Sam Patch, American Jumper (Part One)
“Some things can be done as well as others.”
It’s not much of a catch phrase two centuries later, but at the time, this line of Sam Patch’s was considered quite golden. It probably helped that he’d say it right before jumping off a waterfall; that would add a little drama, I’d think.
He’d stand near the crest – or, years later, on platforms or ladders built high above even that – and jump. Body position and breathing were critical. Knowing where you could and couldn’t safely enter the water at such speeds was pretty important, too. It also helped if you could swim.
Patch was fond of staying underwater after a leap for longer than seemed possible, creating tension and sparking nervous chatter among the crowd. On at least one at least one occasion he swam underwater to a sheltered area in order to hide out and panic his friends.
The problem with this, of course, besides being kind of a horrible thing to do to people, is that when you someday actually die during a jump, everyone thinks you’re just screwing with them. They figure you’re with Elvis somewhere, laughing at their gullibility.
Sam Patch grew up in early 19th century America, a transitional era during which Jefferson’s agricultural ideal was giving way to a more modern, urban, industrial society – at least in scattered areas throughout the north. Patch grew up in a mill town, located along the Blackstone River near Providence, Rhode Island. Nature was harnessed and partially consumed, but still managed to assert itself beautifully and violently through displays like Pawtucket Falls.
However stunning the surroundings, these were necessarily utilitarian times. You didn’t come to Pawtucket if things in your life had gone according to plan; folks who found work in the mills there were either without a male head of house, or stuck with one of little use. You came because you needed work, and Pawtucket was happy to oblige.
These were days when owning land – even a little bit of land – was key to everything else: economic opportunity, social status, political participation. Almost as crucial were one's extended family. Material support was of course welcome, but the real benefits came from the social power an honorable surname provided, and the social connections available to the sons and daughters of perceived respectability. Neither were guarantees of anything, but both were key components of social and economic opportunity in the realities of the times.
Patch had neither. He was, depending on your point of view, either a dirty, uneducated, ne’er-do-well, or the ideal candidate for a great American success story. Horatio Alger on the high dive.
Leap of Face
It’s become common to wax nostalgic about less sanitized and safety-obsessed times, when kids could play outside and get dirty, get lost, or even get hurt, and enough of them come through it just fine – maybe better off for the experiences. Patch’s adolescence epitomized this sort of glorified recklessness. Boys would jump from the main bridge above the Blackstone into ‘the pot’, a drop of about 50 feet into an opening carved by centuries of erosion. When that ceased to be terrifying, they’d jump from a nearby building instead, making a leap of around 80 feet straight down with a rather narrow margin of error.
A mistake of a few horizontal feet meant serious injury. The more fortunate could die suddenly and violently; those less-favored by the Fates would likely break innumerable bones and nearly drown before being carried back to town to linger a day or two before a drawn-out and intensely painful death. Best of all, your final 48 hours were almost certainly attended by loved ones bemoaning why you’d jump from such a height into such dangerous waters to begin with – your final moments thus drowned in guilt and a sense of self-inflicted foolishness.
So why do such a thing? Because they were boys, full of testosterone and competition and the rough sort of democracy available to the un-landed and the un-connected. Of course you could get hurt – that was the whole point. But if you had nerve, and skill, and didn’t…
There’s something insanely equitable and meritocratic about such behavior. Too innocent to be Social Darwinism, it’s a dynamic which nevertheless recognizes that there can be no ‘winning’ without a very real chance of ‘losing’. Without risk, there can be no glory – individually or nationally.
Sam Patch and his ilk were in their own rough ways an idyllic, Tom Sawyer-ish, rough-edged version of the American dream – or at least its opening chapters. Why do it? Because it was there! (Oh, and everyone else was doing it and you didn’t want to seem like a wimp.)
One Great Thing… And Another
Sam’s first public jump came on September 30, 1827, in defiance of a man named Timothy Crane. Crane was probably not a bad man in the dinner theater sense of the word, but he did reek of calculated sophistication – and that was bad enough. He’d purchased, ‘improved’, and privatized a small park-type area near the mills, then began charging a small fee to enter.
Besides offsetting his costs, the fee was designed to screen out ne’er-do-wells. The park was designed for the ‘right’ kind of people, who were far more likely to both appreciate and take care of the area. Free admission, he feared, would allow the dregs and drunkards to spoil the space. Their inability to pay was indicative of far more than income level – it was a tag of behavior and education.
You don’t really think those high dollar condos near the mall are that much nicer than the mid-range apartments fifteen minutes away, do you? Sure, they’re closer to the trendy restaurants and socially conscious shopping – but mostly you’re paying too much for a condo in order to be surrounded by other people who can afford to pay too much for a condo.
It’s the same reason ‘golf’ somehow grew to be thought of as a real sport – the need to justify some basic elitism. (You really thought it was THAT expensive to mow some grass and let people knock a tiny ball into a few holes in the ground? Please.)
Crane’s crowing accomplishment was to be a rather ornate bridge which he had built and promised to have maneuvered across the chasm in front of Pawtucket Falls on September 30, 1827, for all to see. You have to keep in mind this is pre-Netflix, pre-Xbox, and even pre-television. Any potential entertainment was a big deal, and this was no exception.
Schools and factories closed, and everyone came out to watch this engineering marvel finalize the glories of man-shaped nature, of improving and standardizing the bucolic. There are few things more American than making nature your defeated plaything.
The mechanics of the process took much of the afternoon. The observing crowds had a moment of unexpected excitement when a minor but dramatic mishap occurred – one of the logs being used to guide and ‘roll’ the bridge across came out of place and plummeted grandly into the waters far below. The engineers recovered, but in the short time it took for them to readjust their contraptions, Sam Patch appeared on a rock at the edge of the cliff by the waterfall.
It’s not clear whether anyone in the crowds below knew this might be coming, but he certainly had their attention at that moment. What in the world was he going to do? And… why?
Patch proclaimed to the few people near him that Mr. Crane had done a great thing, and that he – Patch – meant to do another.
And he jumped.
Forever, it seemed.
Patch hit the water at what must have seemed an impossible speed to the fixated crowd, who were certainly thinking of the sound of that log hitting the surface of the river not long before. No one measured how long he was under, but it certainly seemed far too long. And then…
Patch broke the surface of the water and waved before swimming to shore and away.
Nothing in this prevented Crane from finishing his bridge, but for the crowd gathered that day the defiant message was clear. Patch, in channeling this brand of skill and moxy into such a primal act, was providing a sort of artistic and social contrast to the contrived high class aspirations of men like Crane. He was striking a blow for the common man.
And soon he’ll add a bear.