Israel has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians since October 2023 with bombings, shootings, and deliberate starvation. The UN reported on April 15 that more than 14,500 Palestinian children have been killed by Israel in the last six months. Since October, Israel has killed 203 aid workers and 95 journalists. These are the most killings of aid workers and journalists ever recorded by a single country since global tracking began. Please consider donating to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), whose humanitarian workers are doing everything they can to save lives despite having 5 of their own killed by the IDF since the genocide started.

Blurred Bylines logo by Shari Rose
Blurred Bylines newsletter

Stay up-to-date on the newest articles at Blurred Bylines by joining the monthly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Search for a story by keyword

Follow BB on Instagram
LinkedIn Shari Rose profile

1920s Flagpole Sitting: Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly’s Legacy


Alvin Shipwreck Kelly flagpole sitting in 1928.

Alvin Shipwreck Kelly performs a flagpole sitting stunt atop the Jung Hotel in New Orleans in 1928. (Source)


July 2, 2020 ~ By Shari Rose               

Updated February 2, 2022

The flagpole sitting trend of the 1920s was widely popularized by Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, who gained national fame for his feats of endurance in the air 

Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, a prolific pole sitter who first publicized flagpole sitting in the U.S., attracted massive crowds and sparked national interest in the trend. Peculiar as it may seem today, the 1920s was ablaze with pole sitting fever, and the fad became especially popular among America’s youth as children competed for new records and local notoriety.

Flagpole sitting is an endurance stunt, and its goal is simple: remain atop a pole for as long as possible. Pole sitters are allowed a seat or perch, and cannot touch ground for any reason, else they forfeit. During his career, Shipwreck Kelly attracted thousands of spectators as they marveled at the man sitting hundreds of feet in the air for days, even weeks, at a time.  

Alvin Shipwreck Kelly Popularizes Flagpole Sitting

Alvin Shipwreck Kelly wearing a hat and tie.

Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, wearing a hat and tie,  stands on top of a building. (Source)

Aloysius Anthony Kelly was born in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan on May 11, 1893. Kelly’s father died before he was born, and his mother died in childbirth. Adopted and raised by a family friend, Kelly showed an early talent for daredevil-type stunts, climbing his first pole at seven years old and performing a “human fly” stunt on the side of a building two years later. 

Kelly ran away from home at age 13 and changed his name to Alvin. He joined a ship’s crew and began a life at sea, becoming a merchant sailor. Over the next 15 years, he worked in a wide range of high-risk professions, including being a steeplejack, high diver, movie double, boxer, and a stunt pilot known for his daring aerial stunts. During World War I, Kelly served in the Naval Auxiliary Reserve, and was discharged from service after three years.  

Much of Kelly’s life before his flagpole sitting stunts is unknown, including how he received the nickname, “Shipwreck.” Some accounts contend that he got the name from being knocked out so many times as a boxer, though others say he received that name from surviving the sinking of the Titanic. 

It’s also not entirely known why Kelly climbed that first flagpole in 1924. A popular story holds that he was hired by a theater owner while working as a Hollywood stuntman to remain atop the building’s flagpole and attract publicity. He sat on top of the flagpole for 13 hours and 13 minutes. This feat attracted a large crowd, and word spread about Shipwreck Kelly and his pole sitting stunts. 

Shipwreck Kelly Reaches National Fame with Flagpole Sittings 

Shipwreck Kelly performing flagpole sitting in Louisville.

Shipwreck Kelly kneels on his pole perch while performing in Louisville. (Source)

After the successful Hollywood pole sitting, Shipwreck Kelly began to attract a gaggle of fans and continued flagpole sitting. For the next few years, he toured 28 cities across the United States, sitting atop poles in each city to the delight of spectators. 

By charging admission for up-close viewings of himself on the flagpole, as well as the opportunity to speak with him briefly, Kelly’s personal income skyrocketed. Local businesses, such as theaters and department stores, sponsored him for advertising purposes, and he was paid to make public appearances. Multiple books were written about him. At one point, he was paid $100 an hour for his flagpole sitting stunts.

Some of Shipwreck Kelly’s famous pole sittings include:

Shipwreck Kelly sitting on a flagpole in St Louis

Kelly sits on a flagpole in St. Louis in 1926. (Source)

  • New Orleans, LA – 80 hours: Kelly performed a flagpole sitting on top of the Jung Hotel on Canal Street in March 1928. He was aiming for 100 hours, but severe weather forced him to retire after 80.
  • Kansas City, MO – 146 hours: Kelly stayed atop a flagpole on Kansas City’s Westgate Hotel for more than six days in February 1927. Temperatures were said to have reached 17 degrees Fahrenheit. After the stunt, Kelly said, “There was rain and snow and smoke from the railroads. That’s one week I won’t forget.” 
  • St. Louis, MO – 169 hours: In 1926, Kelly remained perched for seven days and one hour, setting a new world record.
  • Newark, NJ – 312 hours: In 1927, he sat atop a flagpole on the St. Francis Hotel building in Newark for 13 days. 
  • Baltimore, MD – 559 hours: Kelly performed a pole sitting in Carlin’s Park in 1929, which lasted 23 days and seven hours. 
  • Atlantic City – 1,177 hours: In his longest flagpole sitting feat, Shipwreck Kelly remained perched on the Steel Pier’s flagpole, more than 200 feet in the air, for 49 days and one hour. His record, achieved in 1930, remains the modern-day record. It’s estimated that more than 20,000 people flooded the streets to watch Kelly.

How Shipwreck Kelly Stayed Atop Flagpoles for Days

Flagpole sitter skater from Steinbeck novel.

A flagpole skater atop Holman’s Department Store, made famous by the Steinbeck novel, Cannery Row. (Source)

Kelly’s small perch atop flagpoles offered few comforts. He sat on a cushioned seat, about 13 inches wide. He fashioned rope stirrups for his feet to keep his balance and protect him from falling off. Kelly did not sleep at night, but rather took quick, five-minute naps throughout the pole sitting. 

During his flagpole sitting stunts, Kelly did not eat solid food, relying on a diet of mostly broth, coffee, and cigarettes. Like the humorous example of the pole skater in John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, a burning question in the minds of the public concerned how exactly Kelly went to the bathroom during the sittings. It’s believed that he discreetly placed a tube that carried bodily waste down the pole and to a receptacle on the ground. 

More stories: The Triumphs of Edward Gardner at the 1928 Bunion Derby

More stories: Hatpin Panic: How Hat Pins Upended Gender Politics in 20th Century

More stories: The Mayhem of Hell-Cat Maggie In 1840s New York City

Pole Sitting Takes Off with American Kids 

After Kelly’s Baltimore flagpole sitting, children and teens in the city followed suit. A 15-year-old named Avon Foreman sat on a flagpole for 10 days, 10 hours and 10 seconds. Baltimore mayor William Frederick Boening sent Foreman a letter after his feat, praising his determination and suggesting that pole sitting was not unlike the “old pioneer spirit of early America.”

Baltimore flagpole sitters Avon Foreman and Ruth McCruden.

Baltimore flagpole sitters Avon Foreman and Ruth McCruden in 1929. (Source)

In a letter to the editor, a citizen commended Foreman’s pole sitting stunt: “He had shown the indomitable spirit and courage of a real Christian youth, like the Crusaders of old, and I was proud to be there to applaud. It is from such boys great missionaries are made.”

Not unlike the planking fad of 2010, other young people attempted their own flagpole sittings. Ruth McCruden, a 10-year-old in Baltimore, remained atop her flagpole for 14 days. McCruden proudly said she would “show the world and a few of her uppish boy friends what a girl can do.”

Mayor Boeing spoke with her as well, though his words were substantially less encouraging. He said to McCruden, “If you get lonely up there, get some of your boy friends to come up and keep you company.” McCruden responded simply, “All right.”

Despite the exploding popularity of flagpole sitting, many citizens voiced their displeasure with the young peoples’ new fad. One person wrote into the Baltimore Evening Sun and shared their disdain with the editor: “I certainly think the mayor of our city could find a more beneficial way of spending his time. Let the neighbors and kids make all the ‘whoopee’ over him they like, but when it comes to city officials wasting their time on such nonsense, I think someone should protest.”  

Share this story
Like BB on Facebook Follow BB on Twitter Follow BB on Pinterest
Reddit Blurred Bylines Tumblr Blurred Bylines LinkedIn Blurred Bylines


Kelly’s Flagpole Sittings Lose Popularity 

Alvin Shipwreck Kelly stands atop a flagpole.

Shipwreck Kelly stands atop a flagpole. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Adored by crowds of thousands, Shipwreck Kelly’s reign as the most famous flagpole sitter in America started to fade. The stock market crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression flipped national attitudes on daredevil entertainment, and the spectacle of pole sitting lost its allure. The country’s infatuation with Shipwreck Kelly waned as the economic depression deepened and the reality of global recession took hold. 

In ensuing years, Kelly was widely viewed as a public nuisance by both local residents and police. In 1935, he attempted a flagpole sitting in the Bronx to break his Atlantic City record, but was stopped after less than a day by police. Kelly then worked as a gigolo in a Broadway dance hall, occasionally performing pole-sitting stunts on the side. He married a woman named Frances Steele, whom he met during a flagpole sitting. They had one son together.

On Friday the 13th in 1939, Dunkin’ Donuts sponsored Kelly to perform a stunt on the Chanin building in New York to mark National Doughnut Week. In one of his last widely publicized stunts, he was photographed eating doughnuts while doing headstands on a wooden plank sticking out the side of the building on the 54th floor. 

Shipwreck Kelly does headstand on wooden plank, 54 stories in the air.

Shipwreck Kelly performs a headstand on a wooden plank and eats doughnuts, 54 stories in the air, in 1939. (Source)

Kelly then returned to a life at sea and became a merchant marine, eventually serving during WWII. After the war, he was destitute and relied on public help for survival. Kelly performed his final flagpole sitting in early October 1952 in Orange, TX.  While sitting on a 65-foot pole, he suffered multiple heart attacks and officially retired, publicly announcing he was finished with flagpole sitting. 

Walking down the street in Hell’s Kitchen, the neighborhood where he grew up, Alvin Shipwreck Kelly collapsed and died on October 11, 1952. He was holding a book that contained more than 13,000 hours of flagpole sitting he performed during his career. 

Out of money and with no connections, Kelly’s body lay unclaimed in the morgue. He was buried at Long Island National Cemetery. Though some attempted to bring back the trend of flagpole sitting in the 1960s and 1970s, this national craze remains preserved as one of the more peculiar, and sometimes outrageous, forgotten trends of the 1920s.

More stories: The Legend Of Sadie The Goat in 1860s New York City

More stories: Esther Jones: Betty Boop’s Original Influence

More stories: How Constance Kopp Became First Female Sheriff’s Deputy

Shari Rose

Shari Rose

Owner of Blurred Bylines💖💜💙

I created Blurred Bylines in an effort to bring stories from marginalized perspectives into the national conversation. As a former copy editor at the largest newspapers in Arizona and Colorado, I’ve seen first-hand the potential of accurate and accessible information to change minds and affect national policy. 

My stories focus on individuals fighting for justice and their own rights as Americans, survivors of violent crime who rebuilt their lives after tragedy, shifting political trends that seek to strip the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups of their freedoms, and forgotten figures in U.S. history whose fights for equality persist today.

Through writing these articles, I stumbled upon the power of search engine optimization (SEO) to attract interested audiences to my writing. In addition to the ad-free and paywall-free stories I write at Blurred Bylines, I also perform SEO services for businesses, nonprofits, and fellow freelancers around the country so they can grow their organizations through search engines. 

BB newsletter

Keep up-to-date on the latest stories from Blurred Bylines by joining our monthly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

SEO Services

Did you find this story on a search engine like Google or Bing? Search engine optimization, or SEO, allows websites to be found by users who are looking for exactly what they offer.

Shari Rose doing SEO work