Alligators-In-The-Sewers Are Real

Posted by: Loren Coleman on November 26th, 2006

New York Sewer Alligator

In the early 1970s, I did quite a great deal of library archive research on out-of-place alligators. That resulted in the publication of various Fortean articles, such as "Showers of Alligators," (Fate, Vol. 26, September 1973) and "Erratic Crocodilians and Other Things" (INFO Journal, 12, Summer 1973).

Finally, I made a unique discovery that alligators-in-the-sewers were not all just legendary, and were not merely a figment of smoking too much weed in the 60s. I tracked down articles that noted real alligators were found and killed in New York City, specifically in that city’s sewers in the 1930s. My formal published contribution on this appeared as "Alligators-in-the-Sewers: A Journalistic Vehicle," in the Journal of American Folklore, September-October 1979. No one had before then, found, linked it to the "urban legend," and re-published anew the The New York Times, February 10, 1935, article, "ALLIGATOR FOUND IN UPTOWN SEWER: Youths Shoveling Snow Into Manhole See the Animal Churning in Icy Water."

My discovery has drifted into folklore history and books, via items such as further discussions I’ve had on the topic in "Alligators in The Sewers," in David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace’s (eds.) The Peoples Almanac #3, (NY: William Morrow, 1981) and "Alligators in the Sewers," in Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith’s (eds.) Contemporary Legend: A Reader, (NY: Garland, 1996). Folklorists, such as Jan Brunvand, have cited my work and added their own tales and historical finds.

There is a chapter devoted to the reality behind the legend of alligators-in-the-sewers, with updates since the 1970s, in Mysterious America (2007). Therein, I sketch in more of the historical record regarding the actual hunts conducted, in the 1930s, by rifle-toting city sewer workers who located and shot the gators. Not all "urban legends" are mere baseless "myths."

But in modern New York City, the media constantly tries to forget the details and gloss over the history. The Sunday, November 26th’s New York Times carries the latest tidbit in the newspaper’s continued retreat from the facts of those bygone days.

As a small part of the F.Y.I column, this appeared:

Whither Those Gators By Michael Pollak

Q. How often does the city get inquiries about alligators in the sewers? Does it have a form response? And were there any recent "sightings"?

A. This column declines to take a position on a question that, for some people, approaches the spiritual. Those who believe, believe. One cannot prove there have never been alligators living and breeding in the sewers, as opposed to gators illegally raised to large sizes in apartments and then transported to places suitable for publicity.

This newspaper did not help matters when it published an article on Feb. 10, 1935, dramatically recounting three teenagers’ finding of a seven-footer in an icy sewer beneath East 123rd Street. Other newspapers published follow-up articles, but none to offer proof that the alligators, real or not, had ever actually been in the sewers of their own accord for any length of time.

The Department of Environmental Protection receives 8 to 10 inquiries each year about alligators in the city sewers, according to Charles Sturcken, a department spokesman. "The inquiries come from all parts of the globe,” he said. There have been no recent sightings of alligators.

The department does not have a form letter on gators, Mr. Sturcken said. “But we do have T-shirts with a sexy alligator coming out of the sewer with the line ‘The legend lives.’ " The shirts are sold at the CityStore.

The tee-shirt is shown above.

Yes, "the legend lives," well, because alligators-in-the-sewers are real.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

13 Responses to “Alligators-In-The-Sewers Are Real”

  1. Ceroill responds:

    Loren! So it was you! For years I’ve occasionally wondered who managed to first dig all that up back in the late seventies! Or at least I don’t recall having seen your name attached to it. Allow me to compliment your research skills, albeit belatedly.

  2. oldbutnotstupid responds:

    I always felt this was probably based on fact, although I’ve never researched it myself. Now I know for sure. Loren’s word is good enough for me. Thanks Loren, wish I had seen your original work, but then one can’t have everything. Keep up the good work.

  3. heinselman responds:

    Let us not forget however, the earlier and lesser known accounts of gators. Some of which date back to the 1870’s.

    The Atlanta Constitution in August 1873 carried an entry regarding an Atlanta one.

    The New York Times carried a piece on New Jersey in July of 1907.

    A Michigan account from the Stevens Point Daily Journal in October 1913.

    Syracuse Herald out of New York outlined an event in Pittsburg on October 7, 1917.

    Even the later Rockford, Ill event from 1946.

    Then there are the Hurricane Babe accounts from Baton Rouge in 1977.

    When you least expect them, they rear their heads.

    But, even the pre-1930’s accounts seem to note a “recent escape” event.

    Craig Heinselman
    Peterborough, NH

  4. busterggi responds:

    Daley’s book, ‘The World Beneath the City’ from 1959 devotes most of chapter 17 to sewer gators in the ’30’s and the methods used to eradicate them.

    Worth a read if you can find it.

  5. Trent Mullen responds:

    I am confident that gators acan be found in many places. It wasnt that long ago that I ran across a picture of a gator in Florida ringing someones doorbell!! The gator was standing on his hind legs at the front door. They must of been cooking somethin that smelled good. Anyway, there would be alot more reports of gators in the sewer if more people spent their free time in the sewer. Maybe my next picnic will be in a sewer pipe somewhere…hmm

  6. pup responds:

    Well, I’ve got a family legend from the *other* end. My wife’s great grandfather, who lived in Dayton Ohio, kept alligators in an ornamental pond. Her mother actually remembers seeing the alligators. Apparently, it was something of a fad in the early 20th century, as part of beautifying Dayton, to have ornamental ponds and gardens.

    About 1920, so the story goes, one of the alligators got loose, and was never recaptured. When I hear alligator-in-the-sewer stories, I always think that’s where one might have come from.

    Tried to google, to see if the family story was totally off-the-wall, and the first hit was this which mentions an alligator pond at the Dayton VA center in the late 1800s.

    Trends like that are usually more widespread than one city, so I wonder if alligator ponds were more common in cities in the late 19th-early 20th century, thus leading to alligator escapes and abandonments up through the 1930s.

  7. mystery_man responds:

    The story about an alligator in an icy sewer is curious. Since alligators are cold blooded creatures, I would not think one would survive very long in those kinds of conditions, let alone prosper and breed. There is a reason alligators are not found in the cold areas of the world, so I find the stories about alligators living in the sewers of New York to be very odd as this would not be an acceptable habitat for their particular physiology. It seems any released gators would perish soon enough without a hunting party to go out and find them. Was there ever a theory that explains how they survived?

  8. Mnynames responds:

    Being underground would shield it somewhat from the wintery conditions above, although that would still mean an average temp of no more than 55 degrees. I’ve heard it said that the decomposition of sewage would keep their “habitat” warmer, although it seems to me that this would only really occur where solids could accumulate, not in the water itself.

    Never knew it was you, Loren, who uncovered that gem from 1935, but I’m even more glad I got the date right the last time I mentioned sewer gators here on Cryptomundo.

  9. joe levit responds:

    As to alligators actually living for some time beneath NYC or any other large city, remember that cities generate a ton of ambient heat. I don’t think it is surprising to say that alligators could live in the NY sewers through winters.

    And I quite agree with Trent Mullen above. As with many cryptids, there would be a lot more reports of them if more people spent more time where they dwell, if simply because the number of people willing to report their encounters would necessarily increase.

  10. kittenz responds:

    I would think that sewers, even in northern areas, would be comparatively warm in the winter; after all, decomposing organic matter produces heat. Crocodilians are archosaurs and their metabolism is more advanced than that of other reptiles. I can well believe that they could survive in sewers. There would be rats and maybe some kinds of scavenger fish and occasionally other animals for food, as well as small carcasses washed into the sewers during rainstorms. Given the right circumstances a crocodilian could probably survive for many years in a sewer. It might not be the healthiest or most pleasant of environments, but they could probably make it ok.

  11. Rillo777 responds:

    I found the article in a 1935 edition of my local paper in the mid-90’s while I was researching something else. I took note of it because I minored in Folklore at I.U. Glad to know now that you had already tracked it down.

    (By the way, the original “death car” was probably in Michigan, lol.)

  12. mystery_man responds:

    Good theories about the alligators dealing with the environment. Yes, they have more advanced metabolisms than other reptiles, but the story of one wallowing about in icy water does not sit well with me. It does not seem like something you would find an alligator doing. I have no idea about the living conditions in the New York sewers, that’s why I asked. But moving around in icy water?

  13. Trapster responds:

    Back in the 50’s and early 60’s it was a common promotion to get a free baby alligator with a fill up of gas at Florida gas stations. Most of these died due to mistreatment but it would seem that some could have been released into sewers in far away places, where they might be able to live, likely until winter. Water that is too cold essentially paralyzes the crocodilian and it will be become unable to swim, sink to the bottom and drown.

    Here in Florida alligators will commonly use storm drains “aka sewers” to get from pond to pond or where ever they feel like.

    Want proof? Two weeks ago I had to crawl into such a place to remove an alligator that became stuck and clogged the line.

Sorry. Comments have been closed.

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