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


Zane said...

Fantastic historical account of the falls. Brilliant insights.

The ice blue picture of the falls (in your banner) is impressive.


Laane said...

I've enjoyed reading this post.
Gorgeous. Thanks!