The Bisbee fly-catching contest of 1912

If you've ever been to Bisbee, Arizona in the summer, and have eaten outside, you know that flies love summer in Bisbee as much as the locals and visitors do. The fly problem isn't new – it goes way back, and in the summer of 1912, the Commercial Club in Bisbee came up with a way to try to control the flies. They set up a contest to see who could collect the most flies, with the winner receiving 10 dollars. That lucky person was Richard Phillips, who killed about 500,000 flies, give or take 5,000. A plaque in downtown Bisbee, next to the Mining Museum, provides more information, using quotes from the Bisbee Daily Review from 1912 and 1913. It reads as follows:

Swat a Fly, Cop a Prize! Champ for month gets $10

In August 1912, the Commercial Club of Bisbee went public with a novel method of fly control. The seriousness of the continuing typhoid problems experienced in Bisbee around the turn of the century found some relief in humor as well as creativity.

The rules for a 'systematic campaign of extermination' against those 'advance agents of pestilence' were quite straightforward. . . . and the pestiferous little nuisances must now take the consequences.

They will be bottled and trapped and caught, done up in packages and duly measured up and counted. . . It makes no difference how the dead flies are obtained or where within the district. They may be killed either with sticky fly paper, caught in traps or just swatted with a swatter, folded newspaper, or any other fly-killing device. If caught on sticky paper, however, they must be picked off, the committee not volunteering to do this work for the contestant. 

When a contestant desires to turn in his or her proof of prowess as a fly exterminator, the flies are to be placed in . . . a pasteboard box. The county helath officer will be the judge of the contest and will count and measure flies that are killed

Bisbee has taken a position at the front in advance of all other cities in the southwest in war upon the fly and typhoid fever germs… – Bisbee Daily Review, August, 1912

The anti-fly crusade is at its end. Richard Phillips was the winner of the competition, exterminating within 5,000 of 500,000 flies – Bisbee Daily Review, September 3, 1912

The effectiveness of such a campaign? Alas, "more flies this year than last, despite a more aggressive fly-swatting campaign among the public generally…" – Bisbee Daily Review, June 8, 1913

The flies are famous in Bisbee, and are commemorated all over town in the form of giant-scale commissioned flies made by artist Poe Dismuke. You can spot them on buildings throughout downtown, including on the outside of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.

Photograph: Jennifer Sandlin