Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471
Very little recorded biographical information exists, Paul Johnson tells us, about the daredevil who became known as Sam the Jumper. There is a birth certificate but nothing more regarding his personal life. As far as we know, he did not get married or have children. Johnson relies on information about...
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Very little recorded biographical information exists, Paul Johnson tells us, about the daredevil who became known as Sam the Jumper. There is a birth certificate but nothing more regarding his personal life. As far as we know, he did not get married or have children. Johnson relies on information about the people that Sam lived and worked with in New England, piecing together a portrait of the first sizeable sector of American working-class society.
Sam's parents had been farmers who moved into the town of Pawtucket, a community adjacent to Providence, Rhode Island. Sam, like many children of that generation, became a mill hand. During those years, Sam began to drink heavily, and reports indicate that he was drunk during his jumps.
Sam learned his leaping abilities with the other factory boys at the falls of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He moved on to Paterson, New Jersey, where in 1827 and 1828 he made the leaps at Passaic Falls that first got him in the newspapers.
What especially fascinated Johnson was the fact that Sam's daredevil, sporting actions were also bound up with working-class history and even ecological activism. The first leap that Sam made at Passaic Falls was in protest of a proposed closure of a public area by a businessman who intended to create a private park there. He made another leap on the Fourth of July. A third leap actually coincided with a workers' protest: "the first labor walkout in Paterson history."
As Sam moved on to bigger falls, eventually making his way to Niagara Falls, not only did he become truly famous but his actions highlighted the conflict between democratic capitalism—as it expanded westward and engaged in "the conquest of nature"—and an appreciation for the unspoiled, wide-open character of nature.
Conflicts over the privatization of access to Niagara Falls had been ongoing for several years by the time Sam showed up to make a jump. Notably, the Forsyth hotel and viewing platform had clashed with Canadian government forces. Sam was only part of a scheduled show, which included the planned explosion of a rock ledge to make way for more private structures. On the first scheduled day, Sam pulled out of the show, reportedly drunk. However, he returned the next day, made a short speech (boasting of his superiority to Napoleon and Wellington), and made the fatal leap:
The leap began as gracefully as the others. Sam arched his torso and threw his head back and his arms out and sailed outward and down. But a third of the way down things went wrong. Sam's head dropped to his chest and his body veered sideways, and the crowd watched in horror as he fell with his arms flailing in the air. He hit the water out of control and was dead in that instant.