She Survived the Falls But Fell to Gender Bias



One hundred years ago, the myth of Niagara Falls was conquered when an unlikely local survived a barrel trip over the falls. Instead of a young, handsome hero, it was Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old unemployed schoolteacher, who beat nature in hopes of lining her pockets with the profits of a lecture tour about her experience.

The world of 1901, however, was not ready to accept Taylor as a hero.

Joan Murray, author of "Queen of the Mist: The Forgotten Heroine of Niagara," gave one of a week's wroth of talks about Taylor's failed success in UB's Allen Hall Friday night. The discussion, part of the Just Buffalo Literary Center's "If All of Buffalo Read the Same Book" program, was broadcast on WBFO's "Book Club of the Air."

"Annie Taylor beat the Falls but not the prejudices of the early 20th century," said Bert Gambini, the discussion's host and moderator.

The audience of about 25 people had all read "Queen of the Mist" as part of the Just Buffalo program. Murray's book, which is written in the form of an epic poem, often takes on Taylor's voice to tell her story.

"Annie has become a living presence because of Joan's writing and imagination," said one of the audience members.

Murray read long excerpts from her book relating to ageism and society's resistance to Taylor as a hero. The excerpts feed discussion on societal perceptions of aging and how Taylor's life was affected by her trip over the Falls.

Expecting to save her self from the poorhouse, Taylor attempted to mimic the successes of male athletes and performers on the lecture circuit, but couldn't manage to cash in on her experience. She died in her 80s in a Lockport infirmary, still poor and never widely recognized for her accomplishment.

"She would have been seen as a really strange person [due to her gender] trying to be out there," said panelist Gretchen Stringer.

Stringer added that the lack of recognition Taylor received cannot be labeled prejudice because women in the early 20th century were rarely seen in a public forum. Panelists and audience members debated whether Taylor would have been more successful if she had had an emotional support system.

"If she had lived today, she would have had a teacher's union behind her," said Stringer.