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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A MAN OF GARVITY


“Ambition aspires to descend.”
Pierre Corneille, 15th century playwrite
I believe it all started in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A spinning mill was opened there in 1789, powered by the 50 foot falls of the Blackstone River. But it was a financial failure until Samuel Slatter arrived from England in 1790. His head was filled with the patents and hi-tech systems England was trying to keep secret, and he assured the owners that if they made him a partner, “If I do not make as good yarn as they do in England, I will...throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge” But if  Samuel Slatter was offering his actual suicide or merely an alliterative death, it is clear there something about that bridge 50 feet above the falls, which inspired men to vision a leap of faith. Sam Slatter did make good yarn and his mill became ground zero of the American Industrial revolution.
“Oh that I were seated as high as my ambition, I'd place my naked foot on the necks of monarchs”.
Horace Walpole, 17th century art historian
At six years of age Sam Patch was abandoned by his alcoholic father, Greenleaf Patch. At seven he joined his siblings tending to the spinning mules in Mr, Slatter's mill. The boy's position as a “doffer” required him to scuttle between the working looms, replacing bobbins and redirecting errant shuttles. Work began at five in
the morning,  and did not end until half past seven, six days a week. The usually exhausted Sam was lucky not to be disabled by the unshielded whirling belts and flying equipment inches from his head and hands, and eventually he was promoted to weaver and a weekly salary of $2.50. Summers, during his half hour lunch breaks, Sam often threw himself off the bridge into the cool water of the tidal pool at the foot of the falls. Each plunge was a brief moment of weightless freedom, an escape from his pitiless existence.
Ambition may be defined as the willingness to receive any number of hits on the nose.”
Wilfred Owen, 20
th century poet
In 1824, in a unified action, the mill owners in Pawtucket demanded that workers accept a simultaneous 25% cut in wages and loss of half their 1/2  lunch hour. In response Sam Patch, who had fourteen years experience in the mills, helped to organize the first workers strike in America. The owners were forced to back down, but they then systematically removed as many of the “trouble makers” as they could. Sam was forced to leave Pawtucket. Twice Sam tried to run a mill of his own, and twice his addiction to whiskey, possibly a self medication for injuries suffered on at his job. spoiled his chances. By 1826 he had found work as a loom supervisor at the Hamilton cotton mill in Patterson, New Jersey, powered by the 70 foot high falls of the Passaic River. He was now an abusive alcoholic himself, “an angry and not particularly admirable” man, known to box the ears of the young duffers working under him.
Ambition is pitiless. Any merit that it cannot use it finds despicable.”
Eleanor Roosevelt
On the Western shore of the Passaic falls there was an island of escape, called the Forest Garden. It was wild terrain used as a picnic ground by the mill workers, until August 14th of 1827 when it was purchased by Timothy Crane, owner of a grist and saw mill on Van Houten Street in Paterson. Crane then transformed the idyllic spot into a private park, complete with an upscale tavern/restaurant, “The Cottage on the Cliff” and scenic walks, beer gardens and well manicured versions of nature. He even planned a bridge across the falls, to restrict access to only those who could afford the two penny toll. The bridge was assembled on shore and on Sunday, September 30, 1827, Crane staged a grand celebration as the bridge was pushed out across the falls. A small crowd gathered to cheer the endeavor, but more disenfranchised mill workers stood about watching their picnic grounds claimed by a wealthy overlord. And then who should step out on a rock outcrop above the falls but a weaver, proudly dressed in his white linen uniform; Sam Patch.
Somebody ought to tell him his ambition is showing.”
Harry Essex  20th Century American Screenwriter
The police, who were patrolling the crowd, were horrified. The drunken Sam had been locked up in a basement all morning, to keep him away from the ceremony. Somehow he had escaped and they were worried that he might start a riot. Sam indeed shouted out to the crowd, but he did not call for violence. He announced that Timothy Crane had indeed done great things, but now Sam Patch would do great things as well. William Brown, a wittiness, remembered, “He walked back a few yards, turned, and took little run to the brink of the cliff, and jumped off, clearing the rocks about ten feet.”
“Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself And falls on the other side”
William Shakespeare, 17th century playwright
He hit the water feet first, as was his style, and for several seconds the crowd was convinced he had died on impact.. He did not. He bobbed to the surface, and was greeted by almost universal cheers. Afterward he told the newspapers, “I am perfectly sober and in possession of my proper faculaities”. The citizens of Paterson were impressed - – except of course for Timothy Crane, who had the feeling his thunder had just been stolen by a drunken lout. And it had.
“The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.”
Dr. Carl Sagan, 20
th century American scientist
Crane tried to get it back. On Wednesday July 4th, 1828, he announced a fireworks display to be held above his exclusive Forest Garden. But that afternoon Sam Patch did it again, leaping off the same rock and plunging 77 feet into the water. The newspapers reported the words of wisdom from the “Yankee Jumper”; "Some things can be done as well as others." People could not stop talking about his amazing, death defying leaps, which had yet again upstaged Mr. Crane's ostentation. And Sam Patch did it a third time, on Thursday, July 19th. Then on August 11th 1828, in Hoboken, he lept 100 feet from the mast of a sloop, and splashed down into the Hudson River. The paying crowd was only 500 in Hoboken, but the New York newspapers had begun to take notice of “Patch, the New Jersey jumper”, the working stiff risking his life to make a living.
“Ambition if it feeds at all, does so on the ambition of others.”
Susan Sontag
By 1830 there were four million factory workers in America, and their lives were genuinely miserable. Barely ten miles from Paterson, amongst the 150,000 citizens of New York City, 10,000 were in debtors prison – half because they owed less than $25. One in five of the metropolis's citizens were receiving “public assistance” either from a church or the government. Clearly the industrial revolution was not benefiting very many in America. Food prices were rising, and if you fell ill you could not earn the $500 a year required for a minimal diet. The average life span was barely 33 years, because so many got sick. Every day workers risked their lives to earn a living, toiling in unsafe factories, working past exhaustion day in and day out. They were the unsung heroes of the Industrial Revolution.. And now they had a hero of their own, a man who knew from experience the quiet desperation of their lives, the risks they took every day to feed themselves and their families.
“Ambition is like love, impatient both of delays and rivals.”
Buddah
Sam Patch's next opportunity arrived in the form of an invitation from businessmen in the city of Niagara Falls, New York. They had recently discovered a cave which protruded from beneath an outcrop beneath Goat Island, which divided the American Falls. Seizing upon the cave's official opening for tourists on October 5th,  for promotion they had scheduled a series of black powder blasting around the gorge and a kamikaze voyage of a two masted schooner over the falls. A dive by the Yankee Leaper off a 125 foot ladder against the backdrop of the falls at the exit of the “Cave of the Winds” seemed the perfect fit. And they only had to pay him $75 for the stunt.
“I hope the ambitious realize that they are more likely to succeed with success as opposed to failure.”
George W. Bush. American President
The only problem was Sam was now suffering from bouts of delirium tremens, and he missed his jump-off date. He apologized in a one sheet broadside to those who had not yet left town, and assured them “...on Wednesday, I thought I would venture a small Leap...of Eighty Feet, merely to convince those that remained to see me...I was the TRUE SAM PATCH, and to show that Some Things could be Done as well as Others...” . Ten thousand showed up to see if he would make the leap. He did, coming down feet first into the whirling white eddies below the falls, and then did it again on Saturday, October 17th , this time in a pouring rain storm. As he climbed out of the river after the last jump, Sam greeted the adoring crowds with the words “There’s no mistake in Sam Patch!”
The psychoanalysis of neurotics has taught us to recognize the intimate connection between wetting the bed and the character trait of ambition.”
Sigmund Freud
Sam was a hit. The businessmen in Rochester, New York, immediately booked him to leap from atop the 99 foot high falls of the Genesee River, in their town. And on Friday, November 6, 1829 Sam fell to fame. The response was so positive, that Sam scheduled another leap on the following week, Friday, November 13th.  During the week a 25 foot high platform was constructed atop the falls, making this drop his  highest yet, 125 feet in total. It was publicised as “Higher Yet! Sam's Last Drop”.
Hasty climbers have sudden falls
Italian Proverb
There were 8,000 witnesses along the banks of the Geneseese River, just about everybody in town. .
As he climbed the ladder, some would later say Sam Patch staggered a bit. He had taken at least a single glass of brandy before climbing that ladder. And once atop the tower, Sam shouted down to the crowd. “Napoleon was a great man and a great general. He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn't jump the Genesee Falls. Wellington was a great man and a great soldier. He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn't jump the Genesee Falls. That was left for me to do, and I can do it, and will.”
“Ambition is a drug that makes its addicts potential madmen.”
Emile M. Cioran 20th century Romanian philosopher and Nazi apologist.
He began his plunge as usual, straight as an arrow. But then his arms drifted up, away from his sides, he began to lean, and he entered the water at an angle. There was a huge splash. And when the water calmed, there was nothing. Sam Patch was no more, dead before the age of 30.
"Ambition never comes to an end."
Yoshida Kenko 14th century Japanese Buddhist Monk and poet.
They dragged the river, but did not find his remains until March 17th, 1830,  when farmer Silas Hudson.
broke the ice of the Genesee River five miles downstream, near the river's joining with Lake Ontario. As the Silas' horses drank the cold water, the farmer was started to see a body under the ice, jammed against the shore. They identified the corpse by the black scarf around the neck and the frozen features. They buried him near where they found the body, in the Charlotte Cemetery, on River Street. His original marker read simply, “Sam Patch – Such is Fame” A later marker, paid by donations in the late 1940's, got his birth date wrong. It said he had “leaped to his death over the upper falls”, as if he had committed suicide. But then “suicide” implies Sam had a choice.
“Ambition has but one reward for all: A little power, a little transient fame; A grave to rest in, and a fading name!”
Walter Savage Landor 19th century English Poet.
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