New York City has long had a fascination with alligators in the sewer. The “legend” has been referenced across popular culture from Thomas Pynchon to Sharknado 2. But there’s also a bit of historical truth to this tall tale. New York City has been — and still could be — home to an alligator or two in its vast sewer system.
On July 20, join author Thomas Hynes for a talk on alligators in New York City’s sewers, how the story grew to such mythic proportions, and how the legend has a bit of truth behind it. Hynes is the author of the book Wild City, an illustrated guide to 40 of the most well-known, surprising, notorious, mythical, and sublime non-human citizens of New York City.
At the talk, learn how the sewer alligator legend was inspired by real-life events and New York City’s unlikely relationship with the swampy predator. Hear historical accounts of New York City’s fascination with sewer alligators and some of the efforts to keep the legend alive. And get 10% off your own copy of the Wild City book with an exclusive promo code. The talk is $10 or free for Untapped New York Insiders (and get your first month of membership free with code JOINUS).
Wild City: Sewer Alligators in NYC
Although alligators may not exist in the city’s sewers, the legend of them remains a part of the New York City mythology. According to legend, wealthy families went vacationing in warmer climates and would return to New York City with baby alligators as souvenirs. Eventually, these “pets” grew too big and were flushed down the toilet. The legend concludes by noting how alligators have roamed the murky waters of the city sewers, dining on the city’s rats.
This legend actually began circulating around the same time that actual alligators began making appearances around the city. In June 1932, two boys brought a dead three-foot alligator to the Bronx River Parkway Police, confirming at least three more alligators alive at the river. A hunting expedition ultimately found no traces of alligators, though.
On February 10, 1935, The New York Times reported on a 7-foot, 125-pound alligator turning up in the sewers near 123rd Street in Harlem. Some neighborhood boys were shoveling snow into a manhole when they came across a diseased alligator. The boys attached a slip knot around the massive creature and pulled it from the sewer, but no pictures confirm the events of that crazy day.
Robert Daley’s 1959 nonfiction bookThe World Beneath the City recalls a story told to him by New York City’s superintendent of sewers, Teddy May. For years, May heard rumors of alligator congregations from his employees, yet he suspected these to be legends. However, one night on a search for these creatures, he detected “alligators serenely paddling” and a colony that “appeared to have settled contentedly under the very streets of the busiest city in the world.” “Rat poison” and “.22 rifles” were supposedly used on these alligator hunts, although there is little evidence to back up May’s claims.
As recently as August 23, 2010, witnesses in Queens reported seeing an 18-inch alligator. The mystery was resolved when it was reported that the alligator had fallen from a ship and dragged itself from the East River to residents.
Allusions to sewer alligators can be seen at the 14th Street station on the 8th Avenue line. Tom Otterness’s art installation “Life Underground” depicts a variety of scenes including an alligator reaching out from underneath a manhole cover to snatch a man for dinner.
Join author Thomas Hynes for a talk on alligators in New York City’s sewers, how the story grew to such mythic proportions, and how the legend has a bit of truth behind it. The talk is $10 or free for Untapped New York Insiders (and get your first month free with code JOINUS).
Wild City: Sewer Alligators in NYC
Next, learn about the Boogie Down Beavers of NYC’s Bronx River!