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The Strange Life and Death of Harlem’s Kings of Hoarders

The life of Homer and Langley Collyer began just about as well as anyone could want. Born in 1881 and 1885 respectively, they were the sons of two affluent and wealthy members of society, their father being the gynecologist Herman Livingston Collyer and their mother a former opera singer by the name of Susie Gage Frost Collyer. They had good educations growing up, both attending Columbia University, where Homer majored in admiralty law and Langley in engineering and chemistry. Langley was even a well-known, successful pianist, and it seemed like the world was their oyster. The family would move to a stately, four-story brownstone in Harlem on 5th Avenue, New York, in 1909, and it is here where their lives would begin to derail into the strange. So would begin the story of two of the weirdest characters in New York history, whose odd lives and deaths have been considered to be historical oddities ever since.

It perhaps really began when their parents separated in 1919, and the brothers decided to stay with their mother at the Brownstone. Their father would then pass away in 1923 to leave them all of his possessions, including a vast repository of medical books and equipment, and their mother would follow suit in 1929, also leaving them everything she had owned. This caused quite a bit of stress and turmoil for the brothers, as did the fact that they were nervous about the way the neighborhood of Harlem seemed to be degrading around them, but they still managed to maintain a somewhat normal façade until Homer suffered a stroke that left him blind. Langley then was forced to quit his lucrative law practice to stay home and care for his brother, and it is here when they would fully derail into the bizarre and become almost living urban legends.

Langley Collyer

First of all, Langley flat out refused to send his brother to a doctor, believing that it would only make his condition worse, and besides, he was sitting on a vast library of medical texts their father had left behind. Not that he seemed to have read any of them, as he took to feeding Homer one hundred oranges a week and lots of peanut butter, which he believed to be a sort of miracle cure for blindness, and he would play the piano for him and read him books. Even when Homer’s condition degraded and he was left partially paralyzed, Langley refused medical aid, partially because he didn’t believe in it and also because they had no steady income and were more or less poor by this point, at least so it seemed. Langley took to staying in the house all day, only to secretly venture out at night to collect all manner of junk to hoard away, building a generator out of spare parts when their utilities were cut off and using a tiny kerosene heater to heat the house, a lamp to push away the murk, as well as making various inventions. He would also forage for food to bring it back to the house, but these furtive excursions, in which he was almost like a wraith in his tattered clothes, were all anyone saw of them and as the amount of junk in the house exploded, rumors swirled around the two brothers.

One of the main rumors that made the rounds at the time was that, for all of their apparent poverty, they were actually massively wealthy eccentrics, and as their notoriety grew so did the crowds of curiosity seekers who would go by the weed-infested, junk-filled brownstone. Langley responded by boarding up all of the windows and doors. When there were some robbery attempts, Langley used his engineering know-how to rig the entire place with clever booby traps, and he also devised a system of tunnels through the mountains of garbage in order to secretly go place to place without being seen. Within these endless mounds of junk, which reached all the way to the ceiling, the brothers lived in what they called “nests,” little hidden cubby-holes where they could rest in peace surrounded by their fortress of trash, all interconnected by that system of dank passageways, which they would navigate on hands and knees. It might have looked to an outsider like the burrow of some underground creature if it weren’t the for the fact that these were two once well-respected men living in a brownstone.

Inside the Collyer palace of junk

As poor as they seemed, and for as filthy as their place was, with trash literally popping out of every orifice of the building, the brothers obviously had some money in reserve. Langley once flat out bought a neighboring property in order to keep people from using it to try and spy on them, and when the city came in to try to foreclose on them for not paying the mortgage, he wrote out a check for the full balance in exasperation, with the modern monetary equivalent of over $100,000, and calmly told the debt collectors to go away. Through it all, under no circumstances would Langley let anyone see Homer, and absolutely refused to allow anyone entry to the residence, to the point that he once barred firefighters from coming in to fight a fire that had started in their kingdom of junk. Because of Langley’s secrecy and the fact that no one had actually seem Homer Collyer in years, there were some suspicions beginning to grow in the neighborhood, and rumors that his corpse was buried somewhere in that forest of garbage and junk. It was at this time when police would get a peculiar phone call.

On March 17, 1947, an unknown caller informed the 122nd Police Precinct that there was a smell of deterioration coming from the Collyer house that was even worse than usual, and he was convinced that there was a dead body in there. Police arrived to find no way to even get into the home, so stuffed was it with piles of junk and newspapers. The door and all the windows were completely sealed with garbage, and so authorities had no choice but to just methodically remove the trash and throw it into the yard and street in an effort to gain access, as curiosity seekers gathered on the street by the hundreds. After five hours of digging through a smorgasbord of all manner of trash, they managed to reach a sort of clearing on the second floor, within which sat the dead body of Homer Collyer, with long, matted hair and wearing a blue-and-white bathrobe, his head in his knees and apparently dead of starvation.

police clearing the place out

There was no sign of Langley Collyer, and police came to the conclusion that not only had he fled, but that he had likely been the once who had placed the call that had tipped them off to the death of his brother. There were even eyewitness accounts saying that he had been seen fleeing the city, but these would turn out to be unfounded. In the meantime, the clearing of the brownstone had been going on in full swing, eventually removing 120 tons of trash, and after a week of digging and tunneling through an almost impenetrable, unimaginable load of garbage and miscellaneous junk of all types, including rather morbidly pickled human organs in jars, as well as 8 live cats, Langley’s decomposing corpse was found under a pile of newspapers and surrounded by stench not 10 feet away from his brother. The idea at the time was that he had been crawling through one of the secret tunnels to bring his brother food when it had collapsed on him to crush him to death, or that one of his elaborate traps had been accidentally sprung, leaving Homer to starve. Indeed, it would turn out that a neighbor had made the call, and that it had been Langley’s body, who had been dead for an estimated 2 weeks longer, that had caused the stink. A few months after the discoveries of the bodies, the entire house and its impressive collection of hoarded junk was burned to the ground. It would later be made into a pocket park named in their honor. It is a curious little piece of New York history to be commemorated in any way, these two eccentric recluses and their palace of garbage, but Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has said of it:

Sometimes history is written by accident… so there are some historic names that are not necessarily celebrated. Not all history is pretty — and many New York children were admonished by their parents to clean their room ‘or else you’ll end up like the Collyer brothers.

What happened to the Collyers? What drove these once respected and educated men to so thoroughly withdraw from society and embrace these strange ways? How is it that they managed to so thoroughly disconnect from the world in their palace of junk and why would they choose to do so? One wonders if they were truly happy sequestered away within the gloom of their tunnels of garbage and hoarded garbage, or if they simply felt that this was what they needed to do. We may never understand what exactly drove these two into this tragic tale, and it remains an interesting historical oddity and piece of strange New York history