First appearing in the news in 1942 after refusing to pay the mortgage on their home, the Collyer brothers infamous hoarding story is far more than a fairytale-style warning to hoarders. It is the true story of how seriously hoarding can adversely affect the lives of its sufferers.
The Collyer Brothers: “Hoarding Hermits of Harlem”
The sons of an upper class Manhattan family, a prominent Manhattan gynecologist and opera singer, Homer and the younger Langley Collyer resided in a four-story brownstone on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street in the 1930's and 40's. Homer had a degree in law from Columbia. Langley also studied engineering and chemistry at Columbia, and had been a pianist at Carnegie Hall. After moving to the brownstone in 1909, the Collyers became increasingly reclusive as their Harlem neighborhood grew more and more run down. Robberies increased their fears, causing the brothers to board up windows and set up booby traps throughout the home.
An Eccentric Lifestyle
In the mid-1930s, Homer became blind, leaving his brother to care for him and feed him. Langley composed a diet that included 100 oranges a week in an attempt to cure his brother's blindness. After their gas and water was turned off, Langley would leave only at night, fetching water from a post four blocks away and collecting any interesting items he found along the way. He also collected hundreds of thousands of newspapers for his brother to read once he regained his sight, resulting in the home becoming inundated with clutter.
A Body is Reported
In March of 1947, an anonymous caller insisted to police there was a dead body in the Collyer home. The police couldn’t get far enough into the home to verify the complaint, and had to begin removing the accumulated junk blocking into the street in an attempt to gain access. A patrolmen broke a second story window and found the elder Homer Collyer dead of starvation and cardiac arrest in a bathrobe. Langley was nowhere to be found.
A Plethora of Property
When police began the long task of hauling the 180 tons of junk from the house in their search for Langley, it contained an array of items including rope, baby carriages, rakes, umbrellas, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, collection of guns, x-ray machine, thousands of books about medicine and engineering, a horse's jawbone, human organs pickled in jars, several flags, 14 pianos, a clavichord, two organs, and loads newspapers. In addition, the police found 34 bank account books with a total of over $3,000 in funds.
Langley is Found
A month into both the cleaning of the home and the search for Langley, police discovered Langley's body only 10 feet away from where Homer had died, covered in huge bundles of newspapers. He had apparently been crawling through a newspaper tunnel to bring Homer his food when he was crushed by the collection rigged up by one of his own traps.
A Hoarding Legacy
Eventually torn down as fire hazard, after more than a half century the home and its inhabitants remain infamous hoarding legends. Firefighters continue to refer to junk-jammed apartments as “Collyers” when responding to emergency calls, and the Collyer name still resonates with New York City residents as a cautionary tale to pack-rats across the metropolis.
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