By William Beavers
Have you ever passed by the Collyer Brothers Park on Fifth Avenue and 128th Street? Did you wonder who these mysterious brothers were?
Homer and Langley Collyer are the most famous hoarders in NYC history, and one of them was literally killed by their belongings. If they were alive today, they would be the stars of the hit show “Hoarders.”
The Collyer brothers grew up in a well-to-do family. Their father was a well-known gynecologist and their mother, an educated woman, read the classics to her sons in Greek. They lived in a four-story brownstone on Fifth Avenue at 128th Street and, after their parents died, Homer and Langley inherited the house and its contents.
Both brothers attended Columbia University—Homer obtained a law degree, while Langley studied engineering and chemistry. Homer went on to practice law while Langley, who was an accomplished concert pianist, sold pianos. In 1933, at age 52, Homer lost his eyesight, so Langley quit his job to care for him. Over time, the brothers grew reclusive while obsessively collecting medical books, furniture, newspapers, clocks, musical instruments (17 grand pianos by one account), baby carriages, you name it. Langley did the collecting—going through garbage and picking up abandoned items that sparked his interest. Homer never left the house.
As tales about their unconventional lifestyle spread, rumor had it that the mansion contained untold valuables, which incited a series of burglaries. In response, Langley began boarding up the windows and setting booby traps and tunnels among the refuse that filled the house. The brothers stopped opening their mail and did not pay their bills so their utilities were turned off. About this time Langley tried to generate electricity by means of a car engine inside the house. He fetched his and Homer’s water from a nearby park pump.
Things continued to deteriorate for years until in March 1947 authorities received an anonymous tip that there was a dead body in the house. A squad of seven men eventually had no choice but to begin pulling out all of the junk blocking their way and throw it into the street: broken frying pans, crushed umbrellas, rusted bicycles, and tens of thousands of yellowing newspapers. A patrolman finally broke into a second-story bedroom and found Homer’s body. The coroner determined that 65-year old Homer had died hours earlier from starvation and heart disease. But where was Langley? He could not be found.
A massive manhunt was launched over nine states. Seventeen days later Langley’s body was found only ten feet from where Homer had been discovered. Police said he had been crawling through a tunnel to bring food to his brother when he tripped on one of his own booby traps and was crushed by debris. After the brothers’ deaths, over 140 tons of debris and junk was removed the house and the house was razed.
A “Collyers mansion” is now a firefighting term for a dwelling so choked with debris that it is a hazard both to the occupants as well as emergency responders. Today there is tiny “pocket park” where the mansion once stood, featuring tall sycamores and other plantings. It is generally closed to the public, but in recent years neighborhood Christmas tree lighting has taken place there.
William Beavers is a New York writer and author of the “New York City Culture Catalog” (Abrams/Alliance for the Arts). Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org