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.
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.
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.