On this day in 1935, a 125-pound alligator was wrangled in an East Harlem sewer
Clipping from the 1935 New York Times article (L); Tom Otterness sculpture at the 14th Street/8th Avenue subway station depicting the event, via MTA Arts (R)
Have you ever heard of “Alligators in the Sewers Day”? According to the New York Times, on February 9, 1935, a group of teenagers allegedly caught and killed an eight-foot, 125-pound alligator in a manhole on East 123rd Street while shoveling snow. A headline in the paper the next day read, “Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer,” fueling an urban legend of an entire underground alligator population. Michael Miscione, the Manhattan borough historian, is so intrigued by the tale, that he annually observes this unofficial holiday “to honor discarded pets or escaped beasts that have grown large below our streets.”
According to the historic Times article, 16-year-old Salvatore Condulucci discovered the reptile and shouted to his friends, “Honest, it’s an alligator!” An “expert on Western movies,” he tied a slip knot, dangled the noose into the sewer, and eventually looped it around the gator’s neck.
“Then he pulled hard. There was a grating of rough leathery skin against jumbled ice.” Once the creature was on the ground, the boys took their snow shovels and hit him hard on the head. “The gator’s tail swished about a few last times. Its jaws clashed weakly. But it was in no mood for a real struggle after its icy incarceration. It died on the spot.”
After the police saw the dead alligator (and after it was briefly displayed at a local store before being left in a dump on Barren Island) and confirmed that there were no pet shops around, they theorized that the reptile may have escaped from a steamship that was traveling north from the Everglades. After falling into the freezing Harlem River, they surmised that he swam toward shore where the only exit was the sewer.
Miscione, however, has some alternate theories, namely that the gator was brought back or sent from Florida. In the 1930s, there were ads for companies selling mail-order baby alligators in fish tanks, and, believe it or not, the current U.S. Postal Service regulation still says that alligators “not exceeding 20 inches in length” can be shipped. “You can still mail a baby alligator,” he remarked.
Though experts have dismissed rumors of a larger alligator community in the sewer, there have been several other reptilian sightings across the city: In 1995, a four-foot alligator was removed from Kissena Lake in Queens; in 2001, a two-foot caiman was caught in Central Park; and in 2003, an American alligator was discovered in Alley Pond Park. And the original gator is even memorialized in a Tom Otterness sculpture (pictured above) at the 14th Street/8th Avenue subway station.