Three People Who Went Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel and Didn’t Die
Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel is one of those ideas that’s so ingrained in culture that we never stop to say… Hang on, what the hell was the deal with that?
It all (kinda, sorta) started with Carlisle Graham, a barrelmaker who is probably the person responsible for the association between Niagara Falls and barrels, an association that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. After all, if you were going over a waterfall, would a barrel really be the thing you’d reach for to ensure your safety? Graham seemed to think so, possibly due to years of having barrels on the brain, and made his first attempt in 1886, being immediately arrested for attempting suicide.
He made several more attempts, journeying through the rapids rather than going down Horseshoe Falls, the big drop we tend to picture when we think of Niagara Falls. On his second journey, he went through with his head sticking out of the barrel and lost his hearing in one ear after a wave hit it.
While he didn’t do the Falls as we think of it, he established the idea of barrels down Niagara being a thing. After a great many narrow escapes both in and out of the barrel — he later focused on swimming through rapids — he ended up dying of a cold at the age of 58 while visiting Wyoming, a pretty undramatic exit for a man who looked death in the face repeatedly.
A few others who took a barrel down the Falls were equally lucky — and in one piece when they finished. Daredevils like…
The Woman Who Blazed the Trail Only to Have Her Barrel Stolen
Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to ever successfully go over the biggie, Horseshoe Falls, in a barrel, on her 63rd birthday, October 24, 1901. Taylor didn’t particularly want to go over Niagara Falls, but she was convinced that doing so would get her the money she felt she needed to excel in life. She was convinced she existed in a social echelon lower than she should, and the combination of a cash injection and a few lies about her age (she claimed to be 22 years younger than she was) would lead her to hobnobbing with “the cultured and refined.” “It will be my fame and fortune or instant death,” she wrote.
On the day of the jump, she was screwed into a custom-made reinforced barrel with her self-proclaimed nickname — “Queen of the Mist” — emblazoned on it and a cushion inside for her head. Air was pumped into it with bicycle pumps (compressing as much air into it as possible meant increased buoyancy) and off she went. When the barrel was opened, she had a cut on her head and was described as “hysterical,” but was alive, the first person to ever survive going over the Falls in a barrel. She proclaimed she wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars, and would rather face down a cannon than repeat her stunt.
Sadly the riches she was hoping for eluded her — her manager absconded with her barrel and she found herself running a “house of ill repute” before dying in the country poorhouse.
The Man Who Beat the Giant Falls But Was Killed by a Small Clumsy One
A decade after Taylor, Bobby Leach became the second person to survive a trip down the Falls in a barrel. A former member of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, where he worked as a high diver and swimming stunt performer, he was used to big drops. In 1908 he dived from the Steel Arch Bridge at Niagara, at 208 feet a good 40 feet higher than the Falls themselves, although with a more straightforward landing. He had also spent several years boasting about how he could outdo Taylor whenever he chose to.
On July 25, 1911 he did it, clambering into a harness within a barrel and going over the Falls. He had a rough landing, which snapped his harness and led to two broken knees and a broken jaw, but he’d done it. He continued to perform stunts into old age, including climbing from one plane to another over Lake Erie at the age of 67. When he was in New Zealand on a lecture tour sharing the tales of his exploits, Leach slipped on a piece of orange peel and broke his leg. It soon became gangrenous and had to be amputated, and due to complications during the operation, Leach died, a man who had beaten Niagara Falls killed by a discarded bit of citrus fruit.
The Man Who Misunderstood Anvils
Okay, a brief interlude to account for one of the unlucky ones — if for no other reason than for context for our last entry. In 1920, Charles Stephens, also known by the absurdly cool nickname “the Demon Barber of Bedminster,” wanted to be the third person to cross the Falls in a barrel. He was extremely confident, having performed stunts in his native Britain including parachuting from hot-air balloons, and had no doubts whatsoever that he would be successful and make a fortune for his wife Annie and their 11 children.
According to Popular Science, before entering the barrel he confidently declared the whole thing “a cool commercial proposition.” He was also so confident that, unlike the other stunt performers on this list, he didn’t test out the barrel at all beforehand. He tied himself into it, binding his feet to an anvil in the bottom of it serving as ballast. When he went over the Falls, the anvil crashed through the bottom of the barrel, taking most of Stephens with it, leaving only one arm behind. The arm sported a tattoo: “Don’t Forget Me, Annie.”
Dude, you fathered an entire football team with her, then tore yourself apart with an anvil at a tourist hot-spot, she won’t.
The Man Who Reinvented the Barrel
Canadian Jean Lussier, according to different sources, either witnessed Leach’s stunt as a boy or heard about Stephens’ grotesque death while visiting Niagara — either way, he was fascinated with the idea of going over the Falls. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that, rather than a barrel, the ideal thing to use was a giant rubber ball. In 1928, at the age of 36 he spent $7,000 — the equivalent of about $125,000 today — having a 758-pound, 6-foot sphere custom-made by a company in Ohio, lined with oxygen tanks, straps and pillows, coated in a thin layer of steel with extra rubber stabilizers, and weighted at the bottom to keep it upright.
But by the time he had drifted downstream to Horseshoe Falls, the stabilizers had come off and the weight was dislodged, so he went over it upside-down, bouncing six or seven times after landing, somehow escaping with only bruises. The Winnipeg Tribune described the scene when he emerged: “His sister kissed him. Many other women tried to do likewise. A few succeeded.” Lussier told the paper, “I could do it again, I am sure, but once was enough for me.”
Lussier lived in Niagara for most of the rest of his life, selling bits of his rubber ball (and occasionally selling bits of old tire and lying about it) before dying of natural causes, the right way up, at 71.