New York City police in the early 1900s dreaded calls about a particular house. Located at 2807 Fifth Avenue in Harlem, the home of the Collyer brothers was constantly the subject of neighborhood mysteries. When police finally gained entry to the house in 1947, they found one brother dead and 120 tons of junk.
Langley and Homer Collyer came from a family with deep roots in America. Their family was rumored to have arrived on the Speedwell—a ship that was believed to have made the trip to America right after the Mayflower.
When their mother passed away, they inherited the house. Neither ever married or had children, so they continued living together. Homer became a maritime lawyer and Langley worked as a piano dealer. They led seemingly normal lives, socializing with friends and going out, but then everything changed.
Homer lost his sight and became paralyzed. Instead of seeking medical help, Langley quit his job to care for his brother. In later interviews, he would claim there was no point in consulting a doctor. He said they were the sons of a doctor and had a vast collection of medical books. He would cure his brother. Truthfully, it seemed he feared doctors would cut his brother’s optic nerve, leaving no possibility of recovery.
“We decided not to call in any doctors. You see, we knew too much about medicine.”—Langley Collyer
As he spent his days bathing, dressing, and caring for his brother, Langley’s behavior became increasingly peculiar. Between sessions of playing the piano and reading poetry for his brother, Langley left to collect all sorts of things. He collected pianos, car parts, newspapers, and all sorts of junk.
Avoiding contact with people more and more, his activities grew into urban myths. Some said he stalked out at night and that he and his brother were secretly wealthy. Despite his rumored wealth, his electrical, water, and telephone services were removed after they failed to pay the bills.
Claiming he had no one he wanted to call, he made do with his own engineering prowess. He built a small radio—his brother’s only contact with the outside world. For electricity, he bought a Ford Model T, took it apart, and brought it into the cellar of the house piece by piece before reassembling it. For a time, they used the car to generate electricity. He bought a small heater to share with his brother and visited local parks to fetch water. He wore pinned-together clothes and avoided people as much as he could, but those who did talk to him said he was soft-spoken and pleasant.
Despite their apparent poverty, when bankers came to evict the brothers, Langley wrote them a check for the balance on the spot before asking them to leave. When a small fire started in the house, he refused to let firefighters see his brother, raising law enforcement and the neighborhood’s suspicions. Nobody but Langley had seen Homer in years.
When questioned about Homer, Langley reaffirmed he was getting better.
“Homer eats 100 oranges a week and is improving. He can sit up a little now”—Langley to reporters
When firemen noticed the stacks of newspapers in the house, Langley said he was keeping them so Homer could catch up on the world when his sight came back.
Depression And Death
As the Great Depression hit and the demographics of their neighborhood changed, the Collyer’s grew increasingly paranoid. Langley boarded up the windows and set a number of booby traps inside the house to deter burglars. He even bought a neighboring house to keep prying eyes away. Seeking to dispel the rumors, one man tried to buy the Collyer brownstone for days, but they simply ignored him.
It was in 1947 that New Yorkers finally got a glimpse inside the decaying mansion. Another report had been filed with the police against the Collyers, but this time it was about a dead body.
When police bashed in the front door they were agog at the 120 tons of junk inside. Though the home had no heat or electricity, it had dozens of grand pianos. Disarming booby traps and climbing through tunnels dug into the trash they found Homer Collyer’s dead body. They concluded he had been dead for half a day and had starved. They couldn’t find Langley… at first.
A wire went out for people to be on the lookout for the missing brother. Newspapers speculated he had disguised himself and left the city. After two weeks of searching, police found Langley buried under a mountain of junk just ten feet from where they had found Homer. Apparently one of his booby traps had gone off while he was bringing Homer a sandwich, killing him and starving his brother.
After removing all of the junk from the mansion, city officials pegged it for demolition. Today, the plot is a pocket-park named after the brothers, but their legacy also lives on in the jargon of the City Fire Department. A “Collyer Mansion” is code for a home filled with debris, posing a danger to occupants and rescue workers.