by Corey Kilfannonfeb, 10, 2007, New York Times
New York City may have been blanketed with a snowstorm on Thursday, but under those snow-strewn streets, legions of mythical alligators slithered impervious through the city’s swampy sewer system. “I want it to be true,” said Michael Miscione, of the entrenched myth that there are alligators in the bowels of the city.
Because of his passion for this longstanding legend, Mr. Miscione, the official borough historian for Manhattan, has long been observing Feb. 9 as Alligators in the Sewers Day, an unofficial holiday to honor discarded pets or escaped beasts that have grown large below our streets.
The handful of hearty souls who braved the snow on Thursday night to make it to the Greater Astoria Historical Society in Queens were given a rubber alligator and the chance to hear Mr. Miscione discuss the legend of the sewer gator and how it has become a motif in movies, television and books.
“It’s all over the place,” he said. “It’s a legend I happen to love.”
It is also a legend rooted in a true story.
On Feb. 9, 1935, a group of teenagers in East Harlem caught an eight-foot alligator underneath a manhole on 123rd Street.
The next day, The New York Times published an account of the event, headlined “Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer,” which helped fuel the urban legend, Mr. Miscione said.
The article reported that the 125-pound reptile was discovered by a teenager named Salvatore Condulucci as he shoveled snow into a manhole.
“Honest, it’s an alligator!” he shouted to his friends, the article said.
The boys looped a rope around the animal’s neck and pulled it onto the street, but when it snapped at them, they beat the reptile to death.
It was believed the alligator may have escaped from a steamer that had traveled north from the Everglades and swam into the Harlem River and into a sewer outflow, Mr. Miscione said.
Or it could have been brought back from Florida as a live souvenir, or even bought through the mail, he said, displaying advertisements from the 1930s from companies that offered baby alligators through the mail.
Mr. Miscione showed a current United States Postal Service regulation stipulating that alligators “not exceeding 20 inches in length” may be shipped through the mail.
Which means, Mr. Miscione exalted, that “you can still mail a baby alligator.”
The East Harlem alligator was briefly displayed at a local store and then collected by trash removers and left in a dumping ground on Barren Island in Jamaica Bay, he said.
Though the Times article fueled speculation about a wider population of alligators in the sewer, this has been widely debunked by experts. Still, there have been many cases of alligators and similar reptiles being found aboveground, including a four-foot alligator taken out of Kissena Lake in Queens in 1995; an American alligator found in 2003 in Alley Pond Park, also in Queens; and a two-foot caiman caught in Central Park in June 2001.
Mr. Miscione used the alligator legend as a point of departure to recount other urban legends.
“New York City’s been riddled with myths, hoaxes and urban legends,” he said.
He mentioned the Staten Island Ferry Disaster Memorial erected by an artist on Staten Island as a hoax to observe the doomed voyage of a Staten Island Ferry that was pulled under by giant octopus off Lower Manhattan. Of course, this faux tragedy has remained obscure because it was said to have occurred on Nov. 22, 1963, which meant that it got overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Then there were several newspaper articles that have promoted hoaxes, including a series in 1874 in The New York Herald reporting a mass escape from the Central Park Zoo that had wild animals rampaging through the city, killing scores of people. It “caused panic in the streets,” Mr. Miscione said.
The historical society then held a quiz on Queens trivia, created and administered by Kevin Walsh, the webmaster and developer of a popular website Forgotten New York.
His questions were tough and culminated with a challenge to spell the Kosciuszko Bridge correctly. Nobody did, not even Phyllis Nittoli, a real estate appraiser from Manhattan, who got the highest score and was honored with an alligator trophy. The award had been purchased from a Florida company that specializes in trophies for the University of Florida, whose athletic teams are known as the Gators, said Bob Singleton, executive director of the historical society.
Mr. Singleton said he told employees of the trophy dealer about alligators in New York sewers, but they did not seem as impressed with the supposed proliferation of alligators as New Yorkers tend to be.
“They reminded us that they have plenty of alligators,” he said, “in the canals, on the golf courses, and even just walking down the street.”