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Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper

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Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper
By Paul E. Johnson. (Hill & Wang - A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2004. Pg. xiii, 240. Illustrations.) ISBN: 0-8090-8388-4.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - July 27, 2004

Sam Patch was the Evel Knievel of his day. He was a daredevil, a risk taker, a stuntman, and a showman. Born in 1800, Sam Patch initially worked as a mill hand and made his start as a falls jumper by leaping from the falls of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Falls and bridge leaping was apparently a common pastime of the mill boys. It was his leap, in 1827 from the Passaic Falls in Paterson New Jersey that gained him notoriety. Overnight he became a celebrity, and embarked upon a career as a stuntman. In this charming account, Paul E. Johnson details Patch's short life, his stunts, and how he grew to become an authentic American Folk hero, and the first professional daredevil in the United States. Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper is 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.

Sam Patch was born in 1800, and died in 1829. His first leap in 1827, which rocked him to stardom, was over Pawtucket Falls, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He went on to jump off of Niagara falls a couple of times, and at Passaic Falls, off of the Clinton Bridge, in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving onto Genesee, New York. His last feat of bravado, which took place on November 13, 1829, was to leap off of the Genesee Falls in Rochester, New York. In front of thousands of people, he walked out onto some scaffolding and jumped to his death. The consensus is that he was intoxicated at the time of the jump. Whether this played a role in his death can never be determined, but it is thought that it may have played a role in preserving his body. Although his body was not found for almost four months, it was still in relatively good condition when he was at last pulled from the icy waters that had become his grave. This was not the first time that he had jumped the Genesee Falls, but it was his last.

As the preface to this book explains, Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper is not a biography in the strictest sense. Rather it is a portrait of an era, in which Sam Patch played a small, but memorable roll. The first twenty-seven years of Patch's life are rather humdrum. His last two years, spent carrying out death defying stunts, are however, the stuff of legends. Yet without a full understanding of what life was like in the mill towns, and across America during Patch's early years, you cannot understand the impact that his stunts had on the American psyche and how his 'celebrity status affected Patch and his decision to attempt increasingly more difficult and dangerous stunts. As important, Johnson explores how, after his death, Patch grew into a folk hero with his story finding its way into children's books, poetry of such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in the literary writings of men such a Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The name Sam Patch even lived on as a horse - Andrew Jackson's favorite horse was named Sam Patch!

In this fascinating narrative, Johnson, who is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, has elected to weave Patch's story into the social history of the era, providing the reader with a rewarding overview of early 1800's New England society, and fascinating look at a unique, and unforgettable, aspect of Americana.

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