Alligators in the Sewers: Manhattan’s Oldest Urban Legend Comes to Life

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The story of alligators stalking the sewers of major American cities is a modern urban mystery. Most people have heard the rumors about alligators in the sewers, in large part, because of Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 novel, V. Pynchon wrote of the cute little pet alligators purchased as Florida souvenirs, eventually discarded down toilets, then growing and reproducing in the sewers of New York City. Moving through the underground system, Pynchon told us, they were big, blind, albino, and fed on rats and sewage. Pynchon envisioned an Alligator Patrol going into the depths of the sewer system, working in teams of two, with one man holding a flashlight while the other car-ried a twelve-gauge repeating shotgun. As no one before him had, Thomas Pynchon wove the rumor of alligators-in-the-sewers through the fabric of his fascinating work of fiction. But where does Pynchon’s fiction end and fact begin?

The reworking of the alligators-in-the-sewer legend in the 1960s only served to further confuse its origins. Folklorist Richard M. Dorson repeated the oft-told tale that marijuana harvesters in pursuit of the elusive strain “New York White” (what did you think happened to all those seeds flushed down toilets by nervous pot heads?) were experiencing difficulties because of the alligators swimming around in the sewer system.

The last word (supposedly) comes from the realm of science. The herpetologists Sherman and Madge Rutherford Minton, in their book Giant Reptiles, informed their readers that “One of the sillier folktales of the late 1960s was that the New York sewers were becoming infested with alligators… We…would assure New Yorkers that alligators are not among their urban problems.”

But alligators and other crocodilians are one of the most frequent creatures involved in Fortean events, and, believe it or not, finding actual records of alligators-in-the-sewers is not a difficult task. Discoveries of out-of-place crocs date back more than a century and continue up until the present. Though rare, true finding of an alligator in a sewer proved to be a documented occurrence. Noted cryptozoologist and author Loren Coleman was able to discover just such an event, recorded as fact from, not surprisingly, New York City, during his research on the matter in the 1970s.

It is no wonder the reports of alligators slithering and slinking through the New York City sewer system are more than baseless rumors, for the newspapers there have a long history of sightings of the crocodilians. Surprisingly, the origins of the New York stories go back to the 1930s (not the 1960s). On June 28, 1932, “swarms” of alligators were seen in the Bronx River, and a three-footer was found dead. On March 7, 1935 a three-foot alligator was caught alive in northern Yonkers while at Grass Sprain a six-foot gator was found dead. A barge captain at Pier 9 on the East River captured an alligator four feet long on June 1, 1937. Five days later, at the Brooklyn Museum subway station, a New Yorker caught a toothy two-footer.

Probably the most exciting story of alligators in the sewers in the 1930s is the one told in the New York Times of 1935. Some teenagers living on East 123rd street encountered, and killed, a seven-and-a-half-foot-long, 125-pound gator. That sobering account gives one pause to consider the possibilities of the current urban gator population. The incident’s no-nonsense retelling in print in a highly respected newspaper must have lent much credibility to the story. The New York Times of February 10, 1935, carried this article, and is given here in its entirety:

Youths Shoveling Snow Into Manhole See The Animal Churning In Icy Water.
Reptile Slain by Rescuers When It Gets Vicious-Whence It Came is Mystery.

Salvatore Condulucci, 16 years old, of 419 East 123rd Street, was assigned to the rim. His comrades would heap blackened slush near him, and he, carefully observing the sewer’s capacity, would give the last fine flick to each mound.

Suddenly there were signs of clogging ten feet below, where the manhole drop merged with the dark conduit leading to the river. Salvatore yelled: “Hey, you guys, wait a minute,” and got down on his knees to see what was the trouble.

What he saw, in the thickening dusk, almost caused him to topple into the icy cavern. For the jagged surface of the ice blockade below was moving; and something black was breaking through. Salvatore’s eyes widened; then he managed to leap to his feet and call his friends.

“Honest, it’s an alligator!” he exploded.

When Loren Coleman’s “Alligators-in-the-Sewers: A Journalistic Vehicle,” was published in the Journal of American Folklore, September-October 1979, he rocked the urban legend world, as folklorists were unaware there was a factual basis in the tales.

But Coleman continued his search for cross-referenced reports, and found them in material on the man who would know the most about the underground waterways of the Big Apple. He found them in Robert Daley’s The World Beneath the City. The book told of Teddy May, the Superintendent of the New York City sewers during the 1930s, who began hearing reports of alligators from his inspectors. May did not believe them. He refused to approve the 1935 reports with the inspectors’ notations on alligators. Indeed, Teddy May hired extra men to watch the inspectors and tell him how they were getting their liquor down in the sewers. The word came back to the “King of the Sewers” that his men were not drinking, but the reports of narrow escapes from alligators persisted. Bound and determined to lay the claims to rest, Teddy May decided to go down and have a look for himself.

A few hours later, May returned, shaken. His own flashlight, Daley wrote, illuminated the truth behind the rumors. Teddy May had seen alligators two feet in length and longer. Avoiding the dangerously fast currents in the main sewer lines under the major avenues, the alligators had taken to the smaller pipes in the backwash of the city. The alligators had settled in, and Teddy May was now faced with the task of ridding his sewers of the ‘gators. Within months May felt he had accomplished the task. The methods he used were unorthodox, but then his prey was rather unusual as well. Rat poison was employed to get rid of some of the troublesome subterraneans, while others were corralled into the main trunk lines where they drowned or were swiftly washed out to sea. A few alligators were hunted down by sewer inspectors with 22s on their own free time. Teddy May had rid New York City of its alligators in the sewers—or so he thought.

Coleman would find that in 1938 five alligators were caught in New Rochelle, New York, and sightings of alligators-in-the-sewers in New York City were recorded in the years 1948 and 1966. Alligators in the sewers are neither rumor, folktale nor myth, but a real part of the modern urban underground netherworld. And while this discussion has focused on New York City, recent accounts seem to indicate that alligators are also prowling the sewers of other major cities.

University of Utah’s Professor of Folklore Jan Harold Brunvand first read of Loren Coleman’s alligator-in-the-sewer discoveries in the Journal of American Folklore and the 1983 edition of Mysterious America, and mentioned them in his books, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, More of the Straight Dope, and Rumor! This led to two decades of exchanges between Brunvand and Coleman, most of which have had to do with alligators in the sewers. His readers have been very interested in finding early examples of the wayward ‘gators. In 1999, Russell L. Martin III, Curator of Newspapers at the American Antiquarian Society passed along this information to Brunvand and thus to Coleman:

“In the course of our work, we recently discovered what may be the earliest example of the classic urban legend, ‘alligators in the sewers of New York.’”

Martin continued, “Filed away with our bound volume of the New York Evening Post was a single issue of a previously unknown newspaper. The title is The Planet, published in Union Village, N.Y., July 18, 1831. It is unclear whether it survived beyond vol. 1, no. 1. At any rate, in the midst of the news and anecdotes is this curious item: ‘A live Alligator, it is said, was seen on Friday in the slip between Murray’s and Pine street wharves, New York.’”

The final chapter of the alligators in the city’s sewers mystery has yet to be written. Still, we have to wonder if there just might be a few of these toothy prehistoric reptiles still skulking around down in the dark, steamy effluent of New York’s underground corridors, laying in wait for some unsuspecting meal to happen by.

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