Dance with Death: Over Niagara in a Barrel.

The raw, unrelenting power of Niagara Falls. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
The raw, unrelenting power of Niagara Falls. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

IT WAS HER sixty-third birthday, and Annie Edson Taylor had nothing better to do. She would write a book someday, and it would be a best seller, and the whole world would read what she had done, but no one yet knew what she planned to do.

Her’s had not been an easy life. And she was tired of being poor.

Annie Edson Taylor has been a school teacher, but, alas, schools didn’t pay a lot of money for the chore of educating children.

She married young and thought she might have a fleeting chance at happiness.

But her child died.

And so did her husband.

She had too many jobs. She quit too many jobs.

She opened a dance studio, and everybody wanted to dance. No one wanted to pay for the privilege.

Annie Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Annie Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

So Annie found herself wandering too many roads going nowhere and taking their time to get there. That’s when that mysterious moment of brilliance touched her shoulder.

She was living in northern New York at the time and mesmerized by the rushing waters of Niagara Falls. They were an image of beauty, a specter of terror, carved into the American and Canadian landscape back when glaciers dug out the earth during the ice age.

Their power was both breathtaking and frightening. More than six million cubic feet of water tumbled over the falls every single minute.

They were the hands of God.

They were the torrents of nature with raw, unrelenting  power.

The were the sound and the fury.

They were deadly, which is why they appealed so strongly to Annie Edson Taylor.

Her luck was about to change. She could feel it in heart.

Annie knew she had discovered one sure way to stay out of the poorhouse. It was a guaranteed bet.

She would go over Niagara in a barrel.

No one had ever done it before.

She would be rich.

People would buy tickets the world over to hear Annie tell about the day she crawled into a barrel and stared eyeball to eyeball with death. The Reaper had lost.

Fame was good.

Wealth would be better.

Annie had a barrel fashioned from oak and iron, padded with a mattress, and now all she had to do was find someone to assist her daredevil date with destiny.

No one would take the job.

“Why not?” she asked.

“You’re crazy,” they said.

“I’ll be the most talked about woman in America,” she said.

“It’s suicide,” they said.

She was flabbergasted. Then she got angry. She would show the doubters.

Annie Edson Taylor stuck her little cat into the barrel and sent it plummeting over the wild water summit of Horseshoe Falls. It disappeared in six million cubic feet of water.

Poor cat, the crowd said.

Cat’s dead, the crowd said.

Seventeen minutes later, here came the barrel popping to the top of the lake.

The lid was pried off.

The cat crawled out.

Annie Edson Taylor smiled.

Now it was her turn.

Two days later, on October 24, 1901, on her sixty-third birthday, Annie rode a rowboat out to the lake as it was moving steadily just south of Goat Island and on toward the Falls.

The barrel was dropped in the water, and she wedged herself inside, clutching her heart-shaped pillow for good luck. The pillow had been with her for a long time.

She was still looking for luck.

This might be her last chance.

Friends screwed the lid down tight, used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air in the barrel, then plugged the hole with a cork.

The currents grabbed the barrel, and Annie raced toward Horseshoe Falls at breakneck speed, spilling over the crest and plunging for a hundred and seventy-three feet.

It was the beauty.

And the terror.

She was in the hands of God.

No one else was near. Rescuers finally found the barrel in the foamy brine.

Poor Annie, the crowd said.

Annie’s dead, the crowd said.

The lid was pried off.

And Annie crawled out.

She would tell the press: “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.”

Annie hired a manager.

Ticket buyers were lining up.

Riches were on the way.

Everyone wanted to hear about her wild and death-defying ride over and down Niagara Falls.

But the manager, as bad luck would have it, ran off with the funds. He even stole the barrel, and she spent every dollar she made hiring private detectives to track him down. Hell hath no fury like a mad woman scorned.

Annie spent her final years posing for photographs at a little souvenir stand, beside the Falls, working as a clairvoyant, and providing magnetic therapeutic treatments for the sick and afflicted.

She said she was writing a novel.  Such a book would sell. She had no doubt about it. She would be rich after all.

Annie Edson Taylor died penniless.

No words.

No novel.

No manager.

No money.

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