Frank "Tussy" Russell manager of Annie Taylor "First woman to survive shooting Horseshoe Falls in a Barrel"
A couple of months ago while perched on the edge of my comfy couch and watching Nick Wallenda traverse a corded cable stretched across the mighty Niagara Falls, I was reminded of one of my favorite family stories. My mother in law Margaret, family historian for her own Smith/Black relatives, first mentioned my father in law, Louis Boehm’s connection to one Frank “Tussy” Russell. Frank Russell was known as a carnival and fair promoter in Bay City, Michigan when he was hired by school teacher Annie Edson Taylor. On October 24, 1901, Annie became the first person to go over Horseshoe Fall in a barrel and survive. Unfortunately, for Annie she became involved shortly afterward in a financial dispute with Frank Russell who briefly made off with her barrel and held it for ransom. Some sources indicate that Frank made public appearances with the barrel and a beautiful young woman posing as Annie Taylor before he was eventually jailed and forced to return Annie’s barrel.
While much of the information I’ve uncovered depicts Mr. Russell as slightly nefarious, an opportunist taking advantage of an impoverished woman and ultimately contributing to her death as a pauper, I’ve found nothing regarding the family of Mr. Russell with the exception of excerpts from the Boehm family history by William Dryden Boehm. William “Bill” Boehm, an uncle of my husband spent several years compiling information on the Boehm’s from their immigration to Bay City from Marienwerder Prussia forward to present day. According to data provided by Bill’s research, Frank married Lena Boehm, daughter of immigrant Max Boehm in 1896 when Lena was 18. Bill states that Frank “reluctantly” decided to represent Annie as her manager. He says as a young man Frank got into promoting after watching kids jump from the high lumber pilings into the Saginaw River. Lena and Frank had one daughter, Lillian who eventually married and moved to California. It is not known whether Lena was perhaps the “beautiful woman” Frank was passing off as Annie or whether Lena and Frank eventually divorced. I have found evidence of Frank, Lena and Lillian on the 1930 census residing in Detroit. According to Bill Boehm, Lena moved to California and passed away in 1968. Lillian had no children, and I’ve found nothing about Frank after the 1930 census. On the 1940 census, only Lena, Lillian and Lillian’s husband are listed.
The Boehm family is a stalwart bunch, not given over to drama, intrigue or fanfare. It comes as no surprise therefore that no mention has been made of Lena Boehm Russell’s thoughts on her promoter husband and his role in history. Even the inclusion of Frank and Lena in William Boehm’s research was done simply out of deep love and respect for his family and not for outside attention. Speculation aside, I nonetheless find the story to be a fascinating moment in my family’s history.
The picture is of Lena and daughter Lillian circa 1900