Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Women of Wednesday - Annie Edson Taylor

Picture it. Niagara Falls, October 24, 1901.

The Niagara sparkles with sunlight and the trees, ablaze in red and gold, line the bank. The air is crisp, and the breeze coming off the river is cool and damp. In the distance, the falls roar as the river plunges 174 feet to the river below. A small group of people stand at the edge of the river by a small rowboat just south of Goat Island. One of them is an elderly woman. Her name is Annie Edson Taylor and today is her birthday. Today, October 24, 1901, she has just turned sixty-three years old, and for her birthday she has come to the falls.

But Annie isn't like most sightseers. Annie is here to do more than look. As her friends climb into the boat, Annie waits for them to roll a barrel from the boat into the water, and that is where Annie climbs - into the barrel - with her lucky heart-shaped pillow clasped to her breast. Her friends screw down the lid and, with a bicycle pump, they push compressed air into a hole in the barrel. When they finish, they stuff a cork into it and shove the barrel - and Annie - off into the river to let it take her where it will.

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What in the world would make a person do this? What would make them do it at sixty-three?

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Annie was born in 1938 in Auburn, New York. Her father owned a flour mill, and when he died, he left his family - eight children and his wife - enough to live comfortably. Annie grew up and went off to teacher's college and met her husband, David Taylor. They married and had a son who died while still a baby. David went off to fight in the Civil War, and it wasn't long before Annie learned she had become a widow. But David did not leave her as well off as her father had left her mother. Annie had to find a job.

Annie moved from here, to there, and everywhere, trying to earn a living. She went to Bay City, Michigan and opened her own dance studio. She taught music in Sault Ste. Marie. As the years rolled by, she ventured as far as Texas and then decided to go even further to Mexico. She convinced a friend to go with her, certain they would find work across the border.

They didn't.

Annie ended up back in Bay City, and all her traveling says to me is that she wasn't a quitter, and she had an adventurous spirit. But it also says that while she knew she had to earn a living, she wanted to make it in the quickest, easiest way possible. Annie, in my opinion, was never going to end up working a 9-5 job for forty years.

As she started getting on in age, she began to wonder about her retirement. Eventually, she wouldn't be able to work. All her jobs had provided her with enough to live on, but they hadn't provided the means to support her in her old age. What was she going to do?

Well, of course, the answer was obvious.

Annie would go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She would be the first person to ever do it. She would gain fame and notoriety and her future would be assured. She went about having a barrel made.

Annie's barrel was made especially for her. It was made of oak and iron and was padded inside with a mattress. But Annie was no fool. She wasn't about to attempt the stunt without trying it out first. She stuffed a cat into the barrel and pushed him over the falls. Both the barrel and the cat survived. That was all Annie needed to know. She was on her way.

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So there she is, stuffed in her barrel, huddled in the dark with her lucky heart-shaped pillow clutched to her breast, inhaling breath after breath of compressed air as the barrel drifts slowly downstream. You might imagine her thinking about whether or not she'll come out of that barrel alive. You might imagine her thinking about what a fool-stupid thing she had done. I imagine her thinking of all the money she is going to make at speaking engagements.

And so, the barrel drifts and the minutes pass, and who knows what Annie is really thinking. And now she hears the roar of the falls and she knows the drop is coming. She prepares herself for the plunge, and still, the barrel drifts. She waits, and she drifts, and she waits, and she drifts, and she wonders when the heck it will happ . . . .

And down she goes, the barrel toppling over and over as it slides and skitters and ricochets off the surging foam. It hits the river hard and Annie's head smashes against the barrel before she's slammed down, and then the rushing falls hit the barrel and shoot it out into the middle of the river like a pea through a straw while Annie is banged and bumped and banged some more until the barrel finally settles down and drifts . . . and drifts . . . and the rescuers arrive and pull the barrel to the bank.

They pry off the lid and look inside, and there's Annie, more shook up than she's ever been. They help her out of the barrel and discover she is totally unharmed except for a small gash on her head. Later, when she's had time to recover from the event, they ask her what is was like, what did she feel, was it as thrilling as she thought it would be? And Annie replies --

"If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat . . . . 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 Fall."

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Annie did earn a bit of money from speaking engagements, but it was never as much as she imagined it might be. She spent the rest of her life living as she had always lived once becoming a widow - looking for a way to make a fast buck. She had lots of ideas, like writing a book, or perhaps she'd go over the falls a second time. What she actually did was to pose with tourists in souvenir pictures, and when that dried up, she became a clairvoyent.

So, was she really a daredevil, or just a woman looking for an easy retirement? And was the ride over the falls as bad as she said, or was she just trying to scare others off, so she could be the only one who had ever done it? Whatever her reasons, she was the first to do it. And she not only did it, she survived it, which can't be said of many others who tried.

But then, of course, they didn't go over with her lucky heart-shaped pillow.

To read about some of the others who went over the falls, successfully and unsuccessfully, click here.


Mur said...

Barb, I'm still laughing! Thanks for sharing this story.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Well, of course, the answer WAS obvious. And poor Chuck -- that had to hurt . . .


Diane Mayr said...

I remembered writing a "15 words or less" poem for Laura Salas' blog about a women who went over the falls
So, I looked it up and found that I had written this on July 4, 2008:


Happy birthday!
a barrel
Annie throws
at the effervescent
of God.

---Diane Mayr

[Annie Taylor, in 1901, was the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and, she did it on her 46th birthday!]

It looks like I had her age wrong! Thanks for reminding me about this crazy-ass women!

Andy said...

Love it, Barb!

Sally said...

Great story, and wonderfully told - thanks Barb!