Annie Taylor, the First Person to Cheat Death Over Niagara Falls

Standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls with several newspaper reporters idling nearby, Annie Edson Taylor started to cry. It was October 23, 1901, and the 62-year-old had been causing a stir by proclaiming that she intended to seal herself in a pickle barrel and allow the water current to carry her along the Niagara River to the 177-foot drop over the falls. It was a feat so ill-advised that local authorities threatened her manager, Frank Russell, that he could be charged with manslaughter if his client perished in the process.

Their caution was justified. No one had ever made it over Niagara Falls and lived, with one newspaper describing the act as being undertaken only "in the deliberate commission of a suicide." Taylor had her own reasons for trying, but the delay—the current had been too choppy for the boatmen charged with getting her into the water—lent credence to naysayers who believed she was either a kook or a liar. Disappointed, she began weeping.

The following day, a determined Taylor returned to the site, this time sealing herself in the barrel. For the retired schoolteacher from Michigan, going over the falls was going to be her ticket to a new, better life—assuming she was able to hang on to it.

Situated on the border between the United States and Canada, Niagara Falls is made up of three waterfalls—Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls—that converge into a massive overspill of 6 million cubic feet of water per minute. As with Everest and other great natural wonders, thrill-seekers are rarely content to admire the view. They want to see if they can endure the forces of nature.

In 1829, a man named Sam Patch built a platform that stood 85 feet above the lower Niagara River. He dove into the water and survived. Emboldened, he dove a second time from 130 feet. (A third jump, not into the Niagara but into the High Falls of the Genesee River in Rochester, New York, killed him.) In 1859, a tightrope walker named Jean Francois Gravelet-Blondin successfully inched his way across a wire spread over the Niagara gorge, a feat that ignited a series of copycat attempts.

No one, however, had made an announced attempt to start at the upper river and allow themselves to be carried by the violent current over the crest of the falls. To do so without any kind of special equipment, it seemed, would mean certain death.

None of this appeared to deter Annie Taylor. Born in 1838 in Auburn, New York, Taylor married at 18 and subsequently suffered a series of tragedies. Her son died shortly after birth; her husband was killed in the Civil War. Surviving on an inheritance from her wealthy parents, Taylor began traveling around the country, teaching school and offering dance classes in Bay City, Michigan and elsewhere. As the years went on, her income remained modest while her savings dwindled. Being "poor," she once told a reporter, was something she had not had a chance to grow accustomed to, and considering her financial woes, she "might as well be dead."

While in Bay City in 1899, she happened to overhear a tavern owner brag about having gone over the falls in a padded rubber suit. Taylor found the idea ridiculous, and the man couldn’t substantiate his claim, but it gave her an idea. What if Taylor survived such an attempt? The resulting fame would likely lead to a fortune in speaking engagements, photos, and other publicity.

Whatever fear should have accompanied her plans seemed to be trumped by her fear of poverty. She told the Detroit Free Press that she set about "carefully studying the problem for three months," enlisting the services of a boatman who knew the Niagara River well. The man advised her that she stood the best chance of surviving by being placed in the Horseshoe on the Canadian side, where the water was deepest.

The unlikely daredevil—who told the press she was 43, not 62—set about contracting the West Bay City Cooperage lumber yard to make her a barrel suited for stunt work. The roughly 5-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide oak-and-metal container weighed 160 pounds and included an interior harness to prevent Taylor from being shaken inside like a pinball. A 200-pound ballast was fitted on the bottom to help keep it upright; it would be vacuum-sealed to prevent water from seeping in, but had a valve that allowed for air—enough to keep her alive for an hour, should her rescuers have any trouble locating her.

Since the attempt would be all about publicity, Taylor hired a promoter named Frank Russell to drum up interest. Russell started by displaying the barrel in a store window with a logo on it that read "Queen of the Mist." Talking to reporters, he was coy about the identity of the person who intended to go over the falls. On October 8, he finally revealed it was an ex-schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor. She would make the attempt on October 23—unbeknownst to reporters, the day before her 63rd birthday. The interest was predictably high.

Two days before her scheduled voyage, Taylor found a "volunteer" to test the barrel—her aptly named cat, Niagara. The feline was sealed in the makeshift vessel and sent tumbling over the falls and 177 feet to the river below, where he was retrieved and seemed no worse for the wear.

Of course, a cat was hardly a proof of concept for the survival chances of a 60-something, full-grown woman. Soon, it would be time for Taylor to climb in.

Annie Edson Taylor in barrel with boat
Rivermen ready to row Annie Edson Taylor into the Niagara

The boatmen who eyed the choppy waters on October 23 and vetoed her first attempt returned the following day and gave their approval: They’d be willing to get into a rowboat and tow Taylor’s barrel into the middle of the Niagara River, where it would float before being picked up by the strong current near the mouth of the falls, toppling over and—hopefully—coming to rest in the lower river below.

In an effort to preserve her modesty, Taylor excused herself and put on a dress more conducive to risking her life—one that ended just under the knees instead of hanging down to her ankles. Her team helped her into the barrel, strapping her into the harness and stuffing the interior with pillows for cushioning before sealing the top shut.

With a crowd of several thousand witnesses gathered below, Taylor was towed out about a mile from the brink and left to fate. The barrel bobbed gently along the river before the force of the falls enveloped it. Accelerating, Taylor didn’t so much go over the falls as she was ejected from it, being propelled forcefully from the mouth and free-falling to the water below.

After a pause, the barrel emerged bobbing in the lower river, and handlers paddled over to it. The barrel was sealed so tight that a worker had to use a hand saw to cut the top off. Peering inside, someone exclaimed, "My God, she’s alive!" A shaken Taylor was helped out, the only visible damage a 3-inch gash on her scalp. (Having later admitted she lost consciousness for a brief time, it’s likely Taylor suffered a concussion.) The stunt made national headlines, which is precisely what Taylor anticipated.

But the expected windfall never came. Russell, who she believed would be instrumental in helping her monetize the stunt, disappeared with the barrel, a key prop in any public setting. Despite hiring private investigators to track its whereabouts, she never located it.

Relegated to selling 10-cent booklets about her experience or charging small fees for photos and appearances, Taylor had risked her life for relatively little reward. She died in 1921 at the age of 82 with so little money that her burial in Niagara, New York was funded as a result of donations.

Despite Taylor’s admonition after going over the falls that "no one ought to ever do that again," several people have tried. Between Taylor’s attempt and 1995, 15 people did so intentionally: 10 survived, an attrition rate that made her attempt all the more spectacular.

Although fortune eluded her, Taylor was right about the stunt attracting fame. She will forever be known as the first daredevil with the stomach and aptitude to have survived the drop—or the second, if you count her cat.

The Question that Baffled Britain's High Court: Are Pringles Chips?

iStock/eskaylim
iStock/eskaylim

Are Pringles potato chips? From 2007 to 2009, that question plagued judges at three different levels of the British judiciary, leading to a series of head-scratchingly comical legal proceedings. The stakes, however, were nothing but serious: The ruling put hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

The question revolved around Britain’s value-added tax, or VAT. According to the 1994 VAT Act, any product that is “wholly, or substantially wholly, made from the potato” was subject to a 17.5 percent tax. In 2007, Britain’s VAT and Duties Tribunal determined that Pringles fell under the tax’s umbrella—and demanded the chipman payeth.

Procter & Gamble, who owned Pringles at the time, vehemently disagreed. They argued that Pringles were only 42 percent potato flour, with the rest mostly a slurry of wheat starch, corn and rice flour, and vegetable oil. The snack food, they said, could not be classified as a potato chip because, unlike a real potato chip, its overall contents and shape were “not found in nature.”

In addition to being unappetizing, this argument was a marked shift from the company's original position. When the snack first hit shelves in the mid-1960s, Pringles were proudly marketed as “potato chips.” (More specifically, as newfangled potato chips.) They did this despite reported complaints from competing chip-makers, who argued that the snack food—which is cooked from a thin, mashed potato-like dough—should be classified differently.

But now that millions of dollars were on the line, Procter & Gamble’s lawyers wholeheartedly embraced Pringles's unique place as a “not-really-a-chip” chip. The VAT and Duties Tribunal, however, didn’t buy it. In a decision that sounds more like a Zen kōan, the tax masters argued that Pringles were chips because they were “made from potato flour in the sense that one cannot say that it is not made from potato flour.”

To that, the British High Court of Justice basically replied: Wow, that's confusing! Now, excuse us, we would like to top it.

The following year, the High Court stepped in and reversed the Tribunal's decision. First, the Court argued that Pringles were more akin to a cake or bread than a chip. (Who, of course, can forget their first birthday Pringle?) Furthermore, the Court declared that a Pringle—which we should emphasize is, in fact, mostly made from potatoes—was not “made from the potato." Their reasoning invoked Greek metaphysics, claiming that Pringles did not possess the required amount of (and this is their word) “potatoness.”

The controversy didn’t end there. In 2009, the case moved up another judicial wrung, this time to Britain’s Supreme Court of Judicature. The lower court's metaphysical arguments about "potatoness" were enough to make Aristotle's brain hurt, the justices moaned. They criticized the previous ruling for its “overelaborate, almost mind-numbing legal analysis” and dubbed the topic at hand a “short practical question calling for a short practical answer.”

Procter & Gamble’s lawyers bore down anyway. They claimed that a product made from “a number of significant ingredients ... cannot be said to be ‘made from’ one of them.” Lord Justice Jacob called this argument hogwash. If that were true, he argued, then “a marmalade made using both oranges and grapefruit would be made of neither—a nonsense conclusion."

After working itself in and out of semantic pretzels, the Court said the easiest solution to Chipgate was to appeal to a hypothetical child: If you asked an 8-year-old to explain what a Pringle was, what would he or she say?

The question of a Pringle’s identity, the Court argued, “would probably be answered in a more relevant and sensible way by a child consumer than by a food scientist or a culinary pedant.”

In other words, a chip is a chip is a chip—Pringles among them. With that, Procter & Gamble had to pay $160 million in taxes.

Though common sense prevailed, it doesn’t always end that way: Around the time of the great Pringle debate, the state of Oklahoma was busy confidently declaring watermelon a vegetable.

8 Facts About Niccolò Machiavelli

iStock/dcerbino
iStock/dcerbino

Niccolò Machiavelli is arguably the most influential political thinker from the Italian Renaissance. Following the publication of his political theory masterwork The Prince in 1932, his name became synonymous with ruthless political machinations. But was this Florentine philosopher really that bad?

1. HE HAD A FRONT-ROW SEAT TO RENAISSANCE POWER STRUGGLES.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the independent Republic of Florence. Long before he became known as the first modern political theorist (not to mention an inspiration for House of Cards), Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the service of the Florentine government. In 1498, at only 29 years old, he was appointed as the head of the Second Chancery, which put him in control of the city's foreign relations. His number-one concern was the potential return of the Medici family—the most infamous power brokers in Renaissance Italy—who had been ousted from Florence in 1494. Machiavelli oversaw the recruitment and training of an official militia to keep them at bay, but his army was no match for the Medici, who were supported by Rome's papal militia. When the Medici retook Florence in 1512, their first order of business was to fire—and, just for the heck of it, torture—Machiavelli.

2. HE WROTE THE PRINCE TO REGAIN LOST STATUS.

As a diplomat and a scholar in an age of constant warfare, Machiavelli observed and absorbed the rules of the political game. After he lost his job as a diplomat (and even served a short time in jail), he turned to scholarship, poring over the Latin texts of ancient Roman political philosophers for inspiration. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of what would become his masterwork: The Prince, a handbook for the power-hungry. The book offered tips to rising politicians for seizing power, and advice to incumbent princes for keeping it.

Ironically, Machiavelli dedicated the book to the Medici, hoping it would bring him back into their good graces. It remains unclear whether it was ever read by its intended audience, and Machiavelli never got to see The Prince go viral. It was published in 1532, five years after its author's death.

3. HE COMPARED THE NEED FOR LOVE TO THE VALUE OF FEAR.

One of The Prince’s primary lessons was that leaders must always try to strike a balance between seeking the love of their subordinates and inspiring fear. If a leader is too soft or kind, the people may become unruly; too cruel, and they might rebel. Machiavelli had a clear preference. "Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he wrote, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

4. THE PRINCE’S RUTHLESSNESS MADE IT NOTORIOUS.

Machiavelli’s political thesis became notorious because it focused almost entirely on helping rulers get what they want at whatever cost—in other words, the end always justified the means. Other political thinkers, while acknowledging Machiavelli’s brilliance, were appalled by his mercenary take on statesmanship. In the 18th century, French essayist Denis Diderot described Machiavelli's work as "abhorrent" and summed up The Prince as "the art of tyranny." Friedrich Schiller, a proponent of liberal democracy, referred to The Prince as an unwitting satire of the kind of monarchical rule it supposedly espouses (“a terrible satire against princes”). David Hume, the Scottish polymath and inveterate skeptic, called Machiavelli "a great genius" whose reasoning is "extremely defective.” Wrote Hume, "There scarcely is any maxim in his Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.”

But 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell disagreed, saying that Machiavelli was merely being honest on a subject that most preferred with a good sugarcoating. “Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches itself to his name, is due to the indignation of hypocrites,” Russell wrote [PDF/a>], “who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.”

5. SHAKESPEARE CALLED VILLAINS “MACHIAVELS.”

Machiavelli’s notoriety spread so quickly that by the 16th century his name had found its way into the English language as an epithet for crookedness. In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: An incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition. In the prologue for The Jew of Malta, playwright Christopher Marlowe introduces his villain as “a sound Machiavill.” Even William Shakespeare used the term as a derogatory shorthand. “Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” one character in The Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, before adding an indignant, “No!”

6. THE PRINCE WAS BANNED BY THE POPE.

When Machiavelli was out of a job, he did what most Renaissance thinkers did: He found a patron. Pope Clement VII, a Medici who had been elected in 1523, was happy to support the scholar. The pope even commissioned one of Machiavelli’s longest works, the Florentine Histories, which Machiavelli presented in 1526. But after the posthumous publication of The Prince in 1532, the papacy’s attitude toward Machiavelli’s work chilled. When Pope Paul VI established Rome's first Index of Forbidden Books in 1557, he made sure to include The Prince for its promulgation of dishonesty and dirty politics. (Machiavelli’s passion for classical writers and their pagan culture didn’t appeal to Pope Paul, either [PDF].)

7. HE COLLABORATED WITH LEONARDO DA VINCI.

In 1503, when Machiavelli was struggling to fortify Florence against its enemies, he turned to the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

According to a 1939 biography of Leonardo, the two "seem to have become intimate" when they met in Florence. Machiavelli used his power to procure commissions for Leonardo and even appointed him Florence's military engineer between 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli was hoping to harness Leonardo’s ingenuity to capture Pisa, a fledgling city-state which Florentine leaders had been eager to subdue for decades. As expected, Leonardo came up with a revolutionary plan. He contrived a system of dams that would block off one of Pisa’s main waterways, which could have brought Pisa to the brink of a drought and given Machiavelli all the leverage he could have asked for. But the plan failed. The dam system ended up interrupting Florence's own agriculture, and so the government terminated the project. Leonardo left his post after only eight months.

Some scholars believe that the encounter with Leonardo left a deep mark on Machiavelli’s political thinking. They point to Machiavelli’s repeated emphasis on the power of technological innovation to decide a war, a view which they believe Leonardo had inspired. Machiavelli’s writing is rife with idiosyncratic expressions that seem to have almost been lifted from Leonardo's notebooks.

8. HE ACTUALLY BELIEVED IN A JUST GOVERNMENT.

Scholar Erica Benner argues that, despite his reputation, Machiavelli wasn’t amoral. Although The Prince openly encouraged politicians to take and offer bribes, cheat, threaten, and even kill if necessary, Machiavelli knew that even rulers had to obey some sense of justice, Benner wrote in The Guardian. He recognized that the race for power comes with very few scruples, but he also recognized that without respect for justice, society falls into chaos.

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