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Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly & Flagpole Sitting

4 February 2012

Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly atop a flagpole. (Source)

Every decade seems to be characterized as much by the fads that dominated within those years as they have been by important historic events. Music tended to encourage new fads such as the Flappers in the Roaring 20’s, dance marathons during the Great Depression, The Twist emerged in the 1960’s and was followed by Disco.

There were still fads that materialized without music. Such as the ingenious (please note the sarcasm) idea of swallowing goldfishes that surfaced towards the end of the Great Depression by some Harvard students. I guess intelligence does not always equal common sense as college students also began the 1950’s fad of stuffing themselves in telephone booths. The young generation were the lead conspirators in the 70’s idea of streaking. While today’s youth (as well as a fair share of non-youth) enjoy such things as planking, coning or Tebowing (if you are unaware of these terms – YouTube them). It should be a relief to us all that these are, usually, done with clothes on.

This post will discuss the bizarre fad of flagpole sitting. Flagpole sitting’s objective was quite simple, to be the person who sat on top of a flagpole for the longest period. Of course, one would also have to climb up there first to do so. Usually, people would affix a board at the top in order to sit easier while others would place a chair or other such object at the top.

Joe Powers (called Holdem Powers) sitting on top of flagpole, holding an open umbrella over his head, 1928. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Joe Powers (called Holdem Powers) sitting on top of flagpole, holding an open umbrella over his head, 1928. Photo Credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum/Library of Congress

The origins of this fad can be created to Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, a stuntman who claimed to be a Titanic survivor (thus the “Shipwreck” nickname). His flagpole sitting was usually a paid publicity stunt and he would spend days or even weeks up on the flagpole. His first stunt occurred in 1924 when he sat upon a flagpole for 13 hours and 13 minutes.

Quickly, flagpole sitting became a national craze and hundreds of people were trying to become the “King of the Pole.” Since everyone was vying to be the record holder, Kelly decided that he would permanently cement his name in the record books. In the summer of 1930, Kelly was hoisted to the top of a flagpole at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier and began his record-breaking sit. In front of audiences of around 20,000 spectators, Kelly would do many of his normal, everyday activities. He would receive meals, read, bathe and even sleep. There was always the possibility of losing his balance, especially when he was sleeping, which he soon found a remedy for.

He said that he was able to sleep during his performances by putting his thumbs in bowling-ball sized holes in the flagpole shafts. If he swayed while dozing, the twinge of pain in his thumb caused him to right himself without waking up.

Kelly did indeed set a world record for flagpole sitting. He was perched atop the flagpole for 1,177 hours, which amounts to 49 days plus an hour. His record held, mainly because the fad of flagpole sitting by 1930 was already dying out due to the onset of the Great Depression

According to The New York Times, Kelly had spent a total of 20,613 hours in the air. All of these weren’t full of sunshine and refreshing breezes.

He [Kelly] totaled the bad weather as follows: Forty-seven hours of snow, 1,400 hours of rain and sleet, 210 hours in temperatures below freezing.

Kelly’s fame and fortune did not last. His last event was in 1939 and even with a brief flagpole sitting revival after World War II, the public had already moved on. On his way home, he collapsed on the street on October 11, 1952. When he died, he was living on welfare and was clutching a scrapbook of old newspaper clippings detailing his flagpole sitting days.

New York Times, “Shipwreck Kelly Dies on Sidewalk,” October 12, 1952.
Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly’s Biography on who2.com
Flagpole Sitting on badfads.com

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