It’s human nature to look at something as majestic as Niagara Falls and decide, “That’s big and cool. I’m gonna do something dumb to it.” I really can’t explain it, but there’s no other logical reason you’ll find so many people attempting to go over the thing in a barrel or to cross it on a tightrope. There’s even an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to “objects that have gone over Niagara Falls” (including people and animals, both intentional and non-intentional). No less than 13 other people have intentionally attempted to go over the falls in or on things– and not all of them survived. If you do make it over the falls alive, you’ll be slapped with a massive fine, since it’s suuuuper illegal to attempt a stunt like that.
The first person to successfully go over the falls in a barrel was a 63-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor, who declared, “No one ought ever do that again.” She used a custom-made, oak-and-iron barrel that was padded with a mattress. She actually tested the barrel, too; she sent a cat over the falls in it, and it did survive. Her reasons for taking the journey over the falls were financial; she was having a hard time finding a job and in a desperate bid to avoid the poorhouse, hoped that she could earn money speaking about her experience going over the falls. It didn’t really work out for her, sadly.
She earned a bit of money posing for pictures and giving talks, but most of that was spent on a private detective to hunt down her manager, who stole the barrel she used to go over the falls and disappeared. She always cautioned others against going over the falls, saying, “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.” And yet… people didn’t listen.
Ex-Barnum and Bailey stuntman Bobby Leach was the second person to go over the falls and live; he completed the stunt in 1911, after years of saying that anything Annie could do, he could do better. Unlike Annie, he was able to tour successfully… after spending six months in the hospital recovering from numerous injuries sustained during the feat, including two broken knee caps and a fractured jaw. And, even though he was able to conquer the Mighty Niagara, he died 15 years later after slipping on an orange peel and contracting gangrene. Fun fact.
After barrels, rubber balls were another popular vessel to cross the falls in; some who attempted this survived, while others didn’t. And, crossing the falls over a tightrope was a huge trend at the end of the 19th century– one woman even did it several times, once with her hands and wrists manacled, and another time blindfolded. Of course, that’s now illegal as well, although famed tightrope walker Nik Wallenda did it in 2012 after getting special permission from both the Canadian and US governments.
Another more modern trend was to go over the falls to raise awareness for special causes. On September 28, 1989, two men, Peter De Bernardi and Jeffery James Petkovich, survived a trip over the falls in a reinforced barrel to bring attention to an anti-drugs campaign. In October of 1995, a man named Robert Overacker attempted to ride a Jet Ski over the falls to raise awareness for homelessness; he died when the Jet Ski’s rocket-propelled parachute failed to open.
More often than not, though, attempts to go over the falls end in tragedy. In 1920, Charles Stephens (aka The Demon Barber of Bedminster), a barber-turned-stuntman, was the first to die going over the falls in a barrel, which he refused to test before the stunt. And, of course, there have been many accidents and attempts to die by suicide going over the falls, some successful and some not. Consider that it wasn’t until 2003 that the first person survived going over the falls unaided. The survival rate for going over the falls is about 25%. So… let’s just say that the falls are best enjoyed from behind the safety of the railings.