The Smell Detectives

Map of Hunter's Point, 1870s.

Map of Hunter's Point, 1870s. New York Public Library.

For many in New York City, Chandler, with his distinctive mustache, was the face of both public health and chemistry. Those who questioned his expertise in policy thus also challenged his scientific knowledge. Mounting complaints about New York City’s stenches in the 1870s proved a trial for Chandler as both chemist and public servant. New York Times editors claimed that the board’s members “secretly removed their [noses] long ago, and have since been unable to perceive any bad smells.” In the Ohio Medical Journal a letter writer renamed Chandler’s group “Board of Death” and denounced this “negligent, pretending, and worthless Board” because “the most nauseous, foul, stinking, and pestilential odors still permeate the atmosphere of this overtaxed city!”

Since its inception the Board of Health had pursued odor regulation by restricting the locations and practices of such offensive trades as slaughterers. The board pushed slaughterhouses north of 40th Street in 1868 and then banned them altogether from between 40th Street and the core of the city in 1870. (The board acted again in 1885, confining slaughterhouses to a narrow block between the Hudson River and Eleventh Avenue from 39th to 40th Street.) Similarly, the board demanded that “scavengers,” the people who emptied cesspools, collected offal, and cleaned stables, do their work at night, use disinfectants, and immediately move offensive material out of “the built-up portions” of the city. The board designed a system of permits that governed both scavengers and the offensive trades and created sanitary inspectors to enforce these regulations. Overall, New York City’s Board of Health tried to eliminate odors by banishing their sources to the edges of the city, far from homes and nonindustrial businesses.

Manhattan businesses began to move across the East River to Kings and Queens counties. At Hunter’s Point, where urban boosters actively courted new development, and along Newtown Creek, the natural border between the two counties, business owners found their ideal: relatively lax health boards, water access for trade, and proximity to a dense working population. The offensive trades anchored miles of interdependent factories that spewed stench and smoke along the creek’s banks. Chemical factories produced sulfuric acid, which oil refineries mixed with petroleum to remove impurities. After agitating the mixture with an air jet, workers drew off “sludge acid,” a compound of spent acid and contaminants, and sold this waste to nearby fertilizer manufacturers. Any of the black and foul-smelling stuff that remained unsold was dumped into Newtown Creek, a tidal waterway. At each return of the tides, the sludge acid released more fumes.

Fertilizer manufacturers spread sludge acid over carcasses and left them in the sun to rot. Sludge acid sped decomposition, releasing pungent and irritating fumes, particularly as days grew warmer. Easterly winds carried the distinctive odors of sludge acid and animal putrefaction across the East River to Manhattan. Gas works added to the nasal cocktail. City lights burned natural gas purified by a dry-lime process that produced sulphureted hydrogen and sulfide of ammonium. These gases diffused over a wide distance, infiltrating Manhattan’s homes as easterly breezes carried the odors across the river and into the heart of midtown.

The Board of Health’s repeated failures to provide olfactory relief to residents and to protect their health led to Chandler’s 1878 legal challenge. Board members, now on the defensive, parsed, for all who would listen, the different odors of sludge acid and other smells. As board president and a trained chemist, Chandler led the education effort. In courtrooms, in conversations with the press, and before his professional peers Chandler insisted that “sludge acid” caused the physical discomfort and complaints of the previous summer, not any factory operating within Manhattan and the board’s jurisdiction. When subpoenaed, board members appeared with maps and charts to explain how the wind conveyed the distinctive stench of oil refining from distant Brooklyn plants to midtown. Before the Medical Society of the County of New York, Chandler recounted how the Board of Health had banished bad smells from the city and claimed that “having eliminated all other smells, [the board] has uncovered this one [sludge acid].” Playing on his professional credentials, Chandler went on to say that the odor of sludge acid “is one that cannot be mistaken by a chemist.”