The original flagpole sitter

Way Back When

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

November 20, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

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.

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."

Kelly, a former second mate who went to sea in 1906, explained that he got his name from surviving 32 shipwrecks, including the Titanic, even though his name is not included among those saved from the ill-fated White Star liner.

Kelly climbed his first flagpole in 1925 on a bet, and the next year he rode an airplane -- clinging to a 10-foot pole mounted on the fuselage.

"As Shipwreck Kelly analyzed it, it was the Stock Market crash that killed pole-sitting as the golden egg that paid the goose. People couldn't stand to see anything higher than their busted securities," said The Evening Sun in 1944.

"The world in general became unsafe, or at least unprofitable, for pole-sitters, and Shipwreck Kelly, drifting away to Arkansas, announced his intention of getting a nine-day divorce from his wife as a measure of self-defense," reported the newspaper.

The man who in his prime had drawn thousands to witness his exploits gathered one final crowd in 1952 when he was stricken while walking along New York City's 51st Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. His body rolled between two parked cars.

Locked in his arms was a scrapbook of newspaper 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.

Pub Date: 11/20/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.