For more on the Brothers Collyer you need to read Ghosty Men by Frank Lidz (2003). A reputedly good novel based on Homer and Langley is My Brother's Keeper by Marcia Davenport (1954).
Lot 142, Section 5, Graves 13 and 14
As rumors about the brothers' unconventional lifestyle spread throughout Harlem, crowds began to congregate outside their home. The attention caused the brothers' fears to increase along with their eccentricities. After neighborhood kids (who called Langley 'Spook' and 'Ghosty Man') threw rocks at their windows, they boarded them up and wired the doors shut. After unfounded rumors spread throughout the neighborhood that the their home contained valuables and large sums of money, several people attempted to burglarize it. To ensnare intruders, Langley used his engineering skills to construct labyrinthine tunnels, with booby traps consisting of junk and trash rigged with trip wires. Homer and Langley lived in nests created within the debris, piled high to the ceiling.
Langley spent the majority of his time tinkering with various inventions, such as a device to vacuum the inside of pianos and a Model T Ford adapted to generate electricity. After Homer became paralyzed due to inflammatory rheumatism in 1940 (and subsequently always sat with his knees drawn up to his chin to ease the pain), he refused to seek professional medical treatment because both brothers distrusted doctors. They feared that if Homer sought medical attention, doctors would cut his optic nerve, leaving him permanently blind, and give him drugs that would hasten his death. Langley later told a reporter, "You must remember that we are the sons of a doctor. We have a medical library of 15,000 books in the house. We decided we would not call in any doctors. You see, we knew too much about medicine." Langley continued tending to Homer's health, telling a reporter that he fed and bathed him, read him classic literature and played sonatas for him. Langley was determined to cure his brother's physical ailments through diet and rest. Langley concocted a meal plan for Homer consisting of 100 oranges per week, black bread and peanut butter, claiming this regimen was curing Homer's blindness. Langley told the NY Herald Tribune in 1942 - "I used to read to him. We had all the classics in our library. I used to read Shakespeare and Dickens, but my eyes went bad and I stopped. So now we just talk and listen to the radio". Langley had hooked up an old crystal set to a storage battery. He was now his brother's keeper in every sense.
Langley began leaving the house only after midnight and would walk miles all over the city to get food, sometimes going as far as Williamsburg in Brooklyn to buy as little as a loaf of bread. He would also pick food out of the garbage and collect food that was going to be thrown out by grocers and butchers to bring back to Homer. He also collected countless pieces of abandoned junk that piqued his curiosity.
By the early 1930's the Collyer house had fallen into disrepair. Their telephone was disconnected in 1917 and was never reconnected because they had no one to talk to. As the brothers failed to pay their utility bills the electricity, water, and gas were turned off in 1928. They took to cooking, warming and lighting the large house with kerosene. For a time, Langley attempted to generate electricity by means of a car engine. He would fetch their water from pumps in nearby parks.
In 1932, shortly before losing his sight, Homer purchased the property across the street at 2077 Fifth Avenue with the intent of developing it by putting up an apartment building, believing the new Triborough Bridge would revive real estate properties in Harlem (it did not). But after the onset of his blindness, any plans of profit from the real estate venture ended. Since the brothers stopped paying income taxes in 1931, the property was repossessed by the City in 1943 to pay the $1,900 in back income taxes the Collyers owed. Langley protested the repossession of their property, arguing that since they had no income, they should not have to pay income taxes.
Neighbors and shopkeepers in the area described Langley Collyer as a generally polite and rational man but added that he was crazy. A reporter who interviewed him in 1942 described him as a refined old gentleman with a liking for privacy who spoke in a low, polite and cultivated voice. His appearance was disheveled; he sported a droopy mustache, wore a old fashioned bicycle cap and his tattered clothes were held together by pins. While Langley ventured out of the home and occasionally interacted with others, Homer had not been seen or heard from since he went blind and retreated from the world in 1933. Langley was fiercely protective of Homer and would not allow anyone to see or speak to him. When he caught neighbors attempting to peek into their windows from a neighboring home, Langley bought the property for $7,500 cash. When a small fire broke out in the home in 1941, Langley refused to let firemen who extinguished the fire see or speak to his brother.
While rumors and legends abounded in Harlem about the brothers, they came to wider attention in 1938 when a story appeared in The New York Times. Maurice Gruber had been hanging around the Collyer home trying to talk to the brothers about purchasing nine acres of land they owned on Long Island for $125,000 (Dr. Collyer bought the tract as an investment in 1870, but the brothers hadn't seen the property in half a century). Mr. Gruber never got closer to them than banging on a zinc drainpipe. The Times repeated information about the brothers' hoarding and also repeated neighborhood rumors that the brothers lived in some sort of "Orientalist splendor" and were sitting on vast piles of cash, afraid to deposit it in a bank. Neither rumor was true; the brothers were certainly not insolvent, although eventually they would have been since neither of them had worked for years.
After Times story ran, Helen Worden, a reporter from New York World-Telegram, became interested in the brothers and interviewed Langley, who told her that he stopped playing professionally after performing at Carnegie Hall because, "Paderewski followed me. He got better notices than I. What was the use of going on?" Langley explained that he dressed in shabby clothing because, "They would rob me if I didn't." Worden's story appeared on August 11, 1938 and shattered the brothers' decade of reclusive obscurity, now becoming grist for the city's eight dailies. The Journal-American dubbed them the 'Hermits of Harlem'. Worden (as Helen Erskine) would include the Collyers in her 1953 book Out of this World: A Collection of Hermits and Recluses.
The Collyer brothers made the news again when, in 1939, workers from Consolidated Edison forced their way into the house to remove two gas meters that had been shut off in 1928. The incident reportedly drew a crowd of a thousand curious onlookers. The brothers were next reported on in August 1942 when the Bowery Savings Bank threatened to evict them for failing to pay their mortgage for three years. In November the bank began eviction procedures and sent a cleanup crew to the home. Langley began yelling at the workers prompting the neighbors to summon the police. When they attempted to force their way into the home by smashing down the front door, they were stymied by a sheer wall of junk piled from floor to ceiling. They found Langley in a clearing he had made in the middle of the debris. Without comment, Langley made out a check for $6,700, paying off the mortgage in full in a single payment. That same year, the New York Herald Tribune interviewed Langley. In response to a query about the bundles of newspapers that were kept in their home, Langley replied, "I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news." He then ordered everyone off the premises, and withdrew from outside scrutiny once more, emerging only at night when he wanted to file criminal complaints against intruders or go on a foraging expedition.
During World War II the brothers never applied for ration stamps needed for sugar and meat purchases. They remained apparently oblivious of the race riot that erupted around them on August 1-2,1943 when, based on a false rumor that a white cop had shot and killed a black soldier, hundreds were arrested and hundreds more injured including six fatally.
On March 21, 1947, a tip phoned to the 122nd Precinct by a caller identifying himself as Charles Smith, insisted there was a dead body in the house, claiming it being the source of a stench of decomposition. As the police were used to calls from neighbors about the Collyer's home, a patrolman was dispatched. The officer initially had a difficult time getting into the house - there was no doorbell and the doors were locked; the basement windows were broken but protected by iron grill work. An emergency squad of seven men eventually had no choice but to begin pulling out all of the junk that was blocking their way and throwing it out onto the street. The brownstone's foyer was packed solid by a wall of old newspapers, folding beds and chairs, half a sewing machine, boxes, parts of a wine press, and numerous other pieces of debris. Patrolman William Parker climbed up a Fire Department ladder and broke in through a window into a second story bedroom containing, among other things, more packages and newspaper bundles, empty cardboard boxes lashed together with rope, the frame of a baby carriage, a rake, and old umbrellas tied together. After five hours of digging, Homer Collyer's body was found in an alcove surrounded by filled boxes and newspapers that were piled to the ceiling. He was wearing a tattered blue and white bathrobe - his matted grey hair reached his shoulders, and his head rested on his knees and his hand near a shriveled apple and a container of rancid milk. Homer's body was lowered down to the street in a khaki canvass bag, the first time he was out of the house in seven years.
The medical examiner confirmed Homer's identity and said that the elder brother had been dead for approximately ten hours, having died from starvation and heart disease. Police initially suspected that Langley had phoned in the tip regarding his brother's death and theorized that he fled the house before police arrived (it was later discovered that a neighbor made the call based on a rumor he heard). A police officer was posted outside the home to wait for Langley but he never arrived. Police began to suspect that Langley was dead when he failed to attend Homer's funeral held on April 1.
After the discovery of Homer's corpse, rumors began circulating that Langley had been seen aboard a bus heading for Atlantic City. A manhunt along the New Jersey shore turned up nothing. Reports of Langley sightings led police to a total of nine states. The police continued searching the house, removing 3,000 books, several outdated phone books, a horse's jawbone, a Steinway piano, an early X-ray machine, and more bundles of newspapers. More than 19 tons of junk were removed from the ground floor of the brownstone. The police continued to clear away the brothers' stockpile for another week removing another 84 tons of rubbish from the house. Although a good deal of the junk came from the father's medical practice, a considerable portion was collected by Langley over the years. Approximately 2,000 people stood outside the home to watch the cleanup effort.
On April 8, 1947 a workman found the body of Langley Collyer, ten feet from where Homer had died, in a two foot wide tunnel lined with rusty bed springs and a mahogany chest of drawers. His decomposing body was wedged underneath the chest and covered with a sewing machine frame, a suitcase, and bundles of newspapers. Rats had eaten away half his face, both hands, both feet and part of his right thigh. The medical examiner determined that Langley had died around March 9. Police theorized that Langley was crawling through the tunnel to bring food to Homer when he inadvertently tripped a booby trap he had created and was crushed, his death being attributed to asphyxiation. His arms were outstretched toward the direction of where his brother was, as if in supplication.
Homer and Langley were buried next to their parents in unmarked graves at the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn NY.
Collyer Brothers Park now occupies the footprint of their building and is ironically considered a small pocket of respite from the surrounding urban congestion.
Langley Wakeman Collyer
October 3, 1885 - c. March 9, 1947
Police and workmen (sprayed with DDT before entering the premises) removed approximately 120 tons of debris and junk from the Collyer brownstone. Items removed also included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, potato peelers, a gun collection, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, photos of pinup girls from the early 1900s, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer's hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, the chassis of the old Model T with which Langley had been tinkering, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and other fabrics, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old, and thousands of bottles and tin cans and a great deal of garbage. Near the spot where Homer had died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks, with a total of $3,007.
Some of the more unusual items found in the home were exhibited at Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus on West 42nd Street, where they were featured alongside Human Marvels and sideshow performers. The centerpiece of this display was the chair in which Homer supposedly had died, which passed into the hands of private collectors upon being removed from public exhibit in 1956.
The house itself, having long gone without maintenance, was decaying. The roof leaked and some walls had caved in, showering bricks and mortar on the rooms below. The house was declared unsafe and a fire hazard in July 1947 and razed.
Most of the items found in the Collyer brothers' house were deemed worthless and were disposed of. The salvageable items fetched less than $2,000 at auction; the cumulative estate of the Collyer brothers was valued at $91,000 , of which $20,000 worth was personal property (jewelry, cash and securities). 56 people, mostly first and second cousins, made claims for the estate. A Pittsburgh woman named Ella Davis claimed to be a long lost sister , but her claim was dismissed after failing to provide a birth certificate to prove her identity. In October 1952 the New York County court decided 23 of the claimants were to split the estate equally.
Note: the NYFD still refers to an emergency call to a junk filled home as a 'Collyer'.
The Collyer Mansion - 2078 Fifth Avenue (at the NW corner of 128th Street), New York 35, NY - March 1947
Homer Lusk Collyer
November 6, 1881 - March 21, 1947
The Collyer Brothers became infamous for their bizarre natures and compulsive hoarding. They lived in seclusion in their Harlem brownstone where they obsessively collected books, furniture, musical instruments, and a myriad of other detritus. In March 1947 both were found dead in their home, surrounded by more than 120 tons of collected junk they had amassed over two decades.
Homer and Langley were the surviving children of Herman Livingston Collyer (1857–1923), a Manhattan gynecologist at Bellevue Hospital and his first cousin Susan Gage Frost Collyer (1856–1929), a former opera singer who performed at the Academy of Music on 14th St., the grand opera house of the second half of the 19th cenury. The couples' first child, a daughter named Susan Frost born in 1880, died at four months of age. The brothers claimed their ancestors had traveled to America from England on the Fortune, a ship arriving in Massachusetts the year after the Mayflower. Forebears William Wakeman Collyer owned the largest shipyard on the East River waterfront and Thomas Langley Collyer the first steamboats operating the Hudson River. Susie was descended from the Livingstons, a New York family with roots going back to Robert Livingston who emigrated to America in 1672. The brothers were born when the family was living in a cold water flat at 35th St. and 3rd Ave. while Dr. Collyer interned at Bellevue. As a child, Homer attended Public School 69. He was accepted to the College of the City of New York at the age of 14, earning his bachelor's degree six years later.
Both Homer and Langley attended Columbia University, which had just relocated to its present day Morningside Heights campus. Homer obtained a degree in admiralty law (graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1904), while Langley studied engineering and chemistry. Langley was also an accomplished concert pianist; he played professionally for a time and performed at Carnegie Hall. Both brothers also taught Sunday school at the Trinity Church, where the family had been parishioners since 1697.
In 1909, Dr. Collyer moved his family into the four story brownstone in Harlem. He was known to be eccentric and frequently paddled down the East River in a canoe to the City Hospital on Blackwell's Island, then to carry it back home after he came ashore on Manhattan Island. The couple separated in 1919; the doctor moving to 153 West 77th Street while his wife stayed in the brownstone. Homer and Langley, who had never married or lived on their own, chose to remain with their mother. When the father died he left his sons all of his possessions, including items from his medical practice. The mother did likewise, with the brothers inheriting the Harlem home.
Homer worked for John McMullen, a Wall St. attorney and the Collyer family lawyer, in 1928-9 and then for the City Title Insurance Company at 32 Broadway from 1930 to 1932. He would walk the eight miles from and to home, never spending a nickel for the subway ride. His boss Saul Fromkes learned this one day when he happened to glance of Homer's shoes and saw the soles were worn through in spots. Fromkes offered him a retroactive raise on the spot. Homer never returned to the office, not bothering to pick up his last check.
For the next four years, the brothers lived a relatively normal life, going out and socializing with other people. Homer continued to practice law while Langley worked as a piano dealer. In 1933, Homer lost his eyesight. Langley quit his job as a piano tuner to care for his brother and the two began to withdraw from society. The brothers became fearful due to changes in the neighborhood; they remained in a time warp of the Harlem they originally knew through both world wars and the Great Depression, ignoring its devolution from a fashionable white upper class suburban area into a poor black ghetto (when Dr. Collyer left Harlem in 1919 there had already been a 70% increase in the black population during the ten years he lived there). Asked later why the two chose to shut themselves off from the world, Langley replied, "We don't want to be bothered."
New York City annexed Harlem in 1873 and 1,350 acres of marshland were filled, opening wide boulevards north of Central Park. Blocks of houses and apartment buildings were constructed and newly affluent immigrants from the Lower East Side surged into Harlem by the end of the century. The Harlem River Speedway was a road opened in 1898 and designed for carriages pulled by high stepping trotters (Harlem River Drive follows the same route today). William Waldorf Astor and Stanford White built a luxurious hotel and brownstones as the boom continued, peaking around 1900. Then it stopped.
In the early 19th century blacks lived on the edge of the city in a neighborhood called the Negro Plantations in the notorious Five Points district. When New York abolished slavery in 1827 they began drifting north to enclaves like Little Africa in Greenwich Village. At the end of the Civil War there were less than 10,000 blacks in the city. Their population began to increase with the end of Reconstruction in the South and the rise of immigration from the West Indies as they settled into West Side areas like the Tenderloin, Hell's Kitchen and San Juan Hill. The birth of "Colored Harlem" began in 1903 when Philip A. Peyton Jr. moved black families into 31 W. 134th St. World War I brought Southern blacks to Harlem in search of better wages and this trend only increased in the 1920s during what become known as the Great Migration. Whites, in response (some 120,000 during the same decade), fled Harlem for Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
The Harlem Renaissance blossomed in mid-decade; Harlem jazz was born, featuring Stride Piano. To the whites only audiences at the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington played his Jungle Music.