Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper Summary

Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper is a 2004 historical nonfiction book by Paul E. Johnson about Sam Patch, an American showman who performed dangerous jumps at various waterfalls in the early 1800s.

  • Sam Patch was raised in Pawtucket and had a difficult family life. From an early age, he labored as a mill worker.
  • After moving to Paterson, Sam began to perform public leaps from waterfalls. He used his jumps to draw attention to working-class causes.
  • Sam became increasingly famous for his daring jumps, which he performed at Niagara Falls and Genessee Falls in Rochester.

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Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1158

Sam Patch (1799–1829), the daring showman, grew up in an era of industrialization, changing landscapes, and democratization, and all three of these trends significantly affected his life and shaped his legacy. Sam’s paternal relatives hailed from Wenham, Massachusetts, but his father, Mayo Greenleaf Patch, moved to North Reading and married into the prominent McIntire family. For a while, Greenleaf prospered as a shoemaker and earned the respect of his in-laws and neighbors, but after the death of his father-in-law, Greenleaf made a series of poor choices that led to his downfall.

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Greenleaf began taking advantage of his McIntire relatives, marrying his half sister, Nancy Barker, to his younger brother-in-law and seizing his mother-in-law’s property for his own use. He also entered into disputes with his neighbors and was eventually evicted from the McIntire-owned house he had been occupying. Greenleaf and his wife, Abigail, moved their family to Danvers, where the struggles and debts continued, and then to Marblehead, where Greenleaf lost his inheritance within two years.

By then a broken man, Greenleaf moved his family to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where his wife and children could work in the textile mills. He gave himself up to drink and eventually abandoned his family, went to prison, and faded out of history. Abigail was left to struggle on her own, unused to being the head of a family, though she found some solace in her Christian faith. She lived her later years with her daughter and granddaughters and largely fabricated her family’s history to conceal and forget its painful elements.

Sam Patch was born in 1799 and grew up as a child mill worker in Pawtucket and rose to the rank of skilled boss spinner. He learned the technique of falls jumping by leaping from Pawtucket Falls, and with his new skills in place, he moved to Paterson, New Jersey, in the mid-1820s.

In Paterson, Sam and his fellow workers found themselves in conflict with the efforts of an “improver” named Timothy B. Crane. Crane created a pleasure park called Forest Garden to refine nature and provide entertainment and uplift to a “better” set of people. Access to Forest Garden was limited by a toll bridge over Passaic Falls, much to the disgust of many Paterson residents who had always freely used the land for personal recreation.

On the day of Crane’s planned bridge placement and celebration of his new venture, Sam Patch jumped seventy feet from the edge of Passaic Falls, turning the crowd’s attention away from Crane. In Sam’s mind, his jump proved that he, too, could do great things and that falls-jumping was an art, a trained and practiced skill that contributed to one’s identity and livelihood. This definition contrasted with Crane’s idea of art as the taming of nature for human benefit and inspiration.

Paterson’s workers and lower classes expressed their displeasure with Crane and his fellow upper-class residents by vandalizing Crane’s Forest Garden and by striking against an arbitrary change in the mill workers’ lunch hour in 1828. Sam Patch performed another jump in solidarity with the striking workers. Mill owners eventually gave in to workers’ demands and restored the regular lunch hour, but they also fired the “chief troublemakers.” Sam Patch may have been among them, for he left Paterson shortly afterward, accomplished another spectacular jump off a ship’s mast in Hoboken, and disappeared from public view.

Sam Patch scheduled his next jump over a year later, on October 6, 1829, at Niagara Falls. Niagara was a popular destination on the “Fashionable Tour” traveled by Colonel William Leete Stone and his fellow upper-class aesthetes, who sought sublimity in landscapes and vistas. Stone visited Niagara and stayed at William Forsyth’s hotel at the time of Sam’s jump, which ended up taking place on October 7. Stone was disgusted by the low-brow entertainments of explosions (mostly duds), a shipwreck (that actually failed), and Sam. In fact, Stone satirized Sam and his jump using the voice of his Jacksonian Democrat alter ego Hiram Doolittle, presenting Sam’s feat as a mere “treat” for the lower classes who could not appreciate the spiritually sublime.

Meanwhile, Sam fell in with museum owner and theater man Jonathan McCleary, who gave Sam a few tips about showmanship. Sam performed a second jump at Niagara, this time from a much greater height, standing beneath an American flag and wearing a black silk scarf over his usual white spinner’s uniform. Again, Sam proved successful, to the crowd’s great delight. A few newspaper reporters began to appreciate the jumper’s skill and courage in the face of danger.

After his Niagara jumps, Sam moved on to Rochester, New York, a manufacturing town known as the “Young Lion of the West.” Rochester, located on the Erie Canal, was a model of progress. It had grown rapidly in the 1820s, and its built landscape soon dominated Sam’s particular point of interest, Genesee Falls.

Rochester was home to a growing middle class who valued hard work, discipline, good taste, and quiet. These residents were often disgusted by the perceived rowdiness and lack of respectability of another set of Rochester inhabitants, the “sportsmen,” who drank, created the occasional ruckus, made music in the Rochester Town Band, hilariously mocked their own militia service as “Fantasticals,” and generally had a marvelous time in one another’s company. These were the men who befriended Sam Patch when he arrived in Rochester.

Sam performed his first jump at Genesee Falls on November 6, 1829. As always, it was a perfect jump, but Sam was not satisfied with it. He scheduled a higher, more dramatic jump for November 13. Huge crowds turned out for both jumps, but many people could tell that something was going drastically wrong on the day of the second performance. Sam was drunk, many believed, and his pre-jump speech was incoherent. He swayed on the jumping platform, eyes glazed, body slack. At first, his jump seemed normal, but by the time he dropped into the water, he was out of control, and he died instantly on impact.

Sam Patch’s body was not recovered until March of 1830, and in the meantime, many people chose to believe that Sam was still alive. Even after he was buried beneath a headstone—which bore the inscription “Sam Patch / Such is Fame”—some held onto that notion.

As the years passed, Sam’s celebrity grew as various groups appropriated his name and story for their own purposes. Whigs often made Sam into a caricature of an ignorant Jacksonian Democrat who was wild, drunk, proud, idle, and corrupt. Democrats, on the other hand, adopted Sam as one of their own, a patriot and a hero who promoted the values of the common man as he embarked on fantastic adventures. Eventually, however, Sam retreated to the realms of folklore and marketing, with the towns of his exploits cashing in on his name and image for business and tourism.

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