Homer 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.
The brothers are often cited as an example of compulsive hoarding associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as disposophobia or 'Collyer brothers syndrome,' a fear of throwing anything away. 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.
he 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 also played the piano and became a self-styled musician with 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 them 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 crippled brother. He also dragged home countless pieces of abandoned junk that aroused his interest. In 1933, Homer, already crippled by rheumatism, went blind from hemorrhages in the back of both 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 he went blind, any plans of making money off 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 ...
... 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. 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 7 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 for weeks.
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 2 days later, removing 3,000 more 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.
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 3 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.
Police and workmen removed 130 tons of garbage from the house. What was salvageable fetched less than $2,000 at auction; the cumulative estate of the Collyer brothers was valued at $91,000, 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, 3 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, 8 live cats, the chassis of the old Model T Langley had been tinkering with, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, 2 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.
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 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.