Alvin ‘Shipwreck’ Kelly was born Aloysius Anthony Kelly in 1893 in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York. His father died before he was born and his mother died in childbirth so he was effectively alone from the moment he was born.
Kelly ran away to sea at the age of thirteen and changed his name to Alvin. He worked as a steeplejack, steelworker, high diver and even a stunt flyer. He served in the US Navy Reserve towards the end of World War One and supposedly acquired the nickname Shipwreck because he claimed to be a survivor of the Titanic.
Kelly is credited with starting the pole-sitting in 1924 when he sat on a flagpole for thirteen hours and thirteen minutes as a publicity stunt for a department store. The idea caught on and suddenly lots of people were sitting on flagpoles to see who could stay there the longest.
World records are important and Kelly embarked on a career of setting and breaking his own pole-sitting records. In 1926 he managed seven days and one hour in St Louis, Missouri, which he beat the following year in Newark where he sat for twelve days. Kelly set the world record in 1930 when he sat on a flagpole on top of the Steel Pier amusement park in Atlantic City at a height of 225 feet for 49 days.
Kelly became a national celebrity and toured the country and earned a living through personal appearances and endorsements. He called himself ‘the luckiest fool in the world’ and calculated that over two decades he had spent 20,613 hours sitting on flagpoles, of which 210 were in sub-freezing weather and 1,400 hours in the rain.
The big question, of course, is how did Kelly manage to endure his pole-sitting for such a long time? He lived mostly on coffee and cigarettes and was able to sleep while he was held on by nothing more than a simple leg strap. He said that he put his thumbs inside holes in the pole so that if he swayed over the pain in his thumbs caused him to right himself without waking. The newspapers regularly carried photos of Kelly brushing his teeth and shaving while hundreds of feet in the air.
Kelly’s career went into decline in the 1930s and one of his last appearances came in 1939 when he celebrated National Donut Dunking Week by sitting on a pole on top of the Chanin Building in Manhattan where he ate doughnuts dunked in a coffee cup while standing on his head.
His swan-song appearance came in 1952, a week before his death. Kelly suffered two heart attacks while pole-sitting at a Lion’s Club event in Texas, forcing him to climb down. But it wasn’t his poor health that killed him – he died after being hit by a car while crossing the street near the rooming house where he lived in Manhattan.