Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper
Hill & Wang Publishers
Published in 2003
Sam Patch, one of the first working-class heroes in American history, was a melancholic and suicidal drunkard who achieved fame by leaping from waterfalls (including the great Niagara, twice).
His career ended on November 13th, 1830, when he made his final leap from atop the High Falls of the Genesee in Rochester, NY. Though less known than its gigantic cousin to the west, the High Falls was and remains a treacherous cataract. Patch’s frozen body was discovered in the mouth of Lake Ontario by a farmer several months later, but by then Patch the man had morphed into Patch the myth. For the rest of the nineteenth century his story would be told in songs, in plays, and in books—many of these stories deliberately or inadvertently falsifying the life that, when it came right down to it, few knew.
In his fine biography, Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper, historian Paul E. Johnson painstakingly examines the record and paints a fresh, if also limited, portrait of the man who was one of the “pioneers” of “modern celebrity.” Born into poverty in Rhode Island, Patch was destined to work the mills of Pawtucket, where a poor, uneducated boy could get work and, if he had talent, as Patch apparently did, learn the craft of mule spinning. This was no small achievement: “the spinning mule was among the biggest machines in the world,” and spinning was a craft practiced mostly by English immigrants.
It was a difficult operation, mule spinning, and it “required experience, along with a practiced mix of strength and a sensitive touch,” Johnson writes. “With each cycle of the spinning mule a long, heavy carriage rose out on tracks from the machine, stretching and twisting the carded and roved cotton into yarn.” Young Patch impressed his employers and the older mule spinners, and later he would become one of the first American mule spinners.
When not working at the mill, Patch, along with other Pawtucket boys, made daredevil leaps from Pawtucket Falls. To these boys, this was a craft—one that involved practice and skill. They even developed their own jumping style. “The Pawtucket boys,” Johnson writes, “all jumped in the same way: feet first, breathing in as they fell; they stayed underwater long enough to frighten spectators, then shot triumphantly to the surface.” Pawtucket was an impoverished town, dominated by mills and mill workers, and for many of the boys, there was little hope of rising out of the crushing cycle of their lives. Yet leapers were held in high esteem, their courage and skills valued.
So later in the book, when Patch begins to leap for fame and for money, there seems nothing peculiar about his career choice. But it’s here Johnson scoops out the juiciest fruit. Patch’s first major leap was a protest leap in Paterson, NJ, where he had moved. An entrepreneur named Timothy Crane had turned a chunk of forest used by workers into an exclusive reserve for the wealthy. That town, also a mill town, was split by the Passaic Falls. To build a shortcut to his new park, Crane constructed a bridge spanning the falls. On the day the bridge was scheduled to be placed, in September 1827, a crowd gathered to watch. Workers knew that they would soon be forced to pay an entrance fee to get into their former playground, which effectively cut them off from the forest. When Patch leapt from the falls, he disrupted what was to be Crane’s moment in the sun. The crowd roared its appreciation, and a star of the working class was born.
But his stardom was fleeting; from this leap to his last stretched only three years. And he would die, quite probably drunk, at the peak of his fame. Johnson, also the author of a terrific study on Rochester, NY in the nineteenth century, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, writes in clear and lively prose that makes reading history easy and fun. He depicts, for example, both the promise and the pain of the rugged “frontier” country of western New York as the newly minted Erie Canal brought thousands of migrants to the region. His book is especially enlightening when describing the social stratification of the era, a time when Jacksonian democrats rubbed the nation’s elite raw and a man like Sam Patch could jump to glory. Whether you enjoy reading history or not, you may find yourself attracted to the people Johnson describes surrounding Patch as much as Patch himself. Indeed, Sam Patch disappears for long passages of the book, as if there simply wasn’t enough material to find on him. Working class heroes, no doubt, received little ink in the nineteenth century. Still, Johnson does an admirable job of uncovering a man who leaped to fame—then fell into obscurity.
Note: A new children’s book about Sam Patch will be published by Holiday House in January 2009. I’ve not seen the book, so it’s impossible to tell whether it will continue the “legendary” elements of Patch’s life at the expense of the “factual.” Based on the cover that’s available on Amazon.com, it seems like it’s leaning toward the former.
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