Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Adventures Of The Jersey Leaper

[Before I get into this post, I want to take a moment to thank those of you who are reading this series of articles on the daredevils of Niagara Falls. Special thanks to those of you who've taken the time to comment on the posts. The "Daredevil Era" is over at Niagara (one or two challengers notwithstanding), and it seems as if the twin communities would rather forget the past; while I can understand their desire to keep stunters from risking their lives today, the stories of those who challenged the thunder have always been fascinating to me. Based on your kind words, they seem fascinating to you as well. Thank you for your interest and support! - MR]

The world of the 19th Century was considerably different from our world today. It's an obvious statement, but one that should be remembered when thinking about the stunters of that era, and why their exploits were so marvelled at. No movies, television or radio were available to entertain, so people naturally gravitated towards spectacular feats to break up the monotony of everyday life. Some of the most spectacular feats were performed by a young man named Sam Patch. He was born in 1807, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. At an early age, he began working in factories. He moved to New Jersey, and made plans to operate a factory with a partner. But his partner turned out to be dishonest, and left town with the money for the new business. Patch was in desperate need of funds, as his former colleague had left with his life savings. He was an excellent swimmer, and fearless high-diver. So, in 1827, he began a new life as a stunter. His first public performance was at the Passaic Falls, in Patterson, New Jersey. Patch's success gave him a nickname, the "Jersey Leaper", and the fame he needed to pursue the life of a roving daredevil. He jumped from buildings, bridges, and even the rigging of ships, all to greater and greater acclaim. But he was best known for his dives at waterfalls. His reputation made him a natural choice to challenge Niagara.

A group of local promoters had big plans for the tourist season of 1829. Bringing Patch to town was an obvious idea. He came to Niagara in early October of 1829. On October 7th, Patch made an 85-foot dive from a special platform built on Goat Island near the brink of the Horseshoe, or Canadian Falls [see right]. Ten days later, on October 17th, he completed an even-higher, 130-foot leap. Both times, he dove head first, and emerged unscathed.

While Sam Patch was brought to Niagara by sponsors, he could not have been insensitive to the boost that a Niagara Falls leap would give his career. History fails to record how much money he collected for his stunt. Whatever the amount, he would have very little time to enjoy it.

Patch remained in Western New York after the Niagara Falls stunts, possibly appearing on stage to tell this story of his leaping career, including his recent success at Niagara. During his presentation, he'd no doubt use the phrase associated with him, "There's no mistake in Sam Patch". In November, he headed east, stopping at the nearby city of Rochester, New York. On November 6th, Patch successfully leaped into the Genesee Falls. Accounts years later said Patch was unhappy with the amount of money he raised. He decided to repeat the stunt a week later. On November 13th, 1829 [a Friday], he mounted his specially-built platform to leap the 92-foot high Genesee Falls. What happened is subject to speculation. Some witnesses say Patch appeared to trip on the platform as he leaped, others, that he had been drinking heavily before the stunt. Patch entered the water awkwardly and failed to surface. He was 22, and had been on the stunting circuit for two years at the time of his death [the handbill reproduced at the beginning of this post was from his November 13th leap; the fact that it contained the phrase "Sam Patch's Last Jump" probably referred to the fact it was his last performance of the year. Or had Fate decided to give it a truth unintended by its designers?].

Patch's body was not recovered until the following spring. An autopsy revealed that his ungraceful plunge had dislocated both shoulders, leaving him unable to swim to safety. He was buried in the nearby Charlotte cemetery, beneath a wooden board inscribed "Sam Patch - Such Is Life". In time, the board vanished, and his grave remained unmarked for many years. In the years after World War II, a group of students at Charlotte High School, hearing his story, raised the funds for a proper gravestone:

[While we remember Sam Patch, we should also take a moment to note a man named Morgan, who attempted a similar feat a year or two earlier. He failed, and his story, beyond the fact of his failure and death, has been lost in the mists of time.]

The story of Niagara Falls daredevils will continue soon. Until we meet again, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

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