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Homer Collyer, 1939, arguing with police officers
|Born||Homer Lusk Collyer
November 6, 1881
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Harlem, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||Starvation|
Langley Collyer (right) with attorney, 1946
|Born||Langley Wakeman Collyer
October 3, 1885
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Harlem, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||Crush injury|
Homer Lusk Collyer (November 6, 1881 – March 1947) and Langley Wakeman Collyer (October 3, 1885 – March 1947), known as the Collyer brothers, were two American brothers who became famous because of their bizarre natures and compulsive hoarding. For decades, neighborhood rumors swirled around the rarely seen men and their home at 2078 Fifth Avenue (at the corner of 128th Street), in Manhattan, where they obsessively collected books, furniture, musical instruments, and many other items, with booby traps set up in corridors and doorways to ensnare intruders.
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), a former opera singer. Their parents were first cousins. The Collyer family alleged their roots could be traced to a fictional ship that supposedly arrived in America from England a week after the Mayflower. The family was descended from the Livingston family, a New York family with roots going back to the 18th century. Robert Livingston was the first of the Livingston family to emigrate to America in 1672 – fifty-two years after the Mayflower. The couple had a daughter, Susan, who died as an infant in 1880. The following year, on November 6, 1881, they had their first son, Homer Lusk, and in 1885 Langley was born. They were living in a tenement while Herman interned at Bellevue. As a child, Homer attended PS (Public School) 69. At the age of fourteen, he was accepted to the College of the City of New York as a "sub-freshman", earning his bachelor's degree six years later.
Both sons attended Columbia University, which had just relocated to its present-day Morningside Heights campus. Homer obtained a degree in admiralty law, while Langley is said to have received a degree in engineering, though Columbia University states it has no records of his attendance; Langley made attempts at being an inventor. 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 the house in Harlem after April 1910 (they are reported as living at 109 East 54th Street in the 1910 Federal Census, taken 23 April 1910). 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 to 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 their possessions and moved them into their house in Harlem.
Neighborhood people 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 eccentricities. They boarded up the windows, and Langley set about using his engineering skills to set up booby traps. Due to their failure to pay the bills, their telephone service was disconnected in 1917; electricity, water, and gas were turned off in 1928. 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 an intended 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 income taxes that the Collyers owed 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 in 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 ($95,724 as of 2013), 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's death
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 nor telephone and the doors were locked; and though 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 throwing 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 six hundred 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. Reports of Langley sightings led police to a total of nine states. 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 nineteen 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 eighty-four 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's death
On April 8, 1947, workman Artie Matthews found the body of Langley Collyer just ten feet from where Homer had 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.
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 $1,089,360 as of 2013), of which $20,000 worth was personal property (jewelry, cash, securities, and the like).
Items were removed from the house such as 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 other fabrics, clocks, fourteen 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 had died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks, with a total of $3,007.18 (about $35,997 as of 2013).
There was also a great deal of garbage. The house itself, having long gone without maintenance, 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.
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.
In The Honeymooners television series, Ed Norton, poking fun at his friend Ralph Kramden for his thriftiness, tells him that his meager gas bill "broke the all time low gas bill record set by the Collyer brothers in 1931."
The 1995 movie Unstrung Heroes features two uncles whose lifestyle and apartment are a direct homage to the Collyer brothers. The film was based on a 1991 memoir by Franz Lidz, whose 2003 urban historical Ghosty Men (published by Bloomsbury USA) is the definitive history of the Collyers. Ghosty Men also chronicles the parallel life of Arthur Lidz, the hermit uncle featured in Unstrung Heroes. Uncle Arthur grew up near the Collyer mansion and was inspired by the brothers.
A Collyer's Mansion (also Collyer Mansion or just Collyer) is a modern firefighting term for a dwelling of hoarders that is so filled with trash and debris it becomes a serious danger to the occupants and emergency responders.
In 2002, playwright Richard Greenberg released The Dazzle, which told a story loosely based on the brothers' lives after their parents' deaths, leading up to their own death. In the play, Homer dies before Langley, and the two fall in love with the same woman. The author's note in the beginning of the play claims "The Dazzle is based on the lives of the Collyer brothers, about whom I know almost nothing."
In September 2009, Random House released E. L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley, a work of historical fiction that speculates on the brothers' inner lives. Taking considerable historical liberties, the novel extends their lifespans into the late 1970s and switches the brothers' birth order.
In 2003, Australian writer-director David Willing and writer-producer Jessica Birnbaum made a 19-minute short film titled "Collier Brothers Syndrome". It screened twice on the Australian Broadcast Network SBS and at several film festivals.
- 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.
- William Bryk (April 13, 2005). "The Collyer Brothers". New York Sun. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
- Jarvis, Robert M. (2007), "THE CURIOUS LEGAL CAREER OF HOMER L. COLLYER". Journal of Maritime Law & Commerce. 38 (4):571-582
- Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2013. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved March 31, 2013.
- Monday, Apr. 07, 1947 (1947-04-07). "''Time'', April 7, 1947; "The Shy Men"". Time.com. Retrieved 2010-12-31.
- Baum, Arthur W. (January 10, 1948), "The Thundering Herd of Wall Street". Saturday Evening Post. 220 (28):20
- Hao, Rita (Fall 2007), "boxed in". Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. (37):27
- "The Collyer Brothers". Psychologist World. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
- Lidz, Franz (2003-10-26). "The Paper Chase - NYTimes.com". New York City: New York Times. Retrieved 2010-12-31.
- "Collyer Brothers Park". New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Retrieved 2009-09-26.
- Newman, Andy (2006-07-05). "'Collyers' Mansion' Is Code for Firefighters' Nightmare - NYTimes.com". New York City: New York Times. Retrieved 2011-06-26.
- Greenberg, Richard (2003). The Dazzle (1st ed. ed.). New York: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-21123-2.
- (1/1/2010), "2009 Editors' Choice".Booklist. 106 (9/10):9
- "The Brothers Grim". The Washington Post. September 3, 2009.
- 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 1-58234-311-X