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Hoarders – The Bizarre Story of Harlem’s Eccentric Collyer Brothers

A wall of junk hid the hermits of Harlem. In their brownstone mansion, the mad Collyer brothers hid from the world, protected by a mountain of trash and a barrage of booby traps. But one trap caught the wrong ‘intruder’.

Langley Collyer photo image
Langley Collyer in 1946

Not without reason did Harlem children call the old brownstone mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th street, New York, ‘The Ghostly House’.

Its windows were shuttered. The door was bolted and barred and few people who called there were admitted. Messengers from banks and mortgage companies, bailiffs with summonses and mailmen with demanding letters would push letters and documents through the mailbox, well aware that they would join a pile of mail that the tenants ignored.

Occasionally after dark a figure in clothes 50 years out of date would emerge from the basement and set off down the street pulling behind him a rope tied to a large wooden box.

Neighbors who knew him and called out a friendly remark got a courteous answer and walked on in wonder. For the man was Langley Collyer, once a concert pianist, MA. LLB, and LLM, brother of an equally talented man, Homer Collyer. From odd remarks from Langley some knew that the house contained a canoe in the attic, most of an old Ford car in the basement and the remainder in what had originally been the lounge.

The house was said to contain several pianos, 25,000 books and junk by the ton. Amid the squalor the two brothers lived with neither gas nor electricity, no telephone and no communication with the outside world apart from Langley’s weekly forays for food.

According to rumor the house was said to contain the bodies of the Collyer’ parents, but a reporter investigating the Collyer hermits’ background discovered that they had died years before and had been decently buried. She also discovered other strange facts about the brothers, however.

Perpetual Siege

Langley Collyer might have made a name for himself as a concert pianist until he heard Paderewski play and decided that his lesser talent would get him nowhere.

Homer Collyer was an expert in title research with an insurance company. When his boss realized that he walked to and from the office every day in shoes that had no soles and carried one sandwich for his lunch in an old newspaper he offered him a retrospective increase in salary and Homer Collyer never came back again, either for his raise or his current pay packet.

The Collyer brothers bought their house on mortgage and after a while they stopped paying the monthly installments. They had property in various parts of New York, but ignored offers to buy them. A regular source of income was land on which hoardings had been erected, but advertisers could not get the Collyer brothers to accept the rent. The Collyers paid no bills, ignored tax demands and lived almost in a state of perpetual siege.

Collyer brothers photographs skeleton
Authorities remove human remains found amongst the Collyer brother’s hoardings.
Photo: Ed Jackson / New York Daily News

Rumors that Homer Collyer had died reached the police so a sergeant was sent around to make inquiries. He was admitted and led by Langley Collyer past a maze of packing cases and heaps of rubbish. By the light of his torch, they found Homer, looking like a Mummy, wrapped in rags and propped up on a cot. “I’m not dead,” Homer said. “I’m blind and paralyzed, my legs are doubled up with rheumatism and I can’t lie down.”

Asked why he did not consult a doctor, Homer Collyer replied that his father had been one so he and Langley knew too much about doctors. “We have his canoe in the attic. He used to carry it on his head down to the river and paddle to the hospital and back every day.”

One day in 1942 the Bowery Savings Bank served notice on the Collyers to show why they should not be evicted for nonpayment of their mortgage for the past eleven years, a sum amounting to $6,700.00. Then Langley arrived, pulling his box of groceries, and made vague arrangements to pay off the debt.

He did nothing, so the city health authority obliged the bank to try to mitigate the health nuisance caused by the appalling state of ‘The Ghostly House.’ Firemen got in by the back, but found their way barred by a pile of old doors and slabs of marble. Langley Collyer appeared from behind a barricade of boxes and asked them to leave.

Meanwhile officials had examined the pile of unopened mail. They found checks for returned deposits on the telephone and other services, dividend warrants, tax refunds and notes from banks complaining that Collyer accounts had lain dormant for at least fifteen years.

After such a period those accounts, by law, could be appropriated by the State, but Langley Collyer was not even interested. For sixteen years he had neglected to collect rents on advertising signs. Why? No one knew.

Police and Firemen forced their way in only to meet an impenetrable wall of rubbish. After three hours they had dug their way only two feet into the drawing room and only gained access to that by cutting down the well barricaded door.

Then Langley Collyer appeared from behind one of the several pianos in the room and demanded the reason for the intrusion. When told that he owed $6,700, to avoid eviction he produced a roll of cash, paid the account in full and ushered the invaders back into the street.

Six months later, however, tax authorities invaded The Ghostly House, demanding payment of arrears or they would sell the house by public auction. Banks, hearing that the Collyers were actually meeting people, sent their representatives around to plead with Langley Collyer to accept his own money. He accepted it reluctantly, stating that he was managing without any wartime rations, light or fuel and heard as much as he wanted to learn of the outside world by listening to his crystal radio set.

Booby Trapped!

In March of 1947 the police were informed that there was a dead man in the Collyer mansion. Helped by firemen they began to break in once again. Every door was blocked by piles of rubbish, discarded furniture and large boulders. At last they came upon a body — that of Homer Collyer, who had apparently been dead for at least a week. Dressed in Victorian clothes, his hunched up body was lowered into an ambulance, watched by hundreds of people.

Collyer brothers biography hoarders photos
During clean-up efforts, junk from the Collyer Brothers’ mansion floods New York’s Fifth Ave.
Photo: Ed Jackson / New York Daily News

Further searching produced no sign of Langley Collyer so the firemen and police burrowed on, finding the Ford car and piles of unopened letters. All the time they had to beware of booby traps ingeniously sited so that a false step would bring a crushing load down on an unwary searcher’s head.

They dug out cans of garbage, several bankbooks, a glass jar containing a mummified two-headed baby, a collection of preserved human organs in glass jars, a human skeleton, 17 pianos, old-fashioned machinery that had belonged to old Dr Collyer, several organs, eight live cats, marble busts, paintings and furniture that had once been desirable and quite valuable but were now damaged beyond repair and, time and time again, piles of old newspapers and more books to add to the 25,000 in the library.

Days passed before an objectionable smell made further searching unpleasant. Then, under a pile of papers, someone felt a human foot — it was Langley Collyer’s! Carefully they dug him out and an examination in the hospital determined that he had been killed by one of his own booby traps. He had died suddenly while Homer Collyer, blind and paralyzed, was left in total darkness to die, waiting for the brother on whom he depended and who never came.

Neither the neighbors nor relations could suggest why two such talented and intelligent men who could have lived a life of ease had become recluses. They had been dominated by their mother so they probably lost all power to make their own decisions. One old letter suggested that Langley Collyer might have turned hermit after a disappointment in a love affair.

It cost $500 to remove more that 130 tons of debris from the Collyer home. The pianos and other musical instruments, a grandfather clock ten feet high and other curios were auctioned. The Ghostly House that was the Collyer brothers’ mansion was torn down the same year and left for some time as an empty, vacant lot. In the mid 1960s, due to the commonality of local residents using the lot for leisure activities, the city of New York designated the site as one of their so-called ‘vest-pocket parks‘ and named it in memory of the eccentric Collyer brothers who were famous for inhabiting the space. Collyer Brothers Park still exists today on that location.

The two-headed baby was not included in the sale. No one ever knew what happened to that. But, the very chair in which Homer Collyer died while sitting, waiting for his deceased brother to return and care for him, is now said to be in the collection of a Florida based collector of oddities who goes by the name of Babette Bombshell — a.k.a., The Plus Sized Goddess of Gore.



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