Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper

by Paul E. Johnson

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Rochester Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125


After his Niagara jumps, Sam Patch settled in Rochester, residing at the Rochester Recess bar and confectionery. Rochester was another mill town that had sprung up almost overnight and had, as residents proudly proclaimed, conquered the natural world around it. Sam was drawn to Rochester because of the Genesee Falls. Thousands of others settled in this “Young Lion of the West” to own or work in its mills and factories, to support those owners and workers, or to take advantage of the Erie Canal, which passed right through the city. Rochester expanded rapidly through the 1820s, and its inhabitants prided themselves on the city’s businesses, churches, public buildings, raceways, and bridges, as well as its dam and aqueduct—all of which tamed nature for human use and ennobled the “built landscape.” Rochester stood as a prime example of progress and civilization.

Many of Rochester’s citizens were members of the growing middle class, building their lives through hard work and discipline and holding fast to their conservative values. They appreciated good taste, domesticity, quiet, and integrity; they had little use for fashion, public display, or rowdiness. They took great pleasure in being respectable, and they expected the rest of their city and its inhabitants to behave in kind. In this, however, they were often greatly disappointed and disgusted.

Other townspeople of Rochester did not subscribe to the same standards of respectability, at least not all the time. Working class citizens had their own forms of entertainment, including drinking and going to the theater. The town’s “sportsmen,” many of whom met at the Recess, also partook in activities considered less than respectable. These were the men who befriended Sam Path.

The Recess, owned by William Cochrane, was the meeting place of the Rochester Town Band, a bastion of male society that consistently challenged the middle-class sense of propriety. The band performed for many town events and in its early years included members from the city’s more prominent classes. Members enjoyed their music and each other’s company, though they occasionally argued about the necessity of strong drink. As the years passed, however, working-class members came to dominate the band, and these musical “sportsmen” and their friends sometimes created quite a scene in Rochester. Sam Drake, for instance, appalled the “respectables” with his antics, which included conducting target practice in the middle of town.

Many of the same men active in or associated with the band were also militiamen, and they resented their mandatory militia service so much that they gladly joined the “Fantastical” movement. Fantasticals turned militia drill time into a hilarious performance, sporting “uniforms” of everything from yellow pants to hunting jackets, carrying “weapons” like pipes and brooms, and fighting mock battles. These men were not, as a general rule, drunkards or criminals. They worked hard, had families, and even owned businesses, but they did enjoy having fun and raising some eyebrows. When Sam Patch arrived in Rochester, he gravitated towards men like these. 

What Sam found in Rochester was a busy, well-developed city with its distinct neighborhoods: manufacturing, wealthy, respectable, working-class, and poor. The town’s upper- and middle-class residents firmly disapproved of “low” entertainments like theater and dances, but they never succeeded in completely preventing them or the occasional political altercations that scandalized the city. 

Sam must have explored the city, but he focused mostly on the falls, even borrowing a boat to get a better feel for the basin below. In the process, he would have seen the Irish Dublin neighborhood and the commercial setting of Genesee Falls. This context elicited diverse opinions from visitors, some of whom despised the manufacturing background and others of whom thought it contributed to the sublimity of the scene. Sam was also well aware of the danger of the falls and its surrounding landscape. Nonetheless, he scheduled his jump for November 6, 1829.

Massive crowds gathered that afternoon, lining both sides of the falls above and below. Sam performed another perfect jump, and, as always, a few moments of extreme tension passed before he surfaced in the basin below the falls. But Sam was not satisfied; he announced that he would perform an even more dramatic leap, higher than the first, on November 13. Again, crowds swarmed to watch, cheering when Sam appeared, wearing his usual white spinner’s uniform, a pair of Rochester Town Band uniform pants for extra warmth, his black silk scarf, a jacket, and a cap. This time, when Sam stood on his jumping platform, some in the crowd noticed a difference. Sam seemed to sway. His eyes were glazed, his body slack. Later, one of Sam’s companions swore that Sam only had one drink before the jump, but others were positive that Sam was inebriated.

Before his leap, Sam gave a short, mostly incoherent speech about greatness. Then he soared out over the falls, but this time something went wrong. Sam’s body changed position as he plummeted toward the water, veering to the side. He was out of control when he hit the water and died instantly. The crowd watched in horror, then fell silent and walked away. Crews remained behind to search for Sam’s body.


This chapter focuses largely on humor, rebellion, identity, and social statements, topics explored against the background of Rochester, New York in the 1820s. The city’s middle class was intent upon creating an identity for itself, a character that blended upper-class tastes, a commitment to hard work and domesticity, and an aversion to changing fashion, public entertainment, and alcohol. These middle-class residents made their social statements by embracing their chosen lifestyle and attempting to impose it upon others. They expressed their outrage about public inebriation, the theater, horse racing, and any remote violation of the Sabbath. Of course, many of them violated their own standards by joining the crowd of spectators that lined the falls to watch Sam Patch make his leap. Apparently the draw of such a spectacle superseded the devotion to respectability.

Other Rochester residents rebelled, often humorously, against middle-class principles and rules. The city’s “sportsmen” formed the primary nest of revolt. They frequented taverns like the Recess, made music with the Rochester Town Band, hunted and fished together, gambled, took target practice in the middle of a city street, made “respectable” Rochester residents grimace in disgust, and generally had a good time. Many of these men actually straddled the worlds of the middle class and the sportsmen, for they were business owners, professional men, and skilled craftsmen. But they did not fully subscribe to middle-class notions of propriety; they were too busy having fun. These men thus embodied the tensions of Rochester during this time—tensions between respectability and rebellion, between cultivated refinement and lighthearted humor.

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