(This story was originally written and recorded for Retrocast #24, released on January 22, 2024.)
It may come as a bit of a surprise, mainly because men have a history of doing some of the more foolish things, but the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive was not a man. Instead, it was a woman named Annie Edson Taylor.
After the death of her husband during the Civil War, Annie spent many years teaching in various locations around the United States. Unfortunately, teaching paid very little and by the time she turned 60, Annie was destitute.
Then, the story goes, she was reading a magazine article about daredevils who had conquered the whirlpool rapids downstream from the Falls. Taylor was convinced that she could surpass them all by being the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel. Her motivation was purely financial; she believed that the fame resulting from this daring feat would secure her a substantial income in the aftermath.
On October 24, 1901, her 63rd birthday, she hopped in her oversized pickle barrel and went over the edge. Other than a small gash on her head, she emerged largely unharmed. Regrettably, her daring exploit did not bring financial prosperity, and she passed away in poverty. The cost of her funeral was covered by donations from the public.
The second person to go over the Falls was Bobby Leach. He was born in Lancaster, England in 1858 and came to the United States when he was eighteen years old. Leach was an excellent swimmer and began his career exhibiting diving and swimming tricks for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. His specialty was diving from a platform elevated 150 feet (45 m) above, plunging into a shallow pool below.
In the era predating powered flight, he would make parachute jumps from lofty balloons. As airplanes gained prevalence, Leach adapted by descending from one aircraft to another using a rope ladder.
In 1908, he accomplished a successful dive off of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, plunging 208 feet (63.4 m) into the Niagara River below. Following this feat, Leach went on to traverse the Whirlpool Rapids in a barrel on at least four different occasions.
Leach next set his sights on going over the Falls in a barrel. While acknowledging he wouldn’t be the first person to do so, he aspired to become the first man to achieve this daring feat.
On July 25, 1911, Leach hopped into his 11-foot (3.35 m) long steel barrel, strapped himself into his canvas hammock, and began his journey downstream. About 200 yards (183 m) from the Falls, the barrel struck a large rock, which broke off a portion of its wooden nose. Moments later, his craft plunged over the Falls and upon reaching the bottom, vanished under the water’s surface for about 30 seconds.
After popping back up, the barrel embarked on its downstream journey but got entangled in an eddy, swirling in circular motion for several minutes. Nevertheless, it swiftly resumed its course, and eventually a man swam out to attach a rope to his barrel and pulled him to the shoreline. Upon emerging from the barrel, he raised his body and excitedly waved to the crowds assembled along the river’s edge.
Leach seemed happy, but his body was badly beaten. He had a fractured jaw, broken ribs, and both of his kneecaps were shattered. Leach would spend the next 23 weeks recovering in the hospital.
Fast-forward to February 26, 1926. Having recently concluded a lecture tour in New Zealand, Leach was walking down a street in Auckland and slipped on an orange peel, which resulted in a broken leg. Gangrene set in and on Monday, April 26, 1926, doctors had no choice but to amputate his leg. Tragically, Bobby Leach passed away two days later.
Ironically, the man who had survived so many death-defying feats throughout his lifetime met his end at the age of 69 due to a fatal slip on an orange peel.