The Real-Life Superhero Who Kept NYC Clean (With His Nose)

The Real-Life Superhero Who Kept NYC Clean (With His Nose)

In olden times, we would tell stories about monsters in the woods, werewolves and ghouls, and banshees disappearing in the trees. Now, when we have to come up with shadowy, scary places where monsters can lurk in the dark, ready to strike, we've gotten a lot of mileage out of the sewers and subways under New York City. Urban legends don't get much more urban than sewer monsters; everything from C.H.U.D.s to the bug things in Mimic to alligators have been said to slither and crawl under the Big Apple. 

Like most stories, this one starts with a grain of truth: The biggest city in America takes the biggest shits, then they also have to get up every day and take the subway to work. It takes an army of maintenance men to keep everything running smoothly underground, without the feces and the F trains ever crossing paths. Leaks happen multiple times every single day, and before modern atmospheric equipment, the best way to plug them up was one guy: James Kelly.

This wasn't like the old Dutch story of a little boy plugging a hole in a dam with his finger – you'd need more fingers than Dr. Strange had in that one scene to handle the whole city. Instead of his hands, Kelly used his nose and his ears to keep the city safe for millions. Kelly, who usually went by "Smelly Kelly," though he also got called "Leaky Kelly" or just "The Sniffer." The nicknames should be the tipoff: He's about as close as we've ever to a real-life superhero. He didn't just keep the city's underground safe; he did it with his uncanny abilities. 

Smelly Kelly had an amazing nose and an amazing memory to match. He wasn't just able to smell things no one else could; he could actually identify what he was smelling. This came in handy in situations like the time one of the busiest subway stations in Manhattan became overwhelmed with a stench, so bad people could barely stand it when they opened the train doors. Kelly's super-powered nose was so assaulted he nearly gave up right then and there, but he stuck with it and figured out that the smell wasn't just dung, but specifically elephant dung.

Everyone needs to hold it in on the subway now and then, but how did an elephant get into the subway in the first place? As Kelly discovered, it didn't. The subway station just happened to be built inside the foundations of an old stadium where they used to have a bunch of circuses. No one had realized that the whole station was pretty much suspended in decades-old shit until a burst water main brought those turds back from the dead. 

The Hippodrome, New York


Huh, whose idea was it to remove the elephant circus? Manhattan used to have character!

Picture it like The Mummy, but instead of reading from the Book of the Dead it’s a leaky pipe, and instead of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz it’s the least sexy thing imaginable. Smelly Kelly kept it in check, and no one else would have had a chance. The city ended up giving him a job title nobody’s gotten before or since, the “Superintendent of Subway Structures” because it would be more than half a century before Ray Parker Jr. could have told you “If there’s something strange in your sinuses, who you’re gonna call?”

Kelly was born in Ireland in 1898, where sniffing things out was the family business; his uncle was a professional well-digger who used divining rods and other folk traditions to find water. Little Smelly (who would probably have liked that nickname way less if he had it when he was a kid) started working alongside his uncle at a young age, picking up the habit of tracking noises, vibrations, and smells from underground, like an Irish Toph Beifong.

Eventually, he followed the water, via a stint in the navy during WWI, all the way to New York. The song goes “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere," but he made it as a subway tunnel maintenance worker, which isn’t the greatest example. You can’t deny he made it, though: In just a few years, he went from a tunnel rat to the rat king.

Rat king from Dellfeld, Germany, in the Musée zoologique de la ville de Strasbourg, France. Found in 1895.

Edelseider/Wiki Commons 

If you don't know what a rat king is, stay out of the subway. 

His big break came the same way as those other legendary protectors of New York, the Ghostbusters: A fancy hotel found a problem no one else could solve. In 1932, the New Yorker Hotel, one of the swankiest places to stay in the whole city, had a stench that took the whole thing from swank to rank. Everyone knew it was a leaky sewage pipe, but no one knew how to find exactly where it was without tearing the whole place open from top to bottom, and the customers weren’t paying the ridiculously high price of $12 a night to stay in a half-demolished fart cave.

The chief engineer for the whole city’s sewer system challenged Kelly to find the leak, and he said he could get the whole thing fixed in a half hour. If that seems fast now, don’t forget that these were the days when getting a package delivered in a month was lightning-fast. So how did he do it? He flushed some dye into a toilet on the floor above the worst-smelling spot. Soon, the same dye started to show on a wall, and, sure enough, the broken pipe causing on the trouble was hiding in plain sight right behind it.

Blue toilet water from using in-tank toilet cleaner tablet

Atomicdragon136/Wiki Commons

If only we all peed dye. 

After that, Kelly didn’t just get promoted, he got turned into a one-man training academy. Since he couldn’t be everywhere in the city at once, he got handed a crew of assistants who were there to work as his eyes and ears—and, of course, his nose. It might sound glamorous, learning from this legendary, superhuman figure, but you have to remember that this wasn’t some grand Karate Kid life lesson thing: The whole reason you’d be doing it would be the “wax on, wax off."

These were laborers whose jobs were all about plugging up leaking shit and polluted waters, All they got for it, other than a salary that was as subterranean as the job, was all the dead fish they could carry. Before anyone had the revolutionary idea of putting a grating over sewer pipes, anything living in the city’s rivers could just find its scaly little ass stuck in a drainpipe or flopping around on a subway track. 

Kelly himself caught enough sea creatures to amass a whole sewage-covered aquarium over the years, though everything he caught was long dead when he found it: Everything from a school of minnows to a champion-size trout to a nearly three-foot-long eel found itself plugging up the works for Kelly to fish it out.

A moray eel shows off its teeth at the Cairns aquarium.

David Clode/Unsplash

Delicious, once marinated in feces. 

When it comes to mementos, a professional shit-sniffer can’t exactly put together a trophy room with the vital evidence from his greatest cases, and if he ever tried, one of his assistants would probably shove it down the nearest sewer to give Pennywise a nice dinner.

Instead, Smelly Kelly had a whole suite of specialized tools he used to stay one step ahead of the city’s water and air, back in the day when the best air quality index you could get was “smoking or less smoking." The list ranged from the obvious, like matches for checking if the air was flammable, to the arcane, like a map of the city from before the Revolutionary War, to the stuff Kelly had to invent himself. Some of his custom tools included the “aquaphone," a modified sound amplifier for listening to water currents through walls, an extra-strength stethoscope that could pick up a subway train coming from all the way up on the surface.

When we said this guy was a real-life superhero earlier, we meant it. Let’s look at the final tally: He always knew he had a special talent passed down through the generations, but when he found himself on the streets of the big city, he figured out how he could use that to solve problems no one else could. 

Once everyone else figured that out, they started giving him special treatment, giving him free rein to use his utility belt of gadgets when his super-senses failed him. Eventually, he found himself with younger sidekicks, bad guys he had to defeat over and over again (dead fish, in this case), and a whole Stan Lee panel’s worth of exciting nicknames, from “Leaky Kelly” to just “The Sniffer," which is cooler than a lot of Golden Age superhero names. (Looking at you, Whizzer.)

City Hall subway station, New York

Library of Congress

He even had an underground base.

When you sum it all up like that, this guy isn’t just a superhero, he’s Dolph Lundgren from that one episode of Always Sunny, going out to smell out crime, then coming back to base for some full penetration. (Note: None of the sources we could find on Kelly mention whether he was married or had kids, so as per usual, you’ll just have to imagine the full penetration.)

So what real-life end did this real-life superhero meet? Well, like we teed up earlier, a lot of the work he did became unnecessary. These days, there are way better tools for analyzing air quality and preventing wastewater leaks than one guy who can smell really good. The last trainee sniffer retired from the tunnels under New York decades ago, and Kelly himself left for a purer, nicer smelling world years before that. But every time New York taps and toilets and sinks do their jobs, every time someone takes a subway to work and doesn’t inhale toxic fumes, it’s thanks to the decades of work put in by Smelly Kelly.

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