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Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper Paperback – June 16, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Little is known of daredevil Sam Patch (1800-1829). When he was seven, Patch, his mother and siblings were working in the mills of Pawtucket, R.I. The waterfalls that powered the mills attracted working boys like Sam, who'd compete at jumping from the heights. In his mid-20s, Patch moved to Paterson, N.J., where he worked as a skilled mule spinner. In September 1827, he made his first spectacular jump-right over Paterson's Passaic Falls-which he repeated the following July 4, declaring his motto: "Some things can be done as well as others." After Paterson, Patch jumped from a high cataract in Hoboken harbor, over Niagara Falls and over the Genesee Falls in Rochester, N.Y., where on a second leap, probably intoxicated, he died. Johnson, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, warns readers in his preface that Patch is a "front-porch story"-there isn't much of a story, but some interesting meanders. While Johnson makes a strong case that Patch was thumbing his nose at the capitalists with his Passaic Falls jumps, he admits that after Paterson, Patch was more interested in being a "showman and a celebrity" than in knocking anyone's politics, unless staying drunk can be interpreted as a political statement (which Johnson sometimes implies). In the end, Patch's handful of spectacular jumps just can't carry so much political baggage. Still, readers interested in shifting class dynamics in early Pawtucket, Paterson and Rochester may find some suggestive material here. 12 b&w illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Nudged forward by Paul Johnson's consummate storytelling, the reader plunges headlong into the raging torrents of antebellum America, where manly artisans thrash about with scheming capitalists, incorrigible wastrels with prim reformers. Having taken the leap, the reader will find, as did Sam Patch, that you cannot go back. This is a wonderful, clever book.” ―Mark C. Carnes, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of History, Barnard College, Columbia University

“With this little masterpiece, Paul Johnson proves yet again that he is one of the greatest artists currently writing history anywhere. Scholar, stylist, and intellectual daredevil, Johnson brings to life a forlorn and intrepid American hero--and an entire era in our past--while operating at the highest levels of subtlety, wit, and seriousness. Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper contains the kind of genius one expects from fine literature as well as from fine history. It is stunning.” ―Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

“On Friday, November 13, 1829, a cheering crowd watched a drunken factory hand named Sam Patch step bravely off the top of Genesee Falls at Rochester, New York--and vanish into legend. In this compact masterpiece of historical detective work, Paul E. Johnson manages both to bring this unlikely early American hero back to vivid life, and to say a good many fresh and provocative things about Jacksonian America, the industrial revolution and the cult of celebrity.” ―Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin D. Roosevelt


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (June 16, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809083884
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809083886
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #409,234 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 7, 2003
Format: Hardcover
If you have never heard of Sam Patch, it is because you are not living in the nineteenth century. Sam Patch was America's first celebrity daredevil, someone who made his fortune and his fame by spectacularly endangering his life, jumping from waterfalls. Paul E. Johnson, in _Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper (Hill and Wang), has not exactly brought Patch back to life. As Johnson explains, people like Patch did not have linear careers that lent their lives to being told as stories; they had episodes, not biographies. Patch only lived thirty years, and jumped professionally only for the last two of those, but he did have a wonderful career, and even some meaning within American history and sociology. Johnson has, though Patch's story, examined some details of Jacksonian America, industrialization, philosophies of art, and aspects of fame from self-endangerment and self-promotion rather than self-improvement and civic involvement. Patch was, after all, a lout and a drunkard, but it must mean something that he achieved such a level of fame that his feats could be cited by Melville, Hawthorne and Poe. Even Andrew Jackson's favorite steed was named Sam Patch.
Sam was around seven years old when he took up work in a mill; families in the early eighteenth century were being drawn to mill towns since mothers and children could easily get work. He was good at the work, and fiercely independent in the craft of "mule spinner". The independence manifested itself in his jumping as well. He learned the craft of jumping as other boys did, but when he moved to another mill town, his jumping acquired a social and political aspect that endeared him to the populace.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Marty Howell on February 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sam Patch was an American original who escaped my attention for forty-eight years. Professor Johnson's study of this mostly forgotten, irreverant showman has piqued this reader's thirst for more of the bold, eccentric and sometimes ambivalent personalities that have shaped this nation in often subtle ways.

Not long after completing the author's chronology of the Patch family's slide from the respectability of the rural New England landholder and the influence of Calvinism, it becomes apparent

that a documented record of just what manner of man Sam Patch really was is not to be had. From the standpoint of social status, Patch was a non-entity, a skilled textile laborer his sole identifying trait; that is, until he made public his hobby.

Just what spurred Patch to leap the Passaic Falls at Paterson,NJ on July 4, 1828, effectively upstarting the elaborate holiday ceremonies planned by one of the city's wealthy and genteel manufacturing elite is uncertain. One effect of the feat was the galvanizing of the local labor force into an awareness of their potential to force reform in mill working conditions. No sooner had Patch had dried himself off when a consortium of mill owners issued an edict altering the daily work schedules of its employees, needlessly disrupting the domestic routines of thousands. Patch then betrays a political motive in answer to management with an encore jump during work hours just one week after the new schedule had taken effect. Patch's exploit was followed by a strike, arbitration and comprimise. The Paterson jumps gave birth to Patch's intriguing motto "Some things can be done as well as others.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bomojaz on November 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is a biography of Sam Patch, the famous jumper from high places into swirling chasms. Yet it's more than a biography; it's also a social history of the times (1820s) and the places where Sam made his daring leaps (Paterson, NJ, Niagara Falls, and Rochester, NY). Sam's early life was spent working in the cotton mills of first, Pawtucket, RI, and then Paterson, NJ. He learned the "art" (Sam's word, and an important one in defining how Patch saw himself) of jumping while a boy performing daredevil stunts in the Blackstone River of Pawtucket. Later, in Paterson, he leaped into the Passaic Falls more as a "rebel-victim" - Timothy Crane had erected a bridge across the falls, which was considered a social good; but when he bought land adjacent to the falls that was popular as a recreational retreat for the working people of Paterson and turned it into a private park for the wealthy, Crane became a villain to the many factory workers of Paterson. Sam timed a number of his jumps there to coincide with events designed to honor Crane, to humiliate him or at least take away some of his thunder. In these instances, Sam Patch was a jumper for Democracy.

After Paterson, Sam leaped off the mast of a sloop anchored off Hoboken, NJ into the Hudson River, which was reported widely in the press, and Sam became a celebrity. Now his leaps would be for fame and fortune. He jumped twice at Niagara Falls to great success, and then went to Rochester to leap the Genesee Falls. His leap was successful, but a second jump on a cold November day proved to be his undoing; his body wasn't found until the following spring.

Then of course, Sam Patch the legend took off.
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