A Sensory History Experiment


No?  Are you sure?  Well, I have.  Here’s why:  The yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in the late summer of 1793 was a horrifying catastrophe.  The prosperous capital of the young United States was suddenly laid waste:  in two months, as many as 5,000 died out a population of 50,000, and half of the population—including President Washington and most federal government officials—fled in panic from the city.

Numerous theories were advanced to explain the outbreak’s origin, but the leading one—promoted among others by Benjamin Rush, the most famous physician in North America—blamed the stench produced by a shipment of rotten coffee dumped on the wharf near where the epidemic began, on Water Street between Arch and Race. 

Ever wonder what rotten coffee smells like?  Why not find out? Join us as we recreate—for the first time ever (we think)—the smell that many believed sparked this watershed episode in our history.

David Barnes

University of Pennsylvania

dbarnes [at] sas [dot] upenn [dot] edu


Oct. 3, 2014

6:00 p.m.

Race St. between 2nd and 3rd

Old City Philadelphia

Ever wondered what rotten coffee smells like?