Sam Patch, the Tragic True Story of America’s First National Celebrity
On November 6th, 1829 a man dressed in a white shirt and spinner pants stepped to the edge of a stone precipice ninety-four feet above the High Falls of the Genesee River in downtown Rochester, New York. Below him, some 8,000 spectators lined the banks. He bowed to the crowd and waved his arms. Then he jumped. He plummeted straight down and entered the water like an knife. Then he was gone.
The crowd waited. One beat. Two beats. Where was he? Was he dead? Nervous eyes searched the frothing water at the base of the falls. A moment later he bobbed to the surface and waved. The crowd erupted in delirious applause.
Hearing the cheers of the crowd, he vowed to jump again from an even higher height one week later. He was drunk on the applause. He was also just plain drunk. His name was Sam Patch, and he was America’s first national celebrity.
Sam Patch and the Wages of Celebrity
Celebrity can be a double-edged sword. To be the subject of an audiences’ admiration is flattering and gratifying. But that admiration can turn sour if you don’t continue to fulfill their expectations. You must keep on giving them what they want because if you deviate or fall short they can turn on you. Therefore, your celebrity becomes a trap. And the stakes become higher when your audience projects greater significance on your performance than you ever intended. Such was the case with Sam Patch.
Every Man a Farmer
In many ways the America of the 1820’s was a place that we would barely recognize today. It was a place where, until very recently, every man was a farmer. From the poorest dirt farmer to the richest plantation owner everyone was engaged in more or less the same enterprise, and because good land was cheap and easily available in colonial America, many farmers with nothing more than average skills could still prosper.
This had a great leveling effect and was the primary motivator for inspiring ideas about democracy, which took hold with great force in America in the late 1700’s. Even those born into privilege, men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison could view themselves as simple yeoman farmers, no more or less entitled than the average sodbuster to the fruits of society. It was a fantasy. Yet as long as the sternest taskmasters were still the weather and the soil it could be said that everyone was in the same boat. That all changed when the industrial revolution came to America.
The Tyranny of Machines
The present confusion around the abuse of digital data in the 21st century has an antecedent in the 19th century. Back then industry was new, it proliferated fast, it became a huge economic and social force, and the structures of society were ill equipped to deal with it. When Sam Patch was born in 1800, most American manufacturers were still individual artisans working from home and contributing their work as members of a guild. The first water powered cotton mills didn’t appear until the 1790’s. But when they did, it was a huge game changer.
Cotton spinning machinery like the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny were among the first industrial machines capable of producing textiles on a large scale. To meet the demands of the machines, manufacturers needed workers, and lots of them. Those workers had to come cheap. Otherwise, the economics of large scale production would be consumed by the cost of labor. So manufacturers went in search of the cheapest labor they could find, principally women and children. Sam Patch was one of those children.
A Rare Breed
Sam Patch entered the cotton mill at Pawtucket, Rhode Island at the age of seven. His father had gone broke over land speculation and moved the family there in 1810 before abandoning them altogether in 1812. Sam and the dozens of other children at the mill worked long days in all kinds of weather. Nevertheless, Sam was a good worker, and he climbed the ladder, becoming a boss spinner sometime in the 1820’s. Boss spinners were skilled labor and highly valued. Sam was well compensated, but at bottom he was still a working class bloke, at a time when the concept of a working class was just beginning to take shape.
In fact, Sam was a member of a rare breed, a working class person who had gained the respect and admiration of the mill owners. Not merely a cog in the machinery, boss spinners like Sam occupied a middle ground between the highfalutin world of new capital and the dark netherworld of the factory floor. But if Sam tried to rise above his station, he was met with a hard ceiling.
The America of the new industrial era was not the America of the previous century. The fantasy of a democratic society had been quickly plowed under by the demands of industrial capital. Sam could be a hero, but only to those below him in the social hierarchy. As valued as he may be, he could not mix in the salons of respectable society. His proper place was the corner saloon. His proper people were the mill workers.
The Lure of Rushing Water
Early textile mills were powered by rushing water, so the first mills were located next to powerful rivers. In Pawtucket the Blackstone River turned the water wheels that powered the machinery. But Sam didn’t remain there for long. Instead, he took his talents to Patterson, New Jersey where the mighty Passaic River powered the mills.
We cannot know his reason for moving, but Patterson was an upcoming city in the 1820’s, and he may have been hoping for greater upward mobility. If so, he was disappointed. He was no more likely to penetrate the impenetrable ceiling imposed by the new American class system than he had been in Pawtucket. It was in Patterson that Sam Patch began drinking, heavily.
Near the mill in Patterson the Passaic River plunged over a rocky precipice and fell seventy feet to a shaded pool below. In a world before organized sports, working class pastimes consisted of drinking booze, spinning yarns and getting into fistfights. Occasionally someone dared someone else to do something dangerous. The Great Falls of the Passaic River proved an irresistible temptation for Sam and his ilk. They dared each other to jump. They competed with each other. And Sam Patch, perhaps to affirm his stature as a boss spinner, strove to outdo them all. Sam Patch took jumping off of waterfalls to a whole new level.
Stealing the Show
It began on the last day of September 1827. A local Patterson businessman and entrepreneur was building a covered bridge across the Passaic River to service a formal garden he was constructing. The garden sat on land that had previously been publicly accessible, but now would be reserved for those who behaved with the grace and dignity befitting gentlemen. In other words, working class ruffians would no longer be welcome. To drive the point home, the entrepreneur announced he would be charging a toll to cross the bridge to the garden. Sam and his friends took umbrage.
In an effort to hype his new garden, the entrepreneur planned to make a public spectacle of pulling the bridge across the chasm and setting it on its mounts. A crowd gathered on September 30th to watch the bridge being finalized. But as the bridge reached the cliff and began to ride out over the cables, something went wrong. The bridge tipped precariously, and for a moment it looked like it was going to plunge into the river. The workmen had to stop and correct the carriage, and in that moment Sam Patch made his debut.
He stood on a rock at the edge of a cliff seventy feet over the water. He waited for the crowd’s attention to shift away from the disabled bridge to the specter of a man preparing to leap into the river. Then he jumped. The highjacked audience gaped at the spot where he had penetrated the water. He had fallen such a long way. Surely he was dead. Seconds ticked by in high suspense. Then Sam Patch popped to the surface and waved his arms. The crowd erupted in cheers of relief. The newspaper reporters who had gathered to watch the setting of the bridge wrote in glowing terms of the spectacle. Sam Patch had stolen the show. More importantly, he had become something entirely new in America, a working class hero, and the country’s first national celebrity.
The Hero of Hoboken
Celebrity can be a cruel taskmaster. No sooner did Sam Patch’s Patterson jump make the front pages of newspapers up and down the East Coast than he was being called on to do it again. This time, however, he would have to do it bigger and better. In Hoboken, New Jersey a showman and impresario by the name of John Cox Stevens was on the lookout for new and interesting attractions to draw sightseers to his riverside promenade. He had put on circuses and horse races. He had installed a merry-go-round and a wax museum. Twelve years later he would stage America’s first organized baseball game. But in the summer of 1828 America’s most talked about attraction was Sam Patch, the man who had jumped Passaic Falls.
Stevens arranged for Sam to leap from the mast of a sailing sloop anchored in the Hudson River. The drop would be ninety feet, a full twenty feet higher than the jump at Patterson. As dangerous as it was, it represented a turning point for Sam Patch. For the first time he would be jumping for people who had gathered specifically to see him. He did not disappoint.
He dropped into the river with barely a splash and emerged moments later to wild applause. Sam Patch was a full-fledged celebrity now, which meant he could get paid for his feats of derring-do and stop laboring as a spinner. It meant one other thing as well. He would have to go bigger.
In the 1820’s Niagara Falls had become the favorite resort of the well-to-do. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, well-heeled sophisticates from New York City and Boston could travel along its 363-mile length in comfort and arrive at Buffalo in just five days. They came to enjoy the summer promenade season beside one of the world’s great wonders. But they had not reckoned on the kind of low brow entertainment being offered on October 6th, 1829.
A year earlier Americans of that set had received the shock of their lives. A foul-mouthed, pugnacious brawler by the name of Andrew Jackson had been elevated to the highest office in the land. Jackson was the nation’s first democratic president, not “Democratic” in the party affiliation sense (although he was that too) but democratic in the sense that he was a genuine man of the people, not a member of the moneyed elite. At precisely the moment America was dividing itself along class lines for the first time, the lower orders had elected one of their own to represent them, and now, it appeared, nothing was sacred. Not even Niagara Falls.
Entertainment for the Masses
On October 6th a large crowd of working class people arrived at Niagara Falls to enjoy a variety of vulgar entertainments. First, there was to be an explosion at Table Rock that promised to blow away a portion of the rock and send it crashing into the river. Then the organizers planned to send a derelict schooner over the falls where it would be obliterated on the rocks below. Finally, Sam Patch was to leap from a small platform atop an eighty foot ladder anchored to the base of Goat Island and land in the swirling froth at the base of the falls. To the great relief of the fashionable set, none of it went as planned.
The governor of Upper Canada forbade the blowing up of Table Rock. The schooner got turned crosswise in the current of the Niagara River, rode up on a rock and lodged there, denying spectators the cataclysmic wreck that had been advertised. And stormy weather forced a postponement of Sam’s jump. The crowd suspected meddling by the upper classes, something in which Sam Patch was suspected of being complicit.
This was too much for Sam Patch. Rather than be associated with such anti-democratic perfidy, he vowed to jump anyway, despite the poor weather and the rickety ladder assembled for his purpose. After another delay to let a torrential storm pass, Sam climbed the eighty foot ladder, stood on the tiny platform, and jumped. To the great delight of the crowd, he emerged unharmed, fulfilling his end of the bargain. The obvious question on everyone’s lips? When would he do it again. Not wanting to disappoint his fans, Sam announced he would jump again at Niagara Falls in ten days time.
Sam spent the intervening days getting drunk. When he ascended the ladder again on October 17th he was a little unsteady. When he mounted to the tiny platform that had now been raised to a height of 120 feet, he hesitated. The ladder veered in the wind. For ten minutes he stood there, uncertain. Then, after an agonizingly long wait, he stepped to the edge of the platform and jumped.
The descent was not perfect. Sam made a sickening half-turn in the air and entered the water with one leg cocked. There was a tremendous splash. He could easily have been killed. But he wasn’t. He shot to the surface and received the thunderous applause of his people.
But only of them. The genteel class turned up their noses at his performance, calling it suicidal bravado. It didn’t matter to Sam Patch. The working class loved him. Just as they loved President Andrew Jackson. And they only wanted to know one thing from him now. How was he going to top that?
The High Falls
Sam Patch turned up in Rochester two weeks later. This time there was no flashy impresario promoting his jump. Sam distributed the fliers himself, going from bar to bar and taking a drink at each.
In those days Rochester was the most dynamic city in America. In 1812 it had been a wilderness, but with the construction of the Erie Canal and the proliferation of textile mills along the banks of the Genesee River it blossomed into a major metropolis of more than 10,000 by 1829. Its most distinctive feature was the waterfall in the center of the city. Called the High Falls, the cataract plunged 96 feet into the river below. Given its association with textile mills and its large working class population, Rochester was the perfect place for Sam Patch to make his mark.
But if self-medicating was any measure of how he was feeling about having to top himself with each new jump, his alcohol consumption told a depressing story. Almost every night, as the date of the Rochester jump approached, Sam Patch staggered home. He was ornery and belligerent. More than once he was found asleep in the street. Then on the day of the jump, before 8,000 cheering fans, he dropped 96 feet into the water and emerged unharmed.
Climbing onto the bank of the river, he was handed a bottle of rum. This time he didn’t wait for the inevitable question. He announced right then and there that he would jump again in seven days. The date of the jump would be Friday the 13th. He would be leaping from his highest height yet.
The Final Leap
Not a few people over the years have been destroyed by the pressures of celebrity, but Sam Patch was unique. No person of such low social standing had ever risen to such a high level of acclaim before. He had no manager or advisor. He had no predecessors he could look to for examples. His only guidance came from the other mill workers and barflies who frequented the taverns he hung out in. If they gave him any advice at all, it was to stick it to the fussy upper class snobs who disdained him, to show them who was the real hero of democratic America.
On November 13th, 1829 Sam Patch arose from his bar stool at the appointed hour and made his way through the streets of Rochester at the head of a procession that cheered him on. He waded through the shallows of the Genesee River and climbed the scaffolding to the brink of the Upper Falls where he stood on a platform 125 feet above the water. As Sam stared down at the huge crowd, he seemed to sag. He caught himself and drew himself erect. Those standing nearby swore he was drunk. But that didn’t stop him. After giving a long, rambling speech that almost no one heard above the roar of the falls, he crouched low and jumped.
A third of the way down his body began to keel over. In an effort to right his form, he began to flail his arms. Very quickly it was obvious that he was out of control. He struck the water with an audible slap and disappeared beneath the surface. He did not bob back up. Sam Patch was gone.
Weeks of fruitless searching yielded no sign of his body. Months later his corpse was found under the ice of the Genesee River six miles downstream near Charlotte, New York. He was pulled out and buried nearby.
The Legacy of Sam Patch
Sam Patch was America’s first working class hero. After his demise, President Andrew Jackson honored him by naming his horse after him. In the years after his death, Sam came to symbolize the grit and determination of the working man, as well as his courage. But as with all celebrities his legend was sullied by those who disdained him.
Sam Patch lived on in popular memory throughout the 19th century. He was referred to in stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Poems and plays were written about him. His name became synonymous with a cheap brand of notoriety. People who did reckless things to get attention were said to be “acting like Sam Patch”. And his name became a substitute for swear words, as in, “What the Sam Patch”, and “Where the Sam Patch.”
But his greatest legacy was as a daredevil. After his death, other people tried to emulate him. Many did not survive. His exploits at Niagara Falls planted the seeds for the barrel riders who rode over the falls in barrels all the way into the 1990’s. And Evel Kneivel would probably not have existed if not for Sam Patch.
But Sam Patch was not a happy person. Driven to his exploits by a society that had placed a ceiling on his ambitions, egged on by those who lived vicariously through his actions, he went too far and destroyed himself at the age of twenty-nine. The democracy he believed in had raised him up and torn him down. In the end he paid the ultimate price and became a cautionary tale about the dangers of celebrity.
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Next Stop on the Odyssey: Cedar Point, OH
My American Odyssey Route Map
Johnson, Paul E. Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper. Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
“The Wonderful Leaps of Sam Patch” poster, Pubic domain
Crowd applauding, Jordon Conner on Unsplash
George Washington as a farmer, a painting by Junius Brutus Stearns, Public Domain
A boss spinner working a Spinning Jenny, Calderdale History
Pawtucket River Falls in the 19th century, NPS
Great Falls of the Passaic River, World of Waterfalls
Passaic Falls from above, The Outbound
Sam leaping from the Falls, Public domain
Niagara Falls, Malcolm Logan
Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls, Malcolm Logan
Sam Patch standing on his platform, Public domain
The Upper Falls of the Genesee River, Malcolm Logan
Advertisement for Sam Patch’s last jump, Rochester Public Library
Outflow of the Genesee River, Malcolm Logan
Site where Sam Patch’s body was found, Malcolm Logan
Sam Patch’s grave, Malcolm Logan