Alvin Kelly: The Man Who Became Famous For Sitting On Flag Poles

The 1920s was a time of significant changes in the United States, thus the name Roaring Twenties. The economy was booming, more people owned cars, telephones, and radios for the first time. The '20s is known for jazz music and flapper dresses, and actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo graced movie screens. Apart from all these, there was another trend that was popular during that decade: flagpole sitting.

Flagpole sitting, just as the name suggests, involves people sitting on top of flagpoles as long as they can (via Mental Floss). The trend was started by a stuntman and former sailor named Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly, who sat on flagpoles for hours, and even days, at a time. The activity caught on, and other people — including children — started sitting on flagpoles. Despite plenty of people doing the trend, it was Kelly who was known for the stunt and even made money out of it.

Who was Alvin Kelly?

Alvin Kelly was born Aloysius Anthony Kelly in 1893 in Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan. He was an orphan from birth, as his mother died while giving birth to him, and his father died before he was even born, per Blurred Bylines. A family friend adopted Kelly, and it was apparent from an early age that he was a daredevil. He enjoyed climbing on poles and performing dangerous stunts.

According to History Daily, Kelly ran away from home at 13 years old. It was at that time when he changed his name to Alvin, and he boarded a cargo ship to work. Kelly worked a variety of jobs throughout the next years. He became a merchant sailor and eventually ended up in the entertainment industry as a stunt pilot. He was also a boxer, a high diver, and a steeplejack. In January 1924, a theater hired Kelly to climb on top of a tall pole as a publicity stunt for an upcoming movie. That event started Kelly's career as a flagpole sitter.

Alvin Kelly gains popularity

During the publicity stunt, Alvin Kelly sat on top of a pole for a total of 13 hours and 13 minutes. Crowds gathered to watch the daredevil, and his stunt was reported in newspapers everywhere (via Mental Floss). From then onward, Kelly became popular for pole sitting, and he gained fans. He was good at what he did, and with not much to do for entertainment back in the '20s, Kelly decided to tour the country and earn money while sitting on poles while people watched in amazement.

As reported by Blurred Bylines, Kelly went on a tour to different cities in the United States to perform his stunt. He charged an admission fee and even gave the opportunity for some of his fans to meet him. Businesses also took notice of Kelly's popularity, and they provided sponsorships and hired him to market their businesses. He became a celebrity in his own right and was paid as much as $100 to $500 (roughly $1,500 to $8,300 in today's money) for every hour he stayed perched on a pole.

How did he stay on a pole for days?

Staying on top of a flagpole for hours at a time is an incredible feat, but how was Alvin Kelly able to do it for days? For nourishment, he limited his intake to purely liquids, such as coffee and broth, which were sent up to him from below using a bucket and some sort of pulley system (via Blurred Bylines). He smoked cigarettes and didn't sleep. Instead, he took short naps throughout the stunt. He learned to take naps standing upright, and he hooked his thumbs into holes on the pole. When his body started to lean in a different direction, he felt pain in his thumbs, which would jolt him from his nap so he could adjust back to an upright position. Kelly used ropes as stirrups to keep his balance and prevent him from falling from the pole.

Another big question is, how did he relieve himself? In a book titled "American Pop: Popular Culture by Decade," it is stated that Kelly used a hidden tube that ran from the top of the pole to a repository at the bottom in order to go to the bathroom. Reporters and photographers in cities he visited were there to watch, and he was often photographed doing mundane things, such as reading the newspaper, brushing his teeth, or shaving.

His longest flagpole sitting accomplishment

Alvin Kelly broke his own flagpole sitting records as he toured different cities. In 1927, he was in Kansas City, Missouri where he climbed on top of a flagpole situation in front of the Westgate Hotel. Kelly stayed perched for 147 hours, and although the length of time was far from the longest he achieved throughout his career, it was one of the most memorable ones, per Blurred Bylines. He did the stunt in February, and the weather was terrible. "There was rain and snow and smoke from the railroads. That's one week I won't forget," he said.

The longest Kelly sat on a pole was in 1930 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. According to Alabama, 20,000 people gathered to watch the feat. He lasted on the pole for 1,177 hours or 49 days. In total, Kelly estimated that he spent about 20,613 hours of his life pole sitting, in some cases in freezing temperatures.

The end of pole sitting

The fascination over flagpole sitting waned soon after Alvin Kelly's stunt in Atlantic City. The Great Depression was taking place, and people lost interest, as reported by History Daily. Kelly's career was over. In 1935, he attempted to break his record of 49 days, but just one day into the stunt, the police ordered him to stop. He had to work various jobs to support his family, but he still did pole sitting on the side. In 1939, he was hired by Dunkin' Donuts for National Doughnut Week. He ate donuts dunked in coffee and did headstands while perched on the side of a building in New York.

According to Blurred Bylines, Kelly did his final stunt in Texas in 1952. During the event, however, he suffered from multiple heart attacks. Although he survived, he never went back to flagpole sitting. Later that year in October, Kelly was walking down the street in his neighborhood in Hell's Kitchen when he collapsed and died. He was 59 years old. Per New York Daily News, among the items found in his apartment was a scrapbook with newspaper articles of his feats, as well as a bag filled with items for flagpole sitting.