The third decade of the twentieth century has been variously called “The Roaring Twenties”, “The Jazz Age”, “The Age of Intolerance” and “The Era of Wonderful Nonsense”. The decade of the ‘20s was the first time in American history when more people lived in cities than on farms. The wealth of the nation doubled and consumerism was on the rise – buying on credit became widely accepted. By the end of that decade more than twelve million homes had a radio and one in every five Americans owned a car.
So why would a society, obviously becoming more upwardly mobile, pay attention to all the silly fads of that era (“The Era of Wonderful Nonsense”)? There were dance crazes (the Charleston, the Shimmy and the Black Bottom), and even the new music of jazz was considered a vocal fad. One of the strangest fads, however, that arose in the 1920’s was flagpole sitting.
Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly called himself the “Luckiest Fool on Earth” and his claim to fame was flagpole sitting. There are various stories as to how Alvin acquired the nickname “Shipwreck” – ranging from his days as a sailor and a boxer to actually having survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (except no records exist of that occurring). Alvin himself claimed to have survived five shipwrecks, two airplane crashes, three car crashes and one train wreck – all without a scratch.
It’s not clear whether his first sitting was the result of taking a friend’s dare or a publicity stunt, but in 1924 Alvin’s first foray took place in Los Angeles and lasted thirteen hours and thirteen minutes. Quickly thereafter, flagpole sitting became a national craze with hundreds of people vying for the title of “King of the Pole”. As time went on and audiences remained enthralled with his stunts, Alvin increased his endurance levels. In 1926 he set a record of seven days and one hour in St. Louis.
In June 1927, just a few weeks after Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight, Alvin attempted another record and this time he wanted to sit for eight days in Newark, New Jersey – he sat for twelve days. Obvious questions arise as to how he accomplished these feats – how could he go that long without sleep or taking nourishment or have a way to dispense with bodily functions, all while sitting continuously for hours and days at a time.
Alvin consumed mostly liquids which were hoisted up the flagpole and when nature called there was a hose or a bucket (with discrete curtaining). He carried on “normal” daily habits such as bathing, shaving, reading the newspaper, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. What about sleeping? He was able to take “catnaps” by placing his thumbs in holes in the flagpole shafts. If he happened to sway while dozing, the pain in his thumbs would cause him to right himself.
What about weather? One certainly couldn’t expect the weather to always cooperate. According to the New York Times, during his career as a flagpole sitter Alvin Kelly sat in the air 20,613 hours and the weather was often a challenge:
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.
His services as a performer to promote theater, bank and store openings was said to be quite lucrative – one source said he was paid as much $1,000 a week. Not bad for someone who knocked around trying various professions (sailor, boxer, stunt performer) prior to his flagpole feats. Alvin was born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1893, his mother dying in childbirth. Shortly after his birth, Alvin’s father fell off a derrick and plunged to his death. At age thirteen he ran away to become a sailor.
In 1929 Alvin visited Baltimore and inspired a craze among the youth of that city. One news report had this to say:
It all started when, a few weeks ago, a curious fellow known as Shipwreck Kelly, who goes from city to city demonstrating the hardihood of the American posterior by sitting for extended periods on flagpoles, visited the conservative city of Baltimore and “put on a sitting” …. Inevitably there was a juvenile aspirant to Shipwreck’s fame. Boys from time immemorial have wanted to be locomotive engineers, bareback riders, and major generals. Their heroes are, quite naturally, those who cause the most excitement.
It was no great surprise, therefore, when one read in the Baltimore newspapers the modest announcement that Avon Freeman, fifteen, had mounted a flagpole and would sit there until he had broken what might be considered the “juvenile record.” When he had sat for ten days, ten hours, ten minutes and ten seconds, he decided that the “juvenile record” in his field had been broken, and he came down . . . .The mayor of Baltimore congratulated the boy for showing “America’s pioneer spirit.”
According to Rainbow’s End: The Crash of 1929, “an eager mother placed her 20-month old son in a box atop a seven-foot pole and left him there for one hour to claim the ‘infant record’.”
The sitting in Baltimore lasted for 45 days and, according to The Baltimore Sun, he survived a June heat wave and strong thunderstorms. In an interview with The Sun, Alvin remarked, “the top of a flagpole is the safest place for a married man to be.” Cosmopolitan Magazine panned the stunts as “competitive imbecility.”
Alvin tried again for another record by sitting atop the Steel Pier flagpole in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He sat for 1,177 hours or 49 days and one hour. The record didn’t last long, however – Bill Penfield sat on a pole for 51 days and 20 hours in Strawberry Point, Iowa in 1930.
After the stock market crash in October of 1929, the populace was more focused on their dire financial straits than publicity stunts. Flagpole sitting and other crazes of the “Era of Wonderful Nonsense” faded. The Baltimore Evening Sun reported in 1944 that Alvin thought that the stock market crash had killed pole-sitting: “people couldn’t stand anything higher than their busted securities.”
Thereafter, Alvin performed occasional stunts and gimmicks – in 1939 in celebration of National Donut Dunking Week, he stood on his head atop the Chanin Building, a 42nd Street skyscraper, while being fed donuts dunked in coffee.
Locked in his arms was a scrapbook of clippings from earlier days. He had titled it: “The Luckiest Fool on Earth.” Unemployed for the last six months of his life and largely forgotten, Kelly had lived in a rooming house. Upon entering his room, police found it strewn with ropes and tackle, souvenirs of happier days.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!
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