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For a few years in the late 1820s, Sam Patch was a celebrity, and he remained famous for decades after his death. A 19th-century man might have expressed confoundment with the expression “What the Sam Patch!” He was the subject of a series of plays—Sam Patch, the Jumper, Sam Patch at Home, and Sam Patch in France—which played to packed houses in the emerging cities of America’s Middle West and even traveled to London. His name appears in the work of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In William Dean Howells’ 1871 novel Their Wedding Journey, a pair of newlyweds visiting Rochester tours the site of Sam Patch’s final exploit. The husband is astonished to learn that his young bride has no idea who in Sam Patch Sam Patch is.
Sam Patch earned his fame jumping waterfalls—most notably at Niagara. “He was a nineteenth-century hero,” writes the historian Paul E. Johnson in Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper, his account of Patch’s career. Though he began jumping as a way to relieve the grinding boredom of millwork, he ended his life as a professional entertainer and raconteur—the first, but certainly not the last, of a uniquely American breed. Celebrity was not an end in itself in 1820s America, and Patch was not a hero in the traditional sense. He was an obscure man, a “drunkard with a powerful suicidal drive who succeeded in killing himself at the age of thirty.” If Patch’s exploits are instructive, it is because he succeeded in establishing an idea of fame that is still with us today: Sam Patch was famous because he wanted to be famous.
Very little is known about Patch’s early life. Johnson pieces together his background using church records, deeds, tax rolls, and court documents. He was born in 1799 in North Reading, Mass., the fourth child of Abigail and Greenleaf Patch. As best Johnson can tell from the record, their union was not a happy one. For a brief period in the marriage, Greenleaf prospered, but he succumbed to drink, debt, and disrepute, and eventually abandoned the family. In 1818, Abigail took the unusual step of divorcing him. By then, the Patches lived in Pawtucket, R.I., where the children worked in a textile mill. Johnson characterizes Pawtucket as “something new in America: a town where women and children supported men or lived without them, and where women reconstructed lives that had been damaged in the failure of their men.”
Johnson speculates that young Sam must have experienced his father as a local laughingstock, “a broken man who made the house smell of alcohol, a man whose despairing silences could explode into incomprehensible and terrifying violence.” Here Johnson comes dangerously close to pure invention, and it’s telling that this passage is one of the few on Patch’s early life that goes unsourced. Still, in a folksy way that works in Johnson’s book, it makes sense to consider the man’s drinking in light of his father’s.
Work at the mill was mind-numbing. In his diary, Bostonian Josiah Quincy expressed “pity for these poor creatures, plying in a contracted room, among flyers and coggs, at an age when nature requires for them air, space, and sports. There was a dull dejection in the countenances of all of them.” But Patch must have taken to it—he eventually rose to become a boss spinner, a skilled worker who commanded respect and a high salary and enjoyed a fair degree of mobility. At the time, most boss spinners came over from mills in England; Patch was one of the first to have been born in America. It was also in Pawtucket that Patch learned the art of falls jumping, as one of a group of local men who amused themselves by drinking and making the 100-foot leap off the six-story Stone Mill into a deep pool carved by the rushing Pawtucket Falls. Johnson links the two as crafts requiring “self-possession and a mastery of skills.”
Yet it was Patch’s tendency to cause trouble, his taste for strong drink, and his love of the spotlight that separated him from the hobbyists and launched his career as a professional daredevil. In his 20s, Patch relocated to Paterson, N.J., where he earned a reputation as a hard drinker and a cruel boss, harboring in his mind a “constellation of class anger and rum-soaked resentment.”
In September 1827, his wrath was focused on architect, builder, and speculator Timothy Crane, who was building a toll bridge over Passaic Falls to allow tourists access to a recreational park of his own design. Crane’s toll was considered by many to be an affront to democratic principles, and Patch’s first public leap was, in its own crude way, a form of protest. Because he had publicly threatened to disrupt the opening ceremonies, Patch had been locked in a basement that day, presumably at Crane’s behest. He escaped and, before a cheering crowd, jumped 70 feet off a rock into the churning falls. As in his Pawtucket days, he took the leap
cannonball-style before straightening his legs and entering the water feet first “like an arrow.” He stayed underwater for as long as he could hold his breath before emerging—a move designed to heighten the sense of danger for the crowd, which subsequently “cheered wildly as Sam sported in the water.” It was a style that would see him through the rest of his jumping days.
For Johnson, this spectacle and subsequent leaps at Passaic Falls encapsulate the collision of two competing views of America—the raw, Jacksonian democracy of the frontier challenging the Hamiltonian fear of mob rule. At the time, Americans were caught up in a suffrage debate that pitted those who wanted to retain property ownership as a requirement for voting against those who wished to extend the franchise to all native-born white men. As a well-compensated but unlanded tradesman, Patch represented the Jacksonian camp.
In some respects, Johnson’s discursions into conflicting notions of nature, democracy, class, recreation, and refinement are necessary padding to a story that itself neither takes long to tell nor has much value beyond entertainment. Quirky histories such as this tend to locate their topics at the confluence of various sociological trends in order to amplify significance. But to his credit, Johnson does not go overboard in this regard, and in the main his efforts serve to provide context for contemporaneous correspondence and journalism about the Patch phenomenon.
For instance, one of Patch’s early jumps was made amid a labor disagreement in the Paterson mills—which raises the possibility that Patch’s spectacular jumps were fused with an unmistakable political subtext. But it seems more likely from the evidence Johnson musters that Patch knew how to piggyback his act onto celebrations that guaranteed a crowd to fill his hat with coin. The most salient detail of his final Paterson leap was not that it took place against the backdrop of a labor dispute; it is that Patch was paid $15 for his trouble.
The record is spotty regarding Patch’s transition from millworker to full-time jumper. His jump in Hoboken, N.J., in July 1828 marked an important turning point in his career. Before, Patch had performed for an audience of “workmates and neighbors who understood the art of falls-jumping.” At Hoboken, “Sam leaped for strangers who merely wanted to see a man jump from high places.” Though he may have worked in a Philadelphia-area mill subsequent to leaving Paterson, his career as a boss spinner effectively ended that day. Whether it was ambition or sheer dumb luck that allowed Patch to quit working in the mills, Johnson writes, “after July 1828 Sam Patch was no longer a local working-class hero. He was on his way to being a showman and a celebrity.”
Patch had “no past, no family connections, no firm ties to any place. It was what the public was learning to expect, and it may have been what Sam Patch wanted,” writes Johnson. Having relocated to upstate New York, he spent his days drinking in Buffalo taverns and his evenings on display at a dime museum, where it was reported that “during the week the price of admission was cut in half, largely because Sam was known to be drunk.” On Oct. 7, 1829, Patch jumped Niagara Falls in front of an unremarkable crowd. But the feat was well-received enough that he scheduled a second jump. His second jump drew over 2,000 spectators, and he received the princely sum of $75. William Lyon Mackenzie of Toronto’s York Colonial Advocate left this account of the leap:
To a mind fond of romance, and desirous to realize now and then a sufficient share of the marvellous, Sam’s 118 foot jump, the cataract above him and the cataract below him, the seemingly bottomless pit at his feet, the 200 feet of perpendicular rock behind him, the apparatus from which he sprang, so like the fatal ladder [gallows] of the state, added to the horrid din of the Horse Shoe Cauldron continually sending forth thick clouds of smoke, presented a scene seldom equalled by the most splendid and gloomy descriptions of our modern dealers in magic.
By this time, Patch made his living as an entertainer. He lived in saloons and was drunk all the time. He must have cut an interesting figure, dressed in white pants and walking his pet, a “good-sized” half-tame black bear. Contemporary descriptions of Patch are almost invariably colored by the politics of the observer. Jackson men looked upon him as an embodiment of the rough-and tumble frontiersman; more stodgy establishment types lampooned him as an exemplar of the dangers of democracy. Diaries and journals provide less biased accounts. One witness described the scene before his last jump as a “mixed sensation, between a horse race and an execution.”
Sam Patch leapt to his death over the Genesee Falls in Rochester on Friday, Nov. 13, 1829. A week previous, he had made the same leap in front of a crowd of perhaps 10,000. He was in the habit of making speeches before his jumps. It’s doubtful that many heard his orations over the roar of the falls, but his words before his final leap survive. “Napoleon was a great man and a great general,” he shouted, “He conquered armies and he conquered nations. But he couldn’t jump the Genesee Falls. Wellington was a great man and a great soldier. He conquered armies and he conquered Napoleon, but he couldn’t jump the Genesee Falls. That was left for me to do, and I can do it and will!”
Patch’s body was not found until March of the following year. In the interim, a variety of rumors arose that he was alive, that the leap had been a hoax. One Boston newspaper printed a letter under Patch’s name claiming that it was a straw man that had made the leap at Rochester while Patch watched from the crowd. Years after his body was found, locals still entertained gullible tourists with stories of his survival.
If Patch’s personality can be divined from his actions and words, then he harbored ambitions that far outstripped his abilities. It was only his good luck that he was born into a world that was just starting to afford the low-born a shot at fame and fortune. He was an unhappy drunk possessed of raw courage, a talent for bluster, and a desire—less usual in his day—to occupy center stage. Johnson writes: “Americans who heard of Niagara and Rochester before Sam’s leaps thought of economic progress and the moral sublime. After 1829 many of them thought of Sam Patch.” His career traced an arc from total obscurity to ubiquity. This path would have inevitably become an American cliché, whether or not
Sam Patch ever existed. His sort of grandiose, un-self-aware immunity to embarrassment and love of attention now permeate the culture to such an extent that today they are hardly worth remarking upon, except in extreme cases. But for all that, it’s worth noting that Sam Patch was the first to take the plunge into the abyss of American celebrity, and for that he is owed a debt if not of gratitude, then at least of recognition. CP