17. When Flagpole Sitting Went Viral
One of the 1920s’ oddest trends was kicked off by an eccentric and colorful character named Aloysius Anthony Kelly, popularly known as “Shipwreck” Kelly (1885 – 1952). He kicked off a weird fad that swept America: flagpole sitting. Shipwreck Kelly became famous in the 1920s and 1930s because he perched atop flagpoles for extended periods of time. His fame attracted imitators and copycats. Before long, flagpole sitting had gone viral. Unlike today’s viral fads that last a few months, or maybe a year or two, max, flagpole sitting remained a “thing” throughout two decades. Not that pole sitting was an entirely new fad. In the early centuries AD, some Christian ascetics, known as “pillar saints”, lived on pillars, atop which they preached, fasted, and prayed. One of them stayed atop a pillar for 37 years.
Shipwreck Kelly was the first to reintroduce that practice in a new form in the modern era. He took it from its ancient Christian roots, and popularized it as a secular entertainment spectacle. Kelly, born in New York City’s Hell’ Kitchen, was orphaned when his father died while Kelly was in the womb, and his mother died in childbirth. He was an adventurous and restless soul from early on. He climbed his first pole when he was seven, and pulled off a human fly stunt at age nine when he scaled the side of a high-rise building. When he was thirteen years old, Kelly ran away to become a sailor. He tried his hand at a variety of careers, from steeplejack to steelworker, as well as a boxer, high diver, stuntman and movie double.