One of the truly best things about New York City is its rich history — which also means that plenty of ghosts and urban legends haunt these streets. One such legend is that there are just as many rats living in New York City as there are people, and since the population is about eight million, that means eight million rats happily reside here doing their thing. However, according to a study published by the Royal Statistical Society this week, those numbers are (thankfully) way off. While, yes, we do have eight million human beings living here, squashed into overpriced, shoebox-sized apartments, the rat count is actually about "only" two million. Of course, if a rat is in your apartment, what’s the difference between two and eight million? Not much.
There seems to be no shortage of New York City urban legends, and while some are very much true, others are just complete and utter malarkey, as Joe Biden would say. I mean, does anyone actually believe that the Yankees wear pinstripes today because they wanted to make Babe Ruth look slimmer back in the day? I would hope not, especially since the Yankees were wearing stripes as far back as 1912, long before the Red Sox sold the Bambino in December of 1919. But, you know, rumors get to swirling and it’s hard to tell what real and what’s not.
Here are seven other myths about New York City and the truth behind them.
Urban Legend: A PENNY DROPPED FROM THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING WILL KILL A PERSON
It’s something you’ve probably heard since you were a kid that, yes, if you drop a penny from the Empire State Building, the wind that it picks up on the way down will most certainly kill whomever it hits below.
In reality, this just isn’t going to happen, because pennies are just not aerodynamically stable enough. Instead of the wind driving them into the ground below, they would catch the wind or would sort of float their way on down to the ground.
Professor Louis Bloomfield of the University of Virginia wanted to prove this, but because the myth is so embedded in our brains, no building would let him. Instead, from hundreds of feet up, he dropped a small helium balloon tied to a penny dispenser that would spit out the pennies on the way down. Although he didn’t catch a single penny, he was hit in the face. The result? "It was like getting hit by a bug ... it was noticeable, but nothing more.”
urban legend: THERE ARE ALLIGATORS LIVING IN THE SEWERS
REALITY: NO LONGER TRUE
The rumor is that some kids bought alligators, which you could do once upon a time because even my dad had one he kept in the tub, and flushed them down the toilet. Once they reached the sewer system, they began to breed and make even more alligators.
It seemed farfetched, until the New York Times published a piece in 1935 telling of the harrowing tale of kids shoveling snow into a manhole and discovering a wild beast beneath them. According the article, the alligator was snared and dragged out, so as to prevent harming any other innocent New Yorkers.
Although that was the last time there was any sort of "proof," of alligators, the myth lives on. As folklorist and founding director of City Lore, Steve Zeitlin, explains,"Alligators are the closest things we have to mythological creatures. The notion of monsters lurking under the earth is a time-immemorial archetype." Besides, if there really were alligators down there, the likelihood of there being two million rats in the city would be slim. They'd all have been devoured by now.
urban legend: THERE'S AN ENTIRE SOCIETY OF PEOPLE LIVING underground
REALITY: MOSTLY TRUE
The Mole People, as they've been dubbed, are a community of homeless people who live beneath the surface of New York City's bustling streets. While it is very much true that there are people (roughly 100) who live in old abandoned subway tunnels, equipped with kerosene lamps, wood stoves, and even pets, the idea that they are a completely different society unto themselves with some sort of hierarchy and political leadership of sorts, isn't true. They're simply homeless people who are trying to get by one day at a time underneath a city that, tragically, has failed them.
urban legend: THERE WAS ONCE A PLAN TO SAW MANHATTAN IN HALF, THEN REATTACH THE BOTTOM OF IT UPSIDE DOWN
REALITY: FALSE, AS FALSE CAN BE
Once upon a time, in either 1823 or 1824, a contractor named Lozier put out a call for laborers downtown near what is now Chinatown. The project was a simple one: due to the fact that the lower part of Manhattan was sinking, he would need laborers to help him saw off the bottom of the island, turn it around, then reattach it. But when all the workers showed on the specific day to do the job, Lozier had disappeared and everyone realized they'd been tricked.
urban legend: THERE'S BURIED TREASURE ON LIBERTY ISLAND
REALITY: PROBABLY FALSE
Legend has it that shortly before he was hanged, Captain William Kidd hid his treasure on Bedloe's Island, or what is now Liberty Island.
The rumors were so persistent through the 1700 and 1800's that with the help of a supposed psychic, two men in August of 1892 went looking for the treasure — which they apparently found and then immediately dropped and left behind because of a ghost, according to the New York Times. Since then, others have tried to procure the treasure, but it's yet to be found.
urban legend: YOU WILL DIE IF YOU PEE ON THE THIRD RAIL
REALITY: MAYBE? IT'S STILL UP FOR DEBATE
We already know that the 600 volts of electricity traveling through the third rail means that to touch = certain death, but there's also a myth that if you urinate on it, even from the platform, as some drunken men have apparently done, you will also die.
The rumor dates back to 1967, when a drunken man by the name of Joseph Patrick O'Malley was found dead on the tracks with burns on his fingertips and penis, in addition to being severely mangled by oncoming trains. It was then ruled that the electricity has made its way through his urine stream and to his body, but no one could be sure.
In 2013, The Wire reported on the death of man who had allegedly pissed on the third rail of the G line in Brooklyn and died. While there was no disputing that the man had died on that fateful night, both the NYPD and the MTA had no such details in their record, therefore suggesting that while he may have been peeing at the time of his death, it was falling onto the actual physical rail that killed him.
Takeaway? Just don't pee on the third rail. If peeing in the subway is your thing, keep it to the first rail, ladies and gents.
urban legend: RATS HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO CLIMB OUT OF TOILETS
REALITY: TRUE (!)
I remember first reading about this in American Psycho. While hard at work being, well, psycho, Patrick Bateman is forced to give pause to acknowledge a rat that has crawled out of his toilet and is sitting on the toilet seat. As with most of the book, you're forced to wonder if this is really happening or is it just going on in his head. Still, the rumor stuck, and turns out it's true — rats can crawl out of toilets.
According to my super, who once had to dig out a rather portly rat from the bathroom of a first floor apartment in Chelsea and more than a few other horrified accounts, rats can crawl out of your toilet if they've managed to wiggle themselves into the sewer system. Don't believe me? This American Life even has a story about it.
Nightmares for weeks, I know. Hey, if you can sit on the john here...