Annie Taylor told the New York Times that she was forty-three, but it was really her sixty-third birthday. Her life had not always been easy, but this would be her last shot at fame and fortune.
Born into a comfortable life, the daughter of a successful flour mill owner, it had all started to fade when her father passed away. Annie got married, but her husband David was killed in the Civil War. She moved to San Antonio. She enrolled in a dance school to become an instructor. She taught dancing in Chattanooga, Birmingham, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, Indianapolis, Syracuse…
As the years passed by, her savings dwindled. Annie dreaded the thought of having to lower her life style to make ends meet. By the time she arrived in Bay City, Michigan, the money was gone, and Annie was so distressed that she contemplated throwing herself into the Saginaw River.
“For a woman who had had money all her life and been used to refined surroundings and the society of cultured people, it is horrible to be poor. . . I was always well dressed, a member and regular attendant of the Episcopal Church… My relatives sent me a certain amount every month, but it got to be begrudgingly given, and I made up my mind I would have no more of it.”
It is out of this mind-set that that Annie hatched her grand scheme. She was reading a news article about the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and the popularity of Niagara Falls. “I laid the paper down, sat thinking, when the thought came to me like a flash of light — ‘Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. No one had ever accomplished this feat.’ ”
Annie wasted no time. The West Bay City Cooperage Company, a supplier of kegs to Kolb Brewery, agreed to design a special barrel. Frank M. “Tussy” Russell, a local promoter of carnivals, agreed to become her manager.
Word went out about her plans and, as she headed out of Bay City, a reporter asked Annie to share her thoughts.
“I might as well be dead as to remain in my present condition.”
Was she contemplating suicide?
“Not by any means, I am too good an Episcopalian to do such a thing as that.”
What put this suicidal idea into your head?
“It is not a suicidal idea with me. I entertain the utmost confidence that I shall succeed in going over the Falls without any harm resulting to me.”
How did she plan on making money for her daring feat?
“My manager knows all about that.”
On October 24, 1901, a small audience gathered upstream of the Horseshoe Falls. Two attendants set the barrel in the river and held it stable while Annie climbed inside. The lid was secured and a bicycle pump pressurized the chamber. The strong currents swept her off on a course towards the roaring falls.
Cramped inside her pitch-black cabin, Annie could see nothing, only feel herself being tossed about, as she nervously listened to the increasingly thunderous roar.
The crowd on shore gasped – They spotted the barrel bobbing above the precipice, and then, at 4:23 PM, it plunged over the lip and into the mist.
Below the falls onlookers from the shorelines searched anxiously for a sighting of the barrel — many just looked for splinters of wood.
Suddenly, the barrel appeared, bobbing in the mist – it was still in one piece! It swept downstream, until the current cast it aside in an eddy. A boat and crew set out and captured the barrel as it cleared the turbulent waters. They reached it at 4:40 PM, grabbing the barrel with their poles and hooks. They had to saw a portion of the top away…..
With shocked disbelief they opened the barrel. “My God, she’s alive!”
Annie had a pretty big cut on her scalp and was shook up and bruised, but she was alive. “I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I went unconscious.”
She was taken down the river to the Maid of the Mist Dock, where she entered a carriage and was brought to her hotel. When reporters asked her about her experience, she made herself clear:
“Nobody ought ever to do that again… 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.”