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The Things We Do for Money: Annie Edson Taylor’s Legendary Barrel Ride

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If you’ve ever been to Niagara Falls and ventured close enough to the Niagara River, it’s easy to see the speed and power with which it moves. It seems like a death trap if anyone were to ride the river over the falls, but tell that to Annie Edson Taylor and she’d laugh in your face if she were still alive today.

Annie Edson Taylor is not a household name, but she is the first person to go over Niagara Falls and live to talk about it. Taylor didn’t grow up living life as a daredevil or with a background you’d expect for someone who decided to go over the falls in a barrel. She was raised in a well-off family and was a teacher for most of her life. After a few personal and financial hardships, she felt her only option to live a comfortable life in retirement was to go over the falls at age 63. That’s right, six-three, sixty-three!

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1. The Personal Road That Led to the Jump

Annie Edson Taylor was born in 1838 and was one of eight children. Her father owned a flour mill in Auburn, NY and was able to provide the family with a comfortable lifestyle. Taylor’s father died when she was 12, but he left enough money for the family to continue living well. Taylor ended up going to school to become a teacher at age 18, meeting her husband, David Taylor, in the process. Life was going pretty well for Taylor early on, but then the dominos started to fall.

After Taylor’s marriage, she birthed a baby boy, but he died just days later. Then the Civil War erupted: David was called for duty. David Taylor never made it back, leaving Annie a widow. After seven years of marriage and now widowed, Taylor had a tough time making ends meet. She bounced around, from New York to Michigan, to Texas, to Mexico City and back to Michigan to find steady work.

As the years passed and retirement approached, Annie found herself with no savings to live off, so she conceived an idea for a one-shot, get-rich-quick stunt that would send her off into the sunset with a full bank account.

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2. Preparation for the Jump

As Taylor made it into her early sixties moving around the country with varying success finding work as a traveling teacher, she hadn’t been able to save enough money to stop working. She was a teacher most of her working life and even tried to open a dance studio during one of her stops in Michigan, but none of her endeavors kept enough money coming in consistently. The trend around the Falls was for people to ride the whirlpool below in a barrel, so Taylor decided to one-up the whirlpool riders with a stunt that would send her over the top of the Falls in a barrel. And to her, this seemed like a fine way to earn her retirement money — going upwards of 68 mph over a 188-foot drop into a 100-foot pool of water surrounded by rocks. What could possibly go wrong?

Taylor didn’t merely hop in the barrel and go over the falls, though. She did some testing before her jump, ultimately designing a barrel approximately 4.5 feet tall by 3 feet wide that gave her just enough room to fit inside along with some padding. A 200-pound anvil was placed at the bottom of the barrel to keep it upright. Now, all she needed was a test subject; she decided her cat would be the best option. Taylor and her team put the cat in the barrel and sent it over the falls. The barrel and cat survived, giving Taylor plenty of hope that, she too, would be fine.

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3. October 24, 1901

As people from all over flocked to Buffalo, NY for the Pan American Exposition, Taylor reasoned it was a good time to jump the falls and capture maximum attention. She decided on her 63rd birthday for the stunt date: October 24, 1901. In front of a few thousand spectators and some reporters, Annie Edson Taylor was ready to descend.

After members of her team tried to talk her out of the stunt at the last minute, Taylor was sealed in the barrel with a boat towing her down the Niagara River. The towboat cut Taylor and the barrel loose. Her next destination: the whirlpool at the bottom of Niagara Falls. At approximately 4:30 p.m., Taylor’s barrel careened over the edge. The barrel was lost in the water and mist but surfaced just about a minute later, when it came to rest against a rock on the Canadian shore.

Once the team got to the barrel and popped the top, Annie Edson Taylor emerged as the first person to survive a jump over Niagara Falls. The only injury she suffered was a cut on her head, which happened when she was getting out of the barrel. With the stunt completed, now it was time to sit back and collect the spoils.

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4. Perfect Jump, Not so Perfect Money Scheme

The only reason Taylor jumped Niagara Falls was to collect enough money to retire. However, the problem with that strategy is that she didn’t surround herself with trustworthy people. Taylor’s manager stole the barrel shortly after the jump, and it never surfaced again. Taylor intended to use the barrel as a prop for speaking engagements, but at least had a small level of fame to parlay into money. She posed for photos and gave speeches about her grand stunt, but the buzz quickly fizzled. She was poor again, trying to find new ways to make money.

Taylor never capitalized on her stunt, eventually dying penniless in 1921 at age 82. She actually didn’t have enough money to her name to pay for a proper burial, but her friends pooled some funds together and were able to bury Taylor in Niagara Falls Cemetery, where she rests in a section among other daredevils.

Annie Edson Taylor was a different breed of women, especially during the time period in which she lived. She endured losing her husband at an early age, moved around North America to explore every possible work opportunity and when most would have given up and accepted a poverty-ridden elderly decline, had the zeal to be the first person, not the first woman, to jump over Niagara Falls and live to tell the tale. Annie Edson Taylor was a badass when women weren’t so much allowed let alone encouraged to be one. Though she didn’t achieve what she ultimately set out to do, her story should empower us all never to stop battling and always think of less traditional ways of making our end goal come true.

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