Fri 14 Dec 2007
Are there really alligators in the New York City sewer system? The question last week sparked quite a discussion in my cabin, prompting me to dig out a column on urban legends I wrote for the old Point Reyes Light two and a half years ago. Here it is again slightly updated just to remind you what’s true and what ain’t.
The British writer Max Beerbohm in 1896 tried without success to debunk one of Western Civilization’s most enduring urban legends. The common man, Beerbohm noted, “supposes that every clown beneath his paint and lip-salve is moribund and knows it.” In fact, Beerbohm added, “I am told, clowns are as cheerful a class of men as any other.”
On the other hand, many calamities were – in retrospect – not really all that funny.
Consider, for example, the old ditty, “Lizzie Borden took an axe,/ And gave her mother forty whacks./ When she saw what she had done,/ She gave her father forty one.”
Such humor simply isn’t right. Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Borden received a total of only 29 whacks, not 81, back in August 1892. Discrepancies such as this led a jury in Fall River, Massachusetts, to acquit Lizzie (at left) the following year, notwithstanding overwhelming evidence of her handiwork.
Along the same lines, how about the happy little Titanic song we all used to sing around the campfire? “Oh, it was sad./ Oh, it was sad./ It was sad when the great ship went down to the bottom of the… Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives. It was sad when the great ship went down.”
In fact, it wasn’t all sad. Some of those lost are still celebrated for their decorum. When the Titanic (at right) hit an iceberg in 1912, more than 1,500 passengers and crew members lost their lives. One of them happened to be the wealthiest man in the world, Col. John Jacob Astor. Urban legend has it that the multimillionaire was standing at the bar at the time of the collision and quipped, “I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.” Don’t believe it.
What actually happened, researchers say, was that the multi-millionaire’s 21-year-old, pregnant wife Madeleine (seen with Col. Astor below) was put in Lifeboat 4, but he was not allowed to join her. The sailor loading the lifeboat said his orders were that it was reserved for women and children.
Although Col. Astor pointed out that there were still vacant seats and no more women and children waiting to board, the sailor insisted orders are orders. Col. Astor, who would rather die than make a scene, walked away; the partly full lifeboat was launched; and the richest man in the world drowned. His demise was less sad than inspiring.
Another urban legend debunked. I had always heard that the children’s rhyme “ring around a rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down” dates to the 14th century and refers to the Black Plague. The rosie supposedly is the round rash that marks the onset of the disease. The posies, ashes, and “we all fall down” supposedly refer to what happens next.
As it turns out, this too is not to be believed. Researchers have now determined that the rhyme does not refer to the Black Plague, which killed 25 million people in Europe around 1350. The rhyme, it is now known, actually refers to a different plague that killed 100,000 people in London around 1665.
Back when I was in high school, the urban legend of the day involved a couple necking in a car parked on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. Suddenly a news bulletin interrupts the music on the car radio. An insane killer, who has a hook in lieu of one hand, has escaped from a mental institution.
The guy in the car wants to continue necking, but the girl keeps getting more and more nervous and finally insists on leaving. In annoyance, the guy starts the car, roars away from the curb, and drives her home. When they reach her house and the guy gets out of his car to open her door, he finds a hook hanging from her door handle.
That was so creepy we teenagers were mightily relieved to ultimately learn the story is an urban legend.
Of course, not every odd tale can be debunked.
Despite what skeptics say, most of us know how all the alligators in the New York City sewer system got there.
Residents vacationed in Florida, brought small gators home as pets, got tired of them, and ultimately flushed them down the toilet.
Most Americans have heard that the story is a classic urban legend, but is it? How do skeptics explain all the alligators in New York City’s sewers. I’ve lived in New York, and everyone in the city knows they’re there. In 1935 (this is true), an eight-foot alligator was captured in the sewer under East Harlem and pulled out a manhole.
Retired New York sewer official Teddy May in the 1950s (again this is true) told public utilities historian Harold Brunvand that he had actually seen one colony of alligators in the sewer system 20 years earlier and had his workers get rid of them. The only part of this story many people find hard to believe is that there are public utilities historians; nonetheless, they really do exist.
In the 1970s, a rumor circulated that an albino strain of marijuana was growing in the sewers as a result of people flushing their stems and seeds down the toilet. No one could harvest the pot, however, because of all the nearby alligators. Now, this rumor was a true urban legend. There is no albino marijuana. The plant needs light to grow.