The Original Flagpole Sitter (Alvin Aloysius “Shipwreck” Kelly)

Shipwreck Kelly Standing On Pole, May 1932. © Corbis Images

1929: `Shipwreck’ Kelly inspired 20 Baltimoreans to engage in what Cosmopolitan termed `competitive imbecility.’

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, (The Baltimore Sun,11/20/1999)

It was perhaps the last giddy excess of the Jazz Age when, during the summer of 1929, Baltimore for some unknown reason became the flagpole sitting capital of America.

During one week in 1929, the city had 20 flagpole sitters (17 boys and three girls), who were no doubt influenced in their lofty pursuits by the famed Alvin Aloysius “Shipwreck” Kelly.

Earlier that summer, Kelly, who called himself the “Luckiest Fool on Earth” and who was credited with starting the craze of flagpole sitting that swept the nation, had established a record by sitting on a flagpole for 22 days and six hours above New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Shipwreck Kelly

In June, Kelly arrived at Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park where he promptly mounted a 60-foot flagpole and sat for 45 days. He managed to survive a horrific heat wave and strong thunderstorms before coming back to earth.

“The top of a flagpole is the only safe place for a married man to be,” he told The Evening Sun.

Kelly, who was a popular writer on dieting and fasting, explained his dining habits in the interview.

“While up on the pole I eat mainly liquid food, but manage to get away with a solid meal every day or two,” he said.

He also confined his daily ablutions to what he called a “sailor’s bath” but promised reporters that he would continue to “shave while in Baltimore.”

“I did a turn of flagpole sitting here when the business was its best. The late Harry Van Hoven sponsored, and we put on a great show. They had a `Keep Kelly Awake Club,’ and the members used to come out at night and raise a racket just to keep me from sleeping,” he told The Evening Sun in a 1942 interview recalling his Baltimore engagement.

Baltimore Mayor William F. Broening called the local epidemic of flagpole sitting that followed Kelly’s Carlin’s Park triumph a demonstration of “the old pioneer spirit” and said it showed “the grit and stamina so essential in life.”

Cosmopolitan Magazine countered by calling it “competitive imbecility.”

Continue reading “The Original Flagpole Sitter” at The Baltimore Sun.

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