The Collyer Brothers

Recluses in New York City

The brothers Homer (1881–1947) and Langley Collyer (1885–1947) isolated themselves from the outer world in their twelve-room brown-stone house in the northeast corner of the 5th Avenue and 128th Street in Harlem, New York City. They collected an insane quantity of objects, books, newspapers and junk.

The Collyer brothers had a relatively wealthy family background. Their father was a gynecologist. The mother was an educated woman and had a great interest in literature. Homer received a degree from Columbia University and became an admiralty lawyer. Langley obtained a degree in engineering, but had changed career to concert pianist. In the early 1900s the family moved from Long Island to a three-story mansion in Harlem, New York. At this point in time Harlem was a fashionable area for the white upper middle class.
Their father abandoned the family in 1909. Homer and Langley, both in their twenties, continued living in the mansion with their mother. Harlem was changing drastically and economic recession in the 1910s transformed the neighbourhood for ever.

The brothers gradually became hermits. In 1917 telephone and water was disconnected from their house. They fetched their water from a post in a park four blocks away. From 1928 they didn't have gas or electricity either. For a while, Langley attempted to generate his own energy by means of a T-Ford car engine. Only a small kerosene heater supplied heating for the large house. In 1929 their mother died.

There were rumours that their house contained vast hidden treasures. And to protect themselves against trespassers and other visitors all doors were barricaded with piles of books, newspapers and various junk. They boarded up the windows, and Langley set about using his engineering skills to set up booby traps – tin cans joined by steel wire and connected to huge piles of junk and garbage.

Homer stopped practicing law in 1932, when he was 51 years old. Already crippled by rheumatism, he went blind a couple of years later. Langley took care of his brother. He fed him and washed him, read for him and played the piano. Langley also devised a cure, a diet of one hundred oranges a week. And he saved every newspaper he could get hold of, for Homer to read when his eyesight returned. New Year’s Day 1940 Homer showed himself outside for the last time.

Langley went long rounds often at night to buy food, get water and find things they might need. He regularly went all the way to Brooklyn to buy black bread. He put everything into a wooden box that he pulled by a string.

On March 21, 1947, a patrol officer was dispatched to the home of Homer and Langley Collyer. An anonymous tipster had phoned the police insisting there was a dead body in the house. Getting into the house was difficult, and the doors were locked; and while the basement windows were broken, they were protected by iron grillwork. There was no doorbell or telephone. The front door was opened with hatchets and crowbars but behind it there were huge piles of carefully packed newspapers, rags and rubbish. Reinforcements were sent for. The cellar door and windows were also impenetrable. Patrolman William Baker finally made his way through a window into a second-story bedroom. After a two-hour crawl through a labyrinth of scrap and junk, he found Homer Collyer dead, wearing just a tattered blue and white bathrobe, his head resting on his knees.

Langley Collyer was found two weeks later. His remains were only ten feet from where Homer had died, caught in one of his own booby traps. His partially decomposed corpse was being set upon by rats and they had eaten half his face, both hands, both feet and parts of his right thigh. Newspaper bundles, books, suitcases, cans and old furniture had fallen down on Langley and suffocated him. That booby trap snapped on him when he was coming to his brother with food. Homer starved to death several days later when Langley no longer could take care of him.

Some 180 tons of objects and junk was removed from the house of the Collyer brothers. A hole had to be made in the roof to get in and clean the place out. Items removed from the house included: Fourteen pianos, three tailor’s dummies, a bicycle, the chassis of an old T-ford, a dinosaur egg, an early x-ray equipment, the jawbones of a horse, five violins, Christmas trees, two organs, fifteen thousand books about medicine, pinup pictures, 150 meter unused cloth, camera equipment, fire weapons, toys, baby carriages and some six ton of newspapers. What was salvageable from the house fetched less than $1,892 at an auction. Six months later the house was torn down as a fire hazard. Today there is a small park with sycamore trees where the house once stood. And the brothers Homer and Langley Collyer rest in an unmarked grave on Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn.

When asked why they chose to live that way Langley Collyer just said they preferred to be alone.

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