The Wonderful Leaps Of Sam Patch


Sam Patch was his name. He was born on a Massachusetts farm in the first decade of the nineteenth century, a time when a boy of modest origins had many new avenues open to him. Sam chose a very new one indeed: he jumped oft waterfalls—and into American legend. There he joined the slangy, brawling, boastful heroes of Jacksonian America, sons of the western woods and the city slums: men like Davy Orockett and Mike Fink.

He began simply enough. As a boy he went to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and found work as a mule-spinner, tending the machine that twisted and wound cotton thread in Samuel Slater’s cotton mill. The mill stood just above the Pawtucket Palls, and some of the hardier mill hands used to jump into the river from the top rail of the bridge that spanned the falls, or from the roots of adjacent mills that towered one hundred feet above the deep water. Thus Sam Patch found his career, jumping the Pawtucket Falls before admiring townspeople.

On reaching manhood, Sam went into cotton manufacturing for himself. Hut when his partner skipped off with the firm’s funds, Patch left Rhode Island and found a job in the Hamilton cotton mills in Passait, New Jersey. Here lie made his first public jump to be reported in the newspapers (September go, 1837), when a covered bridge was being laid across the scenic Passait: Falls. Dodging town constables, Sam appeared by a whitened oak at the edge of the precipice, just as a rolling-pin slid from the guide ropes into the chasm, leaving the bridge teetering precariously halfway across. Sam jumped the falls, swam to the pin, took the trailing rope in his mouth, and returned to shore. The pin was placed in position on the guide ropes and the bridge was successfully pulled across the gap.

The publicity given this feat set Sam to jumping before fascinated crowds throughout New York and New Jersey. On August 11, 1828, at Hoboken, he jumped ninety feet into the Hudson River from a platform erected on the masthead of a sloop. Five hundred spectators lined the shore.

A year later, a group of Buffalo citizens invited Sam to jump over Niagara Falls as an added attraction to the blasting of Table Rock, which overhung the falls from the Canadian bank. Sam missed the appointed clay, but distributed the following poster after reaching Buffalo: “TO THE LADIES AND GENTLEMEN OF WESTERN NEWYORK AND OF UPPER CANADA All I have to say is, that I arrived at the Falls too late, to give you a specimen of my Jumping Qualities, on the 6th.; but on Wednesday, I thought I would venture a small Leap, which I accordingly made, of Eighty Feet, merely to convince those that remained to see me, with what safety and ease I could descend and that I was the TRUE SAM PATCH , and to show that Some Things could be Done as well as Others; which was denied before I made the Jump. …

I shall, Ladies and Gentlemen, on Saturday next, Oct. 17th, precisely at 3 o’clock, P.M., LEAP at the FALLS OF NIAGARA , from a height of 120 to 130 feet (being 40 to 50 feet higher than I leapt before), into the eddy below. On my way down from Buffalo. on the morning of that day, in the Steam Boat Niagara. I shall, for the amusement of the Ladies, doff my coat and Spring from the Mast head into the Niagara River.

Sam Patch of Passaic Falls. New Jersey Buffalo, Oct. 12, 18:29

On the appointed Saturday, in a pouring rain, Sam boldly climbed a ladder to the platform, which had been built from four trees spliced together and fastened by ropes running back upon Goat Island. Before ascending, he shed his shoes and coat and tied a handkerchief about his neck. Ignoring tearful farewells and protestations from persons at the foot of the ladder, he mounted the narrow, swaying platform, which was barely large enough for a man to sit upon. Then, while the spectators cheered, he spent ten minutes displaying his poise and testing the platform. At length he rose upright, took the handkerchief from his neck and tied it about his waist, waved his hand, kissed an American Hag that was flying from the platform, and stepped off, plummeting toward the swirling Hood.

A general cry of “He’s dead! Hes lost!” swept through the crowd, according to one account: a second speaks of a benumbed silence, broken only by joyous congratulations when Sam’s head burst from the waters. While handkerchiefs waved and huxxas roared, the Jumping Hero swam briskly to the shore to inform the first onrushing admirer, ‘There’s no mistake in Sam Patch!”

Flushed with success. Sam next turned to the Genescc Falls, at Rochester, for a new conquest. By now the newspapers of the nation were playing him up, and he had acquired a group of sponsors who urged him on to still greater feats. At the top of the Genesec Falls a twenty-five-foot scaffold was erected, to lengthen the jump to a distance of 125 feet. In posters Sam announced with unwitting irony. “S AM’S L AST J UMP , S OME THINGS CAN BE DONE AS WELL AS OTHERS . T HERE IS NO MISTAKE IN S AM P ATCH .”