On Top of the World: Remembering the Lost Trend of Flagpole Sitting

Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alamy

Flappers and bootleggers might be the most memorable aspects of the 1920s, but there's a lesser-known, yet no less colorful, trend from that decade: flagpole sitting. From the glamorous hills of Hollywood to the blue-collar dwellings of Union City, New Jersey, this unusual pastime turned eccentric showmen and ordinary people into overnight celebrities, before the crushing reality of the Great Depression grounded their climb to stardom.

Flagpole sitting is exactly what it sounds like: a person climbing on top of a towering pole, usually in the middle of a city, and testing their endurance by sitting atop it for as long as their body holds up. It began in Hollywood in January 1924, when a former sailor, boxer, steelworker, and stuntman named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly was hired by a local theater to sit on a pole outside of the building for as long as possible to drum up publicity for a new movie. Kelly, a New York City native—whose nickname was supposedly inspired by his dubious claims as a Titanic survivor—wowed crowds by perching himself on the pole for an astonishing 13 hours and 13 minutes. The stunt worked, and once it got picked up by the papers, offers started pouring in from more businesses to perform pole-sittings. Kelly was eager to oblige.

News of Kelly's exploits spread, and before long, men, women, and children were climbing poles of their own. There was the three-week feat of Bobbie Mack, a young woman from Los Angeles; Joe “Hold ‘em” Powers, who sat for 16 days in Chicago in 1927 and climbed back down with six fewer teeth than he started with after a storm smacked him face-first into his pole; and Bill Penfield, who braved a pole for 51 days in Strawberry Point, Iowa before a storm forced him down. In 1928, a 15-year-old named Avon Foreman of Baltimore even established a juvenile sitting record of 10 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds (he practiced on an 18-foot hickory tree in his backyard). Foreman’s accomplishment was so inspiring to Baltimore mayor William F. Broening that he publicly declared that the youngster exhibited “the pioneer spirit of early America.”

Still, Kelly was the one making a big business out of pole sitting. Even when he wasn’t holding the record, he was the ambassador of the bizarre sport. He toured 28 cities, attracting massive crowds that jammed streets and lined rooftops just to get a glimpse of the daredevil poking out among the apartment buildings and businesses of Downtown, USA.

Kelly's notable feats included an 80-hour sit in New Orleans and the 146 hours he spent high above Kansas City's Old Westgate Hotel. But even those were overshadowed by his largest-scale stunts: 312 hours on top of Newark’s St. Francis Hotel in 1927, 22 days on a pole above a dance marathon (another endurance fad of the time) in Madison Square Garden, and 23 days in 1929 in Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park on a pole that was 60 feet high. By Kelly’s own calculation, he’d spend around 20,613 hours pole-sitting during a career that lasted over a decade.

His peak came in 1930 when he lasted 49 days and one hour on a 225-foot pole on Atlantic City’s steel pier. The feat was witnessed by as many as 20,000 onlookers during the weeks he spent up top, becoming one of the first of many spectacles that would grace the pier in the 1930s. (He’d eventually be followed by acts like Rex, the water-skiing “wonder dog”; JoJo, the boxing kangaroo; and the city’s infamous diving horse routine.)

Estimates of Kelly’s fees range from $100-$500 a day throughout his career, paid by whatever outlet needed the publicity and sometimes by crowds who spent a quarter to get a view of his act from nearby hotel rooftops. And what did those onlookers see, exactly? A man on a circular padded seat high above the rabble, sometimes reading the paper, other times enjoying a shave. For food, he’d stick mainly to a liquid diet of broth and water, along with cigarettes, all of which were lifted up to him in a bucket. When he needed to sleep, he’d stay seated by wrapping his ankles around the pole and securing his thumbs into holes in his seat before nodding off. That's if he rested at all—he was also known to deprive himself of sleep on the pole for as long as four days.

The big money would dry up soon after his Atlantic City stunt, and the realities of the Great Depression put an end to flagpole sitting as a career. With up to a quarter of the population unemployed, people were apparently less interested in opening their papers to stories of men and women testing endurance at the top of a pole for more money than the readers would likely see all year.

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

Kelly’s personal story ends on a similarly somber note. Penniless and stripped of his daredevil veneer, he died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 59, his body found not far from the room he rented on West 51st Street in New York City. Underneath his arm at the time of his death was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his accomplishments as a once-champion flagpole sitter.

Though flagpole sitting has fallen out of the public eye since the Depression, it has occasionally shown faint signs of life. In 1963, 17-year-old Alabama native Peggy Townsend cruised past all of Kelly's highest marks by spending 217 days on a pole for a radio contest. That time was later beaten by Kenneth Gidge, who topped her at 248 days in 1971 before becoming an artist, inventor, and New Hampshire state representative later in life.

Today, the occasional pole-sitter still pops up in the news, though they're now most likely perched for protests or as living art installations. Regardless of the purpose behind it, it's unlikely that a person atop a flagpole will ever attract a sea of thousands of onlookers again—and the days when a man like Kelly could become a household name and dub himself the "Luckiest Fool on Earth" seem long gone.

21 Other Royal Babies Born In The Last 20 Years

Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

by Kenny Hemphill

In the early morning hours of Monday, October 15, Kensington Palace released an official statement that "Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are very pleased to announce that The Duchess of Sussex is expecting a baby in the Spring of 2019." Their child will become seventh in line to throne—just behind his or her dad, who has been pushed down the line in recent years with the arrival of Princes George and Louis and Princess Charlotte. But William's children and Harry's baby-to-be aren't the only pint-sized descendants of Queen Elizabeth II to be born in the past 20 years. Here are 21 more of them.

1. ARTHUR CHATTO

Arthur Robert Nathaniel Chatto, who turned 19 years old February 5, is the younger son of Lady Sarah and Daniel Chatto. He is 24th in the line of succession—and has been raising some royal eyebrows with his penchant for Instagram selfies.

2. CHARLES ARMSTRONG-JONES, VISCOUNT LINLEY

The grandson of Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret, and son of the 2nd Earl and Countess of Snowdon, Charles—who was born on July 1, 1999—is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.

3. LADY MARGARITA ARMSTRONG-JONES

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) speaks to Serena Armstrong-Jones, Countess of Snowdon (L), David Armstrong-Jones (2L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, and Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (2R).
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Born on May 14, 2002, Lady Margarita is sister to Charles Armstrong-Jones, and great-niece to the Queen. She's 21st in line to the throne.

4. LADY LOUISE WINDSOR

Lady Louise Windsor is the eldest child and only daughter of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. She was born on November 8, 2003 and is 12th in line for the throne.

5. ELOISE TAYLOR

The third child of Lady Helen and Timothy Taylor, Eloise Olivia Katherine Taylor was born on March 2, 2003 and is 46th in line for the throne.

6. ESTELLA TAYLOR

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge chats to Estella Taylor on the balcony during Trooping the Colour - Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Parade, at The Royal Horseguards on June 14, 2014 in London, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Eloise's younger sister, Estella Olga Elizabeth Taylor, was born on December 21, 2004. She is the youngest of the four Taylor children and is 47th in succession.

7. JAMES, VISCOUNT SEVERN

The younger child of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, James Alexander Philip Theo Mountbatten-Windsor—or Viscount Severn—was born on December 17, 2007 and is 11th in line for the throne.

8. ALBERT WINDSOR

Albert Louis Philip Edward Windsor, born September 22, 2007, is notable for being the first royal baby to be baptized a Catholic since 1688. He is the son of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and grandson of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. According to the Act of Settlement, which was passed in 1701, being baptized Catholic would automatically exclude a potential royal from the line of succession. But there was some controversy surrounding this when, up until 2015, the Royal Family website included Albert.

9. XAN WINDSOR

Lord Culloden, Xan Richard Anders Windsor, is son to the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and grandson of the Duke of Gloucester. He was born on March 2, 2007 and is 28th in succession.

10. LEOPOLD WINDSOR

Like his older brother Albert, Leopold Windsor—who was born on September 8, 2009—is not in line to the throne, by virtue of being baptized a Roman Catholic (though he, too, was listed on the Royal Family's website for a time).

11. SAVANNAH PHILLIPS

Autumn Phillips, Isla Phillips, Peter Philips and Savannah Phillips attend Christmas Day Church service at Church of St Mary Magdalene on December 25, 2017 in King's Lynn, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, the Queen's first great-grandchild, was born on December 29, 2010 to Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and Autumn Kelly. She is 15th in line for the throne.

12. SENNA LEWIS

Senna Kowhai Lewis, who was born on June 2, 2010, is the daughter of Gary and Lady Davina Lewis, elder daughter of Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester. She was a beneficiary of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which abolished the practice of giving sons precedence over daughters in the line of succession, regardless of when they are born. As a result, she is 31st in succession.

13. LYLA GILMAN

Daughter of Lady Rose and George Gilman, and granddaughter of Prince Richard, 2nd Duke of Gloucester, Lyla Beatrix Christabel Gilman was born on May 30, 2010. She is 34nd in succession.

14. COSIMA WINDSOR

Lady Cosima Rose Alexandra Windsor was born on May 20, 2010. She is sister to Lord Culloden, daughter of the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and granddaughter to the Duke of Gloucester. She's 29th in line for the throne.

15. RUFUS GILMAN

Lyla Gilman's brother, Rufus, born in October 2012, is 35rd in line for the throne.

16. TĀNE LEWIS

Tāne Mahuta Lewis, Senna's brother, was named after a giant kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest of the Northland region of New Zealand. He was born on May 25, 2012 and is 32nd in line for the throne, following the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.

17. ISLA PHILLIPS

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Peter and Autumn Phillips's second and youngest daughter, Isla Elizabeth Phillips, was born on March 29, 2012 and is 16th in succession.

18. MAUD WINDSOR

Maud Elizabeth Daphne Marina Windsor, the daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor and granddaughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, was born on August 15, 2013 and is 50th in line for the throne.

19. LOUIS WINDSOR

Louis Arthur Nicholas Felix Windsor, who was born on May 27, 2014, is the youngest child of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and brother of Leopold and Albert. As he was baptized into the Roman Catholic church, he's not in line to the throne.

20. MIA GRACE TINDALL

Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Daughter of Zara Phillips and her husband, former England rugby player Mike Tindall, Mia Grace Tindall was born on January 17, 2014 and is 18th in the line of succession.

21. ISABELLA WINDSOR

Isabella Alexandra May, the second and youngest daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor, was the last addition to the royal family. In July 2016, she was christened at Kensington Palace wearing the same gown worn by both Prince George and Princess Charlotte (it's a replica of the one that Queen Victoria's children wore). Looking on was celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is one of Isabella's godparents.

10 Ways to Identify a Witch

Baker, Joseph E., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Baker, Joseph E., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As we know today, some of the measures taken during the Salem Witch Trials to "prove" whether a person was guilty or innocent were ludicrous. But in case you'd like to employ some of them for yourself, here are 10 ways to identify a witch, according to those running the Salem Witch Trials.

1. MAKE A WITCH CAKE.

What's a witch cake, you ask? It's definitely something you don't want to eat. You take the urine of the people who are thought to be under the spell of the witch in question, mix it with rye meal, and make a little patty. Then you feed the patty to a dog. Because some of the powers the witch used to cast a spell on the afflicted people were in their urine, when the dog eats the cake, it will hurt the witch, and she'll cry out in agony.

2. WEIGH THEM AGAINST A STACK OF BIBLES.

If the suspected witch is heavier or lighter than the stack of Bibles, then clearly she's guilty of evil-doing. If the scales balance out, she's in the clear. You can imagine that a perfect balance didn't happen often.

3. CHECK FOR MOLES, BIRTHMARKS, SCARS, OR EXTRA NIPPLES.

These are all Marks of the Devil. But if you need even more proof, try pricking the Devil's Mark with a blade. If it doesn't bleed or hurt when it's pricked, you've definitely got a witch on your hands. During the Salem Witch Trials, some unscrupulous witch-hunters actually used knives with retractable blades, so of course when they appeared to puncture the Mark, nothing happened.

4. OBSERVE THEM TALKING TO THEMSELVES.

During the Witch Trials, one accused woman, Sarah Good, was damned partially based on the fact that she was sometimes seen muttering to herself, and sometimes this even happened when she was leaving people's houses. Her accusers knew she was casting spells on people, even though Good claimed she was just reciting the commandments or a particular psalm. Her claims weren't enough to save her, because she was hanged on July 19, 1692.

5. ASK THEM TO RECITE THE LORD'S PRAYER.

If they don't, they're guilty. If they do, they're guilty too. George Burroughs, the only minister to be executed during the Trials, ran across this problem. He was standing at the gallows to be executed when he recited the Lord's Prayer to prove his innocence—it was believed that a witch (or warlock, in this case) would be unable to utter the holy words. People were momentarily convinced that the jury had wronged him, until a minister named Cotton Mather told the crowd that the Devil allowed George Burroughs to say that prayer to make it seem as if he was innocent. Ahhh, of course. With Satan himself apparently working right through him, Burroughs' fate was sealed, and he was hanged moments later.

6. ASK A HARD-OF-HEARING ELDERLY WOMAN IF SHE'S GUILTY.

If she doesn't respond, she's definitely a witch. This happened to 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse. She was known to be a very pious woman, and most people in the community were hesitant to accuse her or believe the pointing fingers that were. In fact, she was found not guilty during her first trial. But when there were more outbursts from young girls who said they were being tormented by a witch, Nurse was reconsidered. When another prisoner claimed that "she was one of us" during the trial and Nurse failed to respond, she was immediately assumed guilty and hanged.

7. NOTE THE NUMBER OF PETS SHE HAS.

A woman who has pets—or even says hello to the neighbor's cat—is surely using that animal as a familiar. In fact, if a fly or a rat entered a woman's cell while she was awaiting trial, it was assumed that the witch had used her powers to summon a familiar to do her bidding.

8. TAKE THEIR SARCASTIC COMMENTS SERIOUSLY.

John Willard was the constable in Salem responsible for bring the accused to court. After bringing in so many people, including those who were known for their church-going ways and elderly woman who barely understood what they were being accused of, Willard began to doubt how real these accusations really were. In May 1692, he finally put his foot down and declared that he would no longer take part in any arrests, sarcastically saying, "Hang them all, they're all witches." Willard was immediately accused of witchcraft himself, stood trial, was found guilty, and was executed just three months after his sarcastic comment.

9. ASK THEM IF THEY'VE HAD DREAMS ABOUT NATIVE AMERICANS.

Sarah Osborne denied all witchcraft accusations that were thrown her way. Her downfall was when she admitted she had recurring dreams that an Indian would seize her by the hair and drag her out of her house. Apparently that was enough to convince the village she was likely casting spells on them. However, Osborne ended up dying while being held captive and never stood trial for her "crimes."

10. CHECK TO SEE HOW MANY TIMES THEY'VE BEEN MARRIED.

At least a couple of the women tried for witchcraft were married two or more times and were accused of killing their former husbands ("bewitching" them to death) or evilly seducing them.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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