Friday, October 2, 2015

41: Gators in the Sewers!

One of the best-known American urban legends—the sewergator or “alligator in the sewer”—differs from most other folktales in that it is associated with one place in particular: New York City. This misplaced creature has left its tracks all over modern literature: Psychology Today contributor Jack Horn referred to “blind white alligators that live in New York sewers” as common knowledge. And perhaps this is true, as Thomas Pynchon famously (and succinctly!) perpetuated the urban legend in his novel V:
Last year, or maybe the year before, kids all over Nueva York bought these little alligators for pets. Macy’s was selling them for fifty cents; every child, it seemed, had to have one. But soon the children grew bored with them. Some set them loose in the streets, but most flushed them down the toilets. And these had grown and reproduced, had fed off rats and sewage, so that now they moved big, blind, albino, all over the sewer system. [Thomas Pynchon, V (New York: Bantam, 1964), 33.]
In an effort to trace the origins of this contemporary myth, Coleman compiled a list of over seventy purported alligator encounters between 1834 and 1973. Of these, only one was credible…and actually took place in New York City. On February 10, 1935, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer.”   According to this story, three teens, shoveling the last of the winter snow down a manhole, spotted and rescued a lethargic 125-pound, eight-foot alligator from the sewer, then proceeded to beat it to death with their shovels when it snapped at them.

The sculpture Life Underground by Tom Otterness, commemorating the NYC alligator urban legend, can be seen at the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue subday station. Image source: Wikipedia.
As Fergus noted, the story grew from here like the legendary pet baby alligators when Robert Daley published The World Beneath the City (Lippincott, 1959). This book devotes three short pages to an interview with Teddy May, a yarn-spinner who misrepresented himself as a New York City Sewer Commissioner from the 1930s and bullshitted his way through tall tales about how led squads of hunters into the sewers to exterminate the alligator infestation there. [Images of Aliens come to mind, for some reason.] For more, see here.

"We're here to exterminate the alligators from your sewers."
The Robert Daley account reminds me of James Cameron's Aliens (1986), cast photo © 20th Century Fox.
Ingemark, however, proposes a far earlier origin for this legend than 1935, pointing out that De natura animalum by Aelian (c. 175–c. 235 CE) recounts the tale of a giant octopus which came into an ancient city’s sewers and had to be exterminated.

Although the legend is pretty much synonymous with New York City—so much so that February 9 is “Alligators in the Sewers” day—reports of unusual creatures in urban waterways do turn up elsewhere. See, for instance, Arnold’s article on “a goose-eating monster [that] lurks in the waters of London’s Olympic Park.”

Despite the 1935 Times article, herpetologists Sherman and Minton dismissed the subsequent rumors as “One of the sillier folktales of the 1960s.” [A. Sherman and Madge Rutherford Minton, Giant Reptiles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 34.]

Want to know more? Here's a documentary on YouTube:

For Further Reading

Neil Arnold, “Terror in the Thames,” Fortean Times, August 2012, 290: 32–7.

Loren Coleman, “Alligators-in-the-Sewers: A Journalistic Origin,” Journal of American Folklore 1979, 92(365): 335–8.

George Fergus, “More on Alligators in the Sewers,” Journal of American Folklore 1980, 93(368): 182.

Jack Horn, “White Alligators and Republican Cousins: The Stuff of Urban Folklore,” Psychology Today, November 1975, 126, 130.

Camilla Asplund Ingemark, “The Octopus in the Sewers: An Ancient Legend Analogue,” Journal of Folklore Research 2008, 45(2): 145–70.

Barbara Mikkelson, “Gatored Community,”

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