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Alvin Kelly’s Claim to Fame? Sitting on Flagpoles!

Funny History | October 16, 2018

It is not the most conventional way to fame, but for Alvin ‘Shipwreck’ Kelly it was certainly effective. During the 1920s and 1930s, Kelly earned a name for himself…and a certain degree of notoriety…by sitting atop flag poles and other odd elevated perches for extended periods of time. Shipwreck Kelly is credited with starting the flagpole sitting fad, which was popular in the Roaring Twenties and he even earned a spot in the World Record Book for his sitting ability. Here is the peculiar story of Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly. 

Alvin 'Shipwreck' Kelly

Kelly was an Orphan From Birth.

Alvin Kelly was born in Manhattan on May 11, 1893. His father died before his birth and his mother died in childbirth with him, leaving him a newborn orphan who was raised in orphanages and passed around to various relatives. At about age 7, he started climbing onto poles and a few years later, he scaled the outside of buildings in his neighborhood. Oh, and his name wasn’t Alvin back then. It was Aloysius Anthony Kelly. When he was just 13 years old, he ran away to work on a cargo ship and changed his name to Alvin. 

Titanic

Was Kelly a Shipwreck Survivor?

Kelly liked to use the nickname ‘Shipwreck’ and even claimed to have survived the sinking of the Titanic…a story that was proved to be untrue. Kelly did claim, however, that he had many other close calls in his life. He said he survived five shipwrecks, two plane crashes, three car accidents and one train derailment. Most likely, though, he acquired his nickname in the boxing ring. As a boxer, critics claimed he was often “adrift and ready to sink”. 

USS Luckenbach

Kelly had a Diverse job History.

As a teen and young man, Kelly hopped from job to job. In addition to working at sea, he was a stunt pilot, movie double, steelworker, high diver, boxer, and a steeplejack. During World War I, Kelly was an ensign in the Naval Auxiliary Reserve, serving on the USS Edgar F. Luckenbach. 

His Pole Sitting Started as a Dare and Turned into a Publicity Stunt.

In 1924, Kelly was dared by a friend to climb to the top of a flagpole in Philadelphia outside a local department store. Never one to back down from a dare, he quickly ascended the pole and perched himself on top. The stunt attracted a large crowd, many of whom then went inside to shop in the department store. The store manager encouraged Kelly to remain aloft…it was good for business! 

Newly wed couple Marshall Jacobs & wife Yolanda kiss after being married atop a flagpole. (Photo by Allan Grant/The LIFE Images )

A Fad Was Born.

Newspapers of the day carried pictures of Kelly’s stunt and many daredevils began copying his stunt. A fad was born! Soon pole sitting was a popular trick and copycat sitters did it for laughs, on a dare, or to protest some injustice. Kelly, the original pole sitter, continued his stunts to the delight of onlookers and journalists. 

Kelly Beat His Own Pole Sitting Records.

Kelly was constantly looking for ways to outdo his last tricks. In 1926 in St. Louis, he stayed perched atop a pole for seven days and one hour. The next year, in June of 1927 in Newark, New Jersey, he extended his record to twelve days. Next, it was a twenty-three-day sit on a flagpole in Carlin’s Park in Baltimore in 1929. His final record was set in 1930 when he stayed on a flagpole on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier for 49 days and one hour. 

Kelly Relished the Media Attention.

Newspapers of the 1920s loved to feature photographs of Kelly sitting high in the air, especially ones of him doing everyday things, like shaving or reading a newspaper or brushing his teeth. During his sits, Kelly rarely ate, sustaining himself on coffee and cigarettes. Although he used a leg tether as a safeguard against falling, He learned to sleep sitting upright and he explained that he slept with his thumbs stuck in holes in the pole. If he started to lean one way or the other in his sleep, the pain in his thumbs would wake him in time for him to right himself. 

Kelly Clocked a Lot of Time in the Air.

During the peak of his fame, Kelly toured across the country and charged admission for people to see him sitting on a flagpole. He once estimated that he spent 20,613 hours sitting on flag poles, including about 1,400 hours in pouring down rain and 210 hours in sub-freezing temperatures. He was often hired to do publicity stunts because business owners knew he could draw a crowd. For example, on October 13, 1939, Kelly was hired to promote National Donut Dunking Week by sitting on a pole in Manhattan and eating 13 donuts dipped in coffee. 

The Fad Soon Faded.

As the Great Depression of the 1930s progressed, people became less enchanted by Kelly’s tricks…and less tolerant. In 1935, he attempted to break his own record again but the Bronx police said he was creating a public nuisance. The police threatened to chop down his pole if he didn’t come down and when he did, he was promptly arrested. His attempt at pole sitting was in Orange, Texas, in 1952. While sitting on the pole, Kelly suffered two heart attacks and was forced to come down. He announced his retirement from pole sitting and died a week later. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.