Urban Legend Series: The Albino Alligator
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Their descendants thrive down there to this day, completely hidden (apart from the rare heart-stopping encounter between sewer gator and sewer worker, that is) from human eyes.  Believe it or not there is a grain of truth behind this legend, namely the documented capture of an eight-foot alligator at the bottom of an East Harlem manhole in 1935 (though no one at the time assumed it actually lived down there).


It was theorized at the time that the creature must have tumbled off a steamer visiting the northeast "from the mysterious Everglades, or thereabouts," and swam up the Harlem River. It met an unfortunate end at the hands of the teenage boys who found it.  The earliest published reference to alligators in the sewer — in what Jan Harold Brunvand refers to as the "standardized" form of the urban legend ("baby alligator pets, flushed, thrived in sewers") — can be found in the 1959 book, The World Beneath the City, a history of public utilities in New York City written by Robert Daley. Daley's source was a retired sewer official named Teddy May, who claimed that during his tenure in the 1930s he personally investigated workers' reports of subterranean saurian and saw a colony of them with his own eyes. He also claimed to have supervised their eradication. May was a colorful storyteller, if not a particularly reliable one.

The tale of the "Albino Alligator" was well known throughout the United States by the late 1960s, when, according to folklorist Richard M. Dorson, it came to be associated with another icon of sewer lore, the mythical "New York White" — an especially potent, albino strain of marijuana growing wild from seeds spilled out of baggies hastily flushed down toilets during drug raids. Not that anyone had ever actually seen the stuff, much less smoked it. It was impossible to harvest, you see, because of all the alligators down there. The reason we speak of all this as folklore, not fact, is that herpetologists dismissed the very idea of alligators thriving in the New York City sewer system. It's cold down there most of the time, they point out — freezing cold during the winter — and alligators require a warm environment year-round to survive, much less reproduce and burgeon into colonies. And if the cold didn't kill them off, the polluted sewer water certainly would. Adding fire to the legend is the intriguing fact that wayward alligators — escaped or abandoned pets, we assume — have occasionally turned up in the streets of New York City, and never fail to cause a disturbance. 



Alligator Sightings in NYC

• June 2001 - A small alligator (actually a caiman) was spotted and eventually captured in Central Park.

• November 2006 - A two-foot-long caiman is captured outside an apartment building in Brooklyn.

• August 2010 - A two-foot-long alligator was captured in Queens after being spotted hiding under a parked car.


    Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand said: "The theme of displaced creatures is an old one, and modern folklore has spawned many rumors of an animal — usually a fearsome one — lurking where it does not belong." Herpetologist Frank Indiviglio explains:  "I would bring leftovers from lunch, a long line and a hook, and spend a part of each day in the sewers looking for alligators. I saw rats, cockroaches — probably caught a lot of sicknesses — but I never saw anything like an alligator." Esteban Rodriguez, a NYC sewer worker said:  "It's like the Loch Ness Monster or the Big Foot. People believe in those stories up to a point that it does make sense."