Nearly a century ago on a cold February day in 1935, a group of teenage boys shoveled snow from the East Harlem streets and dumped the icy piles into an open manhole. After a bit of shoveling, they noticed something sticking out of the sewer: An alligator.
The alligator died (or was killed, actually), but the urban legend of alligators in NYC's sewers was born. This lore will be the subject at the upcoming event "The Gators of Gotham: The History of Alligators in (and Under) New York City" hosted by Michael Miscione, the former Manhattan borough historian.
“I’ve described this as New York City’s greatest true-ish urban legend,” Miscione tells us over a phone interview this week. “It is an urban legend because there aren't any alligators in the sewers, but there was at least one alligator in the sewer."
The tale (er, should we say tail) of the 1935 alligator sighting was a dramatic one. Three newspapers covered it, including The New York Times which recounted the story like this: "What he saw, in the thickening dusk, almost caused him to topple into the icy cavern. For the jagged surface of the ice blockade below was moving; and something black was breaking through. Salvatore's eyes widened; then he managed to leap to his feet and call his friends. 'Honest, it's an alligator!' he exploded."
He managed to leap to his feet and call his friends. 'Honest, it's an alligator!' he exploded.
Also in the 1930s, New Yorkers spotted alligators in the East River and the subway. One woman in Queens even kept an alligator called Oscar in her bathtub—that is, until Oscar got too big and she had to call an animal rescue for help.
But these weren’t the first alligators spotted in New York City, Miscione said. The first sighting dates back to 1815 when a person who was bird hunting in present-day Brooklyn saw a 3-foot alligator creeping toward him. He took his gun and killed the creature, which was then put on display at Scudder’s American Museum, a privately run taxidermy/natural history museum that was located in Lower Manhattan. Another much larger gator was also on display at the museum. This one was said to be a female alligator measuring 10 feet, and she was on display with her 11 young gators; all were found in the city at some point.
More recently, stories about gators being found around NYC tend to pop up every once in a while. Earlier this month, a 4-foot alligator was found in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The reptile, who earned the name Godzilla, was lethargic and cold-shocked; animal care workers took Godzilla to the Bronx Zoo for treatment.
Alligators, of course, are not native to this area. So why do they keep showing up in NYC?
They're being introduced artificially, Miscione explains. For the earliest sightings, Miscione suggested that the gators may have gotten here on ships. Perhaps they were sailors’ pets who got loose or accidental stowaways on the boats. As time wore on, a trend for keeping exotic animals emerged in the mid-1800s.
“In the middle 1800s, you start to see a new phenomenon … wealthy people who are going on vacations, expeditions around the world, and they’re bringing back exotic animals as pets either for their children or themselves and eventually growing tired of them and discarding them,” Miscione says.
The evidence? Believe it or not: Central Park. Yes, the Central Park Zoo, Miscione says, has its roots as a dumping ground for rich people’s unwanted animals. The original design for the park didn’t include a zoo (then called a menagerie). But while the park was being built, people kept approaching leaders about donating animals.
“This was the basis for what eventually was called the menagerie, which is of course today called the Central Park Zoo,” he says. “Wealthy people are discarding their pets and the convenient way to do it is to give it to the park.” (Here’s more about the fascinating history of the Central Park Zoo, by the way).
It is an urban legend because there aren't any alligators in the sewers, but there was at least one alligator in the sewer.
Soon, even the average American could get an alligator. In the 1930s, ads for mail-order alligators filled boys' magazines offering the chance to order an alligator for just $1.50. Given the alligator proliferation in this era, it's no wonder there were so many sightings in the 1930s.
'Alligator in the Sewer Day' and the Gators of Gotham
Miscione has long been interested in the legends of alligators in the sewers of New York City. He's even created a holiday called "Alligator in the Sewer Day." It's celebrated on February 9 each year, the anniversary of the dramatic 1935 snowy sighting.
The legend of alligators in the sewers has grown over the years with countless cartoons, a children’s book and even a character in a novel who works as an alligator hunter in the sewer.
At his upcoming event, "The Gators of Gotham: The History of Alligators in (and Under) New York City," Miscione will recount the history of gator sightings in New York City and take a deep dive into the alligators-in-the-sewer legend. Hear his talk on March 15 at Cre8ive NYC Event Space in Chelsea. Tickets, available here, cost $20.