Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper

Paul E. Johnson

Read May 2005

In this slim volume, Paul Johnson weaves together numerous themes: the growth of semi-urban America, the American Industrial Revolution, the rise of celebrity and merchandising, the development of an American aesthetic, the changing attitude toward industrialization and urbanization (in one remarkable segment, Johnson demonstrates how Manchester, England, went from being villified to being seen as a model worthy of emulation, even though the city itself hadn't changed), Jacksonian America, and the growing solidarity of labor. All this forms the backdrop, and sometimes the current that carries along, the titular character, who became famous for jumping into waterfalls. Johnson takes relatively little material and spins a great story from it. It's especially evocative to people who live near the towns of Pawtucket, RI, Paterson, NJ, Niagara Falls, NY, or Rochester, NY, as Johnson incorporates accounts of the growth of those towns around their waterfalls.

The major flaw with this book is that Johnson seems to have no eye for physical detail. It's virtually impossible to reconstruct, as I did when visiting Niagara this summer, exactly what Patch did. What were the mechanics of his jumps? Surely there must have been not only contemporary accounts but also illustrations, especially given Patch's fame as a folk hero. How, for that matter, did Patch prepare for these? How could he ensure he'd fall sufficiently far out from the torrents? And so on: Johnson tells us absolutely nothing, but worse, doesn't seem to have cared enough about the questions to even investigate what was known.

After reading this book, I was left with one nagging question: what waterfall in Pawtucket? I described the book to Kathi, and she was similarly perplexed. From the book we were able to reconstruct where the falls ought to be, but this only confused matters more, because we've been by that spot numerous times and never seen nor heard of any falls. Nevertheless, fortified by Johnson's account, we biked over to Pawtucket, headed south a little from Slater Mill, ducked down past the bridge...and there it was, in all its glory, sadly castrated by a bridge that not only entirely hides the sight but also (by dint of its traffic noise) drowns out the sound of the falls. That may be a capsule history of the town itself.