Chances are you may have never heard of Sam Patch. But then again, you were also probably born in the 20th Century. And because of that, you know names like John Wayne and Charles Lindbergh. Heck you even know who Evel Kneivel is.
Why do you know these people? Because the media is fascinated with them. Years after their deaths, we still talk about these legends of entertainment and daring.
The same sort of celebrity life is explored in Paul E. Johnson’s “Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper.”
You see, Sam Patch was this somewhat crazy guy who made a living by jumping from the top of waterfalls into the churning cauldron below.
Most of the time he survived. One time he didn’t. In between all those efforts he became an American legend, even if we don’t know him by name anymore.
Paul E. Johnson’s book traces this real-life daredevil — perhaps America’s first daredevil — from his mother and father’s roots all the way to his death in Rochester, N.Y.
Along the way, the reader learns a lot about Patch — or at least the life the writer suspects he lived — by looking at how society treated those who plied his original trade, those known to associate and oppose him and the news accounts of his daring antics.
With that in mind, readers should know that this is most certainly a history book. It is not a narrative biography. Instead, it is written academically (but appealingly).
The one complaint with the book is that it lacks a look at the science of these amazing cliff dives. Readers are sure to want an in-depth analysis of the simple facts of his dives. How high were they? How deep was the water? How fast was the current? How would a modern daredevil try to recreate these amazing stunts? Are such efforts even legal anywhere? Sure some of that information is buried in the text, but a few sidebars to cover these concepts would have made this book really shine.
Still, Johnson manages to look into the heart of a man who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by jumping into a raging waterfall. That’s the kind of American story I’ll buy 100 times over another retread of the Battle of Gettysburg.