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As Nik Wallenda prepares for his tightrope walk across Niagara Falls on Friday, many are recalling Sam Patch.

He was the original daredevil, America’s first famous stuntman.

There are some similarities. Wallenda is walking on a highwire across Niagara Falls. Patch leaped into the falls twice and survived. Wallenda is drawing tremendous crowds. Patch drew between 8,000 and 10,000 people – equal to the size of the entire Rochester population at the time.

Wallenda has his critics. Patch also made some people uneasy. City historian Christine Ridarsky talked to me today about how Patch upset the upper class:

“There were people very excited about it because it was something new, and there were also the classes here who were very upset by it and disturbed that something like this, a spectacle of this kind, was taking place in their community,” said Ridarsky.

According to Sam Patch: The Famous Jumper, by Paul E. Johnson, onlookers waiting for  Patch to jump over High Falls described “a mixed sensation, between a horse race and an execution.” When he didn’t emerge from the water, spectators were silent and “ashamed.”

Makes you wonder how we’ll all feel if tragedy befalls Wallenda. At least Niagara Falls will get desperately needed tourism dollars, right?

Johnson’s book also describes the Rochester of the late 1820s. It was a rapidly growing mill town. People marveled at how the village tamed the forest and seemed so civilized and urban. Not everyone liked what they saw, Johnson wrote:

British aesthetes…while they marveled at Rochester’s mushroom growth, recoiled at the results of a great, half-planned collision between democratic capitalism and the American forest. It was in Rochester that Basil Hall “began to learn that in America the word improvement, which, in England, means making things better, signifies in that country an augmentation in the number of houses and people, and above all, in the amount of area of cleared land.” Hall asserted that Rochester looked as though ” a great boxful of new houses had been sent by steam from New York, and tumbled out on the half-cleared land.” An equally offended Englishman viewed Rochester from high ground and swore than “nothing can be more miserable than its appearance from a distance. An open space has been merely burnt in the forest.”

2 Responses to Stunts and Sprawl, 1829 Style

  1. June 11, 2012 at 11:52 pm Douglas A. Fisher responds:

    Some believe that guilt over the crowd’s egging on Sam Patch to jump, with its fatal consequence, actually caused a massive rethinking locally of one’s responsibilities to humanity.

    The evangelical preacher Charles Grandison Finney visited Rochester not long after Sam Patch’s leap, and stirred up great religious fervor, as he did on subsequent visits. [Rochester later named a school after him.]

    Within the swirling ferment of social re-thinking of attitudes in the 1830s, Rochesterians in the so-called “Burned-Over District” began advocating greater justice for their fellow human beings, as expressed in the abolitionist movement, the woman’s rights movement and others.

    Rochester was also later the birthplace of the Christian Social Gospel, as articulated by Rochesterian Walter Rauschenberg, a concept that inspired Martin Luther King and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

    Historically, Rochester has long been a national leader in generosity per capita via its Community Chest (a term coined in Rochester), now the United Way. Some attribute this ultimately to the local guilt reaction to Sam Patch and his Friday the 13th leap over the High Falls.

  2. June 12, 2012 at 11:22 am theodore kumlander responds:

    thankfully people are much more senstive today. when sam patch was jumping the falls in new orleans live animal fights were very popular with the masses. bull against bear , dogs against a mountain lion, and dog fights. thankfully we have come a long way from the good old days.

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