Dear Cecil: Three desperate B-school students and I need to know: are there really alligators living in the sewers of New York? If so, why? If not, how did this vicious rumor get started? Baby Needs New Shoes, Chicago
New York is home to a lot of reptiles, babe, but nowadays most of them hang out on 42nd Street. At one time, however, things were different. On February 10, 1935, the New York Times carried an astonishing report that several teenagers had dragged a live eight-foot alligator out of a sewer in Harlem the previous evening. The kids supposedly found the gator while shoveling the remains of a recent snowfall into a manhole —a project that strikes me as suspiciously civic-minded, given the reputation of Big Apple youth, but never mind. The boys first saw the alligator thrashing in the sewer ten feet below street level, and decided to drag it up with a clothesline. Once on dry land, however, the frightened animal began snapping about with its mighty jaws. The teenagers promptly beat it to death with shovels, foreshadowing the fate of numerous visitors to Harlem in the years to come.
It’s questionable whether the alligator could actually be said to have “lived” in the Enwye sewers. The locals at the time speculated that the animal had fallen from a boat passing through the nearby Harlem River and had swum 150 yards up a storm conduit.
But at least one expert claims (or claimed, at least) that alligators really did thrive in the pipes during the 1930s. According to The World Beneath the City (1959), a book by Robert Daley about New York’s underground utilities, a former sewer superintendent named Teddy May said he had seen alligators with his own eyes during an inspection tour around 1935. May had heard repeated reports of subterranean gators from sewer workers, and was startled to find that his men weren’t kidding. The animals averaged about two feet in length, and apparently hung out in some of the smaller branch pipes where the water flowed relatively slowly.
Though nobody knew for sure how the alligators got there, the most plausible theory was that they had been dumped into the sewers by parents who had originally bought them for their children and later grew tired of them. (Giving your kid a genuine baby Florida alligator apparently was quite the rage for a while.) But the pitiless May was no animal lover either, and he ordered the gators exterminated. Sewer workers used poison and a few zealots even tried rifles and pistols. In a few months they were all gone.
Alligators in the sewers have since become part of the lore of New York, and references to them turn up all over the place, including Thomas Pynchon’s novel V. The more rococo versions of the legend claim that the animals are blind and white — blind because it’s too dark to see, and white because they don’t get any sunlight. The whole business is recounted in more detail in Jan Brunvand’s The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meaning.
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