We're now selling the biggest piece of junk in the house. Don't duck out on it.
In the summer of 1947, a Manhattan warehouse hosted an estate sale for the property of Homer and Langley Collyer.
Sold! For three hundred and ten dollars.
To an unwitting observer, the only strange feature of the auction was the unusually large attendance. Items included a grandfather clock, a panama hat and turn-of-the-century phonograph records. They were typical relics from the lives of two 19th-Century men.
In fact, the unusually numerous crowd was less interested in the items than in the Collyers, who had become New York City's crackpots du jour. Bidders sought a small connection with these inscrutable characters. One wonders if the buyers had any conception that their purchase was truly a shard of these broken, troubled men – a piece of a collection that had come to define and engulf them. Once acquired, each item betrayed the secrets of a rancid existence, from the layers of dust, their decrepit state, and most of all, from the stale, mildewy scent infecting every pore, overpowering the faint scent of orange peel.
The Collyer Brothers
Homer and Langley Collyer were brothers. Homer was the eldest by four years. They were born into a wealthy New York family in the 1880s. 'Our family is one of the oldest in New York. The first Collyer came from England on the Speedwell, which was really better than the Mayflower', Langley once boasted to a reporter. 'My great-grandfather, William Collyer, owned the largest shipyard on the East River waterfront. My mother and father were born at Tivoli on the Hudson. They were cousins of the Livingstons. Our people owned the first steamboats on the Hudson River.' It remains unclear how much of Langley's family stories were exaggerated1.
Homer and Langley were born to Susie and Herman Collyer. Their father was a successful gynecologist in the city. They received excellent educations. Homer earned a law degree, and Langley studied engineering at Columbia. In 1909, Homer, a recent graduate, and Langley, finishing up his studies, followed their parents when they moved to Harlem. The Harlem of 1909 was a wealthy, white neighborhood. In demographics, it was closer to the era of Alexander Hamilton than Malcolm X. Their new home was a vast brownstone mansion on Fifth Avenue at the corner of 128th Street. In later years, when Harlem became a slum, similarly capacious brownstones would be chopped into apartments, and would house hundreds. From the serried streets of modern Manhattan, it's difficult to imagine, but the Collyer home was enormous. Langley would later brag that 'It took ten vans to move our furniture.'
A number of acquaintances describe the boys as exceptionally bright – perhaps even too bright. They could discourse on philosophy, art, literature, music, science and law with stunning acuity. They were tolerant, well-rounded and inquisitive – modern Renaissance men. However, with their wits came a fierce independent streak. They refused to abide by social norms. Their physical appearance became more and more unusual over the years, as they resisted changing fashions and allowed their clothes to deteriorate. Homer often delighted in jarring strangers who assumed him to be a vagrant with his keen wit and intelligence.
By 1919, Herman and Susie had left their grown sons alone in the vast mansion2. It took a decade for either of the boys to find a job commensurate with their talents. Homer worked as a lawyer from 1928 to 1929 – the only year that either brother would ever have, or want, a job. However, predictably enough, Homer's independent streak flared up when his supervisor, noticing his tattered old shoes, offered him a raise. He quit immediately.
Over the years, the two adopted a siege mentality from inside their vast home. They stopped using utilities – first refusing to pay their telephone bill, then water and finally gas and electricity. After an attempted robbery, they began to leave the house less often – never both at the same time, and usually only at night.
Their most pronounced difference with society was the value they attributed to possessions. The brothers were inveterate hoarders, filling their home with objects that anyone else would have found worthless and disposed of. Indeed, there is little evidence that they ever threw anything away. As their years advanced, the Harlem mansion was filled to brimming with such an enormous quantity of objects that it became difficult to move, and Langley was forced to hew out tunnels through his 'collections'.
Langley liked to take long walks around New York at night. He fed cats along his way, and dragged behind him a cardboard box with a length of rope. Despite walking along some of New York's most dangerous streets, Langley's tattered clothes, long uncut hair, trail of meowing cats and loud, jangling box apparently did not offer an inviting prospect to muggers. He frequently had a destination, such as a butcher's or a bakery, where he would beg for free food. Sometimes he would walk as far as Brooklyn to visit a favorite store. He refused to take public transportation or taxis, deeming them a waste of money.
Many nights, Langley simply roamed the streets, searching through trash cans and dumpsters for 'collectibles'. Muttering epithets towards the shamefully wasteful modern generation, he would cut off the mold from a piece of bread found in the garbage and enjoy a free meal. Occasionally, as the brothers' notoriety grew, newspaper reporters would join his walks. They would find him a lively, engaging companion, if a bit curmudgeonly.
A Very Partial Inventory
- Sawhorse (1)
- Human excrement in jar (unknown quantity)
- Human urine in jar (unknown quantity)
- Clavichord (1)
- Grand Piano (10)3
- Upright Piano (4)
- Pipe Organ (2)
- Violin (5)
- Cornet (1)
- Trombone (1)
- Accordion (1)
- Paintings (several)
- X-Ray Machine (1)
- Canoe (1)
- Bicycle (several)
- Crib (1)
- Human skull (2) (note – found in crib)
- Medical books (thousands)
- Law books (2,500 – estimate)
- Two-headed fetus specimen in formaldehyde (1)
- Tree trunk (2)
- Cats (8) (note – living)
- Newspaper (70,000 – estimate)
- Magazines (unknown quantity)
- Glass chandelier (several)
- Child's toy train set (1)
- Horse skeleton (1)
- Chassis of Ford Model-T (1)
- Human organ in jar (unknown quantity)
- Dressmaking dummies (3)
- Bowling ball (several)
- Various furniture (unknown quantity)
- Kerosene stove (1)
- Christmas tree (several)
- Baby carriage (several)
Homer can't see, so he doesn't need light. As for me, I prefer it a trifle shady.
In 1934, Homer, like his poet namesake, began to lose his eyesight. By the fall of that year, he was completely blind. Being the son of a gynecologist and possessing a wide array of useless medical paraphernalia, Langley was confident that he was adequately equipped to treat his brother without consulting a real doctor. He put Homer on a strict diet which included a ration of 100 oranges per week. This Vitamin C surplus did nothing for Homer's joints, however, as he developed a severe case of rheumatism. His joints became so bad that he was unable to move or lie down, and remained perpetually hunched over, unmoving. He stopped leaving the house, and Langley assumed the role of caregiver.
Aside from feeding, bathing and cooking for his brother, Langley remained his intellectual companion. Langley would tell a reporter that Homer never slept, but rather spent that time inventing things in his mind. Homer described these inventions to Langley, who would paint them. Langley saved the paintings so that Homer could see them when he was cured. The brothers maintained their curious faith that Homer would eventually regain his sight. In fact, Langley saved each day's newspaper for Homer to someday read.
As time wore on, the city around the Collyers' brownstone changed as much as they didn't. Harlem metamorphosed from a genteel, white community into a predominantly black slum. The brothers lived through the Harlem Renaissance – a famed explosion of art, poetry, literature and music in the area. They also survived the Harlem race riots of 1935 and 1943, signaling the end of the Renaissance period. There is no indication that either Homer or Langley noticed any of this – except perhaps for the moral degeneration of the damned neighborhood kids, who were always breaking their windows. Surprisingly, Langley made several neighborhood friends – mostly with people who were awake and outside at night. Other neighbors spread rumors about the brothers. Some claimed that they were rich, and hid all of their money in the house. Some suggested that Homer was dead. Still others claimed that they were ghosts. Like most rumors, there is a little bit of truth and a little bit of falsity in each.
The brothers seemed to have ample means to provide for their low-maintenance lifestyle. They owned their own enormous home, as well as a similar mansion across the street. They also owned a significant tract of land on Long Island, which netted them a regular income from billboard advertisements – but it seems probable that at some point, they simply forgot that they owned this land, and stopped cashing the checks. After they stopped paying their bills, Langley indignantly argued that Homer, who was in charge of their finances, couldn't very well deal with money matters, being blind and paralyzed. When they defaulted on their mortgage, their bank was unsuccessful in its attempts to evict them. Opening the door to ceiling-high junk, they waited for Langley, like a worm in a hedge, to wiggle down to the ground floor. When they informed him that they were being evicted, Langley asked them to wait, disappeared for about half an hour, and then reappeared with a quantity of cash sufficient to pay off the entire mortgage. Yet at the same time, Langley was pleading poverty to extort free meat and rolls from neighborhood bakers and butchers. Contradictions abounded.
The Hunt for a Scavenger
On 21 March, 1947, New York police received a mysterious phone call from someone identifying himself as 'Charles Smith'. He reported that there was a death at the Collyer home. This was not the first such tip that police had investigated. On a prior occasion, they had come to investigate reports of Homer's death, only to be chased away by an irate Langley.
When a group of police went to the Collyer home to investigate the report, they received no response. The windows were all boarded up, or covered with paper, lending the mansion a desolate appearance. When they opened the door, a wall of decay and mildew greeted them. Once-valuable items were warped and collapsed into unrecognizable matter by the powerful pressure of everything else. The police found it impossible to move around the house, and opted to run a ladder up to the second floor. There, they discovered Homer's body, still hunched over with his knees tucked into his grey-bearded chin. He had been dead for days.
There was no sign of Langley anywhere in the house. Some suspected that Langley had killed Homer – others felt that Homer's death had freed him from his hermit's existence, and that he had fled. Neither seemed entirely implausible, and so police mounted a massive search for him. Tips took investigators all over the eastern seaboard, including North Carolina, upstate New York and New Jersey. The FBI even lent baffled New York police some help. Newspapers (for whom the Collyers were already urban folk heroes) offered rewards for information on his whereabouts. One homeless man, bearing a slight resemblance to Langley, was so beset with inquiries that he carried a sign reading, 'I AM NOT LANGLEY COLLYER, PLEASE!' When Homer was buried, detectives attended the funeral, believing that Langley might make an appearance.
One neighbor told police a story that caused some excitement. She said that Langley had once told her that if Homer died, he would jump into the river because his brother was all that he had to live for. When an old man was found floating in the East River, police believed they had finally found Langley. It was not him.
As the search for Langley continued over the course of several weeks, police began the long process of excavating the Collyer mansion. While hundreds of people watched from the street, workers took 15-minute shifts inside. They started the process from the top floor, fearing that the enormous quantity of junk (eventually estimated at 120 tons total) had come to support the house, and that removing anything from the ground floor would cause it all to cave in on itself. During the removal process, police discovered the series of tunnels that Langley had created, so that he would be able to move throughout the house like a gopher. Increasingly paranoid about thieves, Langley had installed booby traps in the tunnels, so that he was the only one who could safely traverse them.
Finally, on 8 April, 1947, one excavator reached into a pile of papers and felt a toe. It was Langley, wedged between a mahogany chest and a sewing machine4. His body was only ten feet from where Homer's had been found, but the massive amount of junk in between them had hidden him for more than two weeks. Investigators determined that he had been a victim of one of his own traps. Apparently, an errant limb had inadvertently triggered a mountain of his 'collections' to tumble down onto him, and smother him to death. Homer had helplessly succumbed to starvation and a lack of water, even as his brother was eaten by rats in the same room.
Their home was quickly torn down for safety reasons, and their property sold off. The most valuable stuff was auctioned off, and the rest was wholesaled to a man who used it as an exhibit for his carnival. Langley was interred next to his brother at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Appropriately, they ended life as they lived it, buried together.
The Collyers are often used as an easy parable on the dangers of materialism. Certainly being buried alive under one's own mountainous Aesopian ring to it. Yet the values that the brothers held even more dearly than their junk are rarely considered – independence, loyalty and an appetite for learning. Like so much else in their lives, their true character was lost in the shuffle.