When A 15-Year-Old Girl Killed More Than 500,000 Flies

“God in His wisdom made the fly / And then forgot to tell us why.” —Ogden Nash, “The Fly”

In A Nutshell

Back in 1912, Toronto was suffering from a plague of biblical proportions. The city was covered with flies, so city officials decided to fight back, launching the “Swat the Fly” competition. And that’s when a teenage girl named Beatrice White declared war on the local insect population. She killed over 500,000 flies.

The Whole Bushel

Nobody likes flies. They’re disgusting little creatures that land on your food, spread disease, and endlessly buzz around your face. Plus, according to Orkin entomologist Ron Harrison, they’re twice as dirty as cockroaches.

Because they lay their eggs in everything from feces to rotting corpses, these insects can carry all sorts of nasty germs that cause diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.

Fortunately, if you live in a modern-day, first world nation, flies aren’t that big of a problem. But things were different in the early 1900s.

Take the city of Toronto, for example. Back in 1912, people were still riding to work in horse-drawn carriages. Toronto was jam-packed with our four-legged friends. A lot of horses means a lot of manure, and a lot of manure means a lot of flies. Plus, the city’s slums were full of garbage.

There were piles and piles of the stuff, and the local insect population was having a ball.

That’s when Dr. Charles Hastings decided to take action. As the city’s chief medical officer, he knew there was a link between poverty and disease, and he knew flies played a key role in making people sick. Wanting to exterminate as many bugs as possible, Hastings teamed up with the city’s newspaper, The Toronto Daily Star, to set up a rather strange contest. The competition was called “Swat the Fly.”

You shouldn’t have a hard time guessing the goal of the contest: Kill as many flies as possible.

Contestants had to be under age 16, and the Star would give away cash prizes to the kids with the most corpses. Needless to say, when the competition started on July 5, 1912, hordes of children took to the streets, all ready to butcher some bugs. After a day of murdering insects, the kids would then take their specimens to Dr. Hastings so he could tally up the scores.

According to his system, one pint of flies equaled 3,200 dead critters, and the child who consistently brought in the most flies was a young girl named Beatrice White.

A 15-year-old from a poor family, Beatrice dreamed of winning enough cash to buy music lessons. But instead of running around town, smashing flies with a swatter, she decided to use specialized fly traps.

According to the Star, these traps were the “size of a small barrel, made of wood and wire, and with a funnel entrance from which a fly could not escape.” Beatrice would then set raw liver on the ground under the traps as bait. As flies gathered, she would poke the meat with a stick, forcing the flies to fly up the funnel where they would meet their doom.

After a full day of fly catching, Beatrice would then fill the traps full of poison. When the buzzing died down, she’d take her six-legged trophies to Dr. Hastings.

She was soon a local celebrity. Beatrice’s name started popping up in the newspaper, and soon everyone knew she was the city’s preeminent fly catcher. By the time the contest was over, she’d killed over 500,000 flies.

The runner-up, a girl named Elva Baill, collected a mere 234,400. All in all, 3.5 million flies bit the dust that year, and when the awards ceremony was over, Beatrice walked away with $50.

Sadly, she didn’t get to spend it on music lessons. Her dad decided to keep the cash for himself.

Like most celebrities, Beatrice’s legend faded with time. But in 1968, the Star resurrected her story, printing an article on Toronto’s legendary bug buster. City authorities even presented Beatrice with a honorary can of bug spray. She’d later inspire a short film and even a $100,000 painting by Canadian artist Harold Town.

Sadly, the fame wouldn’t bring her any more cash prizes, and when she finally passed away in 1980, she was buried in a common grave.

Show Me The Proof

USA Today: Study: Flies on food should make you drop your fork
Toronto Star: Beatrice White, the girl who killed half a million flies for Toronto

  • Shannon Williams

    Wow! Smart girl! She should have gone on to create her system as a sell-able product! She could have had all the music lessons she wanted!