It’s March 1947 in New York City, and police are struggling to gain entry into a Manhattan house. They start in the foyer, but there’s an impenetrable barrier of trash blocking the path. An enterprising patrolman finally breaks an upstairs window to climb inside, but it will take much longer to expose all of the house’s secrets. And they’re about to find something much worse than junk inside the property.
The house in Harlem was the dwelling of two brothers called Langley and Homer Collyer. And to say that these two men were hoarders would be an understatement. It was almost impossible to move through the home because of all the junk. The two men were pretty private, however, so passers-by were mostly limited to gawping from the outside.
Homer was blind and being cared for by his brother, but both men were recluses. Their isolation only got worse as the years went on and the amount of junk increased. Furthermore, it wasn’t until an anonymous caller warned that a sinister smell was coming from inside the house that cops decided to enter and find out just what the men were hiding.
But to trace the origin of the Collyer brothers’ story we have to go back to the 19th century. Dr Herman Livingston was a wealthy gynecologist with some strange habits, and he raised a few eyebrows when he married his opera singer cousin Susie. Meanwhile, their children Homer and Langley – who were born in 1881 and 1885 respectively – both seemed to be off to a good start in life.
When the boys were born, their father hadn’t yet finished medical school, but he would later go on to work at Bellevue Hospital. And it was during this latter period that the family moved to the impressive brownstone at 2078 Fifth Avenue that would become a lifelong residence for the brothers. They would also later inherit books and medical equipment from their father after his death in 1923.
Homer later became a lawyer after attending Columbia University, while his brother went to the same school to study engineering. Langley also seemed to have inherited his mother’s musical talent, as he would become a concert pianist. The brothers disconnected their phone in 1917, but it wasn’t until two years later that things started to go wrong for the family.
That was the year when Herman Livingston abandoned his family for no apparent reason. The brothers then continued to live with their mother until she died in 1929 – leaving them the family home. And it was when the brothers were alone together at 2078 Fifth Avenue that their eccentricities would really begin to show.
A description of Homer’s appearance could have come straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. According to The New York Sun, his sideburns and high collars were accompanied by an affable disposition and elegant handwriting. He stood in contrast to his brother’s more artistic demeanor, as Langley often opted to wear large and distinctive bow ties.
At this time, African-Americans were increasingly moving into Harlem, and the Collyers were beginning to isolate themselves more. Children would throw stones at the house and there were even a few break-in attempts. As a result, the brothers decided that they needed to act.
The Collyers were understandably nervous about the harassment that they received, so they decided to up security in their home to ensure no one could rob them. But the brothers took some bizarre steps: they didn’t just board up their windows, the men also apparently started setting booby traps to catch any intruders.
A major step in the brothers’ journey to becoming permanent recluses occurred in 1928 – which was the year gas stopped being pumped into their property. This meant living without hot water and heat, but the Collyers still managed to survive. Apparently, they used kerosene to cook their food and keep the lights on.
Another major event for the Collyers happened in 1933 when Homer went blind after a stroke. Langley was determined to look after his brother and stopped his work buying and selling pianos so he could be a full-time carer. He thought that the right diet would be enough to restore Homer’s eyesight, so he put together a special food plan.
But Homer’s meals weren’t exactly a healthy and balanced diet. According to the website All That’s Interesting, Langley fed his brother peanut butter, black bread and an astonishing 100 oranges in the course of a single week. And he was so sure that the diet would work he started saving newspapers for Homer to read when his eyesight returned.
But the collection of newspapers soon ended up turning into a more general tendency to hoard junk. According to the New York Sun, Homer’s 2,500-strong collection of law texts was only a small portion of the written material in the house. The property held 25,000 books by the time police entered, as well as three dressmakers’ dummies and an astonishing 14 grand pianos.
Elsewhere, bowling balls, camera equipment, glass chandeliers, painted portraits and plaster busts were also found inside. There was a car chassis from a Model T that once belonged to Herman, and in the attic was a canoe of his, too. Langley once told the reporter Helen Worden the story of how his father had carried the vessel to the Harlem River and paddled to and from work every day.
But the aforementioned items were just the start of the hoarded junk. There were also hundreds of yards of unused fabrics – including silk. Metal items ranging from bicycles to bedsprings were also packed into the property. Eight cats were living in the house – though luckily they were all still alive. Really disturbing finds included carefully pickled human organs stored in various jars, but that wasn’t the worst of it.
People may not have known exactly what to expect when the Collyer house was finally opened to the world, but rumors had surrounded it for years. Indeed, an article by The New York Times in 1938 had claimed that the brothers were sitting on a significant amount of material wealth within the house.
For her part, the reporter Helen Worden managed to grab Langley while he was out shopping and she asked him about the rumored contents of his house. According to the New York Sun, she said, “Good evening, Mr. Collyer. The neighbors tell me you keep a rowboat in the attic and a Model T in the basement.” And in response, Langley explained how both items had once belonged to his father.
Worden had called Langley “the mystery man of Harlem,” and she wasn’t the only reporter curious about the recluse and his even less public brother. Another journalist borrowed a description from a neighbor labeling Langley “the ghosty man.” They also noted Homer’s absence and claimed that the boys hadn’t given their mother a funeral.
Journalistic attention really struck the house when a realtor named Maurice Gruber failed to purchase some Collyer land in Queens. His complaint was published by the New York World-Telegram and Sun in August 1938, but more reporters followed. According to the New York Sun, another neighbor claimed that Langley “haunts in graveyards; he [doesn’t] come out before midnight.”
The Collyers, meanwhile, were definitely not short of cash. Neither brother was working anymore, so they didn’t have a source of regular income. But that didn’t stop them paying $120,000 in today’s money to buy the neighbor’s house to help protect their privacy. And the brothers paid off the mortgage with one payment of over $100,000 when the bank threatened to take their home.
Homer and Langley weren’t the first or last hoarders to be found in New York – let alone the wider world. Human history is full of people who have compulsively kept even things that others would consider garbage. The Collyer brothers are a particularly notable example, but they’re part of a much wider pattern.
Professor Randy Frost and his student Rachel Gross looked to quantify the number of people accumulating junk in the U.S. and published their findings in the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Incredibly, they found that between six and 15 million people were engaging in such behavior. Some prominent examples in New York in recent years include Kevin McCrary of the Upper East Side and O. Alden James Junior of the National Arts Club.
McCrary was 64 when he faced eviction due to his out of control hoarding. Like the Collyers, he was born into wealth, but his habits were creating a hazard not just for him but his neighbors. Alden James, meanwhile, wasn’t just evicted but lost his presidency of the National Arts Club and was sued for millions over claims that he’d used club money and property to support his hoarding.
But the debate about what constitutes hoarding, its causes and when it becomes a problem is still ongoing. There’s no harm with being a collector, but when it becomes impossible to use your own house then you may have a problem. According to All That’s Interesting, the Collyer brothers had to build tunnels through their junk just to get between rooms, and Langley put his engineering skills to use building passages and booby traps.
Hoarding may help someone feel more secure in stressful times, but there comes a point when it becomes more of a problem than a comfort. It also affects people living nearby the property, too. For example, homes that are used to hoard junk can develop funny smells and even become fire hazards. That’s when the authorities need to be called in – as they were in Harlem.
A phone call was made to the 122nd Police Precinct early on March 21, 1947. The anonymous caller told cops that there may have been more than hordes of junk hidden inside the Collyer house. They also warned that police should search the building because it smelled like there was a dead body inside.
Police had to respond to the call, but it wasn’t so easy searching the house. They couldn’t even open the front doors and instead had to lift them right off the hinges. But that didn’t help, as the foyer was packed solid with boxes, while a similar wall blocked passage to the basement stairs. And it was midday by the time they finally made it through a second-story window and discovered Homer’s corpse.
Homer’s body had long grey hair that hadn’t been washed for a while, and his clothing was clearly past its best. Reports differed as to his exact appearance, but he was certainly wearing tattered attire and had either a moustache or beard.
According to the New York Sun, Homer hadn’t eaten or drank anything for three days or more. He’d had multiple conditions including senile pulmonary emphysema, paralysis-causing rheumatism, chronic bronchitis and numerous bed sores that had turned gangrenous. His death, meanwhile, was believed to have been caused by heart disease and starvation.
Before the cause of Homer’s death had been established, however, suspicion fell on Langley. He’d been his brother’s only carer and now there was no sign of him. As a result, a manhunt soon began. Rumors were that Langley had taken a bus ride to Atlantic City, but the truth was more sinister.
It would be three weeks before Langley’s fate was revealed, and in that time the mammoth task of emptying the house had already begun. It wasn’t a glamorous task for the police involved and many smoked cheap cigars to hide the odor inside the building. Furthermore, curious passers-by soon moved on once they caught a whiff of the house’s interior.
It wasn’t surprising that the smell was so all-encompassing when you consider the condition of the house itself. New York newspaper The Sun reported that rats were living among a damp and rotting structure where even the walls and floors were falling apart. Apparently, the water damage could be blamed on a leaking roof and windows that hadn’t been shut.
Within two days 19 tons of junk had been removed, according to The New York Times, but that was only the beginning. It was ten days after the original phone call when official movers were hired by the court and began to deconstruct Homer’s 2,500-book library. Other, less distinguished paperwork included a certificate that Langley had been awarded in 1895 for punctuality and good conduct.
On April 3 the movers finally reached the end of only the second room they had emptied. There was still a long way to go, but they’d already removed 51 tons of junk, according to the Herald Tribune. It would be another five days and 52 more tons of rubbish before they finally found Langley just ten feet from his brother. The hoarder had been caught in one of the many booby traps he’d set to deter intruders and the authorities estimated that he had died two weeks before Homer.
Langley’s main method of moving through his house had been through tunnels dug through the trash – but they were lined with tripwires. Cops explained to The Sun that Langley may have caught one of these lines – perhaps with the edge of his clothing – and been buried alive under a pile of paper. With his death, Homer had no one to look after him and he subsequently starved.
Homer and Langley would be buried together at the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, which was where their parents had also been laid to rest. And the removal work continued even after the brothers were found. By the time it was finished 120 tons of junk had been extracted and reportedly only $66,000 worth of the once impressive Collyer estate remained.
A total of 40 relatives later filed claims to the brothers’ estate, but it’s not known whether any of them were successful. There were still estate and property taxes that hadn’t been paid on that $66,000. On top of that, on May 7 a decree came from the New York building commissioner that the house had to be demolished.
The Collyer mansion had been declared a public menace and would never again function as a private home. Nearly two decades later the land was turned into park, and in the 1990s it was named after the Collyers as a tribute to this strange piece of New York history. However, some people didn’t think the honor was appropriate for what had once been a public health hazard.
But the legacy of the Collyer brothers doesn’t stop there; they’ve been the subject of books and plays, too. And there’s even a boutique in Brooklyn Heights known as “Collyer’s Mansion” which sells an appropriately eclectic selection of goods. Furthermore, if you search YouTube you’ll find various videos made as tributes to the brothers, while East Coast firefighters have taken to using “Collyers Mansion” as slang for any hoarder’s home.