Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper
by Paul E. Johnson, book review
The boy was a circus without a tent. He took his first jumps more than 200 years ago, though he was not the first to do them, there was something about the way Sam did it. He had something that made us all watch. Yes, he was a drunk much of his short life. Yes, he owned a pet bear and pandered it as such. Yes, you can look at him in the light of today and say he was just looking for trouble, subverting for his own prideful game. If you lay those threats on his character, then you miss wide his points for subversion. He called out to the misshapen masses at the bottom, ‘You can be more!’ He was the first stunt man, he was Johnny before Knoxville. Sam Patch used his abatement of fear to thrill thousands in live spectacles and millions more that shared his story.
Sam's is a fairly common upbringing; his father turned to drink after failing at business, then proceeded to fail his family. His mother tried, but there is only so much one woman can do against the tides of stupidity that were preindustrial America. The family needed help, so Sam turned to the mills by the age of 9.
The grand machines of old were laborious. They could weave wonders, but they could not start their own thread. The little bodies and little fingers of kids were the grease that move gears of industry so well. Mule spinning for 10 hours a day is a grind to the most patient souls. How did the thousands of children withstand the grime and noise? By living elsewhere whilst they worked, by knowing every minute that passed, they were one closer to thrilling exploits of their pal Sam.
He started by jumping off the mills he worked in. Making a splash at lunchtime was for fun, tried his best to keep the youthful minds focused up. Loudmouths and big bets led to an influx of cash for Sam. Then, he learned he could take dimes from onlookers. Then he learned what making a scene took. Then he started jumping from the roof of that mill. 60 feet is a lot for anyone to toss themselves down into water. Let alone the narrow, rock laden pass where the current churned. Every time he disappeared below the froth, folks were sure he was dead. They held their breath for a full minute till he surfaced, giggling at the stunned faces. Do something for years on end and you are likely to get pretty good at it.
Soon, 60 feet wasn’t enough, so Sam moved on. New town, new mill, new jumping sites. This time the Hudson would call his name, along with the Passaic. 70 ft, check. 80ft, check. 90ft? Check. Word gets out fast when there is true defiance of fear, someone so daring as to tempt the eyes of god to look upon us in awe. For 10 years the boys at the mill saw him as both hero and saint. And a surefire good time. Always the scamp, he was hired to promote a bridge opening and instead, he become the event. Once he’d done the most terrifying thing he could find on the seaboard, he heard a larger calling. The largest calling, they say. Most cannot hear this call for it is too audacious, too ignorant of nature to be considered. Jump Niagara Falls?! Why not.
By this time Sam was sporting a pet bear full time. His signature white slacks and shirt wore him everywhere. He was better at negotiating but still piss poor at contracts. Never paid what he was worth, yet he had more money than any one in his circle. The ask was incredible, a running leap off the American side to the raging torrents below. Only the dumbest of our kind have tried this decent and they have all had the protection of a barrel or vessel. Not Sam Patch. This would require the utmost of smarts. Smart outfit, smart walk, smart leap and the most body intelligence that can be mustered by humans.
October 1829-Niagra Falls. The hubbub was spectacular and the drumming up of the event before hand was akin to boxing promotions of our era. Sam would carouse for a day or two before the affair at various local watering holes. With his pet bear in tow, there was no stopping the imaginations of the working class crowds and word spread like wildfire. Sam had amassed unknown thousands before Mother Nature stepped in. Soaking the crowds and the leaping platform, the jump was delayed for hours and hours.
By the time weather cleared enough only a few thousand remained. No one seemed to care Sam has just jumped 80 feet, without any ill effects, into the history books. The take away was that the jump was poorly attended, so Sam said he would do it again. Only this time, from 40 feet higher. Now, this was crazy, even for Sam. He knows how much wind comes off those falls, knows the odds of being ground to pulp should things go awry. Half of the 10,000 souls amassed were there to watch him die, but they would never tell you that. 120 feet into the rushing Niagara waters, and he was none the worse for wear.
After that, Sam kept drinking and kept jumping, what else was there to do? In just a few weeks he became a household name-and some say a bit too big for his britches. A month later he was in Rochester for a 90-foot jump wherein his callousness was on display as he tossed his bear pal first and then jumped to ‘save’ it. Oddly enough, not as many people came out to see him fluster the bear as he’d hoped. Sam was sour, everyone was sour. How do you top Niagara? He kept trying, but everyone could see he was frayed. Mr. Patch raised the stakes to 125’ by building a platform on the Genesee. It would be the last platform Sam Patch would ever erect.
Accounts vary on exactly what transpired at the top of the jump, but everyone agrees on what happened at the bottom. Sam did not enter the water in his signature, feet down and pointed vertical position. The familiar ‘sploosh’ did not visit that day. Instead the 8,000 people in attendance report something more akin to a ‘crack’, when he impacted the water. They hunted for his missing body for months, the papers theorized he was hiding out in seaside cave, eating fish and honey with his bear. His legend grew wild in the hearts of the downtrodden all winter long. ‘Somebody got out', 'Sam did it.’ They said. Whispers of how he skipped south to find the warm waterfalls of Mexico spread so far they even showed up in newspapers. The stories far surpassed the sad truth. His frozen body was found up river the next spring.
Sam Patch did a lot more than jump off bridges. You may be reluctant to admit what stunts of this nature can do for a body-individual and collective-but you cannot deny the effect on the imagination.