October 24th, 2016 was the 115th anniversary of Annie Edson Taylor’s death-defying barrel plunge over Niagara Falls. To mark the occasion, I wanted to read a book about Annie’s life, but I was surprised to discover that there aren’t many factual, in-depth biographies about her in existence — in fact, Annie’s own autobiography is somewhat inaccurate. I tried to find biographical information about Annie in newspaper accounts from 1901, but contemporary sources also give conflicting accounts of Annie: The Detroit Free Press characterizes her as an “Athletic…instructor in dancing and physical culture…a widow, her husband being a veteran of the civil war. Her reason for going over the falls is a desire to attract attention of museum or theatrical company managers in order to secure money to provide a home for herself.” Other newspapers report Annie was widowed at 20 by a “young medical student,”1 and performed the Falls stunt on her 43rd birthday.2 The Frederick, Maryland News labels Annie as “Aged”, and reports she is 50 years old at the time of her barrel trip.3 Additional period sources claim Annie is a school teacher from Bay City, Michigan, who has also “been a mountain climber, has been engaged in pedestrian contests, has crossed the Atlantic Ocean four times and the Gulf of Mexico seven times, and has traveled extensively. She owns a cattle ranch in Texas, on which there is a large mortgage.”4
Besides her well-known role as a lady daredevil, could Annie Edson Taylor really have been a school teacher, a mountain climber, and a cattle rancher too? The age discrepancies alone mean every report can’t be true — even Annie’s death notice in 1921 gives her age at death as 58.5 Was Annie “Athletic” in 1901, or “Aged”? Was Annie an experienced adventurer, or was she impoverished and desperate? After countless hours of personal research (and numerous dead ends), I’ve been able to discover and detail a little more of Annie Edson Taylor’s remarkably human story.
When was Annie Edson Taylor Born?
I begin my research with what is apparently Annie Edson Taylor’s autobiography, Over the Falls. I say “apparently” because Annie is named as both author and publisher on the title page, but the book’s narrative is written in the third-person; also, some of the facts appear to be inaccurate, and some names (like Annie’s own mother) are misspelled. In any case, I figure the book could possibly give me some insight into Annie’s early life and character.
In Over the Falls, Annie says she was born on October 24, 1855, “on the bank of Owasco Lake,” near Auburn, NY.6 That would make her exactly 46 years old when she went over Niagara Falls, and nearly 66 years old when she died in April 1921. Annie also states that her father was “Merrick Edson”, from Massachusetts, and her mother was “Lucretia Warren”, from Albany, New York.7
Hoping to find another source of information, I search for a published family history, and I locate Carroll Andrew Edson’s Edson Family History and Genealogy: Post Colonial Period, which contains the genealogy of Annie Edson Taylor. Edson Family History states that Annie’s father was Merrick Edson, born in Savoy, Massachusetts in 1804 to Delano Edson and Mercy Sherman.8 The anthology also states Annie’s mother was “Lucretia Waring” (not Warren), “born in New York, about 1812.”9
Curiously, I note Edson Family History claims Annie’s father died on March 23, 1850, five years before Annie says she was born in Over the Falls. Further down the page, I read that Merrick and Lucretia’s fourth child, Anna, was “born about 1838.”10 Did Annie’s autobiography shave 17 years off her age? Edson Family History mentions Annie’s feat at Niagara Falls, so it’s definitely the right person. It seems 1838 would be a more likely birth year for Annie; however, to be sure, I decide to check the census records.
I find Annie’s family in the 1850 Federal Census. The information was taken in Owasco, New York, on September 13, 1850 — almost 6 months after Annie’s father died — so Annie’s mother, Lucretia, is recorded as the Head of Household. Eight children are reported in the Edson household, including Annie, whose age is recorded as 12.11 So, the evidence does point to 1838 as the year Annie Edson Taylor was born, making her 63 years old when she went over Niagara Falls in a barrel!
What about Annie’s birth date? The 1855 New York State Census, taken on June 8, 1855, records Annie’s age as 16,12 and the 1860 Federal Census, taken on July 13, 1860, records Annie’s age as 21,13 so it’s possible her birth date falls between July 13, 1838 and September 13, 1838. But it’s also possible Annie’s age could be off by a year in one or more of the census records, since, at this time, birth record-keeping wasn’t as precise as it is today. Annie herself claimed her birthday was October 24th, the same day she went over Niagara Falls. Whether this is her true birthday, or just a ploy for publicity, I can’t determine. In any case, cheating death on October 24th does make that date a kind of “birthday” for Annie Edson Taylor.
What was Annie Edson Taylor’s Childhood Like?
According to Edson Family History, Annie had ten siblings: Jane Elizabeth, born 1833; John Burnside, born 1835; Delano I., born about 1836; George Edwin, born 1840; James, born about 1842 and “died young”; Montgomery V., born 1844; Charles, “died young”; Dan M., born 1847; Ellen, born about 1849 and “died young”; and Clara B., born about 1850.14 Annie’s father, Merrick, raised his large family in Owasco, Cayuga County, New York. Edson Family History states that Merrick Edson “was a miller, and had a mill on Owasco Outlet, between the city of Auburn, and Owasco Lake. After the woolen mill in Auburn took away his water power, he became a farmer at Owasco.”15 Merrick appears in the 1850 Federal Census mortality schedule for New York, which states that Merrick died of “consumption” in Owasco, in the month of March, after an illness lasting 3 months.16 Merrick Edson is buried in Melrose Cemetery in Cayuga County, New York, near his younger sister, Rhoda Edson, who died at age 16.
Edson Family History doesn’t provide a date of death for Lucretia Waring Edson, but she appears for the last time in the 1855 New York State Census; Lucretia is not recorded in the 1860 Federal Census, so she must have died some time between 1855 and 1860. So far, I haven’t been able to find a grave site for Lucretia, or any other information regarding her death.
In Over the Falls, Annie describes herself as a child with a “dreamy, imaginative disposition, fond of out-door sports and of books, especially those which run on adventures, such as “Life in Australia,” historical novels, and at the age when most girls were thinking of lovers, was reading Roman History and Plutarch’s lives.”17
Around the time of her mother’s death, Annie is sent away with her older brothers, Delano and John Burnside, to school at New York Conference Seminary, in Charlotteville, Schoharie County, New York. Annie’s name appears in the 1855 School Catalogue as “Anna M. Edson”.18 Annie describes New York Conference Seminary as “an excellent school, discipline rigid, under the auspices of 24 selected teachers. There friendships were formed which changed the current of Annie’s whole life. Among the older girls was a Miss Jennie Taylor, a fine and accomplished scholar, who was chosen as a roommate for Annie.”19
Although Annie lost both parents at a young age, she and her siblings still received quality educations, and Annie apparently enjoyed the stability that New York Conference Seminary provided.
Was Annie Edson Taylor the Widow of a Civil War Veteran?
The “friendships” Annie alludes to were, indeed, life-changing. Annie meets Jennie Taylor’s brother, Samuel David Taylor, at school, and Annie and Samuel are married around 1856, according to Edson Family History.20 Jennie Taylor and Annie’s brother, Delano, also meet at school, and they marry around 1860. On July 20, 1861, Jennie gives birth to a baby girl, also named Jennie.21 The 1860 Federal Census reports Delano and Jennie were living with Jennie and Samuel’s parents in Yates County, New York, with Annie and Samuel living next door to Jennie and Delano.22
Unfortunately, tragedy soon visits the newlywed couples. Delano Edson dies in Yates County on July 13, 1863.23 After Delano’s death, Jennie Taylor Edson doesn’t remarry until after their daughter dies of consumption on April 12, 1880, at only 18 years of age.24 In 1881, Jennie Taylor Edson marries Chauncey Kendall.25 There are no children from this marriage, and Jennie dies on February 22, 1921, almost exactly two months before Annie Edson Taylor’s death; Jennie is buried with her daughter and two husbands in the Taylor family plot in Branchport Cemetery.26
Annie claims her marriage “was blessed with one child, who died in a few days,” and that her husband “died in a little over two years.”27 Samuel D. Taylor’s grave, in the Taylor family plot at Branchport Cemetery, gives his date of death as July 6, 1863, at 30 years of age.28
So, Annie was a widow when she went over Niagara Falls. However, thus far, I’m unable to find proof of Samuel’s cause of death. Some newspapers report in 1901 that Annie is the widow of a Civil War veteran, and Edson family legend claims Samuel died at the battle of Gettysburg, but I can’t find any information to confirm that. Samuel appears in the Civil War Draft Registration records, taken in June 1863, but currently, I can find no other military service records belonging to him. It’s possible Samuel D. Taylor died at his home in Yates County, and is simply being confused with Sylvester J. Taylor, a 28-year-old lieutenant from Oswego County, who died at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.29
Coming up in Part II: Was Annie Edson Taylor a school teacher? Did Annie own a cattle ranch in Texas?
- “Went Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel”. McHenry Plaindealer (McHenry, IL), 7 November 1901. newspapers.com.
- “Michigan Woman Safely Over the Horseshoe Fall”. Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), 25 October 1901. newspapers.com.
- “Barrel Trip Postponed, Aged Mrs. Taylor Will Go Over Niagara Falls Today”. News (Frederick, MD), 24 October 1901. newspapers.com.
- “Woman’s Daring Feat at Niagara”. St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), 25 October 1901. newspapers.com.
- “She Sought Notoriety”. The Republic (Columbus, IN), 26 October 1901. newspapers.com.
- Annie Edson Taylor, Over the Falls (Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor, 1902), 9.
- Carroll Andrew Edson, Edson Family History and Genealogy: Post Colonial Period (Lithographed by Edwards Brothers: Ann Arbor, 1969), 808.
- Ibid, 808-809.
- United States Federal Census, 1850, ancestry.com online database.
- New York State Census, 1855, ancestry.com online database.
- United States Federal Census, 1860, ancestry.com online database.
- Edson, Edson Family History and Genealogy: Post Colonial Period, 808-809.
- Ibid, 808.
- New York, U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedule, 1850, ancestry.com online database.
- Taylor, Over the Falls, 9.
- New York Conference Seminary School Catalogue, 1855, courtesy ancestry.com.
- Taylor, Over the Falls, 10.
- Edson, Edson Family History and Genealogy: Post Colonial Period, 810.
- United States Federal Census, 1860, ancestry.com online database.
- Delano James Edson (1836-1863), findagrave.com online database.
- New York, U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedule, 1860, ancestry.com online database.
- United States Federal Census, 1900, ancestry.com online database.
- Jane M Taylor Edson Kendall (1837-1921), findagrave.com online database.
- Taylor, Over the Falls, 10.
- Samuel D. Taylor (1833-1863), findagrave.com online database.
- https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/rosters/Infantry/147th_Infantry_CW_Roster.pdf, 191.
Fig. 1: Rare portrait of Annie Edson Taylor. From a cracked stereopticon slide. c. 1901. Courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library Digital Collection.
Fig. 2: Annie Edson Taylor Queen of the Mist after her trip over the Horseshoe Falls. October, 1901. Courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library Digital Collection. nflibrary.ca.
Fig. 3: “Woman Rode Over the Falls” – Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 25 October 1901. newspapers.com.
Fig. 4: Merrick Edson’s gravestone at Melrose cemetery in Cayuga County, New York, photo taken about 2014, courtesy ancestry.com.
Edson, Carroll Andrew. Edson Family History and Genealogy: Post Colonial Period. Ann Arbor, MI: Lithographed by Edwards Brothers, 1969.
Taylor, Annie Edson. Over the Falls. Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor, 1902. Can be found on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/overfallsannieed00tayluoft.