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 Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

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