I’ve just watched a fascinating lecture from funerary and art historian Dr. Julian Litten on burial vaults. I learned a lot and greatly enjoyed it, but was very surprised to hear him recite the old chestnut that the smell of decaying bodies under church floors led to the expression ‘stinking rich’. This is just not true, as phrases.org.uk relates:
The real origin of stinking rich, which is a 20th-century phrase, is much more prosaic. ‘Stinking’ is merely an intensifier, like the ‘drop-dead’ of drop-dead gorgeous, the ‘lead pipe’ of lead pipe cinch or, more pertinent in this case, the ‘stark-raving’ of stark-raving mad. It has been called upon as an intensifier in other expressions, for example, ‘stinking drunk’ and ‘we don’t need no stinking badges’
The phrase’s real derivation lies quite a distance from Victorian England in geography as well as in date. The earliest use of it that I can find in print is in the Montana newspaper The Independent, November 1925:
He had seen her beside the paddock. “American.” Mrs Murgatroyd had said. “From New England – stinking rich”.
However, I thought I’d check, and I did find an earlier cite, from ‘V.C.: A Chronicle of Castle Barfield and of the Crimea’, by David Christie Murray (1904, p. 92);
“I’m stinking rich – you know – disgraceful rich.”
Nothing earlier than that however. So I would add to the explanation at phrases.org.uk and say that it’s more of an expression of disgust; someone is so rich that it’s obscene and figuratively ‘stinks’. If we had any early 19th century or older cites, I’d grant that it could have been influenced in some way by intramural burial, but this was rare by the turn of the 20th century and lead coffins had been a legal requirement since 1849. Litten suggests that unscrupulous cabinetmakers might omit the lead coffin, leading to ‘effluvia’, but even then I can’t imagine that was common as it would be obvious when it had happened and whose interment was likely to have caused it, resulting in complaints and most likely reburial.
Litten also repeated a version of the myth of Enon Chapel, which is a story I’ve been working on and will be forthcoming, but added a claim that I have yet to come across; that the decomposition gases from the crypt below were so thick that they made the gas lighting in the chapel above ‘burn brighter’. I don’t know where this comes from and it hardly seems plausible. Dr Waller Lewis, the UK’s first Chief Medical Officer, wrote on the subject in an 1851 article in The Lancet entitled ‘ON THE CHEMICAL AND GENERAL EFFECTS OF THE PRACTICE OF INTERMENT IN VAULTS AND CATACOMBS’. Lewis stated that: “I have never met with any person who has actually seen coffin-gas inflame” and reported that experiments had been carried out and “in every instance it extinguished the flame”. This makes sense, since it was not decomposition gases per se (and certainly not ‘miasma’ as was often claimed at the time) that made workers light-headed or pass out in vaults – it was the absence of oxygen and high concentration of CO2 that caused this. Hence reports of candles going out rather than inflaming more.
Unfortunately, even the best of us are not immune to a little BS history. It was nonetheless a privilege to hear Dr. Litten speak.