Monday, November 24, 2008

Anna Edson Taylor 2: How The Tale Ended

Dear Readers: I have apologies to make, not only to you, but to Anna Edson Taylor. For almost two months now, she's been waiting, at the crest of the Falls, cramped inside an oaken barrel, waiting to see how her life would play out. She, and you, will wait no more! The rest of her story is here, with my sincere apology for its delay - MR

The barrel was sealed, and pressurised with a bicycle pump. It was cut free of its bond with the rowboat. Carried by the thundering waters, it began its run to the edge, and what was likely a fatal drop.The waters roared louder inside Anna's barrel as she approached the crest. Suddenly, a gasp from the assembled viewers. The barrel was coming down, down the face of the Horseshoe Falls! Then, with a massive splash, and a resounding crash, it reached the base of Niagara. The spectators were amazed that the barrel had survived its devilish run over the Falls without any apparent damage (Inside, Anna Edson Taylor was stunned. She had bumped her head on one of the barrel's inside surfaces. She was bleeding, but, when she regained alertness, believed she was mostly alright.).

The barrel bounced and spun in the rapids at the base of the cataract. Taylor was being shaken like a puppy inside her craft. Moving from wall to wall inside the barrel, she was repeatedly bruised, but amazingly, suffered no broken bones. The crowd at Niagara watched as a rescue boat [manned, one suspects, by some daredevils itself] headed out to Anna Edson Taylor. It took them some eighteen minutes to secure the barrel, and open some air vents. But Mrs. Taylor was inside for many minutes. more. Wild rumors ran through the crowd on shore. That crazy old woman was dead! Served her right, for daring God like that! But others watched the frantic efforts to open the barrel. No one would hurry like that over a dead body!

Then, the impossible! Looking more than a little shaken, helped by two or three men, Anna Taylor stepped out of the barrel! She needed help, but she was walking. She was gingerly aided to the shore, then across a low rock wall. Given a quick examination, she was found to be badly bruised, and suffering from a small gash on her head. But she had no broken bones, and seemed in good health. The assembled crowd roared its approval. Anna Edson Taylor had done the impossible! She had ridden over mighty Niagara, with only a mattress-padded barrel for protection, and lived!

Mrs. Taylor was the toast of Niagara. She posed with her barrel, and, no doubt, was looking forward to a comfortable future, her frightening ride behind her. In an interview shortly afterwards, she said, "If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat. 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". But, as was the case with stunters both before and after her, the Curse of Niagara took her in hand.

"Tussy" Russell, her manager, told her that she was the most-demanded attraction in Vaudeville. Everyone wanted to hear her story. In his hand, he held a fistful of telegrams, offering Anna bookings at the highest rates of the era. Mrs. Taylor looked at him coldly. Didn't he understand that she had no intention of appearing on the vulgar public stage? When Russell had invitations to appear on the more genteel lecture circuit, she would look at them then. Russell was able to find her a few opportunities to speak, but, ironically, the Chautauqua and Grange circuits found Mrs. Taylor's stunt too vulgar for their tastes.

Things spiraled downward for Anna Edson Taylor. "Tussy" Russell stole her barrel, a highlight of her talks. He hired a younger, more attractive woman to impersonate Taylor. What money she brought in went into a search for her stolen barrel. It was recovered briefly, then lost, this time forever. She had a replacement made, and posed with it for tourists at Niagara Falls. For a long time, such photos were her main source of income. But Anna, to her credit, never gave up. She floated a plan to raise money through the New York Stock Exchange [after concocting the idea of challenging Niagara in a barrel, anything must seem possible]. She briefly considered making another trip over the cataract [but apparently couldn't face that cannon's mouth a second time]. Mrs.Taylor tried to write a novel [no trace seems to have survived], to re-create her journey on film [it was never shown, and appears to have been lost in time], even, towards the end of her life, to act as a clairvoyant [perhaps implying that surviving Niagara gave her special powers]. None of it worked.

Blind, and nearly deaf, Anna Edson Taylor died on April 29th, 1921, more than nineteen years after her feat. Hoping to live out her days in control of her life, she instead died in an old-folks' home, virtually destitute. The Curse of Niagara, in retrospect, seems have taken out a harsh vengeance on her. But, of course, she is remembered to this day. She has been the subject of books, of songs, and even of a few poems.

There is a cachet in being first. Like many Niagara Daredevils, Anna Edson Taylor is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, not far from where I live in Niagara Falls, NY. Her tomb, along with many who challenged the thunder, is in a section known as "Strangers' Rest". Her stone carries neither her birth nor death dates. But it does tell you the most important thing about her:

I'll be back [a bit sooner, next time] with another story of the Niagara Daredevils. Till then, be well.

-Mike Riley