaper trade, which only bewildered readers more. Shrdlu became a character in short stories, novels and plays. Etaoin Shrdlu was a recurring bookish character in Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip. Frank Colby’s grammar column “Take My Word for It” often cited his erudite assistant Dr. Etaoin Shrdlu as the final authority in all matters linguistic. A Chicago Daily Tribune humorist endorsed “the Hon. Etaoin Shrdlu” as a candidate for mayor in 1931, based, in part, on Shrdlu’s call for “bigger and better unemployment.”

But Shrdlu was a running joke that technology soon outran. The linotype gave way to offset printing. That, in turn, was supplanted by digital typesetting. In this age of new media and dying dailies, Shrdlu’s name is as archaic as newsprint slapping concrete in the steely morning hours.

In August 1974, Etaoin Shrdlu made his final appearance in the pages of TheLos Angeles Times. His name popped up in a classified ad about a “picture perfect story book” bungalow for sale in Woodland Hills. That’s where I like to imagine him living still: It is late afternoon and an ancient Mr. Shrdlu hobbles—stoop-shouldered and silver haired—across his “super new plush carpet,” out to his back deck “shaded by huge pine trees.” He looks wistfully down at the traffic snaking along Ventura Boulevard between the billboards and mini malls. He stands a moment leaning on the rail and remembering those long forgotten days when his name was as ubiquitous as Ovaltine. Then he sighs and goes back inside to tweet about it.

[1] “Line o' type,” get it?

PAUL BUCHANAN still reads an actual newspaper, though he skips the business section

pink mist

The people at the St. Catherine’s Military Academy Civil War Re-enactment are a breed apart. Like other weekend warriors, they still spend a ton of money and vast amounts of time on their hobby, but the majority of their day is spent just hanging out talking to people. They refer to this as “living history,” mimicking the fashions of the time and learning a narrative to relate to onlookers.

An observer who just walked around looking at stuff on this day could be forgiven for thinking that the whole enterprise is sort of, well, lame. Being a young man raised twenty minutes from Disneyland, I’m used to my Americana having some spectacle, dammit. At least some Eco-style hyperreality, so that I can marvel at the painstaking attention to detail and feel immersed in the environment. Any ghost town or Williamsburg worth its salt can at least conjure up some gosh-wow moments.

Not so here. The Union camp is in a nice grotto-ish area, but the Confederate camp is right smack on Ball road, a thoroughfare in the heart of downtown Anaheim. The “battlefield” is just the school’s football field made sadder by the few pitiful attempts to decorate it—15 fifteen feet of wooden fence that separates nothing from anything and arbitrarily peters out onto the well-kept grass. Adding to the semiotically confusing atmosphere are the St. Catherine’s students who range K through 8, and are dressed in full military uniforms. My brother attended St. Catherine’s when he was a boy—dressing every morning in white underwear and white tank-top with black sock garters, he resembled a twelve-year old Walter Matthau[1].

The battle itself is deeply shitty. Once it commences, the twenty or so warriors on either side fire their no-doubt expensive weapons at each other and then pause to reload. It is here that an interesting phenomenon makes itself apparent. Each of these re-enactors has spent a lot of money on their authentic replica weapons, and they probably don’t get to shoot them more than a few times a year, with the result that none of the soldiers want to pretend to die first and lose opportunities to fire their guns. Thus, for the first few minutes of battle, we all watch these grown men shoot at each other thirty yards apart, then reload and fire again while steadfastly refusing to die. Finally, one of them, a Confederate, I believe, had the good grace to curl up spooning his flintlock. The ice broken, soldiers began dying as the Confederates slowly advanced.

Cannons shoot every so often, and these are not in any way shitty. The boom reverberates off the wall behind me, creating an odd phasing effect where I hear the blast from two directions almost but not quite simultaneously. They also set off the alarms of several cars that are in the general vicinity. 

After the battle, I decide to flex my journalistic cred and get myself some interviews. Never one to be cowed by high offices, my first interview is with the tall man, Honest Abe himself.

The re-enactor who plays Lincoln had just recited the Gettysburg Address into a terrible microphone, inadvertently recreating the speech’s original conditions (I assume) in the sense that no one in the back could hear a damn word he said.

I patiently wait for some kids to finish talking to the President, and I outflank him before he can get away. The interview proves a disappointment. When I ask what his favorite part of doing re-enactments is, he says, ““Oh, ‘s’fun. Kids.” Sensing an unfruitful avenue, I excuse myself, but not before mentally noting that his fake Lincoln mole looks like Silly Putty.

As I conduct these interviews, I notice an interesting trend. Everyone wants to talk, and they answer my questions as best they can, but on some level they’re uncomfortable. I realize it is because they are not quite sure whether they are supposed to answer as 21st century people doing re-enactments or if they are supposed to stay in character. Perhaps out of sheer cussedness, I bounce back and forth between addressing them as modern people and as nineteenth century soldiers. This is maybe not the best approach, as I find when I interview ol’ U.S. Grant.

One of the things I wonder about consistently is how one advances among the ranks of the re-enactors—how do you get to be Lincoln or Grant and so on. When I ask Grant about it, it’s clear that he’s not just enthusiastic, he’s genuinely passionate, which is a word that gets thrown about a lot, so I invite you to think about for a second longer than you might normally be inclined to. He is passionate about knowing about Grant and acting as Grant. He tells me that he put in his dues, and when the former Grant retired, he jumped at the opportunity. Perhaps it is because he portrays such a high-level person, but Grant does not seem as eager to teach the way the other re-enactors are. He seems content to just walk around smoking his cigarillo and being an undeniable bad-ass.

My interview with Grant takes a turn south. He seems like an intelligent chap (and he is), and so I think I can coax some humorous answers out of him. (I should have been clued in by the fact that he smoked his cigarillo without compunction among children and journalists alike that he was not exactly the joking sort.) It is around noon when I cheekily ask him how many whiskeys he’s had that day and he tersely informs me that Grant’s drinking problem had resolved itself by the time of the war[2].

I move to the Confederate camp. To think about the kind of person who willingly joins the losing/racist side is not as interesting as it may seem. For one, the re-enactments simply can’t happen without them. There is also not a single racist among the lot, insofar as my journalistic eye is able to discern them (racists). One reason for joining the Confederacy way well be that their facial hair is simply way pimper than anything the Union is able to muster. When I talk to a young Confederate in his late teens, I ask him why he chose to join up with the South. He explains that you usually join whatever side your ancestors fought for. He doesn’t have any ancestors who fought, and says that he was fascinated by the Confederacy and the fact that it was a country that existed for such a brief stretch of time. I look at him to determine if he’s secretly a racist and my keen eye tells me he’s cool. 

One of my friends is too shy to ask a Custer-looking fellow to shoot her, and so I ask on her behalf. He politely declines, stating that there are very strict rules that govern their firearms and that, even without a ball in the chamber, the rifle is still fatal to a distance of six feet[3].

Earlier I mentioned that an observer could be forgiven for thinking the re-enactment is lame. That only remains true as long as one doesn’t talk to anybody. These men and women are way better than the History Channel. Aside from their depth of knowledge, these people are more passionate about education than any group I’ve ever seen before. One thing they seem intent on getting across is the horrible human tragedy of the war. Though World War I was the first truly modern war, it had its near predecessor in the Civil War in terms of its mechanized waste of life.

At the Confederate weapons table, one fellow walks me through the various shots one could put in a cannon. One of the shots is essentially a cannon-sized shotgun charge that would turn the advancing army into “pink mist,” in the words of one old-timer. All that would be left when the mist cleared would be some boots and tattered clothing and fragments of corpse. 

Though the St. Catherine’s Civil War Re-enactment has its share of oddities[4], the thing that will stick with me most is the story that a historian tells just before the battle starts. The battle is notable because it’s the only one that had child combatants. The boys were only supposed to be there to provide aid to the Confederate troops, fetching them supplies and so forth, but then the battle started to not go so well. The commanding officer, bereft of options, ordered: “Send in the boys, and may God forgive me.” They won the battle, but not without the loss of several boys who died for a country that wouldn’t even be around in a few years’ time.

[1] The presence of young people at all here is kind of weird. There are several young people involved in the re-enactment, including an apparently-romantic couple who must have interesting dates. My friend tells me he once knew a whole family of re-enactors including a girl who was brought down to the family garage on her sixteenth birthday where her father proudly revealed her present: a working cannon.

[2] I should mention that I addressed the question to “Grant” and he responded as the actor playing him. (Not to mention the fact that I later found over two internet sources contradicting his claim but ANYWAY…) Come on, general, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

[3] This guy is clearly a hit and usually has a crowd around him. One of the interesting factoids he drops on us is about his cavalry saber. He explains that you want the saber to be sharp enough to penetrate flesh and muscle, but not sharp enough to cut bone, as it can get stuck in the bone and take you off your horse. You want it to smash the bone, so that it takes the injured fellow out of the battle as well as his two friends who have to pull him off the field. It’s a debilitating weapon and not a killing weapon. If the saber kills him, then that’s only one person out of the fight as opposed to three.

[4] Another of my favorite characters was a black vendor in the Union Camp who, when asked how his day was going, responded, “I’m working like Lincoln never freed me.”

GRAHAM TOWERS reads the newspaper for the articles.

You Say Tomato... : The US Supreme Court Rules Against Smarty-Pants

We all have a smarty-pants friend—the one who corrects our grammar and points out the many tiny errors we make in everyday conversation. In my case, his name is Lyle.

Lyle is a Stanford-trained scientist, who, my daughter insists, actually knows everything. (He’s the kind of guy who knows whether I should have used whom, instead of who, in the sentence that precedes this one—and he will be quick to correct me, if he reads this, and I am mistaken.) Lyle, in other words, makes me feel like an idiot.

For years, Lyle and I have been hanging out at a local bar. Here are a few examples of our typical Thursday-night interactions at Antonucci's Lounge:

Me: Have you seen that Arby’s commercial with all the dancing monkeys?

Lyle: Chimpanzees aren’t really monkeys; they’re classified as apes.

Me: (Sotto voce) Your mom’s an ape.

Me: Sure, Kobe’s injured, but the Lakers will take the series irregardless.

Lyle: “Irregardless” isn’t a word.

Me:(Sotto voce) Your mom’s not a word.

Me: So, Jocasta was Oedipus’s wife...

Lyle: Jocsata was his mom.


Okay, we may never have discussed Greek mythology at the bar, but you get the idea: Lyle points out my every grammatical and factual error, and I can only respond with middle-school rejoinders.

This is why I was thrilled to run across Nix v. Hedden, an 1893 case that called upon no lesser authority than the US Supreme Court to determine whether the tomato is, in fact, a fruit or a vegetable. 

Here’s how it happened: The Tariff Act of March 3, 1893, was designed to sharply reduce the costs of various imports to the US, but the law—as it was finally enacted—only reduced tariffs on certain goods and, even then, not by much. One of the Act’s odder repercussions was that imported vegetables continued to be taxed, whereas fruit could be brought into the county free.

Enter John Nix, an importer of, among other things, tomatoes. Nix was being hit with some fairly high taxes on the tomatoes he imported from the West Indies, and he sued Edward L. Hedden, collector of the Port of New York, to recover back duties he had paid under protest. Smarty-pants that he was, Nix insisted that the tomato was a fruit and therefore should enter the US tariff-free.

In the unanimous opinion of the Court, Justice Horace Gray wrote:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

In other words, botanists be damned. In the common language of the people the tomato is a vegetable. The rest of you (he means you, Lyle) need to put away your horticultural textbooks and lighten the hell up.

But this is not, I think, just some restricted and esoteric ruling; this is case precedent. Let it be know that the US Supreme Court is on the side of the average man, of conventional wisdom, of common parlance, and of the grammar of the people. The Court will not tolerate smarty-pants who come to us thumping the OED or shaking the Periodic Table.

Let’s raise our glasses to our highest court’s affirmation of the common sense of the common man. Let tomatoes everywhere be vegetables. Let the Lower Hudson be a river; let spiders be insects; and let poor Pluto, once again, be a planet. 

P J MORKAN is a writer whom lives in Southern California. He enjoys tomatoes, irregardless of what they are.