Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A. E. Taylor: Society's Child

There is a certain cachet that comes with being the first person to accomplish a feat. No matter how many others come after you, you have the exclusive right to say, "I did it first". How sad, then, that the first person to conquer Niagara Falls, by riding over them in a barrel, received few rewards for the achievement. As noted elsewhere in these stories, though, the number of those who have profited financially by stunting is much smaller than the number of stunters themselves. Perhaps if more of A. E. Taylor's story was known at the time, or Taylor had been a different kind of person, things might have gone better.

October is fairly late in the Niagara Falls tourist season; the uncertain [but usually cool, damp and windy] Fall weather in the region encourages visitors to come during the Summer months. But it was October, and late-October at that, when Taylor challenged the Falls.

October 24th, 1901, saw two distinct groups at Niagara Falls. One, composed of reporters and those who made their living from the Niagara River, were at the crest of the Horseshoe, or Canadian Falls [the international border between the US and Canada divides the two Falls of Niagara; the larger Horseshoe Falls, belonging to Canada, the smaller American Falls US territory. Due to the lower water flow and huge rocks at the base of the American Falls, no well thought-out attempt was ever made from it]. A larger crowd watched near the base of the Falls, wondering if what they were about to see was little more than a suicide attempt.

In time, Taylor clambered into a rowboat, lashed firmly to the shore. Tied to its side was the specially-designed barrel created for the feat. Two assistants helped her into...

Wait a minute! Did I read that right? The first person to attempt a Falls challenge was a woman?

Yes indeed. The "A.E." in Taylor's name was short for "Anna Edson". And the story gets better! Taylor, who claimed to be in her mid-40's, was actually 63! [The daredevil was not only a woman, but in her 60's]. An explanation of what brought Anna Edson Taylor to the brink is probably in order.

Anna Edson was born October, 24, 1839, in Auburn, NY. One of eight children, Anna lived a comfortable life, paid for by her father's prosperous flour mill. She was said to prefer outdoor sports with her brothers and others to the quieter pursuits of her sisters, but was fond of reading. Her father's sudden death when Anna was 12 caused much sorrow, but little change in her life; Samuel Edson had left a large fortune.

As she grew older, she began training as a teacher. Suddenly, at age 17, she married David Taylor, a fellow student. We know little of these years; the Taylor's probably made up money shortages from Anna's still-substantial inheritance, so she was able to continue her proper life. As we shall see, Anna's propriety would later cause her much suffering.

In 1864, Civil War raged in the US. David Taylor, a member of the Union Army, was killed in battle. Anna Taylor was widowed at the age of 25. But there was still the sizable inheritance to keep her lifestyle as she expected it should be.

Now began years of travel across the US. Most of the time, she worked as a dance teacher. But seldom were her expenses covered by her income. The inheritance was growing smaller each day. Finally, near the end of the 19th Century, she found herself in Bay City, MI. Unable to find work as a dance teacher, she plowed most of her remaining money into opening a dance school. The school was well-attended, at one time instructing over 100 students. But Taylor, used to an elegant lifestyle, gave her students the same. Once again, income was smaller than expenses. The school closed, leaving Anna dependent on the charity of relatives. For a lady like herself, this was just not acceptable.

Around this time, she read about the Pan-American Exposition, taking place in Buffalo, NY. It was drawing huge crowds, many of whom stopped off at Niagara Falls while in the area. Somehow [and I can't even imagine how], she came up with the idea of riding over the Falls inside a barrel. Using the last of her money, she had a extra-strong barrel built to her specifications, including a mattress inside for protection, and headed for Niagara Falls.

Anna's luck failed her now in two serious ways. As she headed for Niagara, US President William McKinley was mortally wounded at the Exposition. His death a few days later plunged the nation into deep mourning. Attendance at the Exposition, and at Niagara Falls, fell dramatically. Undaunted, Taylor continued her preparations. She could always give lectures on her feat, if she succeeded; if she didn't, what difference did it make?

Her second mistake was to hire Frank "Tussy" Russell as her manager. Russell, as we shall see, was not a man to be trusted.

Preparations continued, and finally all was ready. It's October, 24th, 1901. Anna Edson Taylor has turned 63 today. What thoughts must have been going through her mind, as she slipped into the already-wobbling barrel? What would be her fate: a return to a comfortable life, or oblivion beneath the churning waters? I can't imagine her being enthusiastic about the trip. But I do think she had a sense of contentment; either way, all her problems would soon be over...
Anna Edson Taylor's story concludes in our next posting. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

Monday, September 22, 2008

Joel Robinson: Ulysses and the Sirens

"And having come to Circe he was sent on his way by her, and put to sea, and sailed past the isle of the Sirens. Now the Sirens were Pisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepia, daughters of Achelous and Melpomene, one of the Muses. One of them played the lyre, another sang, and another played the flute, and by these means they were fain to persuade passing mariners to linger; and from the thighs they had the forms of birds.
Sailing by them, Ulysses wished to hear their song, so by Circe's advice he stopped the ears of his comrades with wax, and ordered that he should himself be bound to the mast. And being persuaded by the Sirens to linger, he begged to be released, but they bound him the more, and so he sailed past. Now it was predicted of the Sirens that they should themselves die when a ship should pass them; so die they did."


What motivates people to do what they do is frequently a mystery. Indeed, if we were to know the real reasons for people's actions, we would probably shake our heads in disbelief. Consider the strange story of Joel Robinson. In 1861, he placed himself in a graver peril than Ulysses; unlike the myth, Robinson's challenge was very real. And he did it, as far as anyone can discern, for [the admittedly princely sum, at the time, of] five hundred dollars!

A little history: before the construction of the great Suspension Bridge {itself a fascinating story, and one that will be addressed in another posting], it was difficult for those living on either side of the Niagara River to cross the waters. In 1846, a ferry service was instituted, under the name Maid Of The Mist. In 1848, with the completion of Suspension Bridge, the ship's owners converted the ferry to tourist use, mapping a route through the surprising tranquil waters near the base of the Falls. The new attraction proved very successful, as it has remained to this day. It was so successful, in fact, that a second, larger vessel was introduced in 1854.

The Maid Of The Mist II was a solid 72 feet in length, steam powered, and soon became an attraction in its own right. Business was better than ever. Unfortunately, the good times would not last. Early in 1861, due to an economic downturn [and where have we heard that before?], brought on in part by the impending American Civil War, the tourist boat business failed, and the Maid Of The Mist II was sold at auction.

Its purchaser, a Canadian company, put a reasonable condition on the acquisition; the boat had to be delivered to them at the Lake Ontario port of Queenston [in Ontario, across a narrow inlet of the Lake from the American village of Lewiston]. Impossible!, cried the tour boat owners. To deliver the vessel at Queenston, it would have to cross three perilous stretches of water; the Great Gorge Rapids, the Whirlpool, and the Lower River Rapids. There may have been a more dangerous stretch of water elsewhere in the world, but no one could imagine it. The purchasers were polite, but firm. Unless the boat could be brought to Queenston, it was of no use to them. The tour boat operators considered their options: given the ship's immense size, there was no way to move it by land. But who would pilot the vessel through the most dangerous waters in the world? In desperation, they offered five hundred dollars to anyone who would take on the challenge. Finally, they found a taker.

Joel Robinson was 53, and a long-time ship's captain. Somehow, two men were found who would serve as crew: James McIntire, who acted as ship's mechanic, and James Jones, who would spend the voyage below decks as engineer. For those who've never been at Niagara, it may be hard to imagine just what these three had signed on to accomplish. I've found a short clip, taken from the Spanish Aero Cars that cruise above the River. It shows the Whirlpool, the mid-way point of Robinson's journey...

...and probably the least perilous of the three dangers.

On June 6th, 1861, the Maid Of The Mist II was readied for its last cruise on the Niagara River. A sizable crowd lined both sides of the River, waiting to see a miracle, or what they expected to see.About 3 pm, a single blast from the boat's whistle indicated that the trip had begun. Ulysses had been able to spend his time with the Sirens lashed to the mast. But Robinson needed to operate the ship's wheel. He had to be unencumbered. The first buffeting wave knocked him, and McIntire, to the floor of the wheel room. In the Engine room, Jones was also knocked to the floor. He desperately grabbed a pipe stand and pulled himself to his knees. And this was merely the first blow! How could they get the ship through the gauntlet that awaited?

The boat moved faster and faster, reaching an incredible-for-the-era speed of 39 MPH. Robinson and his crew could do little more than hold on, and pray that they would pass through the Gorge Rapids. Incredibly, they did! During a moment of relative calm, Robinson noted that the ship's smokestack had wrenched free and been lost overboard. What else might be damaged before the journey was over?

Safely passing the first Siren, Robinson and his crew next challenged the Whirlpool. As noted above, this was, compared to the Gorge Rapids, a relatively calm sequence. The captain and crew righted themselves, just in time to find their ship trapped in the swirling waters of the Whirlpool. It took all of the captain's skill and strength to break free of the ghoulish grip of the Whirlpool, but finally, the vessel was free.

Now came the third Siren, and perhaps the most dangerous of all, the Lower River Rapids. It was said that one of three Sirens played a lyre, another entranced mariners with her flute, while the third sang so beautifully that sailors would steer their vessels closer to hear her, only to be smashed by the rocks near the Sirens' island. There are some who say they hear songs in the water of Niagara. Did Captain Robinson and his crew hear the songs of the Sirens? Did they hear the voices of those who had died in those waters, calling them to join their company? Who can say? Robinson was facing the most difficult peril of all, trying to steer a badly-battered ship through the perilous waters. He could do little more than try and move to the center of the channel, perhaps following Homer's advice to travellers; "You will go most safely through the middle".

Then, suddenly, it was over. The boat moved through calmer waters, past the three Sirens. The rest of the voyage was without notice. Robinson docked the Maid Of The Mist II at Queenston, and turned it over to its new owners. Surprisingly, the ship was in good shape, considering the course it had taken. The only major damage was that lost smokestack. Robinson and his crew returned home with their money, and went on with their lives.
Ulysses, the Ancients relate, eventually made it to his home port, and a happy reunion with his wife and son. Joel Robinson's life after his mythical voyage was, sadly, not as joyous. He never captained another boat. The formerly gregarious sailor took to his bed much of the time, and was seldom seen in town. Captain Robinson, the conqueror of the Rapids, died two years later, at the age of 55. Joel Robinson survived his day with the three Sirens. But it is probably fair to say that the River had killed him, as surely as if he had died in the encounter. And, unlike the Sirens, the two Rapids and the Whirlpool did not die once they were beaten; they can be seen to this day by visitors to Niagara.
Next time, an entry I'm sure you've been waiting for; the story of the first person to go over the Falls in the barrel. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Thursday, September 4, 2008

More Funambulists

Although it was by no means the only form of stunting at Niagara during the 19th-Century, the most common form of daredevil feat was tightrope walking, or funambulism. Here, a look at a few memorable performers:

J. F. "Professor" Jenkins - The strange vehicle pictured here is a velocipede. On August 25th, 1869, "Professor" Jenkins successfully crossed above the Whirlpool Rapids by riding across his tightrope on it.

Nothing else is known about the Professor, or his unusual device.

Henry Bellini / Stephen Peer - Henry Bellini was an English stunter, who came to Niagara in 1873. Among the crew he hired to assist him in his feats was a man who grew up near the Falls, Stephen Peer. Peer had seen the Blondin - Farini tightrope "duels" a few years earlier; just as Farini [nee William Leonard Hurt] had been inspired to take up funambulism by watching Blondin, Peer was drawn to the rope by the Blondin - Farini performances. Peer also was motivated by local pride. He wanted to be the first "local" to conquer Niagara [not realizing, as most probably did not, that "Farini" grew up not far from Niagara himself].

On August 25th, 1873, Bellini made his first crossing of the Niagara River near the Falls, stopping at one point to lie across his wire [see above]. For a finale to his act, Bellini dove from his rope 22 feet into the churning waters below. A safety boat picked him up shortly after he landed. Bellini repeated his tightrope - high-dive combination two more times that year. His "season" ended shortly thereafter, under, well, shall we say, "unfortunate" circumstances. It seems that crew member Peer decided that he was ready to make his debut on the high wire. Without telling anyone, including Bellini, he scrambled up on the rope and began a crossing. If you had polled the crowd that literally ran Bellini out of town later that day, they probably would have said they understood his anger. After all, here was this "greenhorn" taking over the act! But trying to stop him by attempting to slice the tightrope at one end, well, that was just a bit too much.

Always cautious, Bellini waited thirteen years for things to cool off, then returned in the winter of 1886. While there, he attempted a leap from the Upper Suspension Bridge, over the Niagara River. He struck the water hard, and had to be rescued, unconscious, from the River. He broke two ribs in the attempt, but later recovered. His career, and his life, ended two years later in a failed leap from a bridge in London, England.

And what of Peer? Details, more than a century later, are understandably sketchy; it's likely that he continued his apprenticeship on the high wire. His next appearance at Niagara came on June 22nd, 1887, when he successfully crossed the River from a rope near the present-day Whirlpool Bridge [below]. Three night later, on June 25th, his mangled body was found near the base of his rope tower. Exactly what happened remains unknown. It is known that Peer had been drinking heavily since his successful crossing. Could he have been trying to win a bar bet by crossing at night? If that was his aim, he made a fatal error in judgement by wearing street shoes [slick-soled], instead of the rubber-soled safety shoes he'd worn to cross three days earlier. Peer was, as far as I can tell, the only person ever to die as a result of a tightrope stunt at Niagara. He was 33 at the time of his fatal accident.

There were other funambulists who used the roiling waters of the Niagara as a backdrop for their dramatic feats, and we will no doubt return to their stories in due course. Next time, though, we'll tell the story of a boat ride through some of the most dangerous waters in the world - The Great Gorge, Whirlpool, and Lower Rapids. And, unlike the earlier voyage of the derelict schooner "Michigan", this vessel carried a human crew. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley