Shipwreck Kelly, the Gigolo Daredevil


Back in the 1920 Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly managed to become one of the most famous men in the United States by sitting atop large poles and then charging people to watch him sit and do nothing. Not content with making money doing what we do for free only 300 feet in the air, Alvin then went on to become a gigolo, which is apparently a perfectly normal career path for a daredevil in the 20’s.

Before he plied his trade a professional pipe layer though, Shipwreck Kelly was a polesitter by trade, which despite sounding just as sexual as being a gigolo, involved exactly what it sounds like, sitting on top of poles. However, Kelly was able to become famous by sitting on top of poles that were way taller than the poles other people sat on.

Sometimes he didn't even sit down, he was a pro like that.
Sometimes he didn’t even sit down, he was a pro like that.

While it does sound like we’re making fun of Kelly a bit, we really can’t overstate how dangerous what he did actually was, as you can see from the image at the top of this page, Kelly’s stunts would often see him perched hundreds of feet above the ground without a safety harness where he would do things like handstands while eating donuts just in case the Grim Reaper didn’t have enough reason to be pissed. Kelly would often find himself hundreds of feet above the ground on a tiny platform suspended by nothing more than the collective will of road sweepers who didn’t want to wash his blood off of the side walk.

Kelly was so good at this arguably very niche pastime that he could even sleep while sitting on a foot wide platform, 200 feet in the air during a blizzard. Kelly’s balls and theatrics soon earned the daredevil a pretty decent income, but this all came crashing down when the police began cracking down on his antics, fearing that he would fall and not have the decency to at least land in a suspiciously placed cart full of hay.

Artist's interpretation.
Artist’s interpretation.

Police interference meant that Alvin could no longer earn a decent income from pole sitting and after 1929, he largely disappeared from public view, sporadically reappearing to try and cash in the slowly dwindling “pay someone to sit on a tall pole” market. In 1934 a reporter managed to track down the once famous polesitter and found him in a dancehall plying his trade as a gigolo. Much to their surprise, Kelly was remarkably open about his new career choice climbing inside of desperate women and spoke openly about how he was just trying to pay his bills and that he had no qualms about giving his time to a lady, for a price.

But here’s the absolute best part, when the reporter first heard that Kelly had become a gigolo and began looking to interview him, they had a lot of trouble actually tracking him down because about a dozen other gigolos in the States were claiming to be him. As the reporter found out, almost nobody actually knew what the real Shipwreck Kelly looked like, meaning gigolos with less scruples than other more well-meaning gigolos could pretend to be him without having to worry about anyone calling them on it.

When the reporter actually managed to find the real Kelly they found him wearing a silk hat and a tailcoat sitting on a massive fluffy couch while a veritable harem of overweight women queued to dance with him. Oh and before you think otherwise, that last part isn’t a euphemism, Kelly was so pimp that women literally paid him just to dance with them.

If there was ever a time to use the word “swag” this is it.