Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Collyer brothers

I've begun watching a new series on A&E called "Hoarders," which so far hasn't featured any animal hoarders like those I have blogged about. Each episode focuses on a couple of cases of the compulsive hoarding of belongings - packrats gone wild! - and attempts to clean up their houses and treat their disorders. My friend Cris reminded me of the Collyer brothers, a case so classic that "Collyer mansion" has become slang among firefighters for a house excessively packed with junk and trash.
Homer Lusk Collyer (1881-1947) and Langley Collyer (1885-1947) were eccentric and reclusive brothers living in a brownstone in Harlem, New York. The gas, telephone, electricity, and water were turned off in 1939 for nonpayment. Stacks of newspapers piled up, awaiting the return of Homer's sight, which he had lost in the early 1930's and which Langley was trying to restore with a diet of 100 oranges per week. The house already contained all the remnants of their father's gynecological practice and to this they added junk they collected from the street, cardboard and other refuse, and furniture. When an anonymous tipster insisted in 1947 that there was a corpse at the residence, police excavated their way inside and found the remains of Homer, but he had died less than 10 hours earlier. It took them more than 2 weeks to find the source of the odor: the body of Langley, decaying and being eaten by rats just 10 feet from where his brother had been found. Homer had died of malnutrition, dehydration, and cardiac arrest, but Langley had been killed by one of his own booby-traps several days earlier.
In total, 103 tons of stuff was removed from the house, of which $2,000 worth was salvageable. Items included:
  • 25,000 books and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some decades old
  • 14 pianos, both grand and upright, and other musical instruments
  • An x-ray machine, camera equipment, and a gramophone
  • Parts of a horse-drawn carriage, a sewing machine, a wine press, and a Model-T
  • Bicycles, baby carriages, chandeliers, bowling balls, umbrellas, and clocks
  • Dress-making dummies and hundreds of yards of fabric
  • Tapestries, portraits, and plaster busts
  • Their mother's hope chests
  • Human organs preserved in jars
  • Guns and ammunition
  • 8 live cats
The Collyer brothers' estate (cash, jewelry, securities, etc.) was worth a total of $91,000. The brothers have been portrayed in fiction and nonfiction, in plays and films. One of my favorite movies, Unstrung Heroes, is a direct homage to the Collyers.


  1. this may seem difficult to understand but there are many reclusive people who shun the world as much they possibly can. i am one of these types of people. i keep my residence at a 'tolerable' hoarding mess as a shield for my lifestyle as a naturist. i live alone and do my best to avoid as much contact with the 'outside world' as possible save occasions when i venture out - these ventures often reassure me that living as a hermit is the easiest and best existence there is.

  2. If you haven't already read it, I recommend E.L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley. It gives an imaginary account of the brother's lives and end. The timeline is a little different since the brothers live until the late 1960s, possibly early 70s. In pretty good physical shape, actually.


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