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New York City's Top Ten Urban Legends

Written by
Mandy Stadtmiller
Every week in Time Out New York, we give you a fun little New-York-based lie to tell unsuspecting tourists (you're welcome), but there are some tall tales we can't take credit for. Here are ten of our favorites.
1. Eight million rats
Heard there are as many rats as humans in the city? False! Normally, animal populations are calculated with the “capture-recapture” technique, where marked critters are released and estimates are based on the percentage recaptured. The Department of Health quashed this plan (because ew), and instead a statistician used 311 calls reporting rodent sightings to calculate 2014’s tally: There are only about 2 million, which means we will totally win the inevitable rats-versus-humans war. 
2. Cropsey
Cropsey is a maniac who snatches kids on Staten Island and kills them with his hook hands/ice pick/ax (obviously). Though he is not real (omigod, we hope!), some IRL horror did happen when several area children disappeared. Andre Rand, an employee at the Willowbrook State School, an institution for children with disabilities, was convicted of two kidnappings, while the rest remain unsolved. Creepy.
3. Sewer alligators
Like all the best yarns, a shred of truth created this pervasive legend. Wealthy city dwellers once brought back alligators from Florida to domesticate, and as the story goes, owners who tired of their “pets” would flush them down the toilet. In 1932, The New York Times reported a gator sighting on the banks of the Bronx River, and in 1935, teenagers were said to have seen one crawl out of a sewer. Still sounds less scary than our recent spate of exploding manholes.
4. The Babe’s slimming stripes
If anyone could’ve persuaded the Bronx Bombers to change their uniform just to make himself look good, it’s the almighty Babe—except the time line doesn’t hold up. The Yanks first donned pinstripes in 1912, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth joined the team in 1920. So the ensemble may have made the legend look more svelte, but that’s just another example of the baseball champ’s lucky streak.
5. Ice-skating apparitions
Of all of New York’s spectral tales, the story of the Van der Voort sisters, who died as spinsters within months of each other in 1880, is perhaps the spookiest. Today people claim to spot the sibs gleefully skating in red and purple dresses on Central Park’s Wollman Rink (which wasn’t constructed until the 1940s), except witnesses say their feet never touch the ice as they happily weave around other skaters.
6. Liberty Island’s buried treasure
Hanged in 1701 for piracy, Captain William Kidd is rumored to have stashed loot on Liberty Island. Before you start digging, consider that people have been searching for it for centuries, to no avail. In fact, the booty is supposedly guarded by freaky apparitions. The most famous account has a group of soldiers striking out to find the riches but hitting something hard (a skull), then being chased away by ghosts.
7. Killer pennies
If you’re looking for the reality seeded in the myth of the deadly Empire State Building tale, it’s this: People could be killed from falling objects in NYC— just not pennies. A penny weighs only a gram and tumbles as it drops. Even without air resistance and even falling from 1,250 feet, it still wouldn’t kill you (though we doubt it would tickle). So cross that one off your list of NYC-related anxieties!
8. Mole-people mecca
With rent as expensive as it is, why wouldn’t there be people living underground? The 1993 book Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City contends there’s even an organized society with appointed positions­, but there’s little in the way of proof. We know, we know: Law & Order: SVU did a whole thing on mole people, as did Felicity, so it must be true. It’s okay, we wanted to believe in the mole people too.
9. Hudson River ghost ship
Back when New York was just a small village, reports surfaced of a spooky ship floating on the river. Seen at dusk on foggy days, many say it was the spirit of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon, which ran aground in 1609 due to the crew’s carelessness (then kept right on sailing). Supposedly the craft serves as a warning: Don’t go out on the water that day. You don’t have to tell us twice.
10. Bermuda car triangle
We’ve heard of that deadly patch in the Atlantic where ships disappear, but years ago in Manhattan, motorists reported a similar phenomenon in an equally nerve-racking spot: midtown. In 2008, drivers stated that within a five-block radius of the Empire State Building, their cars would break down. When tow trucks moved them a few blocks away from the skyscraper, they allegedly came back to life on their own. Just as inexplicably as these reports began, they stopped, leaving only rush-hour traffic to terrify drivers.

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