A Timeline of the Very Real Sewer Gator Phenomena
On our latest episode of the Misfits and Mysteries Podcast we sat down with Cian, the host of the Wide Atlantic Weird Podcast to discuss Irish and Upstate New York Cryptids, particularly lake monsters. I also educated Emmy and Cian on the very real and frankly quite absurd history of New York City Sewer Gators. If you didn’t already know that they sort of actually existed and maybe still do, get ready to have your mind blown.
I usually like to use a bunch of different sources for my blogs, however this one is an exception because this past February, 2020, someone at the New York Times decided to write an extensive history of New York Times coverage of Sewer Gators. You can find that article here.
1907 New Jersey Sewer Gator Attack
1907 marked the first reported case of a sewer gator attacking someone in the New York Metropolitan area. According to the New York Times article, Charles Gidds, superintendent of the Kearny Street Department in Kearny New Jersey was bitten by a gator while cleaning out a sewer. The story goes that a workman called Gidds over to look at a strange object in the water and when Gibbs went to pick it up he suddenly dropped it and yelled because it bit him. The strange object turned out to be a young alligator that escaped from its owner John W. Roache. The gator was removed from the sewer and returned to Roache.
While this incident was less of an “attack” and more of an unfortunate nipping, it's the first reported case of a real sewer gator. While you might think that these occurrences were rare, you would be surprised how many gators, have been spotted in New York.
1932 Gators Invade New York's Fresh Water Shoreline
In 1932, there were two notable reported cases of Sewer gators in NY and NJ.
The first incident occurred when several reptiles escaped captivity in Belleville, New Jersey, a town that rests along the Passaic River. There is not much reported about this case, but based on how all of these were handled at the time there was definitely a brigade of boats hunting for them.
The second more notable report occurred on Jun 29th 1932, when two boys in Westchester found a dead three foot long gator and claimed that the Bronx River was swarming with live ones (at least two or three more). I absolutely love how the newspaper spun the story to make 2 to 3 crocodiles sound like a swarm, when I hear swarm I immediately assume there are hundreds even thousands in the river. Police Officers were dispatched from Bronxville and Tuckahoe NY armed with nets to catch the gators alive and bring them back to the Bronx Zoo. The hunt was eventually called off after the police realized that the boys found someone's dead pet gator and were exaggerating.
Although these two incidents weren’t exactly “sewer gators,” these stories show that New Yorkers were really bad about keeping track of their gators.
1934 Mail Order Gators
Starting in 1934, you could order newly hatched baby alligators in the mail for the low low price of $1.50. This was really the birth of the sewer gator because once the cute baby gators grew up and got too big for their bathtub, a lot of people would either dump them in the sewer directly or flush them down the toilet. Is it just me or were people really fucking stupid back in the 30’s. Who the heck thought it was a good idea to flush an alligator down a toilet ? Around this time it was also very popular to steal baby alligators from their mothers and bring them home as souvenirs after visiting Florida. I have no idea why the heck anyone thought it was a good idea to raise an alligator in a bathtub in Manhattan. Manhattan apartments are already cramped before you have to give up your bathtub to an alligator.
1935 The Harlem Sewer Gator
February 9th 1935, a group of teens in East Harlem spotted an alligator in a storm drain and decided to lasso the beast with a close-line and drag it out of the storm drain. The boys beat the gator to death with shovels after it snapped at them. Those teens caught the first ever real New York sewer gator, this beast was a whopping 8 feet long and weighed in at 125 pounds. It’s believed that this gator escaped from a steamer in the East River and swam up a sewer outflow pipe and ended up in Harlem. This was the first real case of a giant sewer gator in New York City and the photo went “viral” or as viral as it could go in 1935.
1937 The Brooklyn Gators
Within one week, there were two gator incidents in Brooklyn. In the first incident, a barge captain pulled a 4’8” alligator out of the East River by lassoing it and dragging it out of the water. According to the captain, the gator was exhausted and in no mood to fight him.
A week later, a 2 foot alligator crawled out of a trash can on a Brooklyn subway platform. A police officer jumped on top of the gator and managed to tie its mouth shut before it could bit him. It’s believed that the alligator outgrow its owner and the owner dumped it in a subway trash can.
1963 The Birth of the Fictional Sewer Gator
By the 1960s, the myth of the sewer gator became so popular that it had made its way into all aspects of popular media from tv, to books, to cartoons.
1975 XXX Sewer Gator Porno
Sewer gators became such a big part of popular culture that in 1975, they were even featured in the plot of a Porno film titled “Sue Prentiss, R.N.” In this film, a group of nurses are treating a team of scuba divers returning from a gator hunting expedition in the NYC sewers.
I decided it probably not a good idea to show porn on our website. If you would like to see the cover check out this blog.
1980 The Creation of the Giant Mutant Sewer Gator Myth
In 1980, the myth of giant mutant NYC sewer gators was born with the horror comedy film titled “Alligator.” Alligator tells the story of a baby gator that was flushed down a toilet in an unnamed city and becomes a giant mutant after years of eating discarded lab rats injected with growth hormones.
1982 The Truth About Sewer Gators and a Gator in the Water Supply
In 1982, the New York Times interviewed NYC Sewer Chief John T. Flaherty about sewer gators. According to the Interview, Flaherty claims to have seen rats, insects, fish, dead bodies, and even gang hideouts, but has never seen an alligator. He also dispelled the myth that sewer workers carry pistols in case they ever come across any giant albino sewer gators.
That same year, a two foot long alligator was found swimming in a Westchester reservoir that is part of the NYC water supply. As someone who grew up here and has a pretty good idea of which reservoirs go where, The gator was most likely found in Valhalla or the Rye Lake. The NYCDEP (Whose mascot was an alligator popping out of a sewer wearing sunglasses at the time) organized a boat expedition and captured the gator and gave it to the Bronx Zoo. If I’m correct about where this gator was found it's a very good thing that they removed it. The gator wouldn’t have lasted the winter, however, there are plenty of fish, dogs, and humans it could have snacked on until the lake froze over.
1997 The Beast of Kissena Lake
In 1997, a 4 foot alligator was removed from Kissena Lake in Queens. For more information check out this awesome interview.
2001 The Central Park Caiman
In 2001 a 2 foot long Caiman was removed from a pond in Central Park. I currently cannot find the news footage, but I remember watching it get removed on local news as a kid. If I find the video I will link to it.
2003 Alley Gator
In 2003 a 3 foot long alligator was removed from Alley Pond Park in Queens and was promptly given the nickname Alley-Gator.
2010 Crocks and Cars
In 2010 a 2 foot long baby was spotted underneath a car in Astoria Queens.
2019 Modern Sewer Gators
According to the Non-profit Animal Care Center of NYC which runs all of the city's animal shelters, they have handled 5 gators in the past two years. They claim that they escaped or intentionally released pets and were not living in the sewers.
Whether or not you believe that gators are currently living in NYC sewers, you have to acknowledge that sewer gators are actually a real thing. While it's impossible for gators to survive in sewers because of lack of nutrients, lack of sunlight, pollution, and cold temperatures, they do sort of exist.
If you enjoyed learning about sewer gators, check out our episode here.