Sewer Monsters: From New York City to Ancient Rome

Indoor plumbing, one of the greatest advancements of civilization, allowing fresh running water and waste disposal at our fingertips. This technology meant huge underground structures had to be excavated, starting with the aqueducts of ancient civilization to the systems of tunnels and treatment plants we have today. For those of us growing up in the 80’s we caught glimpses of the vast network of underground tunnels beneath the cities as we watched our favorite crime fighting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle quartet chase bad guys through the never-ending network of tunnels, a dark labyrinthine world that got infinitely scarier when Stephen King stuck a clown down there. How many of us experienced our first brush with death and funeral rites standing solemnly around the toilet bowl with our siblings as our parents said a few words before poor old Goldie the goldfish was flushed into another world. It’s no wonder the sewers have been a source of urban legends throughout the ages.

One of the most persistent sewer based urban legends of our time involves a race of mutant albino alligators living in the sewers of New York City. The stories tell us these poor alligators had started as baby pets, carried back from Florida to New York as tourist trinkets, only to be flushed down the toilet when they became too big for their owners liking. These alligators were said to thrive in the watery underground tunnels, feeding on the millions of rats that lived alongside them as they grew into legend. The lack of sunlight turned them white, a trait they passed on through the generations as they bred and multiplied beneath the bustling city streets. While these stories have been dismissed as urban legends, and most herpetologists agreed that the New York climate was too cold for alligators to survive, there has been the occasional alligator (or Caiman) that has popped up in New York City. Sadly, these are all believed to be recently displaced animals that probably wouldn’t have survived the winter rather than coming from a lineage of subterranean mythical beasts.

In the Victorian era, the UK had its own version of sewer dwelling monsters: The Black Swine of Hampstead. Legend has it that a pregnant sow fell into the opening of a sewer and into the tunnels beneath the city. There she gave birth, feeding her offspring on the rubbish that was continually washed into the sewers. The colony grew, interbreeding with each other to produce new offspring, each more monstrous and deformed than the last litter. They began feasting on the plague-ridden sewer rats that inhabited the sewer with them, and eventually turned on each other. They became cannibals that devoured the weaker offspring, ensuring only the strongest survived to pass on their genes to the next generation as they grew larger, stronger and more ferocious. As London sickened, and the plague took hold corpses began to find their way into the sewers, and so the swine developed a taste for human flesh. Luckily for the inhabitants of London they were kept safe, the swine resided on the Hampstead side of the river, and the strong current of the Fleet ditch kept them at bay and away from the outlets where they could escape the sewers. But the swine grow stronger with each generation, so who knows, maybe the next generation will be the ones that can finally cross the canal.

We can find sewer dwelling monsters as far back as there were sewers, even back to the early structures of ancient Rome. In the De Natura Animalium written in the 2nd Century AD, a book best described in its introduction as “an appealing collection of facts and fables about the animal kingdom that invites the reader to ponder contrasts between human and animal behavior” (Loeb Classical Library Version) we find another sewer monster, this time a giant octopus. The octopus had become weary of eating raw fish in the sea and wanted to see what the land had to offer. One night he crawled into one of the sewer outlet pipes that ran into the ocean and swam until he reached a house by the sea. In this house lived Iberian merchants so it was filled with their cargo which just happened to be earthenware jars brimming with pickled fish, a delicacy the octopus couldn’t resist. Hidden in the sewer, the octopus snaked its tentacles around the jars and squeezed them till they burst, spilling out all their delicious contents. The next morning the merchants woke up very confused. Their entire cargo was missing, nothing remained except the broken shards of pottery on the floor, but the doors had not been opened, nor the locks tampered with or the roof disturbed. The merchants finally found out who was responsible, laying in wait for the culprit during the night, and finally gathering all their strongest men to hack him to death when he struck a third time.

As we increasingly move into urban settings, the traditional scary woods are harder to find and are replaced by other environments; the sewer tunnels running under the cities, disused subway stations and abandoned houses become places when the unknown can lurk or haunt. Spaces that aren’t filled with the light and movement of everyday life. The places where the shadows can be concealed within the urban jungles.

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