Written by Sooz Kempner


Barrel of laughs

On this day in 1901 a New York woman decided to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. On her birthday. Sooz Kempner celebrates Annie Edson Taylor Day.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Guys, 24 October really ought to be bigger than Christmas. Why? Because it’s the day in 1901 that Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Read on because things are about to get cuckoo-bananas.

Taylor was born in 1838 in a small town called Auburn in New York state. Auburn has been the birthplace of many legends over the years including pivotal abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Theo Case, who invented the first thing that made sound go on film (I don’t know how to word that, I’m not a scientist) and William Kemmler, who was the first person electrocuted in the electric chair.

With icons like these coming from Auburn there’s a lot of jostling for the position of Biggest Auburn Legend Ever but Annie Edson Taylor wins.

After an uneventful start in life, Taylor married but ending up losing her husband and child (they died, she didn’t mislay them; it’s actually pretty sad but read on ‘cos she will blow your mind soon enough). She’d always dreamed of being a dance teacher so she opened a dance school.

“Interviewed after her bonkers stunt, Taylor said, ‘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, nobody made you go over Niagara Falls!”

I don’t know what kind of dancing she taught but I reckon she used to get kids at the dance school to form a circle around her and she’d do a Saturday Night Fever-style solo dance every week. She’d strike a pose at the end of the dance solo (it was a 28-minute dance solo) and say “Annie Edson Taylor” and everyone would clap and throw her money. I have no evidence of this but were you there? Do you know for a fact that didn’t happen? Exactly.

Taylor’s dance school didn’t work out, despite her excellent hypothetical dance solos and she soon found herself low on funds. She didn’t know what to do to make sure she wouldn’t enter old age penniless. She made the only logical decision she could possibly make: she’d go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.

You see, every other thrill-seeker who’d gone over the celebrity waterfall in a barrel had died, so Taylor thought she’d just live instead and definitely make a bunch of money from it. Definitely don’t get a job, Annie. Definitely just go over a waterfall in a barrel even though everybody else who has done it has died.

She wasn’t stupid though. Taylor designed a barrel that would be nailed shut once she was in it and she would have a mattress in there with her. Taking no chances, she also took her lucky heart-shaped pillow in with her. Have you ever heard of anyone dying with a heart-shaped pillow on their person? No, you haven’t. So she had everything figured out.

Annie Edson Taylor with barrel and catThis was no foolhardy stunt though; she wasn’t going to take any chances. The day before her fun trip down Niagara Falls she tested out her barrel by putting a cat in it and seeing if it lived. The cat lived. And probably wasn’t remotely traumatised.

Taylor plunged down the waterfall and suffered nothing more than a cut on the head. She then posed for pictures with her barrel and that test cat from the day before. You can’t see the cat that closely in the picture but I think it is mouthing, “Fuck off you psycho.”

Interviewed after her bonkers stunt, she said, “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, nobody made you go over Niagara Falls! Why are you slagging off something that was entirely your decision?

Following her crazy feat Taylor became a multimillionaire. Just kidding. She earned a bit of money from talking to people about her adventure but I guess she was a shitty raconteur and soon she was poor again.

Eventually she worked as a clairvoyant. I imagine all of her visions of people’s futures involved them not going over Niagara Falls in a barrel and she would then tell them all about when she went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I bet it’s literally all she talked about.

After defying death in her barrel Annie Edson Taylor lived to the ripe old age of 82. She died peacefully in her sleep in 1921. I mean, I say she died peacefully in her sleep, she actually died from slipping on an orange peel. Seriously, that’s the way she died. That’s not a thing people do, Annie. You don’t even die from slipping on a banana peel so I don’t know what she was playing at.

To be honest, I think Taylor was a bit of a pain. She’d be like that girl at school who described herself as “alternative” but instead of getting a job in accounts and settling down in her 20s, Taylor just carried on being a jackass.

As much as Taylor does my head in I’ve got to give her major kudos for being a stunt-Jesus at a time when women were expected to STFU and look after a home. To celebrate her wackity-schmackity feat’s anniversary I’m going to do the nearest thing to getting in a barrel and going over Niagara Falls I can manage on my limited budget. Guys, I’m going to get in a washing basket and slide down the stairs. Just got to try it out on my cat first. Laterz.


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Written by Sooz Kempner

Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.