Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1143
Rumors flew wildly after Sam Patch’s final jump. Some claimed that Sam was still alive, that he had climbed out of the water, hidden himself, and then traveled east. Letters surfaced, supposedly from Sam, declaring the jump to have been a hoax. On the other hand, several people claimed to have found Sam’s body but could not produce proof. In March of 1830, Sam’s body was actually recovered seven miles downriver, removing any doubt as to his fate. Area residents buried Sam under a wooden board marked “Sam Patch / Such is Fame.”
Sam’s celebrity, however, survived long after his demise. As the nineteenth century continued, Sam Patch and his famous saying “Some things can be done as well as others” became shorthand for describing determination or even expressing disgust. Sam’s fame was “modern” in that it did not derive from military prowess, civic accomplishment, or social rank. Rather, Sam had been born obscure and had made a name for himself through an unusual skill, thus proving that anyone could become famous, that anyone could overcome his or her past, rise into the public eye, and create a new identity.
The identity Sam Patch chose to create for himself disappeared into folklore as people began to recreate Sam’s legacy for their own purposes. Among those who requisitioned Sam were two diverse political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats. Most Americans identified strongly with one or the other of these parties, and they remembered Sam in acutely diverse ways.
Whig supporters were largely educated, wealthy Easterners who prided themselves on their good taste and social rank. In their eyes, the vulgar Sam Patch did not deserve his fame. Whig writers made fun of Sam and those who admired him. Some composed long mock epics dedicated to his memory, depicting him as crazy and fame-obsessed. Others used him as a prime example of “low fame, low ambition, and . . . mindless bravado.”
Another group of Whigs, those of the middle class, also found Sam Patch distasteful, because he was not the kind of self-made man they admired. He was, rather, a lazy, reckless drunk who chased fame, spurned work, and corrupted youth. His spectacles were as objectionable as theater shows, circuses, and public hangings. Indeed, Sam was an example of everything that could go wrong when one failed to live up to one’s responsibilities, remained uneducated, and embraced idle, dangerous pastimes. Still other Whigs made Sam into a comic figure, a parody of the ignorant Yankee Democrat who spoke poor English, puffed himself up with pride, and engaged in fantastic adventures.
The Democrats appropriated Sam Patch for their personal use and attached their own values to him. The Democratic party was more varied than the Whigs, but most Democrats were suspicious of the commercial class and its bourgeois culture and moralizing. For Democrats, Sam Patch became an American hero and a model Democrat. Actor Dan Marble, for instance, played Sam as a high-flying patriot who combined the values of eastern workers and western farmers. Marble even mimicked Sam’s jumps by leaping from the flies down through a trapdoor in the stage, dropping forty feet. Marble’s Sam spoke with a combined dialect that appealed to the common people who attended these spectacles and who relished Sam’s thrilling melodramatic adventures.
This version of Sam particularly appealed to schoolboys like Charles C. Brown of Jamestown Academy, whose composition book reveals his near worship of both Sam and Andrew Jackson. Brown did not have an accurate grasp of history, for he was positive that Sam was actually the hero of the American Revolution rather than George Washington. For Brown, Sam was the embodiment of a hero who overcame hardship through bravery and sheer willpower.
Better educated Democrats also appreciated Sam Patch as a symbol of their cause. Major Democrat writers like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne reflected on Sam and his reputation. Hawthorne mused that Sam’s pursuit of fame was no worse than that of men who threw away their lives for glory of other kinds, and Sam was indeed triumphant until that last jump. Melville, on the other hand, used Sam as a metaphor for people whose ambition carried them to greatness and who faced danger with courage.
As the decades passed, however, Sam Patch diminished in the American consciousness before reappearing as a folk hero in children’s books and novels. He took his place alongside Davy Crockett as a star of light tales of adventure.
The towns associated with Sam Patch’s jumps continued to remember the famous leaper. Boys in Pawtucket and Paterson often jumped the falls in memory of Sam. “Patch’s Point” became an attraction at Niagara Falls. Rochester businesses cashed in on Sam’s name and image; town leaders incorporated him into celebrations and monuments; and even today tourists can take a ride on the canal boat Sam Patch.
This final chapter of Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper is built on the irony of Sam’s lost identity. Sam Patch began falls-jumping to create an identity for himself, to escape the shadow of his abusive father, to stand out from the crowd of mill workers, to make a name for himself through his skill and bravery, and to prove that even a working man like himself could do great things. Sam prided himself on being the “real Sam Patch,” the man who could choose his destiny.
Yet there is irony here, for while Sam certainly achieved fame, it is likely not the fame he would have chosen for himself. As this chapter makes clear, people with various ideologies and values made Sam into images they could relate to and promote as their own. Whigs converted Sam into a moral lesson, depicting him as foolish and insane, and even made him into a ridiculous caricature of their rival Democrats. The Democrats, in turn, transformed Sam into an American hero who fought for the oppressed and embodied the values and struggles of the common man. Writers immortalized Sam in poems and catch phrases. Actors portrayed their versions of him on stage. Schoolboys dreamed about joining Sam in his fantastic adventures. Businesses and towns presented Sam as a commodity and an attraction. Finally, over time, Sam drifted into the realm of folklore.
Readers are left to wonder what Sam himself would have thought of all this. His personal identity has long been obscured by others’ interpretations of his deeds. Even the few people who know anything about the real Sam Patch, including readers of this book, are limited in their knowledge by the scarcity of historical records and by the clashing perspectives of Sam’s contemporaries. No one is even sure if Sam’s fatal final leap was the result of a mistake or a deliberate choice. In many ways, Sam Patch remains an elusive mystery.
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