The sewers of New York
are swarming with alligators. They have
been spotted everywhere including in
people's back yards, the Bronx River,
and even coming up through people's
On August 12, 1982 a 26-inch alligator
was found swimming in Kenisco Reservoir
in Westchester New York (part of the
water supply for the city). There have
been problems with gators long before
'82. On February 10, 1935 some boys
who were shoveling snow into a manhole
discovered a 6-foot alligator trying
to get out of the sewer. He was not
a healthy gator and at first the boys
tried to help the poor guy out, but
when he started snapping at them, they
got scared. They beat the gator with
their shovels and killed him.
Last but not least, there
are the numerous horror stories about
people in New York City apartments going
to use the bathroom and finding a gator
trying to make it's way into their house
from their toilet bowls.
The reason gators are
swimming free in the sewer? Carnivals
in Florida sold baby gators, especially
to city children from New York. And
when the novelty wore off, kidz just
flushed them down the toilet where the
gators have lived ever since.
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I'm sure we've all heard
different versions of last weeks Believe
It or Not called Nasty Boil. None of
them are true,including last weeks,
but it's still fun to tell them.
Sewer alligator stories
are part of an urban legend that date
back to the late 1920s and early 1930s.
They are based upon reports of alligator
sightings in rather unorthodox locations,
in particular New York City.
The urban legend may have originated
in the Byzantine Empire. Crocodiles
were thought to have dwelled in the
city sewers of Constantinople.[citation
It was not until February of 1935 that
a large alligator was reported in a
New York City sewer. According to the
story, printed in the New York Times,
several teenage boys were disposing
of snow into a manhole when they spotted
an alligator, allegedly 7 feet (~2.1
m) long, that had gotten stuck in icy
water. The male youths then dragged
the trapped reptile to the surface.
After the alligator snapped at one of
them, the teenagers beat it to death
with their snow shovels. The report
suggested that the alligator had escaped
from a ship traveling from the Everglades
and had then swum into the Harlem River
and then 150 yards (~137 m) up a storm
conduit to where it was found.
That same year reports were given to
the city's Superintendent of Sewers,
Teddy May, that swarms of alligators
were thriving beneath the city. May,
convinced that the men filing the reports
were drinking on the job, took the suggested
sightings lightly. It was not until
he found that there was no real drinking
of alcoholic beverages taking place
in the sewer that he followed up the
claims. To his shock, he witnessed a
large number of alligators, most only
about 2 feet (61 cm), to be living within
pipes that emptied into the trunk lines
below major streets.
All the reptiles were apparently exterminated
within a few months, killed mostly using
rat poison, flushing them out to sea
through trunk lines or even shooting
Following the reports of sewer alligators
in the 1930s, the story has built up
over the decades and become more of
an urban legend. Many have even questioned
the extent of truth in the original
stories, some even suggesting it to
be fiction and that Teddy May's creative
mind may have contributed to the tales.
However, the story of the 'Sewer Gator'
in New York City is well known and various
versions have been told.
Florida to New York
The original story was that wealthy
families would return from vacation
from Florida to New York City, bringing
alligators with them, as pet presents
to their children. The time frame of
this tradition is rather gray, but it
has been suggested it originated in
the late 1930s. When the alligators
grew too large for comfort, the family
would proceed to flush the reptiles
down the toilet.
What happens next varies.
The most common story is that the alligators
survive and reside within the sewer
and reproduce, surviving by feeding
on rats and rubbish, growing to huge
sizes and striking fear into sewer workers.
In Robert Daley's book, 'The World Beneath
the City'(1959), he comments that one
night a sewer worker in New York City
was shocked to find a large alligator
swimming toward him. Weeks of hunting
The Journal of American
Folklore has this to say on the subject
of May, 'The World Beneath the City'
and Alligators in the Sewers:
In 1959 a book entitled
The World Beneath the City was published
by Lippincott. Written by Robert Daley,
it is a history of the problems involved
in the development of the network of
utilities underneath Manhattan Island.
And in the midst of the stories of engineering
problems and political deals is a chapter
entitled "Alligators in the Sewers"
(see pp. 187-189). It is based on the
author's interviews with Teddy May,
who had been Commissioner of Sewers
in New York for some thirty years.
According to May, sewer
inspectors first reported seeing alligators
in 1935, but neither May nor anyone
else believed them. "Instead, he
set men to watch the sewer walkers to
find out how they were obtaining whisky
down in the pipes." Persistent
reports, however, perhaps including
the newspaper item discovered by Coleman,
caused May to go down to find out for
himself. He found that the reports were
true. "The beam of his own flashlight
had spotted alligators whose length,
on the average, was about two feet."
May started an extermination
campaign, using poisoned bait followed
by flooding of the side tunnels to flush
the beasts out into the major arteries
where hunters with .22 rifles were waiting.
He announced in 1937 that the 'gators
were gone. Reported sightings in 1948
and 1966 were not confirmed.
However, there is no mention
of "blind, albino" alligators,
and May suggests that the baby alligators
were dumped down storm drains rather
than "flushed down the toilet."
Versions including albino mutants
Some versions go further to suggest
that, after the alligator was disposed
of at such a young age, it would live
the majority of its life in an environment
not exposed to sunlight, and thus it
would apparently in time lose its eyesight
and the pigment in its hide and that
the reptile would grow to be completely
albino, pure white in color with red
eyes. Another reason why an albino alligator
would retreat to an underground sewer
is because of its vulnerability to the
sun in the wild, as there is no dark
pigment in the creature's skin, it has
no protection from the sun, which makes
it very hard for it to survive in the
The albino alligator,
which does in fact exist, has rarely
ever been sighted in the wild. The albino
alligator got caught up in the urban
legend, predominantly because of its
scarceness within the wild, because
of its color, the bright white and pinkish
skin makes it vulnerable to predators
as an infant as well as an obvious sight
for any source of food it may attempt
to collect. The urban legend developed
into believing that since these alligators
could not survive in the wild because
of their color they retreated to the
sewers where their unusual skin would
not disadvantage them.
The albino story is what
gives the urban legend its character,
as many see the story as one of 'mutant
alligators beneath New York City.' There
have never been any official sightings
of this kind of alligator in New York