New York City fire fighters still use the term “a Collyer’s mansion situation” as code for a hoarder’s house fire. It usually means it’s not safe for them to enter the building. In 1947, it took police five hours to plough through the junk and find the first Collyer brother’s body. It took them three weeks to find the second brother just 10 feet away, buried under a collapsed junk tunnel inside the four-storey brownstone. History’s worst hoarders, the tragic but fascinating tale of the Collyer brothers can speak to anyone with a penchant for collecting or thrifting. How did two promising members of society end up sealing themselves off from the outside world, fiercely reclusive and entombed by over 140 tons of collected items? Could there a Collyer brother somewhere inside all of us?
Homer and Langley Collyer were both educated at Columbia University. Homer had a degree in law and Langley studied engineering and also became an accomplished concert pianist who performed at Carnegie Hall. Their childhood and family life was normal enough. Mom was former opera singer, a descendent of an old New York family who were one of the first to emigrate to America on the Mayflower. Dad was a doctor, a wealthy gynecologist, who you might say had had a reputation for being a little eccentric– Dr. Herman Collyer was often seen paddling down the East River in a canoe on his way to work at the hospital on Blackwell’s Island, and then carrying the canoe back to his home in Harlem. It might also be worth mentioning Mr. and Mrs. Collyer were first cousins, who eventually separated when their sons were in the 30s. Homer and Langley, who had never married or lived on their own, chose to remain at the family’s Harlem brownstone with their mother. When their parents died, all possessions were left to the brothers.
In 1933, Homer went blind due to hemorrhages in the back of his eyes. His younger brother quit his job as a piano dealer to care for him full-time, which is when their withdrawal from society began. Langley began keeping years’ worth of newspapers so his brother could read them once his sight had been restored. “I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news,” he once told reporters.
In the midst of the Great Depression, the brothers became increasingly fearful of their own neighbourhood, which was shifting from the upper-class area they had known as children to an area synonymous with poverty and crime.
When rumours began circulating amongst the neighbours of the reclusive and eccentric Collyer brothers, people became curious, local kids threw rocks at the windows, doing no favours for occupants’ increasing paranoia. Langley boarded up the windows, removed the doorbell and wired the doors shut, which in turn fuelled even more rumours. Several people attempted to burgle the home after hearing speculation that the home contained the brother’s hidden fortune, which prompted Langley, a former student of engineering, to construct booby traps and elaborate tunnel systems made of junk all around the house.
The house was a maze of hoarded items piled high to the ceiling. A list of notable finds recorded in the house after their deaths includes 25000 books, human organs in picked jars from their father’s medical practice, 14 pianos, two organs, countless decades old newspapers, baby carriages, a collection of guns, bowling balls, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, dressmaking dummies, pin-up posters from the early 1900s and 8 live cats.
Langley ventured out only after midnight for food runs. He would collect countless unwanted and abandoned items on the street that caught his eye along the way.
When Homer became paralysed due to inflammatory rheumatism, the brothers refused to seek professional medical treatment. Although their father was a doctor, they distrusted doctors. They later told reporters who had become interested in the eccentric local story, “We have a medical library of 15,000 books in the house. We decided we would not call in any doctors. You see, we knew too much about medicine.”
Langley believed his brother’s sight could be restored with a diet high in vitamin C so he fed Homer 100 oranges a week. He adapted a Model T Ford to generate electricity after their power was cut off, along with their water and gas in 1928 due to unpaid bills. The telephone lines were disconnected in 1917. They said they didn’t mind because they had no one to talk to.
When the bank came to evict them in 1942 for failing to pay their mortgage for three years, police found Langley in a clearing he had made in the walls of junk. Without a word, he wrote a check for the equivalent of nearly $100,000 today to pay off the mortgage in one single payment and promptly ordered everyone off the property.
The next time authorities returned, it would be to search for the bodies of the Collyers. An anonymous tipster had called the police, convinced there was a dead body in the house. To enter the sealed brownstone, an officer broke a window on the second floor and climbed through.
Unable to get past the solid walls of junk, a squad of men began making their way through the debris by throwing out everything blocking their way onto the street. The spectacle drew a crowd of thousands as the entire neighbourhood came to watch the mysterious Collyer townhouse being emptied of its contents.
After several hours, they found Homer’s body. Medical examiners later determined he had died of starvation and heart disease. They continued searching for his younger brother unsuccessfully. It was suspected that Langley had been the anonymous caller and had fled the family home, possibly on the run following the death of his brother. A massive manhunt was launched, with the authorities searching nine different states in a bid to find the missing brother. Three weeks later, knee-deep in the ongoing clean-up effort of the house, a workman found the decomposing body of Langley just ten feet away from where his brother had died. He was buried in one of his two-foot wide tunnels lined with rusty bed springs and a chest of drawers. He had died of asphyxiation after he accidentally tripped one of the booby traps and was crushed by debris. Police believe he was crawling through the tunnel to bring food to his brother.
The house was deemed an unsafe fire hazard and was razed later that month in 1947. Some of the items of interest found in their home ended up as exhibits at dime museums, featured alongside sideshow performers and curiosities. The rest was sold at auction.
The cumulative estate of the Collyer brothers was valued at the modern equivalent of $1,117,623. Fifty-six people made claims for the estate. One woman even tried to claim to be their long lost sister. In 1952, county court ruled that twenty-three of the claimants were to split the estate equally.
Since the 1960s, the site of the former Collyer house has been a pocket park, named for the brothers.
As I’ve been writing this article, boxes of my first published book are piling up in my office as they trickle in from the printer. By the end of next week, I will be hoarding a total of 1500 books around my desk. I should think I’ll spare a thought for the Collyer brothers as I begin signing them. Luckily many of you reading have bought them all, so they won’t be staying for very long. But I think I might skip the flea market this weekend. Just this one time.