Origins: It's long been rumored there are thriving colonies of alligators lurking in New York City's sewer system. Supposedly, baby alligators brought back as pets from Florida end up being dumped into the sewer system when they outgrow their young and innocent stage. From such an inglorious beginning, these discarded gators grow to immense size and daily terrorize all those foolish enough to risk a visit to the bowels of the city.
We've all heard it. And it ain't true.
It's amazing who believes in those invisible alligators too. As the Director of the
You know, if you stopped right there, you might walk away from all this convinced there are alligators down there. But it's amazing what a little digging will uncover (or, in this case, not uncover).
Figuring any "alligators in our sewers!" story would be considered newsworthy by the
- September 4, 1927:
- A "good-sized Florida alligator" found in a storm-swollen stream in Middletown, NY. "It was later discovered that the alligator had escaped several months ago from a pan on the premises of
- July 3, 1929:
- 2-foot alligator found in the grass at someone's home in Port Jervis, NY.
- May 22, 1931:
- Another 2-foot gator found in the bushes on someone's estate in Pleasantville (Westchester), NY.
- June 30, 1932:
- Police organize alligator hunt in Westchester County after two boys bring in
3-footdead alligator and claim the Bronx River is swarming with them. (See the end of this article for excerpts from this story — too funny to miss.)
- July 2, 1932:
- The alligator hunt was called off after it was decided the boys had seen snakes or lizards in the river, not gators. The dead "gator" they'd brought in was identified as a pet crocodile which had escaped from a neighbor's backyard a few weeks prior to all the excitement.
- September 12, 1933:
- "A squadron of riflemen was organized here [Belleville, NJ] today to hunt for alligators in the Passaic River.
. . . Bellevillepolice said it is probable the alligators were some of the six reptiles which disappeared last year from a lagoon in Military Park, Newark."
- February 10, 1935:
- Boys shoveling snow into a manhole discovered a
6-footgator trying to make his escape from the sewer. The boys lassoed the sickly saurian with a clothesline and dragged him up to street level. Because the gator snapped at the kids (and thus convinced them he could indeed be dangerous), they attacked him with shovels and killed him. Speculation was the gator had fallen off a passing steamer, swum to shore and found the entrance to the sewer.
- March 8, 1935:
- A seal and two alligators turn up in Westchester County. "A
3-footgator was found in Northern Yonkers by Joseph Domomico yesterday morning. Another twice that size was found, dead, on the east side of Grassy Sprain reservoir."
- June 1, 1937:
- A barge captain captures a
4-footalligator in the East River. The gator "was clearly exhausted and seemed in no humor to fight."
- June 7, 1937:
- "Passengers waiting on the eastbound platform of the Brooklyn Museum station of the I.R.T. subway just before midnight were startled by the sudden appearance of a
2-footalligator which had emerged from a refuse can." As to how the beastie might have gotten in there, "Passengers on the station told the police that shortly before the alligator appeared a man put a large bundle in the refuse can."
- August 16, 1938:
- Five alligators caught in Huguenot Lake (Westchester, NY), the largest of which was
- August 17, 1942:
- A 4-foot alligator (thought to have escaped from an outdoor aquarium in a local home) was found in Lake Mindowaskin (Westfield, NJ).
- August 12, 1982:
- A 26-inch alligator was found swimming in Kensico Reservoir, (in Westchester, NY) part of the
New York Citywater supply system.
Nature writer Diane Ackerman has this to say about alligators' longevity under those conditions:
This massive alligator hunt wasn't reported in the popular press, yet as we've seen, The New York Times will publish just about anything that has to do with alligators in or around
Daley spoke to May in 1959 (when May was
The details are a bit too fuzzy and there's a decided lack of outside confirmation. May's story is best regarded as a fanciful tale. As for how seriously to take May, according to a 1992 magazine article,
Each year at least half a dozen people ask
Even though it's next to impossible to prove something didn't happen, I would still suggest from the lack of credible sightings it's safe to assume there are no alligators down there.
The tall tale about thriving colonies of alligators lurking in
This story, apocryphal as it seems, has nevertheless its believers, and it is ingeniously argued, that the reason why none of the subterranean animals have been able to make their way to the light of day is, that they could only do so by reaching the mouth of the sewer at the river-side, while, in order to arrive at that point, they must necessarily encounter the Fleet ditch, which runs towards the river with great rapidity, and as it is the obstinate nature of a pig to swim against the stream, the wild hogs of the sewers invariably work their way back to their original quarters, and are thus never to be seen.
What seems strange in the matter is, that the inhabitants of Hampstead never have been known to see any of these animals pass beneath the gratings, nor to have been disturbed by their gruntings. The reader of course can believe as much of the story as he pleases, and it is right to inform him that the sewerhunters themselves have never yet encountered any of the fabulous monsters of the Hampstead sewers.
The start of the explorers
The proper method of catching an alligator alive was the subject of a conference this afternoon between the police chief and his men.
A hurried visitor to Police Headquarters told the police chief that a piece of liver would make an alligator literally walk across the water to shore and that it could be captured alive easily with the type of net generally used by butterfly chasers.
The police chief put in a requisition for enough liver to feed a good-sized alligator, and one of his men promised to lend the explorers a fishing net for the expedition.
Last updated: 12 July 2009
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Also told in:
The Big Book of Urban Legends. New York: Paradox Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56389-165-4 (p. 57).