Elsie May Johnson was lucky to have a healthy pet for this portrait. An outbreak of rabies in the spring of 1912 had forced the slaughter of hundreds of dogs and had sent several Bisbee residents to El Paso for treatment of the disease.
The first incident occurred in March in Upper Tombstone Canyon. A rabid dog bit a horse, a cow, and about ten other dogs. The son of a Bisbee policemen shot and killed the sick animal after it tried to attack several children in the family yard. Dogs bitten by the rabid dog were killed by city officials.
Six-year-old Bob Hargis fell victim to a rabies-infected family pet about a week later. The normally well-behaved dog refused to obey the boy’s father, and when the child began playing in the yard, the dog attacked and bit him on both ears.
A doctor dressed the boy’s wounds and advised that he be taken to the Pasteur Institute in El Paso for treatment. Many residents made the same train trip before authorities stopped the epidemic.
In May, the Bisbee Review reported: “Dogs have been going mad in the northern end of the city for several months, and mothers are almost in a state of prostration through fear that their children will be attacked…”
Later that month, another rabid dog ran amok and attacked pets. The next day, a large black canine, clearly suffering from rabies, terrorized a Tombstone Canyon neighborhood, attacking many dogs and running after a little girl. The entire neighborhood turned out with pistols, shotguns and clubs, but the animal disappeared over the hills.
The Bisbee Review reported: “In the last several weeks, there have been several people bitten or scratched by rabid dogs, and the epidemic of hydrophobia among dogs seems to be growing. A large number of valued pets have been sacrificed, and it appears to be high time for municipal recognition of the danger from the epidemic.”
On May 3, 1912, the Bisbee City Council passed an ordinance requiring all dogs to wear muzzles or be in the control of an adult with a rope or chain. Peace officers were authorized to kill any dog running at large in the city. As though to emphasize the importance of the ordinance, during the City Council meeting, an officer was called away to kill two rabid dogs fighting near a residence.
The ordinance could not be enforced until it was posted and publicized for a week and therefore did not become law until May 19.
In the meantime, four people made the arduous journey to El Paso, for the 21-day painful rabies treatment.
On May 11, the Cochise County Board of Supervisors also passed an emergency ordinance requiring all dog owners to muzzle or confine their dogs. It read in part: “All owners of dogs are hereby notified that their dogs must be well and sufficiently muzzled so as to render it impossible for said dog to bite any person or animal, or confined in a yard at home so as to render the escape of such dog impossible, or the dogs will be killed on sight. This order takes effect immediately.”
Stray dogs of all descriptions were captured and destroyed by officers. Forty-two dogs were killed in ten days. The Review reported: “Several wagon loads of carcasses have been hauled to the garbage dump several miles below the city.”
The ordinances apparently worked; the number of rabid dogs declined. On August 18, 1912, the Review reported: “Dogs need no longer be muzzled. The city council has rescinded the edict that made Rover and the rest of his race unhappy and declares that owners may permit their dogs to go about without straps or cages on their jaws.”
We assume Elsie May Johnson’s dog survived the epidemic.
Photo courtesy Bisbee Mining & and Historical Museum, White Collection; research by Tom Vaughan. ©Arizona Capitol Times.