Previously: The Mowing Devil.
In 1947, no one had seen the Collyer brothers for years. Not properly, at least; it had, after all, been nearly 15 years since they had boarded up the windows and wired shut the doors of the brownstone they shared at 2078 5th Avenue in Harlem, New York. True, Langley Collyer, younger than his brother Homer by four years, could sometimes be spotted late at night, wandering the streets of New York and picking up food for the siblings to eat; he only left the house after midnight, though, and his wanderings were unpredictable. You very much had to be in the right place at the right time to see him. The brownstone had no phone; it had been shut off nearly a decade prior. Nor did it have gas, electricity, or running water; those, too, had been gone for almost as long. No one except the Collyers themselves knew what the inside of the house looked like — until spring of 1947.
That was when the brothers died.
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And when the house was opened up, cleanup crews found not just the brothers, but also literal tons of stuff — clocks and bread boxes and musical instruments and newspapers and chandeliers and much, much more. The contents of the Collyers’ “Mystery House,” as it had become known, were a mystery no more — but exactly what had inspired them to shut themselves up inside the house, with all of those things, remains compelling to this very day.
The Collyers had a conventional enough upbringing; Homer, born on Nov. 6, 1881, and Langley, born on Oct. 3, 1885, were the children of Herman Livingston Collyer, a gynecologist, and Susie Gage Frost Collyer, an opera singer, as well as Herman’s second cousin. They lived in a tenement during their early years as a family before moving to the Harlem brownstone in 1909.
By that point, Homer had become something of a prodigy, attending the College of the City of New York beginning at age 14 to earn his bachelor’s and later graduating from Columbia University with a degree in admiralty law. Langley, meanwhile, had also reportedly attended Columbia and studied engineering, although some sources note that there’s no evidence he actually did enroll at the school. Langley worked primarily in music, though, rather than as an engineer; a pianist, he claimed to have performed at Carnegie Hall once, only to give up on performing as a career after determining that he could never hold a candle to other greats of the era. Langley became a piano dealer, while his brother practiced law.
Their parents separated roughly 10 years after the family had taken up residence at 2078 5th Ave., at which point their father moved to the Upper West Side, while the brothers remained with their mother in the Harlem brownstone. Herman died just a few years later, however, in 1923, with Susie following in 1929. Homer and Langley remained in the house following their mother’s death; she had left it to them, along with everything inside it. And for a time, life proceeded as it always had; the siblings continued their careers, they socialized, and they even taught Sunday school.
But in the early 1930s, Homer experienced hemorrhaging in the back of his eyes, resulting in the loss of his eyesight. Langley quit his job to care for his brother — and at that point, they both began withdrawing from society, spending more and more time at home and going out only when necessary. Homer’s health deteriorated rapidly. The brothers and their home gained a reputation in the neighborhood. To guard against burglary, Langley set up trips and traps throughout the house as the space filled up with more and more things. And so it went, for more than a decade.
But on March 21, 1947, the local police precinct received a call: There was a dead body in 2078 5th Ave., the voice on the other end insisted. And, it turned out, there was: After the police opened up the house and removed the mountain of objects blocking the door and the front hallway, and after a second-floor window was accessed and even more objects cleared out, Homer was found sitting in a chair, clad in a bathrobe. He had died some 10 hours prior.
It took two weeks to find Langley. Indeed, the search was so long that many thought he might have skipped town. But on April 8, his remains were just 10 feet away from those of his brother; he had seemingly tripped one of the booby traps he had rigged for his own piece of mind, causing the tunnel of stuff through which he was journeying to collapse in on itself — and on him. His date of death was determined to be around March 9, 1947 — about two weeks prior to Homer’s.
Three months later, the house — which, lacking any maintenance over the previous 15 years, had become unsafe — was razed. The items found within it — some 120 to 180 actual tons, depending on the source — was largely junk. What little could be sold went for just $2,000 at auction.
The history of the Collyer brothers has continued to fascinate in the decades since. They bring to mind Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens — two family members, shut up of their own volition in a house going slowly to seed, with the very fact that no had any way of knowing what was going on behind that house’s door feeding the interest and the rumors and the gossip. The truth, of course, is rarely as juicy as neighborhood chinwags might hope it is, though; the Collyers were, after all, just people who had some somewhat unusual coping mechanisms for dealing with the uncertainty of a changing world.
I usually avoid armchair diagnoses, but the general consensus among mental health professionals who have studied the Collyers in some capacity is that the brothers exhibited compulsive hoarding. We don’t know much more than that — and, truthfully, there isn’t really a way we can learn much more, given that the Collyers passed away more than 70 years ago — but they remain an oft-cited case study and a lens through which we might refract the people and behaviors and habits we can examine in the here and the now.
And the Collyer brothers’ story, I think, deserves to be remembered. We all do. So, hey, if you have a minute, and you happen to be in New York, take the 2 or 3 train up to 125th Street. Just a few blocks away, you’ll find a small park at the end of a row of brownstones on 5th Ave—a park exactly the size of the brownstones it flanks.
That’s where the Collyer brothers lived.
That’s where there Mystery House stood.
Except that these days, it’s full of sunlight.
Ghosty Men: The Strange But True Story Of The Collyer Brothers, New York’s Greatest Hoarders by Franz Lidz. Published by Bloomsbury USA in 2003, Lidz’ book represents one of the most complete biographies of the Collyer brothers available. The title comes from the name by which neighborhood children referred to the Collyers — the “ghosty men.”
Research has shown that there does appear to be a genetic component to compulsive hoarding (more on that in a moment) — and, notably, that link seems to be present in Lidz’ own family. As such, that’s the lens through which he examines much of the bigger picture issues at play in the Collyer brothers’ story. Indeed, the book is ultimately as much about Lidz’ own family and experiences with hoarding — specifically the hoarding tendencies of his Uncle Arthur — as it is about the Collyers. This isn’t to everyone’s taste; overall, the reviewers on Amazon found it more interesting than the reviewers on Good Reads did. I do, however, think it’s important to evaluate books not on what you want them to be, but on what they actually are, so just… keep that in mind, should you choose to pick this volume up.
“The Paper Chase” by Franz Lidz for the New York Times. This piece by Lidz appeared in the New York Times in October of 2003, when his book about the brothers had just been published. It serves as an introduction both to the subjects of the book and his angle on them.
“Inside The Collyer Brownstone: The Story Of Harlem’s Hermits And Their Hoarding” at the New York Daily News. A few years — sometime around 2012, I believe — the New York Daily News dug into their photo archive and pulled up about 20 pictures of the Collyers and their home. Many of the photographs are from the period following their deaths as officials worked on clearing out the brownstone; others are exterior shots of the building, or photos depicting Langley or Homer during rare appearances in the outside world.
Collyer Brothers Park at Atlas Obscura. After the brownstone formerly located at 2078 5th Ave. was razed, it was made into a “pocket park” — a tiny piece of green space within the larger urban landscape surrounding it. It bears the Collyer brothers’ name, along with signage telling their story. You can visit it easily; it’s just a few blocks away from the 125th St. subway stop on the 2 and 3 lines.
Down The Rabbit Hole: “The Collyer Brothers.” If you’d rather watch a brief history of the Collyer brothers than read one, this episode of Fredrik Knudsen’s YouTube series Down The Rabbit Hole from 2016 should get the job done. I quite like Down The Rabbit Hole; the research is solid, and although it looks like Knudsen took a bit of a hiatus during much of 2019, there are plenty of archives to dig through. “The Collyer Brothers” episode is about 20 minutes in length.
The Bowery Boys: “House Of Mystery: The Story Of The Collyer Brothers.” Or, if you’d rather plug a podcast into your earholes, acclaimed New York history podcast The Bowery Boys tackled the Collyers in January 2019. It’s about 45 minutes long; you can listen to it here.
Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow. E.L. Doctorow, the writer perhaps best known for Ragtime, published a well-received novel with the Collyer brothers at its heart in 2009. Doctorow’s version of the brothers’ story is highly fictionalized; major details of the two men and their lives have been altered, including their birth order, their skills (Homer is the pianist here, rather than Langley), and — most notably — their year of death: They survive into the early 1980s. But it imagines an inner life for both brothers which New York Times reviewer Liesl Schillinger praised for its masterful compassion, “elevating the Collyers beyond caricature and turning them into creatures of their times instead of figures of fun.”
The New York Times covered the novel extensively at the time of publication; you can read an excerpt here, Schillinger’s full review here, and a piece focusing on the real-life history at play in the novel here.
The International OCD Foundation’s website. The International OCD Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Boston aimed at “[helping] those affected by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and related disorders to live full and productive lives” by “[increasing] access to effective treatment through research and training, [fostering] a hopeful and supportive community for those affected by OCD and the professionals who treat them, and [fighting] stigma surrounding mental health issues.” A subsite of the organization’s website specifically focuses on hoarding, offering information about the disorder, providing access to resources such as therapists, clinics, and support groups that specialize in hoarding, and more.
“Why Do You Hoard?” by Bonnie Tsui for Pacific Standard. Tsui’s excellently reported piece (RIP, Pacific Standard) digs into the details of research about hoarding. Indeed, as Tsui points out, there’s still so much that remains unknown about hoarding, largely due to the fact that the research into it didn’t really kick up until fairly recently. Randy Frost and Gail Steketee have been at the forefront of it since the 1990s — and what they’ve found has been quite illuminating.
One of the things that Frost and Steketee actually determined is that hoarding, although classically “lumped into the category of obsessive-compulsive disorder” due to the high volume of OCD patients who tend towards the behavior, is actually distinct from OCD. According to Frost, the “pleasant” feeling many people who hoard associate with the “acquiring phase”—the bringing home of recently found objects and things — isn’t characteristic of people with OCD. What’s more, research shows that the disorders each involve different areas of the brain.
Tsui’s piece is a thorough and compassionate look at the science and study of hoarding — and, importantly, it contains the human element, as well (that is, she spoke not just to researchers, but also to real people with hoarding tendencies). It’s well worth a look.
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding And The Meaning Of Things by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee. The fruits of Frost and Steketee’s labors — or at least, some of them (they’ve been busy, after all). Stuff has been praised as both compassionate and important by people who either hoard or are affected by hoarding. The researchers also appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air around the time the book was published in 2010; you can listen to their interview here.
“The Genetics Of Compulsive Hoarding” by Jane Collingwood. At Psych Central, a brief overview of the genetic component that might be at play in compulsive hoarding, as mentioned in conjunction with Franz Lidz’ book about the Collyers.
“Hoarding, Hermitage, And The Law: Why We Love The Collyer ‘Brothers,” by Kenneth J. Weiss, MD. Weiss, a forensic psychiatrist and both a Clinical Associate in Psychiatry and Associate Director of the University of Pennsylvania Health System’s Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship Program, published this piece in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online in 2010. Using the Collyers to introduce the idea of hoarding, the piece both deals with the intersection between compulsive hoarding and some of the legal issues that can get tied up with hoarding cases, and addresses the way hoarding is often portrayed in the media — the “othering” seen in shows like Hoarders, how news outlets report stories about hoarding, etc.
My Brother’s Keeper by Marcia Davenport. Published in 1957, Davenport’s novel did not, as Doctorow’s Homer & Langley later would (to a degree, at least), actually tell the story of the Collyers. It did, however, take their story as inspiration before spinning it off into something new. It’s a little hard to come by these days — I think it’s out of print — but if you can find a used copy, it’s worth checking out.
Grey Gardens (1975), dir. Albert and David Maysles. If you haven’t seen the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens about the two Edies — Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale (aka Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ aunt) and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, her daughter — and their reclusive lives in the decaying East Hampton mansion they called Grey Gardens, now would be a good time to do so. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime for a $3.99 rental fee, along with a few other places; you can also check out the fictionalized HBO movie adaptation and the 2006 Broadway musical version, as well.
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[Photo via TimesMachine/New York Times (screenshot)]