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The Last Leap of Sam Patch

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“SAM PATCH,” The Weekly Messenger (St. Martinsville, LA), August 23, 1890

America’s first daredevil, Sam Patch, astounded audiences by leaping from waterfalls at hair-raising heights. For two years he was unstoppable, cheating death jump after jump. “There’s no mistake in Sam Patch,” he boasted, but a mistake during the jump he dubbed his “last” led to his demise.

A Rhode Island cotton mill spinner since childhood, Sam Patch began leaping from the waterfalls that powered the mills. He continued the practice after he moved to New Jersey to open his own mill. When that business failed, Sam began to perform jumps for money.

In September 1827, he jumped a bridge over the Passaic Falls in Paterson, NJ to a cheering crowd. Over the next two years, he captured the public’s attention by making similar jumps in spots throughout the East Coast, reaching the pinnacle of his notoriety in October 1829 after he famously jumped Niagara Falls, not once but twice!

Riding high on the success at Niagara Falls, Sam sought a greater challenge for his next jump. He set his sights on the Upper Falls on the Genesee River in Rochester, NY. At a height of 97 ft., the Upper Falls were considered nearly as spectacular as Niagara. Promotional ads appeared in the Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph that promised a perfect jump with “no mistake.” The stunt would also feature a newly acquired pet bear that would accompany Sam over the falls.

On November 6, 1829, thousands of people lined the banks of the Genesee River to witness the illustrious jumper and his animal friend make the impressive leap. With great fanfare, Sam pulled the bear by the collar and pushed it over the falls, then took the leap himself. Within seconds, spectators cheered as both Sam and the bear made it to safety.

“SAM PATCH.” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph (Rochester, NY), October 29, 1829, p. 3.

Disappointed with the lack of proceeds, Sam decided to stage a second jump at the Upper Falls, and this time it would be “HIGHER YET!” He planned to raise the platform for a total of 125 ft. and because it was his last of the season, he advertised it as “Sam’s Last Jump.”

A week later on November 13, 1829, Sam scaled the platform and gave a short, incoherent speech to the thousands of spectators that had gathered to see him leap once more. “Napoleon was a great man,” he said, “He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn’t jump Genesee Falls….That was left for me to do, and I can do it well.” He then stood erect, took a  breath, and leaped into the air.

This time, however, instead of his usual erect diving pose, observers reported that his body tilted in a “side-lying manner.” He flailed his arms and legs desperate to correct his diving posture. Instead of cutting through the water like a knife, Sam’s body hit the base of the river with an audible smack! People watched for their hero to resurface, but as seconds turned into minutes, the crowd began to panic.

“SAM PATCH JUMPED TO FAME AND DEATH,” Boston Sunday Globe (Boston, MA), August 12, 1928, p. 41.

That evening, boats patrolled the river searching for any sign of Sam, but he was nowhere to be found. Because his body was not immediately recovered, people began wildly speculating about what happened to him. Some blamed alcohol, while others believed he had hidden behind the falls and made a nighttime escape.

Four months later, a frozen body was found at the mouth of the Genesee River, seven miles below the falls. It was identified as Sam by the white trousers and a blue handkerchief he had worn around his waist.

Sam Patch may have jumped to his death that day, but he lived on in legend. Over the next hundred years, he would be the subject of books, poetry, songs, tall tales, and stage plays. Newspapers continued to report about Sam’s greatest leaps and would memorialize him for decades.

Comments (5)

  1. Wow! What a guy!

  2. Curiously, I can find very little speculation on what really caused his fatal form that day. There are disparate eye witness accounts of his dismount, some saying he “leaped into the air” as per usual, and some suggesting he slipped and fell off the platform. The latter seems better to explain how he may have gotten in trouble, and then proceeded to flail about trying to recover his form? Many eye witnesses, though, say his first 40 feet were quite normal for him. Curious. Any insights would be welcome! Thank you for your discourse on this unusual character…

    • You’re right, there was speculation about whether his slipped from the platform, which would explain why his posture changed. What I gather from the varying accounts reported in newspapers, however, is that Sam did leap into the air like normal, but at some point about a third of the way down, his posture began to droop and he began to flail his arms and legs. I did read that Sam was heavy drinker and one newspaper reported that “he had drank freely” the morning of the jump (which is linked to the newspaper page in the blog post), which may also have been a factor. At this point though, I think it’s impossible to ever truly know what happened.

  3. Paul E. Johnson states in his book Sam Patch the famous jumper, that Sam Patch was seven years old when his family moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island to work in Samuel Slater’s Textile Mill. That would of made Sam Patch around 27 or 28 years old on the day of his last jump. However, several other sources say that Sam Patch was born in 1807 and that he was 22 years old when he died?

    • A view of Sam Patch’s gravestone online has his birth year as 1807.

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