Annie Edson Taylor was born on October 24, 1838 in Auburn, New York. She was one of eight children; her father, Merrick Edson, owned a flour mill. He died when she was 12 years old but the money he left behind continued to provide a comfortable living for the family. She became a schoolteacher (she received an honors degree in a four-year training course). During her studies she met David Taylor. They were married and had a son who died in infancy. Her husband died soon after. After she was widowed, she spent her working years in between jobs and locales.
Eventually, she ended up in Bay City, Michigan where she hoped to be a dance instructor. Since there were no dance schools in Bay City at that time, Taylor opened her own. Later she moved to Sault Ste. Marie in 1900 to teach music. From Sault Ste. Marie she traveled to San Antonio, Texas where she and a friend got together and went to Mexico City to find work. Unsuccessful, she returned to Bay City.
Desiring to secure her later years financially, and avoid the poorhouse, she decided she would be the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Taylor used a custom-made barrel for her trip, constructed of oak and iron and padded with a mattress. Several delays occurred in the launching of the barrel, particularly because no one wanted to be part of a potential suicide. Two days before Taylor's own attempt, a domestic cat was sent over the Horseshoe Falls in her barrel to test its strength to see if the barrel would break or not. Contrary to rumors at the time, the cat survived the plunge and 17 minutes later, after she was found with a bleeding head, posed with Taylor in photographs.
On October 24, 1901, her 63rd birthday, the barrel was put over the side of a rowboat, and Taylor climbed in, along with her lucky heart-shaped pillow. After screwing down the lid, friends used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air in the barrel. The hole used for this was plugged with a cork, and Taylor was set adrift near the American shore, south of Goat Island.
The Niagara River currents carried the barrel over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, which has since been the site for all daredevil stunting at Niagara Falls. Rescuers reached her barrel shortly after the plunge. Taylor was discovered to be alive and relatively uninjured, except for a small gash on her head. The trip itself took less than twenty minutes, but it was some time before the barrel was actually opened. After the journey, Annie Taylor told the press:
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.
She briefly earned money speaking about her experience, but was never able to build much wealth. Her manager, Frank M. Russell, ran away with her barrel, and most of her savings were used towards private detectives hired to find it. It was eventually located in Chicago, only to permanently disappear some time later.
She spent her final years posing for photographs with tourists at her souvenir stand, attempting to earn money from the New York Stock Exchange, briefly talking about taking a second plunge over the cataracts in 1906, attempting to write a novel, re-constructing her 1901 plunge on film (which was never seen), working as a clairvoyant, and providing magnetic therapeutic treatments to local residents.
Annie Taylor died on April 29, 1921, aged 83, at the Niagara County Infirmary in Lockport, New York. She is interred in the "Stunters Section" of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.
Annie Taylor's character appears in the IMAX film Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic.
Emma Donoghue has written a short story featuring Taylor's descent.
Legends of the Hidden Temple had an episode entitled "The Heart-Shaped Pillow of Annie Taylor."
Composer Michael John LaChiusa wrote a musical, "Queen of the Mist", based on Taylor's life. It was premiered by Transport Group in New York City on October 18, 2011, and starred Mary Testa as Taylor.
Taylor's story inspired the plot to the episode "Barrel Bear" of the television show Wonderfalls.
Chris Van Allsburg has written a children's book called "Queen of the Falls" about her amazing feat.
Nancy Kelly Allen published a children's book in 2013 called "Barreling Over Niagara Falls".
Annie is portrayed at Niagara Falls State Park by Kathleen Ordiway on the "Encounter Niagara" tour.
In TV Murdoch Mysteries 7-1 "Murdoch Ahoy", Annie (Jillian Cook) is in Toronto for a speech, at the police station accusing her manager (Joel Rinzler) of stealing her barrel.
The poet John Wall Barger portrayed Annie Edson Taylor as the heroine/radiation victim of a fictitious movie in his 2014 poem "Chernobyl."
She is also depicted in a National Geographic special "Conquering Niagara" where National Geographic documents all stunts attempted over the falls.