December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
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 .”
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.”
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.