It was once a fad among New Yorkers vacationing in Florida to bring back baby alligators for their children to raise as pets. These infant gators eventually grew up and outlived their cuteness, sad to say, at which point their desperate owners flushed them down the toilet to get rid of them.
Some of these hastily disposed-of critters managed to survive and breed in the dank Manhattan sewer system, so the story goes, producing colonies of giant, albino alligators beneath the streets of New York City. Their descendants thrive down there to this day, completely hidden (apart from the rare heart-stopping encounter between sewer gator and sewer worker, that is) from human eyes.
Analysis: Oddly enough, there is a grain of truth behind this legend, namely the documented capture of an eight-foot alligator at the bottom of an East Harlem manhole in 1935 (though no one at the time assumed it actually lived down there). It was theorized at the time that the creature must have tumbled off a steamer visiting the northeast "from the mysterious Everglades, or thereabouts," and swam up the Harlem River. It met an unfortunate end at the hands of the teenage boys who found it.
Birth of an urban legend
The earliest published reference to alligators in the sewer — in what Jan Harold Brunvand refers to as the "standardized" form of the urban legend ("baby alligator pets, flushed, thrived in sewers") — can be found in the 1959 book, The World Beneath the City, a history of public utilities in New York City written by Robert Daley. Daley's source was a retired sewer official named Teddy May, who claimed that during his tenure in the 1930s he personally investigated workers' reports of subterranean saurians and saw a colony of them with his own eyes. He also claimed to have supervised their eradication. May was a colorful storyteller, if not a particularly reliable one.
'New York White'
The tale was well known throughout the United States by the late 1960s, when, according to folklorist Richard M. Dorson, it came to be associated with another icon of sewer lore, the mythical "New York White" — an especially potent, albino strain of marijuana growing wild from seeds spilled out of baggies hastily flushed down toilets during drug raids. Not that anyone had ever actually seen the stuff, much less smoked it. It was impossible to harvest, you see, because of all the alligators down there.
The reason we speak of all this as folklore, not fact, is that herpetologists pooh-pooh the very idea of alligators thriving in the New York City sewer system. It's cold down there most of the time, they point out — freezing cold during the winter — and alligators require a warm environment year-round to survive, much less reproduce and burgeon into colonies. And if the cold didn't kill them off, the polluted sewer water certainly would.
Actual New York City gator sightings:
Adding fodder to the legend is the intriguing fact that wayward alligators — escaped or abandoned pets, we assume — do occasionally turn up in the streets of New York City, and never fail to cause a ruckus. For example:
• June 2001 - A small alligator (actually a caiman, as it turned out) was spotted and eventually captured in Central Park.
• November 2006 - A two-foot-long caiman is captured outside an apartment building in Brooklyn. Police say it "snapped and hissed" at them.
• August 2010 - A two-foot-long alligator was captured in Queens after eyewitnesses spotted it hiding under a parked car.
The experts speak:
"The theme of displaced creatures is an old one, and modern folklore has spawned many rumors of an animal — usually a fearsome one — lurking where it does not belong." — Jan Harold Brunvand, folklorist
"I would bring leftovers from lunch, a long line and a hook, and spend a part of each day in the sewers looking for alligators. I saw rats, cockroaches — probably caught a lot of sicknesses — but I never saw anything like an alligator." — Frank Indiviglio, herpetologist
"It’s like the Loch Ness Monster or the Big Foot. People believe in those stories up to a point that it does make sense." — Esteban Rodriguez, NYC sewer worker
"What could better serve as a metaphor for the city as a jungle than the belief that the New York sewer system is filled with albino alligators, which swim through toilet pipes and bite victims in public washrooms?" — Gary Alan Fine, folklorist
Read more about this urban legend:
Are There Alligators Living in the Sewers of New York?
The Straight Dope's Cecil Adams doesn't think so.
Sewer Gators: Fact & Fiction
An interview with herpetologist Frank Indiviglio, who says alligators couldn't survive in the New York sewer system.
Commentary by Barbara Mikkelson for the Urban Legends Reference Pages.
Tales From the Urban Crypt
New York Daily News: Lengthy feature covering some of the most urban of urban legends, including sewer 'gators.
Brunvand, Jan H. Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999, pp. 182-185.
Brunvand, Jan H. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981, pp. 90-98.
Coleman, Loren. "Alligators-in-the-Sewers: A Journalistic Origin." Journal of American Folklore 92 (1979): 335-338.
Daley, Robert. The World Beneath the City. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1959, pp. 187-189.
Dorson, Richard M. America in Legend. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973, pp. 291-292.