Climbing High: A Look Back to When Human Flies Visited Tacoma

During the first half of the 20th century, Americans were fascinated by “human flies” who thrilled crowds by free-climbing tall buildings and doing acrobatic tricks. They traveled across the United States and North America. Three of these daredevil human flies visited Tacoma to climb its tallest buildings during this period.

Off to the Circus

These climbers were not the first Tacoma visitors to go by the name “human fly.” A number of acrobats used the term before them, traveling with circuses and vaudeville companies. This included a “Mademoiselle Aimme” who performed with W.W. Cole’s Circus in 1884. She walked “head downward upon a polished plane of wood…at a height of sixty feet, without a net.” She claimed to be the second person to do such an act.

These acts shocked and amazed crowds. “Fools aren’t dead yet,” a newspaperman heard an audience member quip in 1917, watching a man named Artane balance atop five stacked chairs during a vaudeville show at the Hippodrome Theater.

human flies Tacoma
This publicity photo of human fly Babe White was published in the July 17, 1932 issue of the Daily Olympian to promote a climb in Olympia. He made his Tacoma climb a month later. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Archie Crisp, 1916

Archie Crisp was the first building climbing “human fly” to visit Tacoma. Still in his 20s with a decade of tightrope walking with the circus behind him, he began to tour on his own a year and a half before his Tacoma appearance. He claimed to have gotten his start climbing buildings in Minneapolis on a bet. Starting with a four-story building, he liked the thrill and continued.

His target in Tacoma was the Pythian Temple, 924-926 ½ Broadway Street. Crisp made two climbs on Friday, September 20, at 12:45 and 7 p.m.. The afternoon crowd stretched on Broadway from Ninth to Eleventh Streets. Crisp took up a collection before each climb, getting the crowd fired up. He easily made it up the building during his first climb, performing a headstand on the cornice.

Three hundred gathered for his evening climb, and the Tacoma News Tribune had a nice description: “Crisp explained to the onlookers the nature of his hazardous ascent before his climb. Removing his shoes and rolling up his sleeves, the ‘human fly,’ by means of his powerful toes and fingers, slowly and steadily made his way, cheered and applauded by the audience. Frequent calls of encouragement were offered by the spectators.

“When halfway up, Crisp’s feet slipped, and he dangled in the air for a few seconds, holding on by his hands. When his powerful toes again gripped the building, his interested watchers burst into cheers and drew their breath.

“Reaching a point just below the cornice at the top of the building, Crisp sat on a window sill to rest and gather his strength. With only a dim light from the street lamps reaching his position, he was unable to find a hold to climb over the cornice and had to abandon his ascent.”

human flies Tacoma
An unnamed “human fly” scaled the National Realty Building, later the Puget Sound National Bank Building, in 1918. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Marvin D. Boland Collection BOLAND-B15194

Anonymous Climber, 1918

On Friday, September 13, an unnamed young man climbed the 16-story National Realty Building, now the Key Bank Center, at 1117 Pacific Avenue. Hundreds watched him climb, cheering as he hauled himself over the cornice work on the highest story. He climbed the steeple but only made it halfway up the flagpole at the top. Noting the date, he asserted he had not made it because of utter exhaustion and the slippery pole, not the thirteenth “hoodoo.” The Tacoma Ledger said he used a rope on the climb, but the Tacoma News Tribune said he did not.

Babe White, 1932

On August 17, Babe White arrived in Tacoma. White climbed buildings across the United States, such as the Woolworth Building and the Smith Tower. He also visited Mexico and ascended the cathedral in Mexico City, earning the nickname “El Hombre Mosca” there.

With over two decades of “daredevil work” experience behind him, White climbed the front of the Winthrop Hotel, 773 Broadway Street, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Wearing a white suit for visibility, his evening climb was done under a searchlight. At the top, he performed a few stunts on the trapeze.

White was killed the following year, falling three stories before a horrified crowd of 2,000 in Santa Monica, California.

human flies Tacoma
The exploits of the daredevil “human flies” captivated people across the United States. This cartoon from the Tacoma News Tribune, June 17, 1937, jokes about them. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Legacy of Tacoma’s Human Flies

Human flies like these men became legends, especially to children. Thirteen-year-old Mike Hemelosky, 1221 East Twenty-Ninth Street, submitted a story to the Tacoma Daily Ledger’s “Stories by Young Authors” page. Published on April 23, 1922, it told a joke about human flies. “One day,” he wrote, “John’s teacher said to him, ‘John, please run up the curtains.’ John thought a minute and then said, “I would if I could teacher, but I’m no human fly.”

Much has changed in Tacoma since the “Human Flies” visited. But during the often troubled days of the early 20th century, these daredevil “Human Flies” thrilled audiences with their death-defying climbs. If they could do the impossible, what more could ordinary people do?