Sam Patch was a daredevil/stuntman who grew up in extreme poverty, working as a child in a textile mill alongside other family members and friends. Many textile factories in the early 1800s used water falls to provide the power necessary to run the machinery. The factory where Sam Patch worked as a boy was located near Pawtucket Falls in Rhode Island. The boys dared each other to jump into the falls from the top of the mill. It was a pass time for bored child laborers, but they perfected the jumping craft.
In his 20s, Sam Patch moved to Paterson, New Jersey, taking a job in a textile mill there. He began jumping into the Passaic Falls, where Paul E. Johnson speculates his first two jumps were of a socio/political nature, i.e., class consciousness. His first jump was purportedly to protest the opening of a private park for the upper middle class and elite to enjoy without having the working class in their midst. Sam's jump drew attention from the aristocrats opening the bridge to the park as people watched him instead of paying attention to the elitist opening ceremony. His second jump was also a supposed political statement in support of factory workers protesting a change in their lunch hour.
Whatever the reasons for Sam Patch’s jumping, he became famous as a hero of the working man after his first two jumps into the Passaic Falls. He used that fame to make his stunts into a commercial enterprise. However, his career as a stuntman ended after a few short years when he jumped to his death at Genesee Falls in New York in November, 1829. He turns up as a legendary hero for the working class in children’s books and literature as well as poetry. Most notably, he was a subject in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Some may say the overarching theme of Sam Patch’s life was the struggle of the working class versus the middle class and elites. As a poor, uneducated millworker, Patch likely could never have been anything but a poor working class American without his stuntman feats. There was little hope for upward mobility in the small, impoverished factory towns of early 19th century America.
At the time, however, factions in the Democrat-Republican party were calling for more democracy for the common man. Opposition to elitist politics was championed by Andrew Jackson who promoted equal rights for white men in America. Jacksonian Democracy is pitted against the monied interests of corporations, commercial banks, and private interest. In the Northeast, where Sam Patch lived and worked, the yeoman farmer and artisan economy was being squashed by cash-crop farming and capitalist factories. Sam’s father was supposedly an artisan shoemaker who was forced out of business and into the factories by capitalists.
The story of Sam Patch delves into American socio-economic culture and history so that American history becomes a personal story, not just the story of a nation.