The Wonderful Leaps Of Sam Patch


Friday, the thirteenth of November, was the day Sam chose. Schooners and coaches ran excursions to the falls, and both banks swarmed with the curious, while in the saloons of Rochester betting ran high. When Sam walked out onto the grassy, tree-covered rock dividing the greater and lesser branches of the cataract, and climbed to the platform, some spectators thought he staggered and lacked his usual aplomb. Some asserted afterward that the jumper was reeling drunk; others denied that he had taken more than a glass of brandy. Sam made a brief speech: Napoleon was a great man and had conquered nations: Wellington was greater and had conquered Napoleon: but neither could jump the Genesec Falls—that was left for Sam to do.

Then he jumped. But this time the descent lacked its usual arrowy precision. One third of the way down. Sam’s body began to droop, his arms parted from his sides, he lost command of his body, and he struck the water obliquely with arms and legs extended. The horror-stricken assemblage waited, but he did not reappear. Dragging for the body proved unsuccessful; it was not found until the following March iy. when a farmer at the mouth of the Genesee near Lake Ontario broke the ice to water his horses.

What manner of man was he? Some called him an ignorant loafer, others idealized him as an intrepid, debonair acrobat whose next objective would have been London Bridge; still others characterized him as a devoted son (before his last leap Sam had stipulated that if he died, all proceeds should go to his mother). Whatever his actual traits, they speedily disappeared before the onrush of myth. Newspaper editors praised Sam’s selfess heroism, and ministers preached sermons against his vanity and folly. Some punster composed an epitaph filled with such double meanings as “ divers times.” “a drop too much.” “untimely bier ” and “this sad fall,” and concluding: There’s none alive will ever match him’Ah, cruel Death, thus to is PATCH him! .

Many refused to believe that Sam had really died. One view held that, while practicing, Sam had discovered an eddy running under a shelving rock, and had there hidden a suit of clothes, a bottle of spirits, and some food. Following his last jump (so the story went), he had swum to this spot, remained there until dark, and had then set off incognito. A man in Albany said he had seen and talked with him; another in Rochester bet one hundred dollars that Sam would reappear in that city before the first of January; a notice posted prominently in Rochester stated that Patch would recount his adventures at Acker’s Eagle Tavern during the forenoon of December g; reports spread that he had been seen at Pittsford, Canandaigua. and other places, on his way to New Jersey. One widely printed newspaper story, signed “Sam Patch,” declared the Genesee jump to be a capital hoax, with a man of straw, paint, sand, and stones having substituted for the jumping Hero.

Even after the body was found, the stories continued; there were those who at twilight perceived Sam sporting at the falls and repeating his fearful feat to a concourse of water birds and fish.

To American poets and rhymesters of the 1830’s, searching for native themes, the heroics, tragedy, and seriocomic aspects of the Last Leap proved magnetic. One poem called Sam The Great Descender, mighty PATCH Spurner of heights—great Nature’s overmatch! and unblushing likened him to Columbus, Franklin. Newton, and Nelson.

Another account, this time in prose, has the Jumping Hero sighted in the South Seas by a Yankee whaler. Amazed, the Yankee captain asks him, “Why, Sam, how on airth did you get here? I thought you was drowned at the Canadian lines.” “Why,” says Sam, “I didn’t get on earth here at all, but I came slap through it. In that Niagara dive I went so everlasting deep. I thought it was just as short to come up t’other side, so out I came in these parts.”

A spurious autobiography told Sam’s life story: At the age of six months, he had leaped from Nanny’s arms into a wash tub of soapsuds; as a boy he was attracted to leapfrog; in school he would always skip over hard words; before he was lour and a hall feet tall he had jumped from the masthead of a pirogue into Hell Gate; at Niagara he had bobbed about in the froth like a huckleberry on top of a pail of freshly-drawn beer. The moral of this story was “Look before you leap.”