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.

The Special Committee consisted of three men: Albany doctor J. Savage Delavan, whom Chandler had known since teaching at Union College; state senator Erastus Brooks, who had owned and edited the New-York Express; and Elisha Harris, New York City’s well-known sanitarian and vital-statistics registrar as well as secretary of the State Board of Health. This committee gathered testimony about the odors from New York’s professional and amateur sanitarians. Doctors commented on the health problems associated with the stenches, such as headaches, nausea, and depression. Laypersons from the fashionable, wealthy, and politically connected Murray Hill neighborhood (residents included the Astors) testified to their own discomfort. A Mr. Montgomery put it plainly when he said, “The stench was simply terrible. It could not be described, but must be smelled to be appreciated. . . . I have been broken of my rest night after night in the Summer, . . . until I was nearly sick and unfit for business. There is no alternative but to open the windows and let in the stench or close the windows and suffocate.”

Montgomery’s neighbors seconded his comments. George G. DeWitt said the odors depressed spirits and robbed people of their appetites. Henry Bergh said the odors caused intense discomfort, if not outright sickness. Bergh also insisted, like Montgomery, that these stenches needed to be experienced to be understood: “It is impossible to describe the perfume of the rose, and equally impossible to describe the detestable odors of Hunter’s Point.” Throughout the testimony about stenches and illness ran one insistent refrain: if the members of this new committee wanted to understand the odors, they had to smell and experience them for themselves.

The committee decided to make a tour of inspection. They put their noses to the wind and went in search of the stenches’ sources. A New York Times reporter used heavy sarcasm in recording the experience of these three men encountering the powerful, but commonplace, odors: “The homes of these [sickening stenches] are along the shores of the East River, and by dodging in and out of slips with a tug-boat, and by creeping and climbing over oil-lighters and rotten string-pieces, they were finally reached by the committeemen without loss of life or limb.” Though the men were safe for the moment, things changed when the state officials found “the home of the most powerful stench of the day. . . . Assemblyman Brooks started as if a knife had pierced him after taking one whiff. The other members of the party were visibly affected.” This powerful stench emanated from a fertilizer factory, which used sludge acid.

The state intervened at last, ordering that the cause of the stinks be removed by June 1, 1881. In the end, more than any catalogue of testimony or chemical reports, the committee members’ own noses and turned stomachs convinced them of what everyone had been saying: the state government must intervene to control noxious odors from Kings and Queens counties that drifted into New York. While chemists had a place in the final report presented at Albany, the evidence that spoke most forcefully was not their research and opinions but the experiences of multiple New Yorkers and of the committee members themselves. Yet chemists did play an important role in the politics of regulation. They established the validity of complaints and were the “smell detectives” whose professional training qualified them to track smells to their sources. Ultimately, though, neither chemical reports nor individual complaints created air regulation: politicians heeded chemists and complainers only when odors were linked to consequences of political importance, such as powerful citizens and voting blocs.

Though citizens continued to complain of noxious odors after the governor’s 1881 ordinance, their complaints were now channeled through a political system of citizen reporting, scientific investigation, and official response. Rather than oppose each other in the courts, chemists and concerned citizens worked together in the streets, gradually shifting their concerns from stinks to smoke—a far more visible target, and one that was morphing from a sign of progress into a health hazard. Drawing on their earlier experiences, chemists and citizens campaigned together against the new threat.

Melanie Kiechle is the 2010–2011 John C. Haas Fellow at CHF. She is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Rutgers University and is working on a cultural history of fresh air.