Daredevil stunts are as old as time. Whether it is to satisfy the urge to do something unique in life, to prove your bravery or just to seek excitement, dangerous stunts have been attempted throughout history.
The tendency of a person to challenge their abilities and push their boundaries to the point of staring death in the face, only to come back, is a powerful spectacle. Many people have lived life on the edge, and for many the lifestyle has ended with their death.
However, sometimes “the edge” is very real, and in this one instance, someone was able to go beyond the limit and survive, all for a shot at fame and fortune. This is the story of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive perhaps the most famous waterfall in the world: Niagara Falls.
Who was Annie Edson Taylor?
Annie Edson Taylor was hardly a stuntwoman. An obscure, 63-year-old who had shown no proclivities for danger, she lived a simple life. However all that changed in 1901, the year of her fateful decision to do something bold.
Many people had previously gone to the Niagra Falls to commit suicide, and it had a reputation as deadly to any who fell in the river above the falls. Annie, however, was determined to pass through the falls and live.
She had lived a very comfortable life from childhood, and even received a considerable sum of inheritance to her name after her father’s death when she was merely 12. Taking up the profession of teaching, often a very profitable and comfortable profession for women in the 19th century, she should have been set for life.
On her journey to become a teacher, she met David Taylor and fell in love. The couple married and had a son. However, unfortunately, the couple lost the child when he was just an infant. David Taylor’s life also proved to be a very short one as he died soon after.
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Now a widow and a childless woman, all alone in the world, Annie Edson Taylor continued her profession of teaching and traveled throughout the country. Her profession of teaching continued for a long time as she worked as a teacher till sixty years of age.
However, as the years mounted Annie Taylor realized that she was becoming old. She knew that retirement was fast approaching. She also knew that her salary and savings were not enough for her retirement costs. She wanted to make enough money so that she could retire comfortably, but only had a short time to do so.
When she was reading the Pan American Exposition one fine morning in 1901, inspiration struck and she saw a way to finance a comfortable retirement, or die in the attempt. She was inspired to go over Niagra Falls in a closed barrel.
But Why A Barrel?
Knowing her stunt would be a public event, Annie thought that the crowd would be astonished by such a dangerous, never seen before stunt on the Niagra Falls. And for Annie, the larger the crowd, the more the chances of making money. She thought that this unique stunt in front of a large crowd at one of the most famous spots in the world could bring riches and fame to her before she retired.
It might be that because Annie was a lone woman and had no family who relied on her that such an idea came to her mind. Moreover, she was more than sixty years old. She might have felt that she had seen enough days to jeopardize her life the way she did with the stunt. Her fear for life must have been very low for her to even consider such an option.
Although the stunt was never seen before and was a gamble, the headstrong woman put a lot of thought into the execution of the stunt, and this planning and careful execution may have been what saved her. She not only put a lot of thought into the execution of the plan but also into the marketing strategy before the stunt.
Annie Taylor hired publicists and promoters to widely advertise her plan, and to ensure a large crowd. This ensured that there was indeed many onlookers when Annie finally showed up on the day: this was not the sort of thing one does in private.
The Road to Niagra Falls
Using her intelligence and determination, Annie designed a special barrel for the stunt and also supervised its construction at a local cooper shop. The special barrel was tapered at the ends and rectangular, so that it could comfortably hold a person. The barrel also had an anvil at the bottom, which acted as ballast to keep the barrel upright.
The inside of the barrel was well padded so that the person inside was well protected. There was a harness that kept Annie in place, also intended to minimize injuries from the fall. Because of the specially designed barrel, the chances of survival were better.
Moreover, Annie made sure that her plan was foolproof. Days before the actual stunt, she ran a test stunt with the barrel and a live cat. The cat came out of the test run alive and with only a few injuries, giving Annie confidence that she could survive the fall.
On her 63rd birthday, Annie climbed into the barrel from a rowboat above the falls. Thousands of witnesses gathered to see this incredible stunt performed by an old woman, waiting to see if her birthday was also to be the day of her death.
She was secured into the barrel, and additional air was pumped into it so that she was able to breathe whilst the barrel was sealed for her journey over the falls. Then, with everything in place, the barrel was set adrift on the river at 4:05 PM on 24 October 1901. Picking up speed, the barrel was seen to shoot over the edge of the waterfall, before being lost in the tumult of the water.
The audience waited in anticipation before the barrel re-emerged at the foot of the falls, miraculously in one piece. However, once the barrel had been confirmed to have survived it was still a difficult process to retrieve it, and Annie remained trapped inside for 90 minutes before the lid was levered off.
Miraculously, Annie was alive and well inside with only minor injuries near her ear and to her limbs. She had one message for the onlookers: nobody should ever try such a thing again.
Sadly, Annie Edson Taylor never received the riches she hoped for as a result of her stunt, dying aged 82 in poverty. She was buried in a cemetery nearby Niagara Falls, forever watching over the location of one of the greatest stunts ever successfully completed.
Top Image: The 63-year-ols Annie Edson Taylor and her Niagara Falls barrel. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri