It was a four-story brownstone in Harlem on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street. Even at the time (1930s and 1940s) the typical rumors and legends abounded about the reclusive inhabitants, a pair of brothers by the name of Collyer. It was said they were the richest men in New York City. There were stories of seeing the "ghostly man" out picking through garbage in the dead of night. The building and its owners would finally divulge most of their secrets in 1947. By then, it had become a tomb.
A promising beginning
The brothers were part of a long-standing New York family that could trace itself to ancestors that had come over on the Speedwell, the one-time sister ship of the Mayflower (the Speedwell did not make it to America for several years after the initial Mayflower voyage). Their father, Dr. Herman L. Collyer was a well off and prominent Manhattan gynecologist. Susie, their mother, was a well-educated opera singer. The first son, Homer, was born in 1881 and Langley followed four years later. Both men were college educated (Columbia) and had earned degrees.1 Langley once taught Sunday school and played piano at Carnegie Hall. The two had much going for them.
Moving to Harlem
Then something happened in 1909. Perhaps it caused something to change inside the brothers. Or exacerbated something that was always there. Maybe neither. But their parents separated and the two men moved to that brownstone. Later, Langley would claim that "We don't want to be bothered" (NY Daily News) was reason. At the time, it was a wealthy and fashionable neighborhood. As that began to change and more crime and poverty came to Harlem, the two became more and more reclusive. They would begin booby-trapping the house for fear of burglars and began to hoard thingsthe reason these two would be remembered to this day.
The Collyer brothers barricaded themselves from the outside, boarding up and blocking windows, going out less and less. There was no telephone because there wasn't anyone they wanted to speak to, according to the couple. No water (it would be lugged from a park four blocks away). No power. For a time they tried making electricity from an old Model T that had ended up in the house. No gas. A kerosene heater was used to cook and heat their home.
In the 1933, Homer went blind. Langley dutifully cared for him, attempting to cure the blindness with a dietary regimen of 100 oranges a week, black bread, and peanut butter. In their mind, there was no need to seek medical attention because they were the sons of a doctor and had 15,000 medical books (an apparent exaggeration). Langley would also read to him (the classics that their mother had loved) and play sonatas on the ten grand pianos in the building (the reasoning was that each had different and had valued "tonal effects"). Then the newspapers began to pile up. It would later be estimated that every issue of every New York paper since 1918 had been saved and stacked throughout the house. They were there for Homer to read when his finally won his battle with blindness.
Then in 1940, Homer became crippled with rheumatism. He was now totally dependent on his brother to cook, wash, and take care of his every need. As the items stacked up. Sheet music, sewing machines, Christmas trees, statuary, baskets, baby carriages, almost all broken or in various state of disrepair. Within that brownstone, the brothers created and inhabited their own kingdom among the possessions they accumulated. The habits of the two were not completely unknown and eccentric recluses spawn rumor, distrust, and resentment, if not animosity. The yard was strewn with similar items. The first look into their self-contained world would take place in 1942.
A visit to the Collyers
For one reason or another, Langley had stopped making his mortgage payments to the Bowery Savings bank. Letters sent to the building were left, unopened on the stoop. The door went unanswered when agents of the bank came to collect. Finally, he emerged from his castle of honeycombed passages among towers and walls of possessions. Langley claimed that it had simply slipped his mind and promised to pay. Rather than spending money on car fare (about a nickel), he walked all the way to Park Row where he met with a lawyer. But he didn't make good on the promise. More letters and ignored visitors.
The bank began eviction proceedings. A work crew was sent over with orders to clear out the yard. The 57-year old Collyer began screaming and railing at the men from an upper window. The police were called in to quell the disturbance and allow the men to do their job. The officers had to break down the front door, only to be met with mounds (the phrase "neck deep" is common to most accounts) of what they could only consider refuse and garbage. Crates and items were stacked to keep out those intruders who might wish to trespass and harm the brothers or steal their stuff. The cops carefully navigated their way through the maze until they found an open area where Langley was located. He then wrote out a check for $6,700. The police left the brothers alone and the brothers shut out the outside world.
Five years later, Friday 21 March. An anonymous phone call to the police (a man named Charles Smith) claimed there was a dead man at the location of the brownstone. Officers showed up to investigate the tip and found it virtually impossible to gain access to the building. After breaking the door down (and getting through the wire netting behind it) they found such a wall of newspapers and other things (folding chairs, part of a wine press, folding beds) that further passage that way would end in failure. The lower windows were impassabledespite having long lost their panes, they were barred with iron grillwork. Next the police got a ladder and attempted to enter through one of the upper windows. They were also blocked and the officers set to work pulling stuff out through the window so someone could go inside.
Bundles and boxes dropped from the sky like wayward balloon ballast (umbrellas, a rake, the frame from a baby carriage). After much effort, enough of the mountains blocking the window were transferred to the street below. Taking a light with him, one officer ventured into the Collyers' domain. Shoving aside and pressing through the maze of objectsthe brothers' legacythe patrolman finally came to a pocket where he found a figure. Old and frail, wearing only a tattered blue and white robe, the figure sat, head between his knees, with white and grey matted hair and beard well past his shoulders. He was silent. Homer Collyer was dead. It would later be confirmed that he had died about ten hours prior to the discovery. There was no sign of Langley.
The following day, the headline read ONE COLLYER DEAD SECOND HUNTED IN 5TH AVE. PALACE OF JUNK. The prevailing theory was that the other brother was hiding somewhere within his four-story nest. While there were attempts to pull out the collected items (a sawhorse, dressmaking dummies, more newspapers) but the towering possessions were a threat to the workers. Added to the general danger of a collapse or avalanche of society's discarded items, there were the booby traps intentionally constructed to cause such a event. They ripped a hole in the roof of the building and continued removing things (the Model T, photographs, game boards, books, toys). It was estimated that the final tally for the newspapers alone was six tons.
The spectacle brought out onlookers, perversely curious at the secrets held within the brownstone. As many as 600 at one point. One story goes that during the long excavation a black cat appeared near the door causing some in the crowd to cry out. Meanwhile the workmen cleared it out floor by floor (gas chandeliers, picture frames, phonebooks). The search continued. Near the body of Homer were bankbooks that showed a balance of just over $3,000. There was a brief let up of the operation when, on 30 March, Langley was reportedly seen getting on a bus at Atlantic City. The search of the New Jersey coast turned up nothing.
The search continued. The first floor offered up over 19 tons of the stored lives of the Collyer brothers (medical equipment and specimens, musical instruments, weapons and ammunition, the jawbone of a horse). On 3 April, a body was found floating in a creek. It turned out to be a man who had gone missing the week before. Still no Langley. By 7 April, 103 tons had been removed from the premises (it would eventually reach 130 to 180 tons).
The next day, over two weeks since first entering the building, Langley was found (within ten feet of where his brother had been found). He had died, a victim of one of his own booby traps, some weeks before and was partially decomposed. When he was found (under breadboxes, a suitcase, and more newspapers) there was a rat that was (some claim) the size of a rabbit gnawing on his body. He had asphyxiated under the weight of his possessions. His obsessions.
With Langley gone, Homer could only sit and wait in the cold and the dark and the quiet and slowly starve to death.
Between real estate and possessions of value, the estate of the brothers was $111,000. What could be salvaged from the excavation netted another $2,000 at auction. The building was duly condemned and later torn down and left a vacant lot. A razed monument to the lives of Homer and Langley Collyer. In 1998, New York City got the property and turned it into Collyer Brothers Park.
Years later there would be a book about the brothers by Franz Lidz: Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders, An Urban Historical (2003). There are also two plays about the pair: Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out (written by Mark Saltzman) and The Dazzle (written by Richard Greenberg).
The sort of hoarding done by the brothers, sometimes called "disposophobia," is sometimes evoked by their name alone. NYC firefighters refer to calls made to apartments full to the brim with possessions a "Collyer." There is even a company (operating since 1980) called "Disaster Masters" which specializes in coming in and taking care of the clutter of personal property hoarded by individuals (for a hefty fee). It performs "Crisis Management services for individuals, families, attorneys, Estate Executors."
There's no full understanding of why people hoard, just what changes or clicks or evolves in the mind of one to take on that behavior. Like many behaviors, there can be treatment. Before the outside becomes shut out completely. Before a home becomes a tomb as it did for Homer and Langley.
When Homer first lost his sight, he used to see visions of beautiful buildings, always in red. He would describe them to me and I would try to paint them just as he directed. Someday, when Homer regains his sight, I will show those paintings to him
1My sources differ here. Lidz has Homer a Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in admiralty law. Another source ("The Collyer Brothers") has Langley with that degree and Homer with an engineering degree. Since Lidz wrote the book, he is more likely correct.
"The Collyer Brothers" http://earthdude1.tripod.com/collyer/collyer.html
"The Collyer Brothers Ghost Story" Jay Maeder New York Daily News 12 July 1998 (final quote from this source)
"The Paper Chase" Franz Lidz New York Times 26 October 2003
"The Plan -- Disaster Masters" http://www.theplan.com/dmi
(mention of the park) The Library Branch Number 17 March 2003 http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_history/library/newsletter/newsletter_mar_2003.pdf
(note: Yes, I am aware of the similarity between "Collyer" and "collier"a coal miner)