If you want to see an alligator in the New York City subway system — which is as close as you’ll likely want to get to the city’s sewers — go to the A, C, E  subway station on 14th Street and 8th Avenue. There you’ll see a happy alligator, head propping up a manhole cover, in the act of consuming a person. It’s a bronze sculpture by Tom Otterness, referencing the pervasive story, oft referred to as legend, of alligators in the city sewers, having arrived via toilet flush.

The Great Escape by Peter Lippman

Of course I don’t believe that the scenario in the sculpture could ever come to pass. Quite obviously, alligators that live in the sewer are nice.

One of my favorite books as a kid was The Great Escape, or The Sewer Story, which told the tale of Silas, an alligator kidnapped from the Everglades, who became a pampered pet in Manhattan, got too big, and was flushed down the toilet into the sewers. He grabbed his owner’s pearls on the way down — clear evidence of the events described appear above — and he wore them for the rest of the book, screw you, Mrs. Harold. Silas hooks up with the other alligators in the sewer, and eventually they get on a plane and go back to Florida. But they never ate anyone.

The question of whether alligators actually lived in the sewers outside of children’s book and other fantasies is oft-discussed and studied. The New York Times’ City Blog took a close look at this issue a few years ago, and delved into the most credible source of these stories: Teddy May, the former superintendent of the city sewers, who was interviewed in Robert Daley’s 1959 book The World Beneath The City. In it, May said that sewer inspectors reported alligators in 1935, but no one believed them. He eventually went down to check things out for himself, and said he spotted alligators of about two feet in length. He then started a multi-pronged extermination campaign, involving poisoned bait, strategic flooding, and hunters with .22 rifles. He also suggested that the baby alligators were dumped down storm drains rather than flushed down the toilet.

 

Life Underground by Tom OtternessThe official line is that there are no alligators in the city’s sewers. Although no one is willing to swear up and down that alligators have never lived in the sewers, in part because it’s actually not unheard of for alligators to be spotted outside their regular habitat. (Such creatures are called “erratic alligators.”) The toilet flushing arrival route does stretch credulity, however, so I asked a friend who is in a position to speak knowledgeably on these topics about whether a small reptile could survive at toilet flush. He said it was a possibility. But that it would take a lot of willpower.

Still, this story is most often referred to as a legend.  When I researched this in the Journal of Folklore Research, I learned that stories like this are considered “paradoxography” — the aim is to report something memorable and remarkable to be enjoyed regardless of whether what was reported or not was literally true. The truth is always debated, but the legend does not depend on whether or not it is believed.

And New York’s sewer alligators are not the only example of this type of paradoxography. In Victorian London, for instance,  the sewers were thought to be infested with feral black pigs.

“The story runs that a sow in young by some accident got down the sewer through an opening, and, wandering away from the spot, littered and reared her offspring in the drain, feeding on the offal and garbage washed into it continually. Here, it is alleged, the breed multiplied exceedingly, and have become almost as ferocious as they are numerous. ” This appears in an 1861 study by London’s underclass, in section about the lives of shore-workers, also known as “toshers,” who hunt for valuables in the sewer.

And there are still older tales, points out scholar Camilla Aspulnd Ingemark, in the Journal of Folklore Research. In AD165, in a history of the animal kingdom written by a writer called Aelian, there is the story of a giant octopus that breaks into a retail store and steals food.

“Through a certain hidden sewer…it swam to the house lying by the sea, where Iberian merchants store their cargo, pickled fish from that region in stout vessels; and so it threw its tentacles and gripped the earthenware so that the vessels were broken, and consumed the pickled fish.”

A giant fight ensues, and the beast does not give up easily: “it could scarcely be killed with many tridents.”

Ingemark speculates that these stories, which exist in different cities with different animals, but are very similar, are about the strange boundary between nature and culture that exists in cities.

Or perhaps it’s something deeper: In Victorian London, she writes that black sewer swine functioned a “as a trope for feelings that the Victorians wanted to suppress. Devoted as they were to progress and to the steadfast belief in the triumph of reason, the irrational and instinctive posted a serious threat to their self understanding. Hence, the black swine represented this dark realm of bestial libido.”