Daredevils and Deviants: Martha E. Wagenfurher, “Maid of the Rapids”

I am currently reading a wonderful (though fictional) book called The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and it has piqued my interest in carnival performers and feats of daring. “Circus life” fascinates me; there is something exotic, inspiring, quixotic, and peculiar the lifestyle. Today at Anonymous Works, the blog’s author and curator-of-the-peculiar, Joey posts about Martha E. Wagenfurher, “Maid of the Rapids.” Though not a circus worker, Martha falls into a similar category of performers living on the fringe, who eschew typical means of entertainment and seek to take themselves to unknown limits.

Martha E. Wagenfuhrer hailed from Buffalo, NY. The wife of a professional wrestler, her daring streak helped her devise a plan to be the first woman to ever shoot down Niagara Falls in a barrel. She timed her stunt to be on the exact day, and the exact time, that President William McKinley was to have a very public visit at the Falls on September 6, 1901. She expected it to be a widely publicized event, with loads of press vying to make her instantaneously famous. Unfortunately, fate was not on her side. First, as she arrived at the Falls, her barrel struck the bank and was damaged, delaying her feat. By the time she was ready at around 6pm, according to the New York Times article that followed the next day, the press had fled the raging waterfall’s banks, rushing to cover the assassination of President McKinley, which occurred mere hours after his morning Niagara visit.

In the description of the 1901 cabinet card pictured above, we learn of Martha’s fate:

Martha began her journey on the afternoon of September 6th, but before her barrel could be set afloat it sustained damage when it accidentally rolled down the bank of the river. Martha refused to go ahead with her stunt until the barrel was repaired and later that day, slightly before 6 p.m. Martha was helped inside her barrel.

Unfortunately for Martha her barrel was caught in the Whirlpool Rapids for over an hour. With darkness setting in it became necessary for the Great Gorge Railway Illumination Car to be brought to the Whirlpool so its search light could illuminate the surface of the river. When it was possible to finally retrieve the barrel Martha was found unconscious inside and barely breathing. It took over ten minutes to revive the woman.

She was featured in several publications, such as Cosmopolitan magazine, yet, as with most flash-in-the-pan performers, her story is overshadowed by the events of her time.

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