You’ve seen them along the roadside, those statues and markers that purport to represent the spot where an Indian maiden leaped to her death, typically from a high bluff overlooking a river or lake. Whether the cause was pursuit by an enemy tribe, pursuit by members of her own tribe because of a romance with an enemy, or just general lovelorn sadness, the maiden finds life unbearable. So off the cliff she goes, the heroine of a tragic, sentimental tale of love and longing, with the details of the incident lost in the swirl of time.
You’ve seen those markers and statues because, as we now know, hundreds of locations across the country – and the world – have borne the name “Lover’s Leap.” We know this because the photography/writing/collecting team of Leland and Crystal Payton have produced Lover’s Leap Legends: From Sappho of Lesbos to Wah-Wah-Tee of Waco, an astonishingly researched book that takes these legends, painstakingly documents their origins, identifies their probable original author, and tracks their variations from the general theme.
How the Paytons managed to track down all these stories, and to collect an amazing variety of postcards, souvenir spoons, posters, sheet music, brochures, souvenir pebbles (yes, I remember those souvenir pebbles, a.k.a “Apache Tears,” from a childhood trip to Arizona), and other memorabilia, is nothing short of amazing. If you’ve seen their other books, such as Damming the Osage, Mystery of the Irish Wilderness, or James Fork of the White, you know what you’re in for with this book: an exhaustive, copiously illustrated book that weighs in at 352 larger-than-ordinary pages and traces every anecdote back to its first appearance, then for good measure throws in a reproduction of the 19th-century newspaper article where the story first appeared. This is clearly a labor of love.
The Paytons delve into the cultural implications of these stories, the restrospective positioning of Indian tribes as doomed and suicidal, without falling prey to academic jargon or overinterpretation. Though comprehensive, the book is down to earth, written in a conversational style that presents its research matter-of-factly. The 545 illustrations are sometimes smaller than I would have liked, but that’s the trade-off in getting 545 illustrations onto 352 pages. Unlike their earlier books, which tended to focus on Ozarks stories and locations, this book is nationwide in scope, and even devotes a chapter to international lovers’ leaps. While it is true that suicide by jumping from a high place is a real thing, and sometimes the Paytons do document an actual suicide attempt from a particular bluff or waterfall, the vast majority of these incidents fall into the category they call “fakelore” – bogus legends invented by a local storyteller or tourism promoter, intended to cast an air of mystery over the dramatic location.
Interestingly enough, the Paytons also document in great detail the almost immediate efforts at mockery and debunking. The book is dedicated to Mark Twain, the great anti-sentimentalist, and rarely does a legend emerge without a satiric poem or comedic play to make fun of it. To quote a 1906 filler in The Scranton Republican, “Judging from the number of ‘Lover’s Leaps’ at the various mountain resorts, the favorite amusement of the aboriginal maiden must have been jumping over precipices.”
This is, I believe, the only book-length account of Lover’s Leap legends in the United States and beyond, and it’s a terrific one. Folklorists both amateur and professional will find much to savor in this book. And did I mention that it has an excellent index, the sign of an author who has truly taken care?
You can browse the book at http://hypercommon.com/.