Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel




On October 24th 1901, Annie EdisonTaylor’s  63rd birthday, she took the plunge.

So who was Annie Edison Taylor and why would she try such a daredevil act?  It’s not like Annie had always been a tomboy  doing crazy, daring things.  When young, she liked to read, play outside, but nothing noticeably daring.  She married at 17, her husband was killed seven years later fighting in the Civil War.  They had no children.

Poverty was a way of life for Annie.  She became a school teacher and eeked out a living always dreaming of becoming rich and famous.  Being the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?  Why not?  That surely would bring her fame and fortune.  Even more so because she was a woman.  And so her plans began.

Taylor used a custom-made barrel for her trip, constructed of oak and iron and padded with a mattress.[4] 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. Contrary to rumors at the time, the cat survived the plunge.  Seventeen minutes after the barrel tipped over the edge of the falls, the cat was found.  Her only wound was a bleeding gash to the head.  She is seen here posing with Annie.


Finally the day arrived, October 24th, 1901.  The barrel was put over the side of a rowboat, held steady by her friends while Annie climbed in, heart beating, clutching her lucky heart-shaped pillow. After screwing down the lid, friends used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air in the barrel, plugging the air hole with a cork.  They held their breath and let go of the barrel.  Annie Taylor was set adrift near the American shore, south of Goat Island.

The Niagara River currents carried the barrel bumping crazily off rocks toward the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, which since has been the site for all daredevil stunting at Niagara Falls. Silently spectators watched as the barrel caught up momentarily, spun crazily and then disappeared over the edge of the falls.  An audible sigh rippled through the crowd.  Few believed that she would survive.

The ride over the falls took minutes,  a bit longer for rescuers to reach her barrel.  Time stood still as they pried open the lid.  A roar of elation erupted as Annie Taylor clambered out of the barrel escaping, like her cat predecessor,  with nothing but a small gash on her head.  The trip over the falls had taken less than twenty minutes, but for Annie it was a timeless lapse between life and death.  She 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 Falls.”

Today the police would be there to greet you for going over the falls is now illegal.

What made Annie decide to go over the falls?  She did not want to end up in the “POOR HOUSE.”    Annie survived the falls, but was done in by her manager, Frank M. Russell, who stole her money and her barrel.  With her last dollars she hired a detective to track him down.  The barrel was eventually found in Chicago, but later disappeared. Frank was never found.

Annie’s dream of fame and fortune never materialized.  She traveled the country attempting to make a living for herself with speaking engagements.  She soon discovered the public has a short memory.   Annie tried her hand at teaching, writing, films, clairvoyant…even attempted making money at the New York Stock Exchange.  Her fortune goal was never achieved.



Annie’s Place

Annie Taylor died on April 29, 1921, age 83, at the Niagara County Infirmary in Lockport, New York.  The Poor House?   It didn’t matter where Annie died.  For a short time in her life she was #1…the first person to accomplish and survive the daredevil act of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Her place in history was secured.  Her fame lives on. She is interred in the “Stunters Section” of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.




Why did the U.S. Federal Government hang Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed in the United States?

Was Mary Surratt complicit in the assassination of President Lincoln?



Mary Surratt

Surratt House Museum Photograph

  Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt, born 1823, Waterloo, Maryland.

  Married at the age of 17, 1840 to:

 John. H. Surratt age 28.

John Surratt’s  reputation was less than honorable with rumors of a child born out of wedlock. He became a Catholic when he and Mary married. Although he was a notorious drinker, (and a rumored wife abuser) he managed to acquire land, build multiple businesses: carriage house, hotel, general store, stable, gristmill, become Postmaster in Surrattville. The Surratt’s owned several slaves and were wealthy enough to send their three children  to private school.


In 1851 a fire destroyed the Surratt farm home.  John built their new home/tavern near Mary’s birthplace, Prince George’s County.  By 1854 this building became a polling place and post office with John becoming the first Postmaster.  The area became known as Surrattville  The Surratt house was a gathering center for local people to gossip and discuss politics as the Civil War stirred the country.  Mary made no secrete that her sympathies lay with the south. Before John Surratt died (1862) he purchased a Washington D.C property on H. Street.  His death left the family in financial ruin, a result of his boozing and financial speculation.

Mary leased the family property(tavern) to a former police officer, John M. Lloyd. She and her daughter, Anna, moved to Washington City  where she supported herself by turning the home into a boarding house.  By this time, Isaac, her oldest son was serving in the Confederate Army and John Jr., her youngest child, remained in Surratsville where he worked as the local postmaster.

The family’s involvement with the Confederacy was an issue in Mary’s trial when it was disclosed that weapons belonging to confederate agents were stored in the Surratville tavern.  Young John Jr. was an active currier for the confederates.

Mary’s children:  Isaac, Anna, John Jr.

Did President Lincoln foresee his death?


President Lincoln speaks of a death premonition to his former

law partner, body guard, friend, Ward Hill Lamon.

“A few days ago, I retired very late.  I had been up waiting

for important dispatches from the front.  I could not have

been long in bed when I fell into a slumber for I was weary.

I soon began to dream.  There seemed to be a death-like

stillness about me.  Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a

number of people were weeping.  I thought I left my bed

and wandered downstairs.  There the silence was broken

by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible.

I went from room to room; no living person was in sight,

but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as

I passed along.  I saw light in all the rooms; every object

was familiar to me; but where were all the people who

were grieving as if their hearts would break?  I was puzzled 

and alarmed.  What could be the meaning of all this? 

Determined to find the cause of a state of things so

mysterious and shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the

East Room, which I entered. There I was met with a

sickening surprise.  Before me was a catafalque, on which

rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments.  Around

it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and

there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the

corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 

‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of

the soldiers.’The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was

killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief

from the crowd which woke me from my dream.  I slept

no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I

have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.”

Lincoln reading to his son, Tad.



 Lincoln was shot on April 15, 1865.  Investigators were at Surratt’s house almost immediately as John Surratt was under suspicion of being a confederate  spy.  Mary Surratt was arrested on April 17 as a conspirator in the assassination of the president. John Surratt Jr. was in Elmira, New York at the time of the assassination

Mary hired Reverdy Johnson, an experienced lawyer and a senator from Maryland.   He argued heatedly that legally she should be tried in a civilian court, that the military had no jurisdiction over her.  The Tribunal,  which had been appointed by President Johnson, disregarded his argument.

After making his jurisdictional plea, Reverdy Johnson turned Mary Surratt’s defense over to Frederick Aiken, a young lawyer with little (or no) courtroom experience.  Having served as a Union officer, during the previous four years, Aiken was hardly the best person to defend Surratt.

Despite his lack of courtroom expertise, Aiken reluctantly became Mary’s defense lawyer.  He was assisted, in Surratt’s defense, by John W. Clampitt.Aiken, like Johnson, also believed the use of a military commission to try his client was highly prejudicial.

Mary was upset that Mr. Johnson did not defend her.  It was obvious to her that Aiken and his partner were amateurs. She failed to recognize the fact that the prosecution had weeks to prepare their case will Aiken had but three days after he was informed of the charges brought against her.

As the trial advanced, the relationship between accused and defender grew into a respectful recognition of each of their rights and effort to seek justice.

The head judgeMajor General David Hunter – was a close friend (and pall bearer) of President Lincoln.  He had no interest in hearing arguments that President Johnson’s orderrequiring military justice in the Surratt matter – was wrong.  And, he had no problem with the dual roles of Joseph Holt (as chief prosecutor and impartial legal adviser to the tribunal) – at least, not initially.

(The photo  is a Library of Congress photograph of Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse taken during the nineteenth century.)  During the Civil War, Mary’s son, John Jr., became an active Confederate spy and messenger. He met John Wilkes Booth early in 1865. Booth became a frequent visitor to Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse. Other people, later identified as co-conspirators, also frequented the boardinghouse. It is unclear if Mary Surratt knew what all the “activity” was about.

On April 11, 1865, Mrs. Surratt made a trip to Surrattsville. She traveled with Louis J. Weichmann, one of her boarders. During the trip, they met John Lloyd on the road at Uniontown. According to Lloyd, Mrs. Surratt told him the “shooting irons” would be needed soon. This was a reference to the rifles which had been hidden in the tavern by Booth’s co-conspirators.

Of all the witnesses against the defendants, the two former prisoners who made a deal  with the prosecutors: they were released and promised full  immunity: John Lloyd, Louis Weichman – were the most damaging against Mary Surratt.  Weichmann said that Booth, the assassin, frequently talked privately with Mary, at her home.  The last time he saw Mrs. Surratt confer with Booth was the afternoon of the shooting.


John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

Fred Aiken did the best he could to discredit Lloyd.  Many witnesses testified Lloyd was very drunk before Mary Surratt arrived at her property that afternoon. Further, the way he told the story was itself unclear, raising the likelihood of ‘reasonable doubt.‘  But this was not a civilian trial, where ‘reasonable doubt’ plays a key role.  This was a military tribunal where evidence is assessed differently, where the accused have to prove their innocence rather than the court having to prove their guilt.

It was purported that Booth originally planned to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. In connection with that plot, some of Booth’s co-conspirators hid two Spencer carbines in the joists of an unfinished loft in John Lloyd’s leased tavern. Apparently Lloyd had misgivings over the hiding of weapons in the building, but he allowed it to happen. Mary Surratt claimed total innocence. She said she knew nothing of Booth’s plans, and that her trips to Surrattsville had to do with collecting some money she was owed by a man named John Nothey.

Mrs. Surratt’s  claim that she had never seen Lewis Powell (another conspirator on trial) before when he appeared at her boardinghouse on April 17 when authorities were questioning her, aroused suspicion for he had been there many times before the assassination. Was she lying, or was this due to dim light and poor eyesight as one of the witnesses claimed?

In court Mrs. Surratt was dressed in black,  her head covered in a black bonnet. Her face curtained  behind a veil. Due to her worsening health, she was not present the last four days of her trial  The final jury vote was guilty which carried the death penalty.  Five of the jurors claimed to have added a recommendation for mercy due to her “sex and age.” The recommendation was that the penalty of hanging be changed to life in prison.

In jail, Lewis Powell (another conspirator maintained Mrs. Surratt was 100% innocent. However, she was convicted  due to the testimony of John Lloyd and Louis Weichmann. These men drew great criticism for their testimony. It is rumored that on his deathbead June 2, 1902, Weichmann (60)  allegedly called to his sisters, asking them to get pen and paper, and told them to write, “This is to certify that every word I gave in evidence at the assassination trial was absolutely true; and now I am about to die and with love I recommend myself to all truth-loving people.  “However, this statement has never been produced and must presumed to be lost.

John Lloyd stuck to his damaging testimony at the 1867 civilian trial of John Surratt Jr. who was released when the trial was declared a ‘mistrial’.

 The “rush to judgment“: Lincoln Assassination:  April 15, 1865.   Mary Surratt’s  and co conspirators’ trial began on May 9, 1865.  Fifty-one days later she was found guilty on June 29/30, and hung seven days later on July 7, 1865.

The summation for acquittal was handled jointly by  Redery Johnson who again argued the  jurisdictional issue:  military tribunal to be illegal, (which future Supreme Court’s decision established ) and by Aiken, Mary’s counsel, who claimed all evidence presented was “circumstantial.

Aiken’s final plea before the tribunal was: “Let not this first State tribunal in our country’s history, which involves a woman’s name, be blazoned before the world with the harsh tints of intolerance, which permits injustice.”

The first vote by the Military Commission was 5 for acquittal, 4 guilty  with a sentence of hanging.  Six  of the nine votes were required to convict.  Stanton and Holt were furious.  They expected the death penalty.  After conferring with Stanton, Holt returned and offered the dissenting officers:  Generals Hunter, Kautz, Foster, Ekin and Col. Tompkins  a compromise: if they (5 votes) would change their vote to guilty,For the sake of legal consistency”  which would “Save face” for the Military Tribunal, they could then petition the president to grant Mary Surratt “clemency” (life in prison vrs. hanging) which Holt assured the officers he would convince the president to issue, a promise that Holt never kept.

The five dissenting members of the commission sent  President Andrew Johnson the following request recommending clemency for Mary Surratt:

** The undersigned members of the Military Commission detailed to try Mary E. Surratt and others for the conspiracy and the murder of Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States, do respectively pray the President, (Johnson) in consideration of the sex and age of the said Mary E. Surratt, if he can upon all the facts in the case, find it consistent with his sense of duty to the country to commute the sentence of death to imprisonment in the penitentiary for life. **
It has been suggested that the above statement was concocted by Holt or Stanton because of its vagueness.

 After the fact, Major General Hunter, President of the Military Commission stated, ” This (compromise) was done in violation of all principles of laws and equity.”

The gallant effort of Aiken to provide his client with the rights guaranteed by U.S. Law which he believed he had achieved through a last-minute, middle-of-the-night  effort when he filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus which he presented to Judge Andrew Wylie.  When the writ  was granted, and presented through proper channels to President Johnson, Aiken believed his client might actually have a chance in a civilian court. His plea was promptly set aside by President Johnson: as written,

“I … do hereby declare that the writ of habeas corpus has been … suspended in such cases as this, and I do hereby especially suspend this writ, and direct that you proceed to execute the order heretofore given upon the judgment of the Military Commission…”

President Andrew Johnson maintained that he never was shown the plea for mercy. Judge Advocate Joseph Holt said he had been in Johnson’s presence when the president read the plea. Johnson was quoted as saying that Mary Surratt “kept the nest that hatched the egg.”

Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter, made great effort to see the President,  as did many other people to beg him to spare Mary Surratt’s life, but they were all turned away.  Although Aiken had attempted  to reach John Jr. through the priest that visited Mary Surratt in jail,  John failed to respond.

The people in charge of the case against the conspirators, the  federal government: Stanton, Secretary of War, General Holt, President Johnson  would not be dissuaded from their course of action. 

It appears that Mary was not convicted by the Military Commission, but by the U.S. Government.

Even Captain Christian Rath, the hangman, did not expect Mrs. Surratt to be executed. In his personal account of the hanging he stated, “The night before the execution I took the rope to my room and there made the nooses. I preserved the piece of rope intended for Mrs. Surratt for the last. By the time I got at this I was tired, and I admit that I rather slighted the job. Instead of putting seven turns to the knot – as a regulation hangman’s knot has seven turns – I put only five in this one. I really did not think Mrs. Surratt would be swung from the end of it, but she was, and it was demonstrated to my satisfaction, at least, that a five-turn knot will perform as successful a job as a seven-turn knot.
The prison door opened and the condemned came out.  Mrs. Surratt was first, near fainting after looking at the gallows.  She would have fallen had they not supported her.  Herold was next.  The young man was frightened to death.  He trembled and shook and seemed on the verge of fainting.  Atzerodt shuffled along in carpet slippers, a long white nightcap on his head.  Under different circumstances, he would have been ridiculous.
The four condemned prisoners stood, hooded, nooses around their necks.  At approximately 1:26 P.M., July 7, 1865, with the temperature soaring into the 90’s, the signal was given. The two soldiers underneath the gallows knocked away the supporting posts with long poles, and the trap doors snapped downward. The bodies of the four victims dropped about five to six feet and then came up with a sharp jerk at the end of each rope.
It appeared that Mary was the “lucky” one for she died almost immediately, the others struggledIt took over 4 minutes for Powell to die.
Mary Surratt, 42, the first woman to be hanged by the United States government, is the body hanging at the left. Virtually everyone expected her sentence to be commuted by President Andrew Johnson, but it was not. From the left, after Mary Surratt, hang the bodies of Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. Roughly 1,000 people, viewing from walls, the courtyard, and buildings, witnessed the affair. Because such a large number of people wished to view the execution, tickets had been issued to limit the actual number in the courtyard.
Approximately 25 minutes elapsed before the bodies were cut down. Doctors then examined them as they lay on top of their coffins which were crude gun boxes. The bodies (with hanging-caps still on) were buried in shallow graves next to the gallows. Pieces of the gallows were soon distributed as souvenirs.
In 1867 the remains of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold were removed from the shallow graves in the prison yard. They were placed in a storage building nearby. After the execution, Anna Surratt made several pleas for the body of her mother and finally in February, 1869 President Andrew Johnson issued an order allowing the bodies to be released to their respective families. Family members claimed all bodies with the lone exception of Lewis Powell. For more details, please see the September 2000 issue of the Surratt Courier.
Mary Surratt was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington D.C.
Mary Surratt2
Funds were raised by the Surratt Society  organization.  A copper plaque was placed on Mary Surratt’s headstone reading:
“The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and the lament of malice shall not touch them.  In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, but they are at peace.”
Ghosts?  For those who believe, the ghost of Mary Surratt has been seen in her boarding house, at her execution site, in the tavern.  Is she at peace? 
Sources Farquhar, Michael, “The Haunting Tale of Mary Surratt; They Hanged Her in 1865.  Did Her Ghost Escape the Gallows?,” Washington Post, October 31, 1991.
Frederick Aiken is a mystery.  Even his birth has conflicting documents, was he  born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1832 or in Boston in 1837 or was it Shrewsbury, Mass.?
Was his middle name Agustus or Argyle or does it matter?  What happened to Sarah Weston, his wife, married in 1857. They moved to Washington DC in 1860.  Was he a lawyer ( Vermont) or a journalist, Washington Post
He was wounded in battle (had two horses shot out from under him as the story goes) fighting for the Yanks.  Worked his way up to Colonel. Became defense attorney for Mary Surratt accused conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln.
After the trial he returned to journalism and became the editor of the Washington Post.  He died of a heart condition  in 1877 (attributed to his war injuries) at the age of 42. He was buried in an unmarked grave  in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington.  in 2012 the Surratt Society from Surrattville raised funds and purchased a headstone for his grave.  It was placed on his grave with a ceremony attended to by distant relatives.

Joseph Holt – the chief prosecutor against the Lincoln conspirators who (unlike any of the defense lawyers) had private discussions with the military commissioners (the deciders of the case) because he was their legal adviser – became reclusive after the trial.  He came to believe that the legal process used to try the conspirators – the military commissionwasn’t legal after all.

When the trial was over, and the executed defendants were in their graves, Holt was accused of keeping evidence from the defense and the plea for clemency from the President.  One piece of evidence was notably absent from the trial – the diary of John Wilkes Booth.

Holt saw that diary before the trial began, since soldiers found it when they captured Booth. The prosecution would thus have known, from Booth’s own words, about the timing of the assassination plot.

The diary would have been a key piece of evidence for the defendants, but it was “locked in a safe.”  It is doubtful any of the defense lawyers knew it existed (or, if they did, what it said).  Civilian court rules, mandating evidence disclosure, did not apply in a military trial.

Booth’s diary went missing for a time.  Two years after the conspiracy trial, it turned-up in the War Department … with … eighteen missing pages.  (Actually, the FBI later counted 43 missing sheets, meaning 86 missing pages.)

No one could explain what had happened, but the diary was used in the trial to impeach President Andrew Johnson in 1887.  He was impeached by the house and came one vote short of being impeached by the Senate.

Today the Surratt  boardinghouse is the Wok and Roll Restaurant (left), and the tavern (pictured below) is the Surratt House Museum.The Surratt House Museum complex is owned and operated by a government agency, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Department of Parks and Recreation, Prince George’s County, Natural and Historical Resources Division. The volunteer Surratt Society, among many wonderful things, assists with the interpretation of the site. It has been a very productive joint effort between public and private support for over 30 years.



Robert Redford’s  movie, “The Conspirator” retraces the full story of the assassination of President Lincoln.  Historians have pointed out the “manydiscrepanciessize of beds, lightingbeards, , etc., etc.  Some give, grudgingly, praise for his accuracy in the legal details.  Seeing the movie has resulted in my need to know more details, thus my rather lengthy summation of the facts I have gleaned from different sources on the internet.  

                               Minny’s Musings:  THE RUSH TO JUDGMENT

Minni Pearl BMW Auto form pg 3 2
Was Mary Surratt innocent or guilty of conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln? Even today the question is debated. The horror of her story, in my mind, lies not with that question, but rather it is the travesty of her trial which flagrantly ignored the laws of the constitution written by our founding fathers. Stanton, Secretary of War was pivotal in the hanging of Mary Surratt and as things appear, he was in collusion with President Johnson whose  statement, “Mary Surratt kept the nest that hatched the egg.” was indicative of the Presidents prejudices against the accused.  Does that statement imply that every mother should be tried for their off- spring’s crimes?
I feel bound to compare the political atmosphere and the travesty of “justice” in those very beginning days of our country to today’s political shenanigans and am compelled to see a parallel in yesterday’s and today’s “justice.”   A sadness of broken faith leaves a bitter taste. 
Guantanamo is mute evidence of the maneuvering our delegated leaders go to get around our laws.  Torture, kidnapping, imprisonment without charge (but not on US soil!)  Over ten years of such horror.  A situation that I thought was indicative of our lost freedoms and then I  saw “The Conspirators” and read of Mary Surratt’s travesty of justice and my sadness deepens. How can historians say Mary was not “railroaded”?  Her son John Jr. was tried for the exact same crime and he, an admitted spy, was acquitted through a civil court mistrial.   Does the end justify the means?  “Stanton and Holt trying to save the Union?”    I wonder what President Lincoln would have done?  Was Mary guilty?  Does it matter? 
Today we have spying by the NSA, (1984?) drones killing people without any form of justice, people kidnapped and tortured (Extroadinary Rendition?) all in the name of “security“?  A high price to pay.
When I hear an old tape of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”, I yearn for the simple belief I had in a country that opened its gates to the down trodden. Was it all a lie? An illusion? Perhaps it is my age that yearns for a hand over my heart and a pledge of allegiance, a lump in my throat when I hear The Star Spangled Banner.  Sappy I guess but…those were the days.  The joy was in the believing.







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