For Londoners, the summer of 1858 was a scorcher: the mercury on Wednesday, June 16 reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit down at Greenwich—the hottest ever measured. But that was the least of it. The heat was compounded by the almighty stink emanating from “the once sweet and silver Thames,” the result of a decision made in the previous decade to stop relying on the city’s two hundred cesspools, and instead have the sewage from the city’s new water closets flow directly into the river. If the old system was bad, the new system was worse: originally designed only to transport rainwater, London’s sewers now contained the raw sewage from its 2.5 million citizens.

The effect was overpowering. Two days earlier, the Lord Mayor delivered a speech to an audience at Mansion House following a steam boat passage from London Bridge to...

 
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