For decades, Homer and Langley Collyer lived in seclusion in a brownstone at 2078 Fifth Avenue in Harlem, New York. The Collyer brothers became known as the worst hoarders in history, amassing a collection of 120 tons of odd and eclectic items. They also set up booby traps in their home to keep people out. But they both met a tragic end.
The Collyer brothers’ father, Dr. Herman Collyer, a Manhattan gynecologist at Bellevue Hospital, and his wife, Susie Collyer, moved the family into the Harlem brownstone in 1909, but the couple separated around 1919. Dr. Collyer moved to a new home, while Susie stayed in the house with Homer and Langley Collyer.
The brothers never married and remained living with their mother. Both brothers had attended Columbia University years earlier. Homer received a degree in admiralty law, while Langley pursued chemistry and engineering. Langley also worked professionally as a concert pianist for a short period.
In 1923, Dr. Collyer died and left everything to his sons. This included all of the equipment from his medical practice, which the brothers moved into the house. Their mother died in 1929 and also left all her possessions to them. Both brothers continued to live in the home, and Homer practiced law while Langley was a piano dealer. Homer lost his eyesight in 1933, and Langley quit his job to be a caretaker to his brother. Homer later became paralyzed due to another medical issue.
The Brothers Become Recluse
It was at this time that the brothers started to become more secluded. They became more fearful of changes that were taking place in the neighborhood from the effects of the Great Depression, as well as the change in racial demographics with more African Americans moving into vacant apartment buildings.
The reclusiveness and eccentricities brought on rumors, and people began to gather outside their home, which only increased their fear of the outside world. They boarded up windows, and Langley began constructing booby traps among the items in their home after several burglary attempts. Some rumors had spread that the brothers were storing large sums of money and valuables.
The house ended up having tripwires and tunnels amongst the trash and the vast array of other items that were piled to the ceiling. Langley cared for his brother and tried to cure his medical issues. The brothers wanted nothing to do with outside medical help and felt they had enough medical knowledge by having their father’s extensive medical library.
Langley would only leave the house after midnight to get food, buying only small items and picking other items from the trash left by butchers and grocers. He would also pick up other random things that interested him to take back to the house. While Langley was spotted outside the home, Homer never was and stayed inside after his health failures in 1933.
The brownstone had already begun to become dilapidated before their mother’s death. The telephone had been disconnected long before in 1917, and the electricity, gas, and water had been turned off in 1928 after the brothers failed to pay the bills.
Though the brothers didn’t pay their bills, they still had the money for large purchases. Langley bought a neighboring property for $7,500 when he found people trying to look into the windows of the brothers’ home. He also purchased a property across the street from their brownstone in 1932 with the idea of constructing apartments. But since the Collyer brothers stopped paying taxes in 1931, the City of New York eventually repossessed the property in 1943 for failure to pay back taxes.
The Beginning of the End
Starting in 1938, however, the Collyer brothers began to receive too much attention. A story came out in The New York Times about how the brothers refused to sell their home for $125,000 to a real estate agent. Information about their hoarding was included as well as false claims about how they were also hoarding large quantities of money.
Things only got worse for the brothers when gas workers for Consolidated Edison came to the house in 1939 to remove two gas meters that had been shut off in 1928. Crowds began to gather during the incident as workers forced their way into the brownstone.
And in August 1942, the Bowery Savings Bank sought payment for three years of delinquent mortgage payments, or they would begin eviction procedures. The bank formally began those procedures in November 1942 and sent workers to clean out the home.
The police were called to the home after Langley refused entry to the workers, and when they tried to break down the front door, they could not get in because of the pile of debris that went from the floor to the ceiling. When the police and workers finally got inside, Langley was in the middle of a room on top of a pile of junk. He promptly wrote a check for $6,700 to pay off the mortgage and ordered everyone to get out of the house.
For the next four and half years, Langley continued his after-midnight excursions into the outside world to collect more things and food, but everything came to an end in 1947. An anonymous person contacted the police on March 21, 1947, claiming there was a foul smell coming from the house and a dead body was inside.
A Look Inside and a Ghastly Discovery
An officer responded to the tip and attempted to get into the home but found there was too much debris to get in. Any other doors were locked, and the basement windows were covered with iron bars. Seven men were called to the home, and they began clearing all the junk and debris from the entry. There was nowhere to put it except on the street outside.
One patrolman was able to get through a second-story bedroom window, but it was also completely blocked by boxes, newspaper bundles, and other items tied together. After digging for five hours through the items and trash that went to the ceiling, they found Homer’s body slumped over. Homer was identified by a medical examiner who said he had been dead for around ten hours due to starvation and heart disease.
Police couldn’t locate Langley in the home and suspected he might have been the anonymous person who left the tip and then left the house. In fact, the tipster was a neighbor who had been acting on rumors he had heard. The police waited for Langley to return, but he never showed.
Reports of sightings of Langley were made in the coming weeks, but none of them turned up anything. When Homer’s funeral came and went on April 1, 1947, police suspected Langley was possibly dead.
The Search for Langley
Police and workers continued to search the house, clearing debris and carefully steering clear of the booby traps amongst the rubbish. Workers removed everything, from stacks of old newspapers and boxes to a radiator, bicycles, and musical instruments. They found glass chandeliers, dressmaker dummies, broken bottles, oil stoves, and trunks filled to the brim with other items. They also found a human skeleton, an x-ray machine, five pianos in the basement, and 25,000 books.
On April 8, 1947, a worker discovered the body of Langley Collyer under the debris in a narrow tunnel only ten feet away from the spot where his brother had been found. The medical examiner estimated that Langley had been dead anywhere from two weeks to a month, and without a caretaker, Homer had starved to death. It was believed that Langley had set off one of his heavily weighted booby traps and had been trapped under a large box or crate, unable to move or breathe.
A crowd grew outside the brownstone to an estimated 5,000 people while workers continued to empty the home, removing around 120 tons of junk and placing it on the street. The house was condemned and razed in July 1947. The term “Collyer Brothers” became a saying with New Yorkers, referring to something that was a mess.
The site where the house previously sat became a vacant lot but was developed into a pocket park named after the brothers called Collyer Brothers Park.