“What the Sam Patch!” she exclaimed as she picked up this colorful volume. “I must be back in the early 1800s!” A surmise made likely from the fact that in his short lifetime (1799-1829) Sam Patch was as well-known and as much a subject of conversation as Harry Houdini, Evel Kneivel, or Sigmund and Roy – men of the frontier stamp, who would try anything and take any challenge, for fun or profit – in other words, genuine American daredevils.
Best known for leaping off a ladder into the seething falls at Niagara, Sam Patch was a working-class kid who loved to jump and found out he could earn a few bucks by drawing a crowd. It beat working in a mill, where as a child laborer he had been accustomed to stultifying boredom, frying in summer, freezing in winter, covered in a snowfall of cotton fluff at all seasons, up to twelve hours every day, with ear-boxing a common punishment for kids who didn’t pay constant attention to the roaring machinery.
By contrast, there was a wild freedom to be enjoyed for brave boys who leapt over the falls beside the dark Satanic mills of Patch’s native Pawtucket. Rocky and perilous in most places, there was one spot known as “the pot” where the lads could be sure of probing a deep, friendly pit upon impact. Still, it took extraordinary guts to make the eighty-some-foot leap, and Sam was one of the few who tried it.
Once his reputation heated up, Sam traveled with a chained bear – who sometimes leapt with him – and was not known for his sobriety. The “payday” for leaping over Niagara was a pitiful seventy-five dollars, but it was sufficient for the plucky Patch, watched by three hundred paying customers on Goat Island Bridge and thousands more who gaped from the banks. He had, he said, two secrets – he inhaled as he jumped, and “entering the water had never hurt a bit.” Until the last time Sam jumped, at Genesee Falls. That ended his brief career as a jumper – and his life. Sam’s prowess was so admired that people wanted to believe, when his body couldn’t be found, that he had somehow survived. But it turned up later, seven miles downstream, remarkably intact (one cynic suggested that was owing to the preservative power of alcohol).
As well known posthumously as in life, the name Sam Patch was a shibboleth of folk legend as familiar in its day as John Henry or Paul Bunyan. Andrew Jackson named his horse Sam Patch.
More social history than biography, for there is scant information about the quixotic young leaper whose fame slipped quietly into the national forgettery, this book by history professor Paul E. Johnson weaves a pretty tale of class envy, American derring-do, and the sometimes absurd aberrations of spirit that propel men to do brave but very foolish deeds.