CNF: Smelling Money

by Daniel Galef


Canadian $100 bills smell like maple syrup. The scent, impregnated into notes made of waterproof plastic, can be detected by anyone with enough money to sniff at, yet the Bank of Canada vehemently denies putting any scent into the bills during the manufacturing process.


In the reign of Antoninus (according to Cassius Dio in the Historiae), a knight was condemned for the crime of using a coin bearing the Emperor’s visage to purchase lewd services; there existed a sophisticated system of exchange and a special second money system known as spintriae to use in cases where it would be below the dignity of Roman money to spend it.


Yet only a few centuries before, Emperor Vespasian had imposed a tax on the urine scavenged from public toilets by leather-tanners. According to Suetonius in the De Vita Caesarum, when the prince Titus raised objections about the unsavory origins of the tax money, Vespasian dismissed his son’s concerns with the phrase pecunia non olet—“Money does not smell.”


Blood money or no, money does smell like blood. As any surgeon knows, blood smells sharp and metallic due to the iron content of hemoglobin. Gold, like all the noble metals, is unreactive and odorless, but base coinage smells like an open wound.


The most infamous blood money in history was not re-spent without scruple. The thirty pieces of silver paid to the apostle Judas for the betrayal of his Lord was put to use (by Judas himself, according to the Book of Acts; by the temple elders, according to the Gospel of Matthew) in purchasing Potter’s Field. It was considered too filthy a lucre even to give to the poor as alms.


Figuratively dirty money can be traced forensically and so ill-gotten gains are purified through “money laundering.”


Unrelated to financial money laundering, last year Dutch police discovered €350,000 in stolen bills hidden, aptly, in a washing machine. Conversely, counterfeiters have been known to run newly-printed fakes through a clothes dryer to give the appearance of age and wear.


Money is literally dirty, as well. Decades of studies by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have found that 90% of U.S. dollar bills are tainted with detectable quantities of cocaine, which binds to the green dye used in printing the bills.


I’m not sure whether to agree with Antoninus, who believed his coins were totems that carried their history with them, or with Vespasian, who saw his wealth as abstract and divorced from its origins. Guglielmo Marconi may have said that it only takes six handshakes to connect any two people in the world; the number of monetary transactions can’t be much greater.


Daniel Galef can be found in Webster’s Dictionary, where since last spring he has been living cozily as the official citation for the word “interfaculty.” His recent stories have appeared in the American Bystander, Juked, Rivet, Barnhouse, and Flash Fiction Magazine, and he also writes poems and plays.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Smelling Money”?

This piece of flash nonfiction owes a lot more to Jorge Luis Borges than I realized until looking back on the circumstances under which I wrote it. A passing reference to Ellus Lampridius in “The Lottery in Babylon” started me down a rabbit-hole of reading Roman historians (when I was supposed to be writing a final paper on medical ethics), and the subject may have been suggested by a passage in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The final I was writing was on John Harris’s 1975 paper “The Survival Lottery,” and I’d been re-reading “The Lottery in Babylon” looking for an epigraph. Instead, I spent a few days in Dio Chrysostom, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius, who have done me a lot more good than medical ethics ever has—just ask my patients.


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