Mutant alligators slithering through the New York sewers are one of the colorful legends of the city. What got the legend started? And why does one version of it contain pot?
Maybe people considered an alligator an apt manifestation of the predatory city. Maybe they thought it was a dirty, reptilian counterpoint to polished New York. Maybe we like the idea of something that can eat us more than we like the idea of billions of roaches.
People have found alligators in and around the state and city of New York for decades. For the most part they're small alligators. People, being irresponsible jerks, acquire baby alligators as pets and dump them into reservoirs — or just put them out on the street. Nearly all the animals found in the past few decades were only about two-feet-long, and weren't any danger to humans. Then two major outbreaks of cryptid alligator fever broke out, one in the 1930s and one in the 1960s.
In the 1930s, people in New York state were primed to look for stray alligators. In 1932, Westchester County police began a well-publicized alligator hunt after some kids brought in a dead crocodile and reports of seeing plenty more of them swimming around in local rivers. The body they brought in was a crocodile, but it had escaped from a local man's back yard. The wild crocodiles choking the rivers were, it turned out, snakes and lizards mixed with the imagination of children. In 1933, another hunt was on for a group of alligators that escaped from a lagoon park in Newark. They were never found, and likely didn't make it through the winter.
Then in 1935, people got a real scare. A paper reported that group of teenagers in New York City found a six-foot alligator trying to struggle up out of the sewer. This was something more than a couple of small pets, and the article writer knew it. The account is punctuated with sentences like, "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 trying to break through." The boys punctured the story's aura of menace when they decided to help the alligator up, looping some rope around it. When the rescued alligator snapped at them, they promptly killed it with their shovels. But the tale regains some breathlessness when it recounts the general theory, that the alligator had gotten on a ship in the "mysterious everglades" and had struggled off the ship and up the sewer line when it got to New York. It's worth noting that, despite that being the largest alligator yet found, no one yet went hunting for alligators in New York City. No one really thought about alligators in the sewers, at the time.
The idea that New York City was crawling with gators came in the 1960s, just after Robert Daley's The World Beneath the City came out. In the book, Daley recounts a story from Teddy May, the New York superintendent of sewers. Daley claims that some workers, years before, came to him and reported seeing alligators in the sewers. He didn't believe them, and instead ordered an investigation into alcohol consumption on the job. After the investigation turned up nothing, he went to see himself. And found alligators. He ordered a massive gator hunt, and exterminated the alligators with poison, and by flushing the pipes into the sea. Not to cast too much doubt on it, but he didn't mention any of this until 1959. And that the "reports" came to him in 1935, just after headlines appeared about the boys that found and killed the big alligator.
Another book, by Richard Dorson, adds another twist to the legend. Not only did alligators grow to impressive proportions in the sewers, but pot did as well. The alligators were one of the dangers faced, Dorson claimed, by drug runners who went in search of the marijuana plants that sprang up in the sewers as a result of frightened pot heads flushing their seeds down the toilet as the police were banging on the front door.
How much is true? Probably none of it. Few animals could live in such conditions, and alligators prefer the tropics for a reason. Between the disease, the lack of food, and the temperatures, no alligators could survive in the sewer systems for more than a few days in the winter or a few months in the summer. But if there are alligators down there, one thing is for sure — they're stoned.
Top Image: James from Boulder, USA. Second Image: Malene Thyssen.