Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly & Flagpole Sitting in the 1920s
July 2, 2020 ~ By Shari Rose
- Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly Popularizes Flagpole Sitting in America
- Shipwreck Kelly Reaches National Fame with Flagpole Sittings
- Pole Sitting Takes Off with American Kids
- Kelly’s Flagpole Sittings Lose Popularity
The flagpole sitting trend of the 1920s was widely popularized in the U.S. by Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, a New York native who gained national fame for his daring feats of endurance in the air
Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, a prolific pole sitter who first publicized flagpole sitting in the country, attracted massive crowds and set off national adoration for the trend. Peculiar as it may seem to audiences 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 essentially 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, but cannot come down for any reason, else they forfeit. During his career, Kelly attracted thousands of spectators as they marveled at the spectacle of a man sitting hundreds of feet in the air for days at a time.
Alvin Shipwreck Kelly Popularizes Flagpole Sitting in America
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 knack 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, eventually 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 for three years.
Much of Kelly’s life before his flagpole sitting stunts is shrouded in mystery, including how he received the nickname, “Shipwreck.” Some accounts hold 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 he climbed that first flagpole in 1924. A popular story says that while working as a Hollywood stuntman, Kelly was hired by a theater owner 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
After the successful Hollywood pole sitting, Shipwreck Kelly began to attract a gaggle of fans. 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 him on the flagpole and the ability to speak with him briefly, Kelly’s personal income skyrocketed . Local companies, such as theaters and department stores, sponsored him for advertising purposes, he was paid to make public appearances, and had multiple books written about him. At one point, he was paid $100 an hour for his stunts.
Some of Shipwreck Kelly’s famous pole sittings include:
- 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 hours.
- 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, which lasted 23 days and seven hours in 1929.
- 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
Kelly’s small perch atop flagpoles contained few comforts. He sat on a cushioned seat, about 13 inches wide. He fashioned rope stirrups for his feet to help him 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 question burning in the minds of the public was 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 another receptacle on the ground.
More stories: Sadie The Goat & The Female Gangsters of 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.”
In a letter to the editor, a citizen commended Foreman’s pole sitting stunt, saying: “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 Baltimore, remained atop her flagpole for 14 days. An advocate for equal rights, McCruden said that 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, spurred by Shipwreck Kelly, not all of America was on board with this new trend. One person wrote into the Baltimore Evening Sun and shared their displeasure 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.”
Kelly’s Flagpole Sittings Lose Popularity
Adored by crowds of thousands, Shipwreck Kelly’s reign as the most famous flagpole sitter in America, started to show signs of coming to an abrupt end. The stock market crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression flipped national attitudes on daredevil entertainment, and the spectacle of pole sitting began to lose 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 seen as a public nuisance by both local citizens 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.
Kelly then became a merchant marine and served 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 place where he’d grown 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 pole 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.