I recently acquired an out-of-print book about Annie Edson Taylor, something of a heroine of mine—and a tragic figure. The title of the work (Parish 1987) heralds her as Queen of the Mist: The Story of Annie Edson Taylor, First Person Ever to Go Over Niagara Falls and Survive.
Annie made her famous plunge over the Falls on October 24, 1901. She was—brace yourself—63 years old. Widowed long before, she had been a school teacher and a teacher of music and dancing. Only with her daredevil feat did she achieve a measure of fame—and that was fleeting.
On the momentous day, she was placed in a large barrel made of Kentucky oak, the staves bound with iron hoops. The inside was padded with cushions and netting; a harness held her body secure; and four sets of hand grips allowed her to support herself, at whatever angle the barrel turned in the powerful Niagara River. The lid secured, she was cast adrift above Horseshoe Falls and, just minutes later, she was pulled ashore. Shaken and bruised, and bearing a scalp laceration, Annie Edson Taylor had plunged into history.
From the outset of the venture, which had attracted hundreds of spectators and considerable newspaper attention, Annie’s plan had been to make a lot of money. At that she failed. She may have lacked a legal contract with her manager, Frank M. Russell, a promoter of carnivals and street shows. Unrealistic, she spurned Russell’s best efforts and was taken advantage of by swindlers. She did appear for a day at the Pan-American Exposition, as well as in some lecture halls, theaters, and large department stores. Meanwhile, Russell absconded with the barrel and, hiring a woman to pose as Mrs. Taylor, went on a mid-western tour.
Annie was soon penniless, trying to sell winter tourists to the Falls her ten-cent booklet. She also helped promote a product of Dr. R.V. Pierce, who is now known as “The Prince of Quacks.” Annie had followed her famous plunge with a rest in Buffalo at Dr. Pierce’s Sanitarium. There, she “received great kindness,” she said, “and was restored to my normal condition.” Some time later, Annie was enlisted by Dr. Pierce to help sell his “Favorite Prescription,” an elixir he advertised as being “For Weak Women.” This is shown by some rare photos in the possession of my friend, photo expert and collector Rob McElroy (Neville 2012). They depict Taylor, accompanied by a barrel, holding a Pierce sign. The implication is that if a woman became weak by illness, Pierce’s remedy would make her strong again, just like Annie Edson Taylor (Nickell 2014/2015).
In 1919, less than two years before her death, there was a brief article in the Niagara Falls Gazette about Annie Taylor’s latest endeavor. Although nearly blind herself, she was offering to help Falls residents through “electric and magnetic treatments” as well as “readings in clairvoyance.” Reported the Gazette,, “Mrs. Taylor claims she is prepared to make astounding prophecies by reason of her psychic powers.” The paper explains: “While under the spell of the psychic influence she communicates messages freely writing automatically as controlled by the Psychic Spirit” (quoted in Parish 1987, p. 119). Whether or not anyone sought her alleged powers, this seems a desperate, ignominious end to a remarkable American original. Annie died destitute on April 30, 1921, but friends saved her from a pauper’s grave, taking up a collection to inter her in Oakwood Cemetery with a presentable granite marker.
Neville, A. 2012. Legend of the Falls. . . . The Buffalo News, July 7.
Nickell, Joe. 2014/2015. Dr. Pierce: Medicine for Weak Women. Skeptical Briefs, vol. 24.4, winter.
Parish, Dr. Charles. 1987. Queen of the Mist: The Story of Annie Edson Taylor, First Person Ever to Go Over Niagara Falls and Survive. Interlaken, NY: Empire State Books.