Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper

Paul E. Johnson

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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In the 1820s, there was a fellow named Sam Patch who worked (when he wasn't drinking) in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, as a mill hand for one of America's new textile companies. He made a name for himself one day by jumping nearly one hundred feet into the tumultuous waters below Pawtucket Falls. When in 1827 he repeated the stunt in Patterson, New Jersey, another mill town, an even larger audience gathered to cheer on the daredevil they would call the "Jersey Jumper." Inevitably, he went to Niagara Falls, where in 1829 he jumped not once but twice in front of thousands who had paid for a good view.

The distinguished social historian Paul E. Johnson here assigns to this deceptively simple story all its deserved richness, revealing in its many characters and social settings a fresh, well-rounded portrait of Jacksonian America. He also relates the real jumper to the mythic Sam Patch, a folk hero who turned up as a daring moral hero in the works of Hawthorne and Melville, in London plays and pantomimes, and in the spotlight with Davy Crockett—a Sam Patch who became the namesake for Andrew Jackson's favorite horse.

In his shrewd and powerful analysis, Johnson casts new light on aspects of American society we may have overlooked or underestimated. This is innovative American history at its best.


Praise for Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper

"A fascinating book to read, not just for the story that it stupendously tells about Patch's exploits and his motivations, but also for the vivid portrait that it paints of early American life . . . A rewarding overview of early 1800s New England society, and a fascinating look at a unique, and unforgettable, aspect of Americana."—Rochelle Caviness, History in Review

"An elegant and dramatic picture of a man whose purchase on respectability was small but who seemed to move happily outside it . . . [The book offers] some fascinating insights into American culture."—Steven C. Bullock, The Journal of American History

"On Friday, November 13, 1829, a cheering crowd watched a drunken factory hand named Sam Patch step bravely off the top of Genesee Falls at Rochester, New York—and vanish into legend. In this compact masterpiece of historical detective work, Paul E. Johnson manages both to bring this unlikely early American hero back to vivid life, and to say a good many fresh and provocative things about Jacksonian America, the industrial revolution, and the cult of celebrity."—Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin D. Roosevelt

"With this little masterpiece, Paul Johnson proves yet again that he is one of the greatest artists currently writing history anywhere. Scholar, stylist, and intellectual daredevil, Johnson brings to life a forlorn and intrepid American hero—and an entire era in our past—while operating at the highest levels of subtlety, wit, and seriousness. Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper is stunning."—Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

"For a few years ending in 1829, [Sam Patch] gained national celebrity by jumping hundreds of feet over waterfalls in Paterson, N.J., Niagara 0Falls, and Rochester. Patch pioneered a new kind of fame. He was not well born. He did not earn renown for public or military service. Instead, he did stupid stunts that drew crowds, and he earned a living from his fame. 'Sam burst into public consciousness as the Jersey Jumper, the man who leaped waterfalls in the newspapers,' Paul E. Johnson writes in his delightful, crisply written Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper. 'He was a 19th-century hero: no past, no family connections, no firm ties to any place. It was what the public was learning to expect, and it may have been what Sam Patch wanted.' Johnson, who teaches history at the University of South Carolina, attempts to explain what Patch meant by his cryptic motto, 'Some Things Can Be Done as Well as Others' in the context of early-19th-century arguments about the meaning of work, art, nature, and class. The respectable middle class mocked him, but each successful jump made Patch a bigger popular hero. 'Why do we call him a madman or a fool, when he has left his memory around the falls of the Genesee more permanently than if the letters of his name had been hewn into the forehead of the precipice?' Nathaniel Hawthorne asked. 'Was the leaper of cataracts more mad or foolish than other men who throw away life, or misspend it in pursuit of empty fame, and seldom so triumphantly as he?'"—David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times Book Review

"Johnson paints brilliant scenes on small canvases. Through intense archival work, he observes historical actors in little spaces over confined periods of time. And then he tells stories, nicely honed stories filled with immediacy. Added layers of context and interpretation make these stories come alive with meaning . . . Patch's story—which Johnson recovers through some remarkable historical detective work—helps us understand the new American social structure and the relationships between classes [and] helps reveal a whole new American world that was just opening up early in the 19th Century . . . Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper reminds us that the past is filled with serendipity. Turn one of those odd corners of history and suddenly you confront a fascinating and unexpected scene. All the better if your guide is one as sharp and wry as Paul Johnson."—Elliot J. Gorn, Chicago Tribune

pard"Well-argued . . . A fascinating account of [Patch's] life and—especially—times . . . Solid in relating the actions of its central character to the early decades of the republic."—Roger K. Miller, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

"Nudged forward by Paul Johnson's consummate storytelling, the reader plunges headlong into the raging torrents of antebellum America, where manly artisans thrash about with scheming capitalists, incorrigible wastrels with prim reformers. Having taken the leap, the reader will find, as did Sam Patch, that you cannot go back. This is a wonderful, clever book."—Mark C. Carnes, Barnard College, Columbia University

"Engaging . . . Intriguing . . . Even though Patch's 'career' as a falls jumper lasted only a couple of years, his jumps—and the reasons for them—provide Johnson with a wonderful prism through which to examine the burgeoning democracy and its developing values. He considers political debates about industrialization, aesthetic questions about art and nature, the economic challenges of industrialization, and the cultural implications of a celebrity based on infamous feats, not civic accomplishments. Employing felicitous prose, impeccable research, and an often mischievous sense of humor, Johnson weaves an incredible social history from one simple man's terrifying leaps into nature's sublime cataracts . . . Johnson takes several side roads during this rollicking book, but even these are filled with tremendous detail, colourful characters, and illuminating anecdotes that focus on the turbulent cultural context . . . For Johnson, Patch's repeated raspberries to the self-appointed guardians of art, nature, and culture serve as a microcosm of the developing debates surrounding Jacksonian America."—Mark Luce, The Christian Science Monitor

"With its frequent forays into historical tangents, Sam Patch places one man's short, seedy, and radical life into the context of the American Industrial Revolution."—Gina Arnold, San Francisco Chronicle

"A boss spinner in a New England textile mill in the 1820s, Sam Patch 0was a tough, hard-drinking son of a tough, hard-drinking father. His claim to fame was his willingness to leap into waterfalls—at first for his friends' amusement but later as a political statement to divert attention from local politicians. Finally, Patch became a showman, jumping off cliffs for a percentage of the ticket sales. His last jump was at Genesee Falls at Rochester, New York; as usual, he leaped from a scaffold, but [this time he] never surfaced. His body was found six months later and several miles downriver. Patch's legend lived on in the 1830s and 1840s, as popular literature and plays resurrected the jumper for later generations. Johnson (History, University of South Carolina) tells Patch's story against a detailed background of early 19th-century New England. Since little record of Patch survives, Johnson uses his life as a framework on which to hang his interesting and accessible narrative, exploring the lives of local politicians, entertainers, and entrepreneurs."—Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie District Public Library, Metamora, Library Journal

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  • Paul E. Johnson

  • Paul E. Johnson, professor of history at the University of South Carolina, is the author of A Shopkeeper's Millennium and coauthor, with Sean Wilentz, of The Kingdom of Matthias.