X: Barrel

Roll call of Niagara Falls daredevils and their fates

X: Barrel
A barrel for wine or whiskey. Photo by Charl Folscher / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is décadi, the 30th of Vendémiaire, Year CCXXXI. It's the last day of the month! We celebrate le tonneau, Donkey Kong's main weapon.

It's the end of wine month, so a quick overview of how wine barrels are made. Oak is traditionally used, split into even staves that are then dried in open air for 10 months to 3 years, with longer times leading to softer wines. (In cheaper wines, kilns are used to dry the wood quickly.) The wood is then heated with steam or open fire (which leads to more complex flavor) until they are pliable enough to bend into the familiar shape, which a cooper (yep, that's the job name) bands with steel. Finally, the inside of the barrel is charred or "toasted" to further reduce the tannins in the wood (or not, if a heavy-tannin wine is desired).

Someone looked at Niagara Falls and thought, "It would be fun to ride that in a wooden tube." Always Niagara Falls. Only Niagara Falls. Going over waterfalls in a barrel isn't a thing that's really spread to other places.

It all starts on this very day in Year CX (1901) with a woman named Annie Edison Taylor. She was broke and desperate and decided that the best way for a 60-something lady to get cash was to stage a publicity stunt, basically inventing the viral GoFundMe. A popular sport among daredevils of the time was swimming in the river just above the falls, trying to make it shore to shore without being swept over, which soon evolved to rafting the river on planks or, you guessed it, in barrels. Annie thought, why not go over?

She designed a barrel big and strong enough to hold her, then, on this very day, tested it by sending her cat down the falls. The cat survived (albeit with a bloody head and lifelong trust issues), so Annie set the date. On the 2nd of Brumaire (October 24), she sealed herself inside, had someone pressurize the air with a bike pump before plugging the bunghole with a cork, then rolled down with only her lucky heart-shaped pillow to protect her head.

She survived, promptly recommended against anyone ever doing that again, and became a sensation. Sadly, her barrel was stolen by her business manager and she spent her meagre life savings on detectives, trying to find it again, thus dying in poverty. Still, a craze was born. Let's look at the cavalcade of barrel rollers and their mixed fates.

Annie Edison Taylor, the original, with her custom barrel and her bruised cat.

Before we get into the next daredevil with a barrel and a dream, let's pause to remember Ed Delahanty, Washington Senators outfielder and one of the earliest big stars of baseball. The hall-of-famer died ignominiously in his prime when he was thrown off a train for drunkenly threatening people with a knife, then fell (or jumped) off the international bridge into the Niagara River. His body was recovered at the bottom of the falls and the notorious death probably did much more than Annie Edison Taylor's dire warnings to dissuade would-be barrelers.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

Bobby Leach

Ten years after Annie's plunge, circus performer Bobby Leach designed himself a steel barrel with a harness inside that he believed would keep him ship-shape for the plunge. He went over on the 6th of Thermidor CXIX (July 25, 1911) and suffered a broken jaw, several broken ribs, and two broken kneecaps for his trouble. After 23 weeks in the hospital, Leach toured the world on the basis of his stunt for 15 years, at which point he slipped on an orange peel in New Zealand and died of gangrene from the botched amputation of his broken leg.

Charles Stevens

Another decade later, that apparently being the amount of time necessary to forget how stupid this is, Charles Stevens, a full-time barber and part-time daredevil who had parachuted and high dived his way to notoriety, made the attempt in yet another custom barrel. Stevens figured the key to a smooth ride was ballast to keep from rolling and to stay upright. For this, he placed an anvil in the barrel with him and strapped his feet to it. He plunged on the 23rd of Messidor CXXVIII (July 11, 1920). Only his right arm was ever seen again.

George Stathakis

After a French guy survived the drop in a ball (therefore of no interest to us on barrel day), George Stathakis, a Greek immigrant and chef, went back to the custom barrel idea. He designed an extremely sturdy 2,000-pound wood-and-steel barrel and got Heinz 57 ketchup to sponsor him. It's another 10 years later, and this time there's video showing him climbing in with his 150-year-old turtle and waving goodbye. His barrel went over on the 15th of Messidor CXXXVIII (July 4, 1930) and promptly sank. When it finally bobbed back up, people on the shore opened the tube and triumphantly removed Sonny, the turtle, to a round of applause. Then they discovered there wasn't enough air for George. To distract the crowd from the grisly result, the turtle was held aloft again for another ovation.

William "Red" Hill, Jr.

It would be 20 years, this time, until the next barrel-shaped contraption went over. "Wild Bill" Hill was the son of a man who attempted to advise George Stathakis that his contraption was not buoyant enough to be safe, and in an act of, I assume, filial duty to the soundness of the advice, "Wild Bill" made himself a barrel entirely out of tires and innertubes. He wrapped the whole stack of rubber in a net and called it "The Thing." Said thing went over the lip on the 17th of Thermidor CLIX (August 5, 1951), breaking apart in the turbulent waters and killing Hill on impact. The United States and Canada immediately banned Niagara Falls stunts, threatening fines to any more innovative barrel-devils.

Karel Soucek

Now it would take 30 years for someone to brave both the falls and the fines, in this case a Czech man named Karel Soucek who dubbed himself "the last of the Niagara daredevils." His plunge on the 15th of Messidor CXCII (July 3, 1984) was completely successful, with only a chipped tooth and split lip from his wristwatch to bother him. So charmed with his mastery of waterfall barrel technology, Soucek set up a stunt a year later where he would be dropped in the barrel from the rafters of the Houston Astrodome into a 9-foot-deep pool. The barrel missed the pool, and Soucek died.

Steve Trotter

Barrel technology now up to snuff, a 22-year-old Steve Trotter made a safe plunge just when Soucek was setting up his ill-fated Astrodome trick, the 30th of Thermidor CXCIII (August 18, 1985). He enjoyed it so much, he did it again (despite the hefty fines) ten years later, this time with his girlfriend in the barrel, on the 30th of Prairial CCIII (June 18, 1995), while listening to Pearl Jam.

David Munday

The last of the true barrel riders (everything after was more of a tubular submarine ... or something far, far dumber like an inflatable ball or jet ski) was David Munday, the first to actually drop twice. He went over on the 13th of Vendémiaire CXCIV (October 5, 1985) in what's hopefully the last barrel drop, then again in a small enclosed boat on the 1st of Vendémiaire (New Year's Day!) CCII (September 26, 1993). Lest you think the falls have become a mere waterslide after the barrel breakthrough of the '80s, four more people have died since Munday's second stunt, and the practice remains as illegal as it is foolish.

Today's card: 10 of hearts

10 of hearts. From a standard Bicycle deck.
From a standard Bicycle deck.
Décadi: The outcome position, or what we should take away from this entire meditation. Ten: A card of completion and turnaround. Hearts: A suit about the spiritual energy (the love, the emotion) we put into the universe.

Click for a recap of the story so far...

You're feeling a strong power in the universe (Q♣) to begin a new journey (A♣) that's likely to happen no matter what (A♣) and involves pouring your emotions into someone or something (Q♥), but fear of work interfering (Q♠) keeps you inactive (K-weeds). The first thing to do is, simply, to do something (J♠). Be wary, there may be a close friend who discourages you (5♠), but with modesty you may win their support (4♠).

I attempted to get the clearest answer possible by eschewing unique decks and heading for an old standard poker deck (literally an Amtrak deck from the early 1980s). This paid off, and the outcome card couldn't be clearer: despite the obstacles, despite the fears, despite the sacrifices, go for it.

A ten signifies a sense of completeness, and harnessing all the queen energy into something or someone new is going to lead to a complete outpouring of your energies in a way that will be invigorating and life changing. It's been a long Celtic Cross full of dithering and careful consideration, but the upshot is that you feel a need to share the abundance of your heart, and the cards say you'll be rewarded for it.

Furthermore, the Ace of clubs, which we haven't talked about much, is there twice to warn you that this is happening one way or another, so you might as well step forward (Jack of spades) and take agency in the situation.

Thank you so much to all my subscribers and citoyens for your support this first month of the year. I can't wait to welcome the next month with you all, the chilly Brumaire and all its birds and trees. If you're a contributing subscriber and have a query you'd like to see covered in one of next month's décades, drop it in on the comments on this post. Merci!

Final Celtic Cross: Queen of hearts, Ace of clubs, Ace of clubs, King of weeds, Queen of spades, Queen of clubs, Jack of spades, Five of spades, Four of spades, Ten of hearts.

Something fun: Finally, safe barrels in the water (3mins)

A little surfing zen for the weekend.