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.