She rolled out the barrel and she had a barrel of fun
Your life doesn't have to be a success to be successful, as the Queen of the Mist more than proved
Yesterday was International Women’s Day so you may have noticed the familiar ballyhoo about women scientists and politicians and the usual line-up of worthies and role models – serious, sober types who made their undervalued contributions to humanity and so forth.
Not me. I’m here to celebrate Annie Edson Taylor, the Queen of the Mist. I don’t need any convincing that woman are as brave and smart and serious as men, but I sometimes need reminding that women can be just as crazy as we are. Annie Edson Taylor is the woman for me.
Annie was born in Auburn, New York in 1838. She became a schoolteacher and married her sweetheart but he died in the Civil War.Annie was left alone and afraid for her future, obsessed with those shuttered years when work is over but there’s not enough money to reach the end.
She tried a number of schemes to provide for her future. She opened the first dance school in Bay City, Michigan, only to discover that Bay City, Michigan was fated never to be a metropole full of light-footed people cutting a rug.
She became a music teacher and tried her hand at writing a novel. She became an interior decorator and tried to invent things, all without success, and spent some mysterious years in Mexico City pursuing an obscure and possibly illegal but equally ill-fated wheeze to provide for her future.
It’s no picnic, growing towards retirement age as a single woman in a society that expects you to have recourse to the money and protection of a man.
When I think of Annie Edson Taylor, I think of my mother, who was also a primary school teacher and widowed young but with two small children. She made a good job of it but there were times when I woke at night in my bed to a muffled sound and I would listen at her door.
Sometimes it was about money, sometimes it was from loneliness, but this, it seemed to me, was the true sound of the world: a woman sobbing with her face pressed into her pillow so her children wouldn’t hear.
My mom hung in there and didn’t do anything extravagant but Annie Edson Taylor was made of different stuff. How, she mused, does a woman without money make some? Egad! I have it! I will be the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel!Going over waterfalls in barrels has sadly fallen out of favour as a daredevil activity nowadays, but for a while it was big and Annie invented it.
Her idea was to publicise the event (“Come and watch the Queen of the Mist defy death!”) and then make her pension by touring with the barrel, giving paid public talks like some 19th-century Lewis Pugh.
She was a shy person – one attempt at becoming a stage actress had resulted in her freezing up in the footlights and bursting into tears – and in some ways the public speaking frightened her more than the Falls.
She spent some time practising emerging from the barrel with a smile and a wave. She chose October 24 1901, a cold day in early winter, as the date of her adventure. It was her birthday. She claimed she was turning 43, but really she was 63.
She sank what meager savings she had into having a pickle barrel custom made. She padded it with an old mattress salvaged from the town dump and fashioned a leather harness that would hold her more or less in place as the barrel flipped and spun and fell. Then this is the detail that gets me: she curled up inside, tightly hugging her lucky heart-shaped pillow.
Air was pumped into the barrel using a bicycle pump, and the hole in the lid was sealed. Then the barrel was dropped over the side of a rowboat. It bobbed and righted itself in the river, and then the current drew it swiftly over the edge and it disappeared into the mist and white water.A minute or so later, to the cheers of the crowd, the barrel reappeared intact and wedged against a rock. Rescuers rushed to her and Annie Edson Taylor emerged in her long skirt and billowing blouse and sturdy, sensible shoes, dazed and disoriented but uninjured, except for a cut on her head that may have happened as she exited. She waved to the crowd, but forgot to smile.
Annie had done it, but the world wasn’t quite done with her. She wrote a pamphlet detailing her exploit and sold it for 10 cents at her public talks, but her manager absconded with her barrel and Annie soon discovered that she didn’t have the confidence or stage presence to carry off a public speech without it. The pickle barrel was her Power Point.
Exactly why she didn’t just get another barrel and scuff it up a little to make it look authentic is unexplained by history, but soon Annie was spending all the money she made from pamphlet sales on a private detective to track down her barrel.
She eventually did find it and retrieve it but by then her celebrity had waned and in any case the barrel was stolen again soon afterwards, by persons unknown, never to be seen again.
Annie died, penniless, in 1921 at the age of 82. I hope she looked back on her life and realised that it was rich despite the money. I hope towards the end her fears subsided and she was proud of what she had done. I hope she realised that it’s not the end that matters but how you get there, and that the thing you’re afraid of is never as bad once it happens.