I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Homer and Langley Collyer were an extraordinary pair of brothers. They were born into one of New York City’s oldest families (Homer in 1881 and Langley in 1885) and lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue near 128th Street, at a time when the Harlem address was fashionable.
Langley Brothers Were Well Educated
The children of gynecologist Herman L. Collyer and Susie Gage Frost Collyer, both young men graduated from Columbia University. Homer got a degree in engineering though never practiced his profession preferring to devote himself to music; he was a very accomplished pianist, good enough to have performed at Carnegie Hall. Langley got a law degree and worked in the field of admiralty law.
Their father left the family in 1909 and died in 1923; Susie Collyer died in 1929. The brothers inherited everything―the house, medical equipment, furniture, and books.
Increasing Crime Turned Brothers into Recluses
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Depression saw crime increasing in Harlem and elsewhere. There was an attempted break-in at the Collyer home and this prompted the brothers to begin turning their house into a bit of a fortress.
Psychological World describes their actions: “They boarded up the windows to their house and set up booby traps. Their gas and water was turned off because they refused to pay and they used only a small heater.” The front entrance was blocked by boxes stuffed with junk.
Langley Collyer Collected Garbage
The younger brother roamed the streets late at night and dragged home whatever he found that he took a fancy to. In 1933, Homer went blind so Langley hoarded newspapers in case his brother regained his eyesight and wanted to catch up on the news.
Langley quit his job in order to take care of his brother and his remedy to restore his brother’s sight was a diet of 100 oranges a week, black bread, and peanut butter. It didn’t work, of course.
The two withdrew more and more from the outside world. By now, the brothers were the subject of local gossip and newspapers started sending out reporters to track down a good story.
One of these was Helen Worden who wrote an article (August 11, 1938) about the Collyers for the now-defunct World-Telegram newspaper. Ms. Worden reported every local rumor about the house being stuffed with valuable antiques, rugs, books, and a huge stash of money that Langley would not put in a bank. The house was stuffed but not with much of value.
The clutter was so deep that Langley burrowed tunnels through it so he could move about the house on his hands and knees.
Deaths of the Collyer Brothers
On the morning of March 21, 1947 police received an anonymous tip that a smell of putrefaction was coming from the house in which the Collyers lived. When the police arrived they could not, at first, get into the property. The doors were blocked by boxes; they tried the basement but the stairs were jammed with packing cases and debris.
Eventually, they forced open a first-floor window and found rooms stacked from floor to ceiling with trash. The building was crawling with rats and the stench was nauseating. To gain access, police started putting garbage out onto the street and this attracted a large crowd of onlookers.
After two hours of clambering over the mess, police found Homer’s body. He was dressed in his bathrobe and sitting with his head resting on his knees. But, where was his brother, the person he relied upon for his food and every other need?
There was no sign of Langley.
Carting Away a Lifetime of Saved Junk
Authorities began the mammoth task of cleaning up the house. In all, workmen carted away 136 tonnes of the brothers’ collection that included a 2,500-volume law library, described as just one-tenth of the books in the house.
In an article written for New York Press, William Bryk lists some of the material taken away: “… telephone directories, three revolvers, two rifles, a shotgun, ammunition, a bayonet and a saber, a half-dozen toy trains, toy tops, a toy airplane, 14 upright and grand pianos, cornets, bugles, an accordion, a trombone, a banjo; tin cans, chandeliers, tapestries, a portrait camera, enlarger, lenses, and tripods …” There was even a dismantled Model T Ford in the building.
Two weeks into the clean up a workman uncovered Langley’s body or, more accurately, what was left of it. It seems he had unwittingly triggered one of his own booby traps and had been crushed under some enormous bundles of newspapers. His corpse had provided many meals for the rats that inhabited the house.
Hoarding is a Serious Mental Disorder
Writing for the October 2004 issue of Discover Mary Duenwold reports, the hoarding “compulsion, … scientists now theorize, is a natural and adaptive instinct gone amok. Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, the instinct to hoard offers clear evolutionary advantages.” Storing food for the winter is a good example of how this works.
Duenwold quotes Tom Waite, a biologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, as saying hoarding may also be part of a mating strategy: “It’s called resource-holding potential, and it’s a way of advertising to a mate your true Darwinian fitness.”
The Collyer brothers, however, did not procreate nor did they have enough food. Homer was emaciated when he was discovered and the autopsy found that starvation contributed to his death.
- According to The New York Times (July 2006) “… in New York City, and along much of the East Coast, a dwelling jammed rafter-high with junk is referred to by rescue personnel, with dismay and no small degree of respect, as a ‘Collyers’ Mansion.’ ”
- Hoarding was not defined as a mental health issue until the publishing of the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in May 2013. It is associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is thought to occur in between two and five percent of adults.
- Edmund Trebus was made famous in Britain through a BBC Television series called The Life of Grime. He stuffed his Couch End, London house with washing machines, motorcycles, doors, window frames, vacuum cleaners, cameras, and anything to do with Elvis Presley. His garden was also piled high with his collection and he was reduced to living in a small corner of his kitchen with his Jack Russell terrier. After a long legal battle, the local council was able to remove the rubbish and The Telegraph reported that the job “took six men 30 days using five large trucks and 11 skips, and cost more than £30,000.”
- “The Psychology of … Hoarding.” Mary Duenwald, Discover, October 2004.
- “Extreme Phobias: The Collyer Brothers.” Psychologist World, undated.
- “The Collyer Brothers.” William Bryk, New York Sun, April 13, 2005.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor