Forgotten American Cult Heroes: Sam Patch
Before Evel Knievel was a twinkle in his father’s eye, Sam Patch was thrilling audiences across America. As a child laborer in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Patch would entertain his friends by jumping off the mill dam. By 1827, now living in New Jersey, his increasingly higher jumps had started to attract large crowds. Wanting something more than the life of a mill worker, the 22-year-old Patch began a jumping tour across the then 24-state Union.
“Sam Patch the Yankee Jumper” quickly became a household name, and his catchphrase “Some things can be done as well as others” become popular among his fans. A whopping ten-thousand people came to watch him jump 125 feet from a cliff near the base of Niagara Falls. Shortly after, another eight-thousand came to Rochester, New York to watch him jump the 99 foot Genesee Falls.
Tragically, Sam died attempting to one-up his jump into the Genesee a week later. Though he normally pencil dived feet first, Patch lost his balance and smacked sideways into the water. His biography inspired poems, stories, and series of plays, and even touched President Andrew Jackson, who named his horse after America’s first infamous daredevil.
Either a visionary performance artist or severely deranged, Joshua Norton earned extraordinary local fame in San Francisco when he declared himself Emperor of the United States. Initially a shrewd and successful businessman, Norton went bankrupt on a poorly timed investment. After mysteriously disappearing following the loss of his fortune, Norton returned to San Francisco clearly disgruntled and unstable.
On September 17th, 1859, he issued his proclamation to every newspaper that he was seizing control of the whole country. It was printed for humorous effect, but Norton became an instant celebrity across the city. For the rest of his life, newspapers eagerly awaited his next proclamation, and even fabricated several. Some of Norton’s authentic proclamations hint at a prophetic genius, calling for bridges and tunnels connecting Oakland and San Francisco, a body resembling the League of Nations, and religious tolerance.
Despite his total destitution, Norton regularly dined at the best restaurants and had reserved seats at every performance hall. He printed his own money, which merchants regularly accepted. Following public outcry over his arrest attempting to have him committed, Norton was freed and the arresting officer forced to apologize. He was thereafter saluted by every policeman in the city.
Norton Died in poverty, collapsing on the street early in 1880. In his apartment was fake correspondence to and from international royalty and fictitious treasury bonds at 7% interest. City businesses organized a funeral fund and Norton was buried in a rosewood casket after a two-mile procession, silently watched by an estimated 30,000 mourning subjects.