The politics of going over Niagara in a barrel

Sam Patch thumbed his nose at America's upper class - and then went over the edge

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He was heralded by the likes of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. He was the subject of children's adventure books, folktales, stage shows, plays, newspaper columns, and several particularly dreadful poems. Whigs and Democrats quarreled over his meaning, and Andrew Jackson's most cherished steed proudly carried the man's moniker. All that fuss for a drunkard who was dead at 30?

This lout was Sam Patch, America's first celebrity daredevil. He was good at only two things - running a mule spinner in the cotton mills of New England and bounding off waterfalls.

In his engaging new history "Sam Patch: The Famous Jumper," Paul Johnson shows that while Patch was hardly a political fellow, his exploits off dizzying falls came to serve as a symbol of the ideological battles that raged through America before the Civil War.

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Even though Patch's "career" as a falls jumper lasted only a couple of years, his jumps - and the reasons for them - provide Johnson with a wonderful prism through which to examine the burgeoning democracy and its developing values. He considers political debates about industrialization, aesthetic questions about art and nature, the economic challenges of industrialization, and the cultural implications of a celebrity based on infamous feats, not civic accomplishments.

Employing felicitous prose, impeccable research, and an often mischievous sense of humor, Johnson weaves an incredible social history from one simple man's terrifying leaps into nature's sublime cataracts.

Patch was born in 1799 to Greenleaf Patch, a ne'er-do-well opportunist prone to "drunkenness and melancholy," and Abigail Patch, a respectable woman from a respectable rural family. Greenleaf's inability to hold down jobs or be a decent husband and father led to several moves, with the family eventually settling in Pawtucket, R.I. There, young Sam (at age 7 or 8) began the monotonous and dangerous work of a cotton mill. The kid was good.

Patch quickly became a much sought-after boss spinner, working the behemoth spinning mule with a mixture of brawn and grace.

After hours, he liked to jump off a bridge and a particular rooftop into a pool at the base of Pawtucket Falls.

Johnson writes, "Falls jumping, like mule spinning, was a craft. It called for bravery that verged on foolhardiness, but it required self-possession and a mastery of skills as well."

Patch's exploits received a bit of notoriety locally, but when he moved to Paterson, N.J., his vaults took on a different tone. A rising industrialist named Tim Crane had bought up land used by the working class, transformed it into a high-brow pleasure garden at the side of Passaic Falls, then had the nerve to create a toll-bridge over the falls. Rough-and-tumble locals didn't show up with picnic baskets and parasols. They fought back with drunken shenanigans, beating up toll workers and scaring the nice folks Crane's park attracted.

Enter Patch. To thwart Crane's self-aggrandizing celebration of his "improvements" in 1827, Patch bounded from the bridge in front of a large crowd. He leapt again during a class-based dispute over the town's Fourth of July celebration, then again during the town's first labor walkout. He began to get notice in local and regional newspapers.

Then Patch repeated such stunts at Niagara Falls (twice) and in Rochester, the midpoint of the Erie Canal, garnering wild cheers from working-class masses and crumple-faced condemnation from genteel society. Now, Patch was a national personage.

For Johnson, Patch's repeated raspberries to the self-appointed guardians of art, nature, and culture serve as a microcosm of the developing debates surrounding Jacksonian America. To wealthy champions of a republic, Patch was a buffoon and publicity seeker, an emblem of why full democracy was a frightening prospect. Further, Patch spoiled the sublime feelings such aesthetes attached to these wonders of nature.

To workingmen and sportsmen, though, Patch was an unqualified hero, a man whose "possession of an art made a man independent and useful and, therefore, the sovereign equal of any other man."

Johnson takes several side roads during this rollicking book, but even these are filled with tremendous detail, colorful characters and illuminating anecdotes that focus on the turbulent cultural context.

Sam Patch's rallying cry before each jump was "Some things can be done as well as others." As Johnson so ably demonstrates in this intriguing book, some things - such as the craft of social history - can be done far better than others.

Mark Luce teaches literature at the Barstow School in Kansas City, Mo., and serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

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