Langley Collyer, c. 1942
View of Collyer Brothers' Brownstone at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street
View of interior
Books and newspaper bundles
Langley Collyer, c. 1942Homer Lusk Collyer (November 6, 1881 – March 21, 1947) and Langley Collyer (October 3, 1885 – March 1947) were two American brothers who became famous because of their snobbish nature, filth in their homes, and compulsive hoarding. For decades, neighborhood rumors swirled around the rarely seen, unemployed men and their home at 2078 Fifth Avenue (at the corner of 128th Street), in Manhattan, where they obsessively collected newspapers, books, furniture, musical instruments, and many other items, with booby traps set up in corridors and doorways to protect against intruders. Both were eventually found dead in the Harlem brownstone where they had lived as hermits, surrounded by over 130 tons of waste that they had amassed over several decades.
3 Public scrutiny
4 Homer Collyer found dead
6 Langley Collyer found dead
7 House contents
9 See also
9.1 Other recluses
11 Further reading
12 External links
The Collyer brothers were sons of Herman Livingston Collyer (1857–1923), a Manhattan gynecologist who worked at Bellevue Hospital, and Susie Gage Frost (1856–1929); the Collyer family traced its roots to a ship that supposedly arrived in America from England a week after the Mayflower. They had a sister, Susan, who died as an infant in 1880. The family was descended from the Livingston family, an old and well established New York family with roots going back to the 18th century. They were well educated and both sons attended Columbia University, which had just relocated to its present-day Morningside Heights campus, about a twenty-minute walk from the Collyer house. Homer obtained a degree in admiralty law, while Langley earned a degree in engineering (though Columbia University claimed it had no records of his attendance), and made attempts at being an inventor. Langley played concert-level piano and had long, flowing hair, which was a rarity in this era. Over the years, as both brothers' eccentricities intensified, Langley tinkered with various inventions, such as a device to vacuum the insides of pianos and a Model T Ford adapted to generate electricity.
Dr. Herman Collyer, with his wife and two sons, moved into their residence in Harlem in 1909, when Harlem was an upper class neighborhood that was quickly becoming home to some of New York's wealthier residents. Dr. Collyer was known to be eccentric himself, and was said to frequently paddle down the East River in a canoe to the City Hospital on Blackwell's Island, where he occasionally worked; and then carry the canoe back to his home in Harlem after he came ashore on Manhattan Island. He abandoned his family around 1919, a few years before he died. No one knows why Dr. Collyer abandoned his family, or whether his wife moved with him into his new home at 153 West 77th Street when he left behind his house in Harlem. Nevertheless, Homer and Langley Collyer stayed in the family house after their father left. Dr. Collyer died in 1923, and Mrs. Collyer died in 1929. After their parents died, the Collyer brothers inherited all of their possessions and moved those possessions into their house in Harlem.
When Dr. Herman Collyer originally moved to Harlem, it was a fashionable neighborhood. As the neighborhood's character changed, the brothers became an anachronistic curiosity and withdrew from the world.
Burglars tried to break into the house because of unfounded rumors of valuables, and teenagers developed the habit of throwing rocks at the windows. As the brothers' fears increased, so did their eccentricity. They boarded up the windows, and Langley set about using his engineering skills to set up booby traps. After their gas, telephone, electricity and water were turned off in 1939 because of their failure to pay the bills, the brothers took to warming the large house using only a small kerosene heater. For a while, Langley attempted to generate his own energy by means of a car engine. Langley began to wander outside at night; he fetched their water from a post in a park four blocks to the south (presumably Mount Morris Park, renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973). Langley would also walk miles all over the city to get food, sometimes going as far as Williamsburg, Brooklyn to buy as little as a loaf of bread. He would also pick food out of the garbage and collect food that was going to be thrown out by grocers and butchers to bring back to his brother Homer, who by this time was handicapped with rheumatism. He also dragged home countless pieces of abandoned junk that aroused his interest. In 1933, Homer lost his eyesight due to hemorrhages in the back of his eyes. Langley devised a remedy, a diet of one hundred oranges a week, along with black bread and peanut butter.
In 1932, shortly before Homer Collyer went blind, he purchased the property across the street from their house at 2077 Fifth Avenue, with the intent of developing it by putting up an apartment building. But after the onset of his blindness, any plans of profit from the real estate venture fell through. Since the Collyer brothers never paid any of their bills, the property was repossessed by the City of New York in 1943 to pay back all of the income taxes that the Collyers owed to the City. Langley protested the repossession of their property, saying that since they had no income, they should not have to pay income taxes.
The Collyer brothers were first mentioned in the newspapers in 1938, when they rebuffed a real estate agent who was eyeing their home. The New York Times repeated neighborhood rumors that the brothers lived in some sort of "Orientalist splendor" and were sitting on vast piles of cash, afraid to deposit it in a bank. Neither rumor was true; the brothers were certainly not broke, although eventually they would have been, since neither of them had worked for decades. They drew media attention again in 1942 when they got in trouble with the bank after refusing to pay the mortgage on their house. That same year, the New York Herald Tribune interviewed Langley. In response to a query about the bundles of newspapers, Langley replied, "I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news." When the Bowery Savings Bank began eviction procedures, they sent over a cleanup crew. At this time, Langley began ranting at the workers, prompting the neighbors to summon the police. When the police attempted to force their way by smashing down the front door, they were stymied by a sheer wall of junk piled from floor to ceiling. Without comment, Langley made out a check for $6,700 (equivalent to about $88,000 in 2008), paying off the mortgage in full in a single payment. He ordered everyone off the premises, and withdrew from outside scrutiny once more, emerging only at night and when he wanted to file criminal complaints against housebreakers.
Homer Collyer found dead
On March 21, 1947, an anonymous tipster phoned the 122nd Police Precinct and insisted there was a dead body in the house. A patrol officer was dispatched, but had a difficult time getting into the house at first, noting however that an awful odor was emanating from somewhere within the building. There was no doorbell or telephone and the doors were locked; and while the basement windows were broken, they were protected by iron grillwork. An emergency squad of seven men eventually had no choice but to begin pulling out all the junk that was blocking their way and throw it out onto the street below. The brownstone's foyer was packed solid by a wall of old newspapers, folding beds and chairs, half a sewing machine, boxes, parts of a wine press, and numerous other pieces of junk. A patrolman, William Barker, finally broke in through a window into a second-story bedroom. Behind this window lay, among other things, more packages and newspaper bundles, empty cardboard boxes lashed together with rope, the frame of a baby carriage, a rake, and old umbrellas tied together. After a two-hour crawl he found Homer Collyer dead, wearing just a tattered blue and white bathrobe. Homer's matted, grey hair reached down to his shoulders, and his head was resting on his knees.
Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Arthur C. Allen confirmed Homer's identity and said that the elder brother had been dead for no more than ten hours; consequently, Homer could not have been the source of the stench wafting from the house. Foul play was ruled out: Homer had died from the combined effects of malnutrition, dehydration, and cardiac arrest. By this time, the mystery had attracted a crowd of about 600 onlookers, curious about the junk and the smell. But Langley was nowhere to be found.
In their quest to find Langley, the police began searching the house, an arduous task that required them to remove the large quantity of amassed junk. Most of it was deemed worthless and set out curbside for the sanitation department to haul away; a few items were put into storage. The ongoing search turned up a further assortment of guns and ammunition. There was no sign of Langley.
On March 30, false rumors circulated that Langley had been seen aboard a bus heading for Atlantic City. A manhunt along the New Jersey shore turned up nothing. The police continued searching the house two days later, removing 3,000 books, several outdated phone books, a horse's jawbone, a Steinway piano, an early X-ray machine, and more bundles of newspapers. More than 19 tons of junk were removed from the ground floor of the three-story brownstone. The police continued to clear away the brothers' stockpile for another week, removing another 84 tons of rubbish from the house. Although a good deal of the junk came from their father's medical practice, a considerable portion was discarded items collected by Langley over the years.
Langley Collyer found dead
On April 8, 1947, workman Artie Matthews found the body of Langley Collyer just 10 feet from where Homer died. His partially decomposed body was being eaten by rats. A suitcase and three huge bundles of newspapers covered his body. Langley had been crawling through their newspaper tunnel to bring food to his paralyzed brother when one of his own booby traps fell down and crushed him. Homer, blind and paralyzed, starved to death several days later. The stench detected on the street had been emanating from Langley, the younger brother.
Both brothers were buried with their parents at Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn.
Books and newspaper bundlesAll told, police and workmen removed 130 tons of garbage from the Collyer brownstone. The salvageable items fetched less than $2,000 at auction; the cumulative estate of the Collyer brothers was valued at $91,000 (about $1.2M in 2008 dollars), of which $20,000 worth was personal property (jewelry, cash, securities, and the like).
Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer's hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a child's chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of the old Model T with which Langley had been tinkering, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old. Near the spot where Homer died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks, with a total of $3,007.18 (about $40,000 in 2008 dollars).
There was also a great deal of garbage. The house itself, having never been maintained, was decaying: the roof leaked and some walls had caved in, showering bricks and mortar on the rooms below. The house was eventually deemed a fire hazard and was razed.
Some of the stranger items were exhibited at Hubert's Dime Museum, where they were featured alongside Human Marvels and sideshow performers. The morbid centerpiece of this display was the chair in which Homer Collyer had died. The Collyer chair passed into the hands of private collectors upon being removed from public exhibit in 1956. As time went by it acquired a reputation of being cursed, due to the misfortunes of its owners. Today, the Collyer Death Chair is maintained in the holdings of a collector of oddities named Babette Bombshell of Orlando, Florida.
The New York Times, on March 26, 1947, wrote:
There is, admittedly, something unattractive about the avidity with which society now pores over every detail the Collyer brothers vigorously withheld from public scrutiny . . . . It is almost as though society were taking revenge upon the brothers for daring to cut the thread that binds man to his fellows.
The Collyer brothers were first fictionalized by Marcia Davenport in her novel, My Brother's Keeper (Scribners, 1954), also published as a Popular Library paperback. More recently, E. L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley (published by Random House) utilizes the Collyers in a work of historical fiction. In his novel Salem's Lot (1975), Stephen King made use of the Collyer brothers' story in his description of the bundles of magazines and newspapers that were found in the Marsten House, including using said bundled newspapers rigged to fall as a booby trap to guard against burglars. Despite motion picture options spanning decades, the Davenport novel has never been filmed. The Collyer brothers have also appeared as characters in Hirohiko Araki's 2004 comic The Lives of Eccentrics, and in Kevin Baker's 2006 novel, Striver's Row.
A 1973 episode of the TV show Streets of San Francisco entitled The House on Hyde Street must have been inspired by the Collyers, even down to having a Model T on the second floor of the home. Lew Ayres appeared as one of the brothers. Similarly, the 1960 "Interrupted Wedding" episode of the Bourbon Street Beat also uses a similar depiction of the Collyer house, with Whit Bissell playing a dual role as the brothers.
The Collyer Brothers at Home is a 1980 play by Mark St. Germain, and the brothers have also been the subjects of several other English-language plays, including The Dazzle, by Richard Greenberg, loosely based on their lives, and Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out by Mark Saltzman. There is also a Swedish play called Samlarna (The Hoarders), by Lotta Lotass, which has been translated to English by the author herself. Hermitage: The Strange Story of the Ghost Men of Harlem, by Frederick Andersen, premiered in Philadelphia in 2009.
Since the 1960s, the site of the former Collyer house has been a vest-pocket park, named for the brothers.
The 1995 movie Unstrung Heroes features two uncles whose lifestyle and apartment are a direct homage to the Collyer brothers.
In a 1999 episode of Frasier titled "Dinner Party," Martin tells his sons Frasier and Niles the tale of the Collyer brothers in response to Frasier asking his father if he considered his relationship with his brother strange. Frasier is shown taking his newspapers out to be recycled in the credits scene, a reference to the newspaper tunnel in the Collyer house.
In The Honeymooners episode, "Battle of the Sexes" (1954), Ed Norton enters Ralph Kramden's apartment, whose cleanliness has been devastated by Alice Kramden's week long absence. Glancing around, Ed comments, "And to think it took the Collyer brothers 20 years to achieve this effect." In the episode "The Worry Wart" (1956), Ed congratulates Ralph on "beating the all-time record for the lowest gas bill, previously set by the Collyer brothers in 1931."
There was also a 19 minute Australian short film produced by Talking Walls Productions in 2003 based partially on the brothers' story called Collyer Brothers Syndrome.
In her 2009 crime novel Lethal Legacy Linda Fairstein creates a murder suspect named Travis Forbes. When her heroine, New York D. A. Alexandria Cooper, sees Travis's West 104th Street apartment, it is described in this way: "From the floor to the ceiling of the entryway, with only enough room for a single individual to pass through, were stacks upon stacks of books, magazines, and yellowed newspapers, piled on top of one another and towering over my head. They were so densely packed together that although they gave the illusion of being about to tumble over, there wasn't anywhere for them to fall." Her sidekick, Detective Mike Chapman, refers to this as "a Collyer situation." He explains: "To all cops, firemen - all 911 responders - that's the designated expression for a house so full of junk it's treacherous to get inside or back out." (Page 257)
In September 2009, Random House released E. L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley, which speculates on the brothers' inner lives. Taking considerable historical liberties, the novel extends their lifespans into the late 1970s (when they become gurus to a group of drug-using flower children) and switching the brothers' birth order.
Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale, famous recluses.
Hetty Green, businesswoman and miser of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Alexander Kennedy Miller, eccentric recluse and compulsive hoarder of Stutz automobiles.
Edmund Trebus, British compulsive hoarder.
This article includes a list of references, related reading or external links, but its sources remain unclear because it lacks inline citations. Please improve this article by introducing more precise citations where appropriate. (November 2008)
1.^ William Bryk (April 13, 2005). "The Collyer Brothers". New York Sun. http://www.nysun.com/on-the-town/col...rothers/12165/
. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
2.^ Time, April 7, 1947; "The Shy Men"
3.^ "The Collyer Brothers". Psychologist World. http://www.psychologistworld.com/iss...erbrothers.php
. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
4.^ "Collyer Brothers Park". New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/M305/
. Retrieved 2009-09-26.
5.^ "The Brothers Grim". The Washington Post. September 3, 2009.
E.L.Doctorow, "Homer and Langley; A Novel." Random House,First Printing edition, September 1, 2009.
Franz Lidz, "Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders: An Urban Historical" New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2003. ISBN 1-58234-311-X
The New York Times, August 16, 1923, page 15, "Obituary Herman L. Collyer"
The New York Times, April 5, 1939, page 26, "Gas company seizes meters of 'hermits'"
The New York Times, August 5, 1942, page 21, "Mortgage on recluses' home is foreclosed, but legendary brothers still hide within "
The New York Times, August 8, 1942, page 13, "Bank and Collyers declare a truce"
The New York Times, September 30, 1942, page 24, "Collyer mansion keeps its secrets"
The New York Times, October 2, 1942, page 27, "Order ejects Collyers"
The New York Times, November 19, 1942, page 27, "Collyers pay off $6,700 mortgage as evictors smash way into home"
The New York Times, November 21, 1942, page 24, "Collyers get deed to home"
The New York Times, February 3, 1943, page 21, "Collyers may lose house"
The New York Times, February 4, 1943, page 24, "Government gets Collyer property"
The New York Times, July 27, 1946, page 16, "Subpoena flushes Harlem recluse"
The New York Times, January 28, 1947, page 25, "Hermit brothers get $7,500 award"
The New York Times, March 22, 1947, page 01, "Homer Collyer, Harlem recluse, found dead at 70. Police require two hours to break into 5th Avenue home, booby-trapped with junk brother fails to appear investigators think, however, he may be 'Charles Smith' who summoned them. Homer Collyer found dead at 70 as police forced entrance into home of recluses. Homer Collyer was found dead yesterday in his decaying brownstone house at 2078 Fifth Avenue, but the legend of the two recluse Collyer brothers still lives on."
The New York Times, March 26, 1947, page C24, "The Collyer mystery. To patrolmen on the midnight-to-eight tour, who sometimes chatted with Langley Collyer on his nocturnal strolls, he seemed, for all his shabbiness, a well-mannered and cultured old gentleman. They probably never thought that some day the entire Police Department would be on the lookout for him."
The New York Times, March 27, 1947, page 56, "Langley Collyer is dead"
The New York Times, April 2, 1947, page 38, "53 attend burial of Homer Collyer; 2 Harlem Neighbors Present, but Langley Does Not Appear -- Police Press Search. Homer Collyer was buried yesterday in the family plot in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Queens."
The New York Times, April 9, 1947, page 1, "Body of Collyer Is Found Near Where Brother Died. Langley Collyer was found dead yesterday in his old brownstone home at 2078 Fifth Avenue. His body, wedged in a booby trap set to keep out intruders, was lying in the same room on the second floor where his blind brother, Homer, had been found dead on March 21.
The New York Times, April 12, 1947, page 15, "Langley Collyer buried"
Time; April 7, 1947; page 27, "The Shy Men"
Article on the Collyer brothers on the Compulsive Hoarding Website Obsessive Compulsive Foundation
Erskine, Helen Worden (1953). Out of This World. G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Lidz, Franz. "The Paper Chase", The New York Times, October 26, 2003.
Lidz, Franz (2003). Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders. Bloomsbury. ISBN 158234311X
Maeder, Jay. The Collyer Brothers Ghost Story. NY Daily News, July 12, 1998. DeLorenzo's Dugout