Sam PatchSam Patch, the Famous Jumper
by Paul Johnson

Sam Patch is one of those local legends that’s just there, part of our early childhood storytelling world, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. Whether he was real or not wasn’t really important. In the case of Sam Patch, we were assured that he was indeed real, since he was buried in the little cemetery in our neighborhood. Okay, so there was a real Sam Patch. But were all the stories about him true? Did that matter? He was a bit of local “color” — something that made our local lore unique.

A couple of months ago, we heard a talk about Sam at the neighborhood library branch, setting the stories in historical reality.  The circus-like character with the swashbuckling costume and the pet bear and the showy leaps, the character he presented on posters to advertise his famous jumps over waterfalls, was only the performance persona. Behind the costume and props and performances was a former mule spinner from the tough working class world of the early industrial mills of New England and New Jersey. The librarian recommended this book for those who wanted to know more.

The world of that early industrial revolution fills the background of this book. The mills pulled in the wives and children of down-on-their-luck farmers from the stony soil of little New England farms. The Patch family had seen its fortunes rise and fall over the course of recent generations, from comfortable Yankee respectability, through bankruptcy, through numerous relocations, to the abandonment of the family by Sam’s father. The mills offered a job with wearily long hours and restrictive setting, but the advantage of a steady income. Sam was at work in a mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the age of eight.

By the time he was twenty, Sam was a boss spinner, the first American to hold a position usually filled by English spinners. In the 1820’s, the industrial looms used in these early mills weren’t as fully automated as they were later to become. In addition to the many unskilled jobs, the factory also needed skilled men to regulate the machines, to make sure the threads didn’t snap or tangle due to too tight or too loose a tension. The boss spinners knew their business, and they knew their value to the owners of the mills. Among the workers, they had high social standing. At the same time, to the owners and the others in the owners’ social world, the boss spinners still ranked as workers. There was a tension at work in this new industrial society, and Sam Patch would have been in the middle of it all.

He began jumping over waterfalls as part of a community of daredevil workers, young men showing off and letting off steam. They jumped as a sort of braggadocio, as a way of asserting themselves and winning applause, as an act of adventure and danger in a restricted life. But there was another element, too, which Sam soon tapped into. The public access to common land was being set against the increasing enclosures and privatization of land by the mill owners and the wealthy. Sam jumped waterfalls as a way of thumbing his nose, drawing attention to this “unauthorized” use of the public space. Sam’s jumps, first in Pawtucket and then in Paterson, New Jersey, became public entertainment that drew the attention and the applause away from the officially-approved social doings arranged by the community leaders.

Sam’s transition to public celebrity was a strange one for that period. Today, we are so accustomed to people who are famous simply for being famous that such celebrity is taken for granted. Sam Patch was one of America’s first celebrity daredevils, the 1820’s equivalent of Harry Houdini or Evel Knievel. His stardom shot unexpectedly across the media world of his day with his jumps at Niagara Falls. By this time, he had developed the flair of public performance that we associate with him, the colorful advertising posters, the iconic costume with the red sash, the curiosity of his pet black bear cub, everything that made the announcement of a Sam Patch Jump into a carnival event.

His fatal jump here in Rochester, at the High Falls of the Genesee River,  was the sudden end of this brief flash of celebrity. It was a sadly meaningless death, a daredevil act that served no real purpose. People didn’t know what to make of it in terms of meaning. Those who saw their complicity as onlookers felt guilty for their part in encouraging the rashness to continue. Those who had always preached against encouraging this madness saw Sam’s death as the evidence that they had been right.

But to Sam himself, a millworker who had briefly shot across public awareness and then disappeared like a falling star, what had it all been about? Was it the act of the mill boy looking for applause from his working comrades? Was it an act of social protest, a thumbing of the nose to the powers that were changing the world? Was it the act of a circus performer relishing the attraction of an audience all around him as he gave them a show?

Well, whatever he meant, he’s buried in a little cemetery in a corner of one city that has adopted him in death as one of us, making him a permanent legendary character, a story in children’s lore, sandwiched between Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.