On October 7, 1829, Sam Patch ventured out onto a ladder and leapt 85 into the churning waters of the Niagara River. When he surfaced, the crowd went crazy. Who was the first American Daredevil?
Sam Patch: The First American Daredevil?
Sam Patch was born in Rhode Island in 1807. While still young, he began “to jump for purses of cash.” On September 30, 1827, Patch made his first of many historical leaps. On that day, he dodged a constable and leapt off the cliff next to Passaic Falls in New Jersey. By the time he lifted his head out of the water, he was famous.
Patch’s biography is largely incomplete. Most historians believe he jumped numerous times over the next two years. However, only a few of those jumps have been confirmed. One particularly memorable jump took place almost a year after Passaic Falls. On August 28, 1828, Patch survived a 100-foot jump from a ship’s mast in Hoboken, New Jersey. After that, he was ready to take on his most famous obstacle, Niagara Falls.
In 1829, Patch was invited to jump over Niagara Falls as part of an exhibition designed to bring business to the area. He was one of several acts. As hundreds of people watched, gunpowder was used to detonate large chunks of rock from the Falls. Then an unmanned schooner named Superior was sent over the Falls. The next day, Patch took the stage. Poor weather and the delay in his arrival limited the crowd. Still, he made the jump and the crowd loved it. He became the first person to, in essence, leap over Niagara Falls and live to tell about it.
He repeated the feat ten days later in front of a much larger crowd of 10,000 people. He survived again and came out yelling, “There’s no mistake in Sam Patch!”
“The jump of Patch is the greatest feat of the kind ever effected by man. He may now challenge the universe for a competitor.” ~ Buffalo Republican
Sam Patch vs. The High Falls of the Genesee River?
Patch was famous. His slogan, “Some things can be done as well as others,” became known throughout the nation. He went onto Rochester, New York to test the High Falls of the Genesee River. On November 6, 1829, he climbed onto a rock ledge in the middle of the river. Then he tossed a “begging pet bear” over the Falls. Seeing that the bear had survived, Patch followed suit, successfully leaping 97 feet in front of 7,000 to 8,000 people.
However, Patch was supposedly disappointed with the amount of money he raised. So, he decided to duplicate the jump on November 13. This time, he constructed a 25-foot stand, turning the jump into one that was close to 125 feet high.
“Napoleon was a great man and a great general. He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn’t jump the Genesee Falls. Wellington was a great man and a great soldier. He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn’t jump the Genesee Falls. That was left for me to do, and I can do it, and will.” ~ Sam Patch, November 13, 1829, Rochester, NY
Accounts differ as to what happened next. Patch usually dove with his hands plastered against his sides, his toes pointed, and his posture perfectly straight. But for some reason, his body crashed into the water at an awkward angle. He didn’t surface.
At first, Patch’s body wasn’t found. Rumors abounded that it was just another stunt. Eyewitnesses reported seeing him in Pittsford among other nearby towns. It wasn’t until the following spring that a hired hand found Patch’s corpse near the mouth of the river.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
At the young age of 22, Patch was dead. But why did he perform such risky jumps? And why were Americans so obsessed with his feats? In his book, Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper, Paul E. Johnson discusses some possible answers. Johnson sees Patch as a working class hero who mastered the “art of the jump” in a day and age when the individual art of craftsmanship was giving way to industrialization. Also, he postulates that Patch’s success showed working class people that fame could be achieved by anyone in America.
Patch was buried in Charlotte Cemetery with a wooden marker that read, “Sam Patch – Such is Fame.”
“Sam Patch belongs to history. He achieved fame in his day and generation, and his name will go down to posterity. Sam Patch was truly a great man. Not a great warrior like Alexander, or Julius Caesar, or Charles XII, or Napoleon, or lots of others, whom it is unnecessary to name, for ‘Heroes are much the same – the point’s agreed – from Macedonia’s madman to the Swede.’ Nor was he a great philosopher, in the common acceptation of the term, like Pythagoras, or Plato, or Newton, or Franklin. Nor a great statesman like Pitt, or Peel, or Webster. His greatness did not lie in this line. And yet Sam Patch was truly great – he was a great jumper.” ~ Life and Death of Sam Patch, United States magazine