The Collyer Brothers of Harlem: The World’s First Hoarders
Strange rumors about the strange Collyer brothers swirled around New York City for decades. The brothers started out life with so much privilege, but they somehow took a strange turn down a dark path. Some feared them, others envied their treasures. When police were forced to break into their Harlem mansion on one fateful day in 1947, they were shocked by what they found inside. It was a real-life house of horrors. How did this happen? Read on to find out more about the brothers and how they fell into a life of seclusion and extreme hoarding.
The notorious Collyer brothers started out life in Manhattan, born to Herman Livingston Collyer and Susie Gage Frost. The eldest brother, Homer, was born in 1881, while the younger one, Langley, was born in 1885. An older sister named Susan died at four months old.
The Collyer family can trace its lineage back to some of the earliest Americans. Their ancestors arrived in America on the Speedwell, just a few weeks after the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. They also claimed to be related to the powerful Livingston family that arrived to New York in 1672. Both families were Puritan pilgrims.
The Opera Singer
The mother of the family, Susie Frost, came from a wealthy and powerful family. She was born in 1856 in Duchess County, New York and was highly educated. She was also musically gifted and became an opera singer, performing at a number of iconic theaters around New York City.
She instilled the importance of education in her two children, making sure that they would be successful in whatever they did. But little did she know that things would turn out so badly and so tragically.
The Eccentric Gynecologist
Frost married Herman Livingston Collyer, her first cousin. He also came from a respected and wealthy family and was, himself, a gynecologist at Bellevue Hospital in Midtown. He was rather eccentric and occasionally canoed to work from Harlem.
He was known to walk blocks from his family’s 5th avenue brownstone to the East River with his canoe in hand on his way to work. He also kept a wide array of odd medical items at his practice, including human organs pickled in jars.
Homer and Langley’s Education
Homer and Langley Collyer attended Columbia University. Homer graduated with a degree in admiralty law, a specific type of law dealing with maritime incidents and offenses. Langley graduated with a degree in engineering and chemistry.
Both of the brothers were incredibly talented, had promising futures ahead of them, and were expected to follow in their family’s successful footsteps. It would all come to work against them, however. Read on to find out.
The Harlem Brownstone
What seemed like a happy, albeit eccentric, family from the outside quickly fell apart once the brothers were settled into their adult lives. Their parents divorced, and Dr. Collyer moved out. The brothers, who were still unmarried and living at home, were forced to decide which parent to live with.
They decided to stay with their mother at the brownstone on 2078 Fifth Avenue, presumably because they were closer to her or just didn’t want to uproot their lives. The brothers never imagined that the home they grew to love so much would set the scene for a sick, sad future.
Homer quickly became a successful and respected lawyer while Langley grew into a talented pianist. He performed multiple times at the famous Carnegie Hall. For a long time, everything seemed to be going well for the duo.
Perhaps things were going too well. Slowly, Langley started getting frustrated with the competition that came from being a professional pianist. Full of doubts about his abilities and jealousy over his competitors, he quit. He began to sell pianos, which were stored inside the family home.
The Passing of Dr. Collyer
Dr. Collyer passed away in 1923, leaving all of his possessions to his wife. Feeling a strong sentimental attachment to each of his things, the family moved all his belongings into to their Harlem brownstone. The items included a vast collection of tens of thousands of medical books, furniture and his bizarre collection of organs in glass jars.
Their once-spacious Harlem mansion quickly filled up with the additional items. The circumstances surrounding their father’s death are unknown but it apparently left a deep impression on his two surviving children and ex-wife. His death marked the beginning of a dangerous trend in the brothers’ lives.
The Passing of Mrs. Collyer
Everything was going seemingly well for the family. Homer kept practicing law and Langley was still working as a piano salesman. For his work, he kept a number of pianos, including grand pianos, in the family home. The mansion was quickly filling up.
Susie Collyer passed away in 1929, leaving her large inheritance to her two sons, Homer and Langley. The two were now alone in the brownstone mansion, surrounded by the belongings of their late mother and father, along with a nice fortune.
The Great Depression
Both Homer and Langley continued to live life as normally as they could without their parents. They went on working, socializing, and even taught Sunday school at Trinity Church in New York City, where their family had been attending services since 1697.
However, things slowly began taking a turn for the worse when the Great Depression set in, turning their world upside down. Their once-affluent neighborhood of Harlem became rapidly poorer and poorer. By the early 1930s, around 25% of the neighborhood’s residents were unemployed.
A Changing Neighborhood
The Great Depression, coupled along with the opening of a new subway station in the neighborhood, drew in large amounts of African Americans and Puerto Ricans in search of better opportunities to Harlem. The demographic changes occurred quickly and frightened the brothers greatly.
Crime in the neighborhood also grew to an all-time high. With people out of work and starving, many were willing to resort to any means necessary to survive. That included stealing from those who appeared to have more than others. The rich Collyer Brothers were a prime target.
The next tragedy struck when Homer suddenly went blind in 1933 due to hemorrhages in the back of his eyes. No longer able to work, he resided himself to a life at home, closing himself off from the outside world. His brother Langley decided to quit his job selling pianos to stay home with his brother full-time. They slowly started to become shut-ins.
They never went to doctors for treatment because they believed that doctors just couldn’t be trusted. Between the both of them, they believed that they had enough medical knowledge to cure Homer’s blindness. What they didn’t know, Langley would look up in his late father’s vast collection of medical books.
The brother’s most bizarre tendencies started when they both retreated from public life, creating a dark shroud of mystery around themselves. Langley believed that he himself could cure Homer of his blindness through a diet of 100 oranges per week, black bread, and peanut butter.
The brothers refused to seek the help of a medical professional, believing that they would cut Homer’s optic nerve, rendering him blind for the rest of his life. Homer continued his self-prescribed treatment of diet and rest for a long period of time, but he never got better. In fact, the opposite happened…
The Situation Worsens
Both brothers became extremely paranoid about the outside world and even though Homer’s health kept getting worse, they still refused to take him to a doctor. He eventually developed inflammatory rheumatism. It seemed that the longer the brothers were closed off in their home, the stranger things became.
The illness left Homer paralyzed. His body became permanently locked in the fetal position, yet still, the brothers didn’t call for help. They believed that whatever medicine the doctor would give him would only hasten Homer’s death. By this point, it was obvious that mental illness had overtaken them but, with their parents gone, no one was left to intervene.
Langley was still certain that his home remedies would cure his ailing brother and although they had secluded themselves from the world, Langley was forced to leave the mansion from time to time to get food and other necessities. Whenever he left the home, though, it was almost always under the cover of darkness, as seen in this rare photo of Langley from 1935.
In order to avoid being the possible target of robbers, he would dress in rags held together with safety pins. After all, no one would think to rob a homeless man. So off he would go on his strange nighttime adventures into the outside world.
An Odd Collection
Langley slowly began to develop a habit of hoarding newspapers. He wanted for Homer to be able to read all the news that he had missed while blind. They held fast to the assumption that Homer was soon going to get better. They couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
Soon piles upon piles of newspapers began to fill up the home. But that wasn’t the only thing that Langley would bring back from his night adventures. In a house already full to the brim with his parent’s things, he started bringing back eccentric items.
Langley’s collecting habits soon turned into scavenging. He roamed the streets of New York City for miles on end searching through the garbage and taking any item that piqued his interest. From scraps of food to just plain junk, nothing was off limits.
Having studied engineering, Langley loved to tinker with gadgets and build things from scratch. This skill came into great use while he attempted to re-engineer the interior of their Harlem brownstone. It also came in handy for coping with their unusual hoarding issues.
There were many difficulties that came along with living a life of seclusion, but perhaps the hardest one was finding a way to pay the bills. As neither of the brothers would leave the house during the daytime, none of their bills were being paid.
Soon the mansion’s telephone, electricity, water and gas were all disconnected. Langley took to creating things to make their lives at home more comfortable—well, as comfortable as possible without heat, water and electricity. Langley adapted the engine of a Model T Ford into a generator for power.
Rumors and Treasures
The Collyer Brothers’ odd lifestyle caught the attention of the entire neighborhood. Rumors began to swirl that the brothers were so secretive because they were hoarding gold and other treasures in their home and didn’t want other people to find out.
Every once in a while people, would stop to stare at the house, wondering what lied inside. Some would even try to get a quick peek in the window. This only pushed the brothers further into their paranoid states, fearing that people would soon try to break in.
The brothers’ fear that someone would attempt to break-in came to fruition, at least allegedly. They claimed a man attempted to break-in to their basement window and filed a lawsuit against the man. Langley was so headstrong in suing the man that he even made an appearance in court!
Langley was photographed at the courthouse waiting to give his testimony. It is one of the few existing pictures of the notorious man. The attempted break-in pushed the brothers farther into seclusion. They felt that they needed to be prepared to protect themselves from outside invaders.
From that point on, the brothers went on the defensive. Langley, being the only brother physically able to move, barred the downstairs windows and barricade them shut with items he had hoarded from the streets and from his parents. Pictured is Langley speaking with a police officer in the late 1930s from behind one street-level barricade.
He began the process of closing the house off from the inside. Again his engineering skills came in handy but in a counterproductive way. While Langley attempted to keep his brother and himself safe inside the house, the building itself was crumbling and rotting.
The Harlem mansion, which was once one of the finest homes New York City had to offer, had turned into a hazard. Parts of the roof had already collapsed and rainwater poured in, rotting the walls and floors. Loose bricks and mortar littered the floors.
On top of leaving the brothers exposed to the elements, it allowed for animals and rodents to enter at will. The brownstone was soon infested with rats and feral cats. Whatever “sanitary” conditions the house once had no longer existed.
A Scavenge Hunt
Langley continued his nighttime scavenging for food and other items, sometimes walking as far as Williamsburg for a loaf of bread. The walk from Harlem to Williamsburg and back would take around six hours! That certainly is dedication. But why did he walk so far?
No one is certain as to why he decided to travel such a long distance. Perhaps he wanted to be far from his own neighborhood, for fear that someone would recognize him. On his journeys, he would talk to no one. His only connection to the outside world was through the newspapers he read and the crystal radio that he built that didn’t require an energy source.
Homer hadn’t been seen in public since the day that he went blind and decided to shut himself away from the public eye in the family’s home. Many people were curious as to what had happened to him. Some believed that he died in the house or that his brother killed him.
One day, Langley caught a neighbor trying to peek into an upstairs window from a neighboring building. The incident infuriated him so much that he went all out and purchased that neighboring building. He paid $7,500 in cash, which today would be the equivalent of around $120,000.
After Langley purchased the neighboring building, he ordered all of the tenants out immediately. He was so protective of his brother that even the thought of a neighbor looking through their own window at the house was unacceptable. While the brothers had money, they were not good at paying bills on time.
Apart from that building, the brothers also purchased a neighboring building prior to the onset of the Great Depression, hoping to flip it for a profit. After the stock markets crashed, all hope of that was lost. The Collyers never paid bills or income tax on the building and it was eventually repossessed. The brothers argued that since they had no income they should not have been required to pay income tax.
A Massive Sum of Money
The Collyer brothers made national news in 1938 when The New York Times reported that a real estate agent offered to buy the Collyer’s Harlem brownstone for an astounding $125,000, the equivalent of around $2.1 million today. The brothers declined to sell the house.
The article also stirred up some of the unverified rumors that the Collyer brothers were hiding vast amounts of cash and other valuable treasures in their Harlem home. Its mention of the brothers’ hoarding habits increased the public’s interest in the eccentric duo.
In a rare sequence of events, Langley Collyer agreed to be interviewed by a New York World-Telegram reporter named Helen Worden. She would later go on to write a complete book on the brothers in 1954. When asked why he wore old tattered clothes, he replied, “They would rob me if I didn’t.”
Worden also asked the reclusive brother why he quit playing piano after having such success. He stated that a fellow pianist name Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who would go on to become the prime minister of Poland, received better reviews than he did. “What was the use of going on?” Langley asked.
The next big incident involving the Collyer brothers occurred in 1939 when workers from Consolidated Edison energy arrived at their Harlem residence to remove two gas meters. The meter had been shut off ten years prior, due to non-payment. Still, the brothers weren’t about to let the workers into their home!
For people who like to keep to themselves, the brothers made such a ruckus over letting in the workers that thousands of onlookers gathered in the street and it drew the attention of the media. The workers eventually forced their way through the front door and removed the gas meters, despite the brothers’ protests. After this, the Collyers made certain no one would be able to break-in through the front door ever again.
The brothers made headlines yet again in 1942, this time for the foreclosure of their home. They hadn’t made a mortgage payment on the brownstone in three years and the Bowery Savings Bank had enough of the eccentric brothers. The bank began the eviction procedures and sent in a cleanup crew.
When the team arrived at the house Langley started screaming, prompting neighbors to call the police. When they broke down the front door, they found the path blocked floor to ceiling with junk. Unable to proceed, they spent time clearing the junk out of the way and slowly made their way inside the house of horrors.
Paying the Bills
Once the police and bank officials were inside the home, they found Langley sitting in a clearing he had made in all the surrounding debris. According to reports, he didn’t say a word and simply wrote a check to pay off the entire mortgage in a single payment.
Langley wrote a check for $6,700, the equivalent of $104,000 today. He immediately ordered everyone to leave his house, yet again shutting himself off from the outside world. That was one of the very last times that Langley was seen… but not heard.
Over the next few years, very few people saw Langley, and no further dramatic events took place at their now-infamous home. Some people claimed to have seen the younger brother wandering the streets of New York City but no one could ever be certain.
Langley gained the nickname “the ghostly man” because he was almost never seen in public. On the rare occasion that he did go out, he strictly kept to the shadows. The neighborhood, intrigued by brothers, began to speculate.
Neighbors began to worry about the brothers, believing that they had heard strange sounds from within the mansion or were smelling something foul, like rotting corpses. Every so often a concerned citizen would call the police to inform them of the situation.
In fact, the police received so many calls that they worked out a system. When they would receive several calls about the Collyers, an officer would stop by the house. The officer, of course, would not be let in, but Langley would offer him some shouts from behind closed doors, just to reassure the police that he was still alive.
A Decaying Corpse
That process continued for a time until Langley stopped responding in March 1947. A caller, only identifying himself as “Charles Smith,” had informed the police that there was a dead body in the house. All was deadly silent within the house. This was unheard of because the brothers were always there.
The police were left with no choice but to break-in and find out what was going on. The police broke down the front door but were confronted with a wall of boxes, newspapers and other miscellaneous junk. A team began clearing out the foyer and throwing the junk into the street when New York city marshall James Larkin, pictured above, realized his only choice was to break in through a second-floor window.
Inside the Mansion
Once the officer was in the house he found an elaborately engineered system of defensive walls, tunnels and what appeared to be nests made for living quarters. He also encountered booby traps that were supposed to trigger piles of junk to fall on supposed intruders.
It took the search teams five hours of digging and clearing junk from the house to finally find something. They found the dead body of Homer Collyer hidden in one of the small ‘nests.’ Medical professionals determined that he died of starvation and heart disease.
Where is Langley?
The other brother, Langley, was nowhere to be found. This led police to suspect that Langley himself had been the one who phoned the police with the tip and then fled the scene. Police waited outside the house to see if he would return. But he never did.
Tips came in that Langley had been spotted on a bus to Atlantic City and search patrols were sent out. In all, police searched different areas in nine states based on tips they had received. The police were also waiting for Langley to make an appearance at Homer’s funeral. But again, he didn’t show up.
Langley is Found
By this point, police were beginning to suspect that Langley had died as well. The search crew continued to scour the Harlem mansion and sure enough, a full 18 days after Homer was found, Langley’s body was discovered. He was a mere 10 meters from where his brother died.
The cause of death was determined to be asphyxiation. He apparently tripped one of the booby traps in a tunnel, presumably on his way to feed his blind and paralyzed brother. He was then crushed by the debris that fell on top of him—another feat of his amazing engineering skills.
Rodents and Demolition
By the time police located Langley’s body, it had been partially eaten by rats. In fact, the entire mansion was in such a state of disrepair that it was declared a fire hazard and mark for demolition. But before a demolition could take place, all the junk within needed to be cleared.
The project was a massive endeavor and attracted crowds of onlookers, wanting to finally get a glimpse of what was inside. Reportedly thousands of people gathered to watch the cleanup. Junk poured out into the streets while teams threw items out of the windows and off the roof.
By the end of the cleanup project, it was estimated that around 140 tons of debris had been removed from the Harlem brownstone. Among the items found were 25,000 books, human organs in jars, eight live cats, 14 pianos (grand and upright), numerous musical instruments and tons of garbage.
Authorities also found a a human skeleton, a two-headed baby pickled in a jar, a horse jaw, x-ray machines, guns, and parts of Ford Model T. Any item of value found in the house was kept to be sold at auction.
While the auction of the Collyer brother’s salvageable items didn’t bring in a huge amount of money, their estate was valued at $91,000. That’s about $1.1 million by today’s monetary equivalent! Needless to say, everyone wanted a piece of the Collyer pie.
At least 56 people came forward trying to make claims to the Collyer fortune. Among those people were also a couple imposters. One of them was the infamous Ella Davis who attempted multiple times in her life to impersonate relatives of wealthy dead people. The estate was eventually split 23 ways to verified relatives of the brothers. What has become of the house today?
Despite the initial estimation that the items were worth $91,000, the auction only brought in $2,000, the equivalent of about $30,000 today. Most of the more bizarre items found in the Collyer house were taken and put on display in a museum exhibit.
The main item in the display was the chair in which Homer Collyer died. Their Harlem brownstone was demolished just one month after both bodies were located. A small park was built in its place and named in the brothers’ honor. Today, anyone can visit Collyer Brothers Park. However there’s more to their legacy that was left behind.
The Collyer brothers left behind a dark legacy. The phrase “Collyer Brothers” became synonymous with “a mess.” For decades after their deaths, mothers in the New York area could be heard telling their children that their rooms looked like “a regular Collyer Brothers!”
Even the Fire Department made the term “Collyer’s Mansion” into a code word for a house where hoarders lived. It refered to a place that was so full of trash and junk that it was a danger to both the residents and the rescue crew.
The First Hoarders
The Collyer brothers were certainly not the first hoarders in history but they were responsible for bringing the illness some much needed public attention. Much research still needs to be done on the topic of compulsive hoarding but there have been major advancements.
Compulsive hoarding is not just dangerous for the person with the disorder but also to those around them. Hoarding can cause fires, unsanitary conditions and other health and safety hazards. The condition is currently listed as both a mental disability and possibly a symptom of OCD.
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