Posted by: Loren Coleman on November 26th, 2006
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.