The Smell Detectives

The stench of sludge acid is wafted over a sick woman as her helpless family watches in an illustration from Harper’s Weekly.

The stench of sludge acid is wafted over a sick woman as her helpless family watches in an illustration from Harper’s Weekly. HarpWeek.

While Chandler attacked his opponents for their “selfish personal ends”—looking out for their own property values and political ambitions—his complaint against lay sanitarians ran deeper than corruption. Some time after the trial Chandler told a reporter: “The trouble is that citizens are very poor smell detectives. They are annoyed by a stench and in most instances ascribe it to some industry near them and believe it to be perpetual.” Chandler thought that amateur sanitarians, such as vocal and critical members of a local citizens’ group were “to the professional and official sanitarians what a horde of ambitious and officious guerillas would be to a General of an army at a critical moment. They insist on thrusting forward theories and advice and acting independently . . . while they are unable to render any real service.”

Chandler could not stop New Yorkers from sniffing and complaining, but he hoped to harness them to his purposes by setting up a chain of command for individual complaints. A year after the court case of 1878 he deputized his former student, chemist Samuel Goldschmidt, as Inspector of Offensive Trades, with the power to stop offending practices. Goldschmidt’s experiences as a fertilizer inspector in Savannah had turned his nose into an instrument that could tease apart smells, whether from organic decomposition or from chemical waste. As inspector, Goldschmidt spent his days monitoring the winds and inspecting the practices of New York slaughterhouses, gas works, fat renderers, fertilizer manufacturers, and other redolent businesses. He remained on call at night, when perturbed citizens might arrive on his doorstep and drag him out into the dark city streets to track down a disgusting smell.

One nighttime visitor demanded that the inspector identify a nuisance that kept him from sleeping. Goldschmidt later reported that the stink had died away and likely came from across the river, beyond his jurisdiction. Just like the air and breezes that carried them, odors were ephemeral. Their constant arrivals, mixtures, shifts, and departures were well-known but still problematic for the trained chemist: “The wind was blowing strongly from the East North East, and by careful watching mingled with the Hunter’s Point smell, could be obtained slight puffs from the manure and garbage dumps, and the slaughter house smell. About 9:50 came for a few moments the rendering odors, and this gradually died away.” Tracking all the odors in this ever-changing nasal cocktail proved surprisingly difficult. Goldschmidt focused on the rendering odors but could not determine whether they came from a rendering tank at Rafferty and Williams or a malfunctioning condenser at Schwarzschild and Sulzberger, so he cited both companies

When Goldschmidt submitted his reports to Chandler, he noted two types of stenches: those he abated and those beyond his control. Chandler, whose regulatory concerns extended beyond the city, was keenly interested in both. Because New York’s stenches often traveled with the wind, Chandler hoped to create a new organization through which he could control industries upwind of the city.

When the New York State Board of Health formed in 1880, Chandler finally had the power to deal with Hunter’s Point. At the first quarterly meeting of the state board, Chandler introduced the first item of business: “Resolved—That a special committee be appointed by the chair to proceed to New York City to take testimony with regard to the nuisances alleged to exist there.”

The Special Committee on Effluvium Nuisances gave Chandler new jurisdiction over New York City’s air and gave the citizens of New York a new audience for their complaints—and a new scapegoat for their disappointments.