Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1390
Sam Patch moved to Paterson, New Jersey, in the mid-1820s. Paterson, home to the grand Passaic Falls, was a planned “National Manufacturing City,” founded under the auspices of the Society for the Encouragement of Useful Manufactures in 1792 to expand textile manufacturing and commercialization. By the time Sam moved there, thousands of workers already called Paterson home.
So did a man by the name of Timothy B. Crane. Crane, a sawmill owner and builder, decided that the natural landscape around Paterson could be improved by “the hand of art.” He created the pleasure park Forest Garden in 1827, aiming to provide “artful refinement” to the natural environment and allow for “aesthetic contemplation” for the town’s upper-class residents. For easier access to Forest Garden, Crane designed the Clinton Bridge over Passaic Falls, naming it after New York Governor De Witt Clinton, the booster of progress and sponsor of the Erie Canal. Crane also planned a grand celebration to mark the placement of the bridge over the chasm on September 30, 1827.
By this time, Sam Patch was twenty-seven years old, working as a mule spinner, and drinking heavily. Sam resented Timothy Crane and progressive people like him, and he decided he would make his own statement on September 30, 1827. As Crane directed his workers, Sam jumped from a rock at the edge of Passaic Falls and dropped seventy feet into the water, effectively stealing the spotlight and claiming that he, too, could do a great thing.
Sam’s jump and the crowd’s applause for it revealed a deep resentment among Paterson’s working class toward Timothy Crane and those of his class. The working people of Paterson had one used the wild land that became Forest Garden for their own recreation, and they felt that it should remain accessible to all. Crane, however, wanted to reach a more genteel and decorous audience who would appreciate “rational amusement” and “good order.” He even charged a toll to anyone crossing Clinton Bridge in an attempt to keep out idle vagabonds.
This last move was the final straw for the workers of Paterson. Incidents of vandalism on Forest Garden began in earnest, and Crane and his sons found themselves in danger. To make matters worse, Timothy Crane had once been a great friend of the working class; he had been chief of the fire department and known as “Uncle Tim” to the mill boys. Then he married a woman from a prominent New York family and turned his ideas toward pleasing his new bourgeois associates. Workers resented this change in Crane as much as they despised Crane’s pet project. They created so much trouble that Forest Garden failed miserably, and Crane died in poverty.
For his part, Sam Patch was beginning to make a name for himself. He called his falls-jumping an “art,” using the word in a much different and older sense than did Timothy Crane. For Sam, “art” referred to a man’s “identity defining skill,” his successful performance of the tasks of his trade, his knowledge of the rules that allowed him to make shoes, raise a crop, build a house, or, in Sam’s case, operate a spinning mule or survive an eighty-foot leap. Sam had learned these arts from other practitioners and had perfected them through practice, and he connected the two by wearing his spinner’s uniform when he jumped.
For Crane, on the other hand, “art” meant civilization, the taming of nature for human use and benefit. Art was all about progress, improving upon nature so it could enrich, educate, and uplift civilized people. In Forest Garden, Crane desired to combine nature and art for the purposes of moral and spiritual inspiration. Clinton Bridge conquered Passaic Falls with its technological art, and the pleasure park itself was meant to “spiritualize” the landscape.
Crane’s project, however, was not the only one insult to the working-class people of Paterson. While business owners like Crane beautified Paterson with flower beds, their employees lived in squalor. As the 1820s progressed, even the town’s Independence Day celebrations changed. Early on, parades, fireworks, and other festivities were largely democratic, with residents of all social classes participating. Even the toasts made by the owners at the customary dinner for the upper classes included recognition of their hardworking employees. By 1828, however, the celebration had changed. Working class men still marched in the parade, but many others were excluded. The fireworks show took place at Forest Garden, and festivities were geared toward the bourgeois. There was one exception, though. Thousands turned out to watch Sam Patch leap from Passaic Falls a second time.
On July 16, 1828, Sam announced that he would jump once again in about two weeks. His announcement corresponded to a declaration by manufacturers that they were changing the schedule in their factories and mills. Lunch would now be at 1:00 p.m. instead of noon. Workers were furious at this arbitrary decree, and Sam moved his jump up to the next Saturday in protest. The following Monday, when the lunch break change took effect, workers walked off the job as usual at noon and stayed off. They demanded both a reinstatement of noon lunch and a ten hour work day. Early in August, the lunch hour was restored, and most workers returned to the mills and factories. Owners, however, fired the lead protestors.
No one knows for sure if Sam Patch was among the protestors fired, but on August 6, he jumped off a ship’s mast in Hoboken. The event was organized by John Cox Stevens, owner of Elysian Fields, an entertainment venue that catered to New Yorkers of all classes. Stevens offered everything from horse races to circuses, and he engaged Sam Patch to make his next great leap. Many New Yorkers, especially those of the upper class, were appalled at this dangerous and corrupting entertainment, but crowds gathered nonetheless to watch Sam complete yet another successful jump. Sam did not return to Paterson; he was on his way to becoming a celebrity.
In this chapter, Paul E. Johnson draws his readers’ attention to the symbolism of the events, places, objects, and decisions of Sam Patch’s world. Forest Garden, at least in Timothy Crane’s eyes, symbolized the triumph of progress over nature, of art over wilderness, of civilization, respectability, and decorum over barbarism, impropriety, and disorder. It was to be a place where the “better” people could come for enlightenment, relaxation, and escape from the mess and muddle of democracy. For the author, however, Forest Garden is a symbol of the exclusion and oppression of the working classes. At one time, the land that became Forest Garden was a public recreation area, open and free to all people. Timothy Crane, however, made it exclusive with the help of his bridge toll; in so doing, he proclaimed the working class inferior. This symbolism was not lost on the working class, as the violence against Forest Garden reveals.
The working class had symbols of its own. Christmas night, for instance, came to represent revenge. What should have been a night of peace ironically became a night when lower classes “settled scores” with their “betters.” The people of Paterson attacked Forest Garden on Christmas night in 1828. Further, the strike in the summer of 1828 carried symbolic overtones for the workers of Paterson. When the owners decided to arbitrarily change their lunch hour, workers were livid. It was a small change, perhaps, but it stood for the owners’ ability to control their employees’ lives right down to the smallest detail. So the workers, in a symbolic gesture, walked out at their normal noon lunch on the day the change was to take effect, and they stayed out until the order was reversed.
Sam Patch, too, understood the power of symbols. He jumped while wearing his white spinner’s uniform to show his solidarity with the people of his trade and the working class. His jumps were also often symbolic. He jumped from Passaic Falls the first time to announce his opposition to Timothy Crane’s ideas of “art” and “progress.” Sam proclaimed with his leap that working people could do great things, too, and that their accomplishments required considerable skill and expertise. He jumped again in support of the protest, symbolically yet powerfully emphasizing the unique capabilities of the working class and their arts.
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