of Alligators in the Sewers of New York
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
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:
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
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.
World Beneath the City by Robert Daley, 1959.
by Jerome Clark, Visible Ink, Inc. 1999.
ALLIGATOR FOUND IN UPTOWN
York Times, February 10, 1935.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2002. All Rights Reserved.