The Wonderful Leaps Of Sam Patch


In 1836, in Buffalo, a comedian named Dan Marble, already known for his Yankee roles, portrayed Sam Patch and found himself heir to the fame bestowed on the original. Year after year, before enthusiastic audiences in western cities, and then in New York and Boston, lie played in Sam Patch, or The Daring Yankee , and its sequel, Sam Patch in France, or The Peaky Snake . The climax of the first play was Marble’s leap from the Hies; plummeting from a height variously estimated at between forty and seventy feet, he bobbed up triumphantly in a pool of spray and loam. Actually. Marble didn’t land in water at all, but on a spring bed piled with bags of shavings, which was concealed behind the phony pool, The jumping mania affected the audiences: as Constance Rourke has written, clerks jumped counters, farmers jumped fences, boys and old folks vied in “doing Sam Patch.”

The tale of Patch even became a subject tor literary reference. Nathaniel Hawthorne—always receptive to American legends, particularly somber ones—w?as stirred when he viewed the Genesee Kails at dusk. “How stern a moral may be drawn from the story of poor Sam Patch!” he wrote. “Was the leaper of cataracts more mad or foolish than other men who throw away life, or misspend it in pursuit of empty fame and seldom so triumphantly as he?” William Dean Howells. in his novel Their Wedding Journey , has the hero express dismay because his young wife has never heard of Patch: “Isabel, your ignorance of all that an American woman should be proud of distresses me.” As recently as 1946, the distinguished poet William Carlos Williams, in Volume I of his long’ poem Paterson , described Sam’s Passait Falls plunge.

By mid-nineteenth century, the interest in Patch had waned, but he never completely disappeared from view. Those communities with a claim to him—Pawtucket, Paterson, and especially Rochester—continued to remember him in feature articles and holiday floats. And on November 12, 1948, 119 years almost to the day after the Last Leap, Sam Patch’s grave in Rochester received, by public subscription, a handsome granite marker and plaque.