A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from December 16, 2004
Alligator in the sewers (urban myth)
It's a popular urban legend that there are alligators in the New York City sewer. I found the first such newspaper article, from 1907. The most famous example is from 1935.

Alligators don't live very well in a sewer environment. Despite these few, very scattered examples, it's a myth.

But don't spend to much time in the New York City sewers! There are rats!

If there is a grain of truth at the root of this legend, which has bedeviled New York City for the better part of a century, it's the documented capture of an eight-foot alligator down an East Harlem manhole in 1935. Since it was discovered near the river, the best theory anyone could come up with at the time was that the creature had tumbled off a steamer "from the mysterious Everglades, or thereabouts." No one assumed it was a denizen of the sewer system.

The earliest published reference to the legend in what Jan Harold Brunvand calls its "standardized" form — "baby alligator pets, flushed, thrived in sewers" — can be found in Robert Daley's 1959 book, The World Beneath the City, a history of public utilities in New York City. Daley's primary source was a retired sewer official named Teddy May, who claimed that during the 1930s he investigated workers' reports of subterranean saurians and saw a colony of them with his own eyes. He also claimed to have personally seen to their eradication. May was a colorful storyteller if not a particularly reliable one.

Richard M. Dorson writes in America in Legend, published in 1973, that during the 1960s the alligator tale became associated with another bit of sewer lore, the legendary "New York White" marijuana, rumored to be an especially potent, albino strain of the drug descended from stashes hastily flushed down toilets during drug raids. Trouble was (or so the story went), no one was able to harvest the stuff because of all the alligators lurking down where it grew.


I'm left wondering why this massive alligator hunt wasn't reported in the popular press for, as we've seen, The New York Times will publish just about anything that has to do with alligators in or around New York. As well, World Beneath The City doesn't give a date for all this taking place; all it says is Teddy May first heard gator reports in 1935. The date of his visit to the sewers or the extermination of the alligators is not provided.

Daley spoke to May in 1959 (when May was 84 years old and 20-odd years after the alligators were supposedly discovered and dispatched down there).

To my mind, the details are a bit too fuzzy and there's a decided lack of outside confirmation. May's story could easily be a fanciful tale and I, for one, am of that opinion. As for how seriously to take May, according to a 1992 magazine article, " . . . a sewer official told [folklorist Jan Harold] Brunvand that Teddy May was 'almost as much of a legend as the alligators,' a spinner of colorful yarns."

Each year at least half a dozen people ask New York City's Bureau of Sewers about those infamous gators. John T. Flaherty (Chief of Design) answers these inquiries routinely.

I could cite you many cogent, logical reasons why the sewer system is not a fit habitat for an alligator, but suffice it to say that, in the 28 years I have been in the sewer game, neither I nor any of the thousands of men who have worked to build, maintain or repair the sewer system has ever seen one.
Flaherty (whose sense of humor is of the dry yet deadly variety) added the one clear proof of the absence of alligators -- not a single union official has ever advanced alligator infestation as a reason for a pay increase for sewer workers.

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.

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.


21 July 1907, New York Times, pg. 9:

Quite a Baby, But it Nipped the Hand
of the Finder.

Charles Gidds of Duke Street, Kearny, N. J., is employed as SUperintendent in the Kearny Street Department. He was clearing out a sewer Friday, when a workman called his attention to a strange object in the water. Gidds, picked it up, but suddenly dropped it with a yell.

Workmen then examined the object, which proved to be a young alligator about eighteen inches long. It had nipped Gidds in the right hand, but inflicted little injury.

It was learned later that the alligator had escaped a week ago from Freeholder John W. Roache, and who welcomed its return with many thanks.

10 February 1935, New York Times, pg. 29:

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.

The youthful residents of East 123d Street, near the murky Harlem River, were having a rather grand time at dusk yesterday shoveling the last of the recent snow into a gaping manhole.
"Honest, it's an alligator!" he exploded.
Rescuers Then Kill It.

So the shovels that had been used to pile snow on the alligator's head were now to rain blows upon it. The 'gator's tail swished about a few last times. Its jaws clashed weakly. But it was in no mood for a real struggle after its icy incerceration. It died on the spot.
Posted by Barry Popik
Names/Phrases • Thursday, December 16, 2004 • Permalink

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