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Allegations of Alligators in the Sewers of New York

Rumors that alligators populate the sewers of New York City have circulated for many years. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2002.)

A popular urban legend claims that the sewers of the Big Apple are populated by alligators large enough to eat unfortunate city sanitation workers who unknowingly venture into the underground tunnels. Today the City of New York denies that such dangerous reptilian denizens dwell in the bowels of the metropolis, but who really knows what's down there...

This alligator tale was circulated widely in the 1960's. More recently, it spawned at least two movies: Alligator (1980), the story about a 36 foot long reptile emerging from the sewers of underground Chicago to dine on unsuspecting citizens of the windy city and Alligator II: The Mutation (1991), which changed the locale of the underground menace to a small town.

According to the 60's version of the legend, the gators found their way to the sewers of New York City after they had been purchased at pet shops, grew too large for the owners to keep in their apartments, and were flushed down the toilet. There the gators thrived on sewer rats that infested the underground pipes and grew to respectable sizes. This theory, though colorful, is unlikely to be true as most "gators" sold in pet shops are not really alligators, but caimans. Caimans are crocodilians from South America with their long , narrow, snouts, resemble those of crocodiles rather than alligators.

So is there any truth to this urban legend? Surprisingly, yes. In the early1930's a number of alligators were seen swimming in the Bronx River. Several dead gators were found along the banks and a few, small, live ones were captured. Then on February 10, 1935, the New York Times reported:

ALLIGATOR FOUND IN UPTOWN SEWER

Youths Shoveling Snow into Manhole See the Animal Churning in Icy Water

According to the story, several teenage boys had been clearing East 123rd Street by shoveling snow into an open manhole when they saw something large and alive in the water below. It turned out to be a seven-foot plus alligator that somehow had gotten stuck. The boys used a rope to pull it to the surface. Upon reaching safety, the ungrateful reptile snapped at one of them. The teens responded by beating the animal to death with their shovels. At a nearby auto repair shop the dead animal was weighed and found to be 125 pounds. Later, the Department of Sanitation picked up the carcass and incinerated it. The Times speculated that the animal had escaped from a ship traveling from "the mysterious Everglades," swam into Harlem River and then came150 yards up a storm conduit to where it was found.

Other evidence indicates that the gator wasn't just a single escaped rogue, however. Several years later, according to Robert Daley's 1959 book, The World Beneath the City, a colony of alligators had settled comfortably into the sewers of New York. It was in 1935 that the animals were first reported to Superintendent of Sewers Teddy May. At first, May refused to believe reports from his inspectors that they were being menaced by the sub-terrainian reptiles. "I says to myself," May recalled in Daley's book, "them guys been drinking in there." May was so sure that the allegations of alligators were false that he refused to approve reports mentioning the animals. He also sent men to watch the inspectors to see how they are getting a hold of alcohol on the job. When no reports of smuggled whiskey appeared, May decided to take a look at the claims himself. "I'll go down there and prove to youse guys that there ain't no alligators in my sewers," May said.

Once he examined the situation close at hand, however, May had a change of heart. He saw a number of alligators himself. Most were about two feet in length and lived in the smaller pipes that emptied into the trunk lines below major streets. Mays, having realized the gators were a real problem, started a program to get rid of them. Many were killed by rat poison, others were shooed into the trunk lines where the rapidly flowing water carried them out to sea. A few were killed by overzealous sewer inspectors using .22 rifles and pistols in what must have been one of the strangest sub-terrain hunts ever. According to Daley's book, all the gators were dead in a few months.

It seems this account from Daley's book might well be the source of the 60's urban legend. Is the story true, though? Much of Daley's book comes from stories told by Teddy May. May, a colorful character with an active imagination, had a reputation for embellishing stories. This leads some skeptics to believe that the gator story in The World Beneath the City might be complete fiction.


A Partial Bibliography

The World Beneath the City by Robert Daley, 1959.

Unexplained! by Jerome Clark, Visible Ink, Inc. 1999.

ALLIGATOR FOUND IN UPTOWN SEWER, New York Times, February 10, 1935.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2002. All Rights Reserved.

 

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