A key factor in selecting this year’s “Gender Bender” festival theme is the fact that Western New York is closely linked to the American women’s rights movement. But one piece of colorful local history that you probably haven’t heard about is the story of a solo female pioneer, Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. And she was 63 years old when she did it.
Taylor was an adventurer well before she attempted her most daring stunt on October 24th, 1901, a date that was, incidentally, also her birthday. Born in Auburn, New York, she was a schoolteacher in her early adulthood, but when her husband died just four years after their marriage along with her infant son, she spent the rest of her adult life traveling and working odd jobs.
In Bay City, Michigan she trained to be a dance instructor, and when she couldn’t find work, she opened her own studio. She later became a music teacher, then moved to San Antonio and on to Mexico City. Reaching old age and having little monetary wealth despite her many skills and experiences, she decided to become the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Although many believed it to be a suicide mission, Taylor went over the Falls in a custom made oak barrel padded with a mattress. Two days prior to her stunt a cat was also sent over the Falls in a barrel in an attempt to determine whether or not it would be possible to survive. Both Taylor and the cat lived, and posed for the press together in the photo above.
After completing her Niagara-Falls stunt, Taylor continued to travel and earned a modest income by speaking about her harrowing experience. Unfortunately, she never earned the fame and fortune that she had hoped to gain, and when her manager stole her famous barrel and disappeared it became more difficult for her to make a living off of her story.
Nonetheless, Taylor persevered and remained independent, continuing to speak at tourist destinations and even finding work as a clairvoyant until her death in 1921.
You can read more about Annie Edson Taylor in Charles Carlin Parish’s biography entitled The Queen of the Mist. And you can learn more about other daring women and men in history, literature, and the arts at this September’s Buffalo Humanities Festival!