We all have that one house in our neighborhood, a dwelling so strange and mysterious that it inspires wild speculation as to the nature of its occupants. You know the one, where the kids in the neighborhood refuse to walk by it, save by double and triple dares. In Harlem during the 30s and 40s, there once existed a rundown brownstone on the corner of 5th Avenue and 128th Street that personified the archetype of such mystery houses. It was owned by the Collyer brothers and stands as one of the strangest, most enigmatic, homes in New York City history.
Homer Lusk Collyer was born on November 6, 1881. His younger brother, Langley Wakeman Collyer, was born four years later on October 3, 1885. They were raised in an upper middle class home by their father, Herman Collyer, a prominent gynecologist at Bellevue Hospital and their mother, Susie Gage Frost Collyer, an opera singer. Herman and Susie were first cousins, a marital practice that was common at the time. The Collyers claim their ancestors arrived in America on the Fortune, the second ship to arrive after the Mayflower.
In 1909, the family moved into the now famous brownstone on 5th Avenue with their two adult children. Both brothers attended Columbia University where Homer achieved a degree in maritime law and Langley studied chemistry and engineering. Langley was also a very skilled musician, serving as a concert pianist at Carnegie Hall.
Herman and Susie divorced in 1919 with Susie retaining the Harlem brownstone. Homer and Langley elected stay with their mother. In 1923, Herman died, bequeathing his entire estate to his two boys, including his vast collection of medical books, implements, and curiosities. Susie passed away a few years later in 1929, and the boys were on their own.
Homer continued to practice law while Langley worked as a piano dealer. Both were active in their community, had active social lives, and even taught Sunday school at Trinity Church. However, this would all change in 1933, when Homer suddenly lost his sight due to hemorrhages in his eyes. Langley quit his job to stay home and look after his brother full time. Gradually, they began withdrawing from society, cloistered away in their brownstone.
As their reclusiveness intensified, the effects of the Great Depression began to make profound changes to their Harlem neighborhood, and what once was an affluent community became unrecognizable. The brothers, products of the Gilded Age, found themselves increasingly alienated from this new, unfamiliar world. The rise of crime and poverty only further galvanized their disdain for the outside and fueled their paranoia.
The Collyers’ strange and reclusive behavior inspired numerous rumors throughout the neighborhood. One of the most common was that the house was filled with exotic treasures. While the rumors were clearly untrue, they did cause a few less scrupulous neighbors to test the theory by smashing out windows and trying to break in. In response, Langley added bars to all the windows and boarded them over. He also installed booby traps throughout the house to further dissuade burglars. This only added a deeper level to the neighbors’ curiosity.
It is uncertain when, exactly, their eccentricity became madness. Those few acquaintances of the brothers that remained noted that Langley was unwilling to accept medical help in the care of Homer. He insisted that his father’s extensive medical library and his own common sense would more than suffice. Meanwhile, he prescribed absurd remedies such as eating 100 oranges a week and bedrest, believing it would surely restore his brother’s sight.
By 1937, the Collyers were cut off from almost all contact with the outside world. One by one, the utilities were shut off, never to be restored. When the telephone was disconnected, Langley commented that they had no one to talk to anyway. Langley attempted to compensate for the lack of heat and power by building a generator out of a Model T Ford and installing a portable kerosene heater to keep them warm.
Around this time, Langley began his habit of nocturnal wandering. With his disdain for humanity and paranoia of his own neighborhood, he would often walk miles in the dead of night to acquire food and basic items. This led to his impulsive and prolific collection of random objects. So diverse and numerous were the items in his collection, it would be impossible to do them justice here. One of the most frequently gathered items, however, were daily newspapers. Langley was convinced that Homer would regain his sight one day and would most certainly want to read up on all of the things he missed.
The public got their first glimpse inside the Collyer’s now infamous home in 1942 when, after three years of delinquent mortgage payments, the bank began eviction proceedings. A crew of workmen was dispatched to clean the house out and were met on the porch by a furious Langley Collyer. The workmen attempted to force their way into the house, breaking down the front door. To their astonishment, their progress was immediately halted by a wall of newspapers, a dismantled wine press, car parts, and a floor to ceiling mass of rubbish.
Representatives from the bank and police officers arrived on the scene at which time Langley curtly produced his pocketbook and wrote a check to the bank for the remaining balance of the mortgage, $6,700, which would be over $100,000 in today’s money. With the bank satisfied, the Collyers were free to continue with their bizarre lives in peace.
On March 21, 1947, police were summoned to the Collyer’s brownstone after an anonymous phone call complained of the stench of rotting flesh emanating from the house. Once again, when the front door was breached, the officers were met with a literal wall of debris. It took a crew of seven men over five hours to clear a path through the piles of books, newspapers, musical instruments, rusted bicycles, and other items. Neighbors gathered, watching as they filled the street with the removed debris. Finally, they discovered the body of Homer Collyer, sitting in his chair in a tiny alcove cut into the trash. The medical examiner estimated that he had been dead for about ten hours, perishing from starvation and heart disease.
Langley was nowhere to be found. Initially, they believed that Langley had made the anonymous call and had fled the scene. Several tips suggested that he had gone to the Atlantic seaboard and a brief manhunt was mounted. By April 1st, when Langley failed to appear for his brother’s funeral, police began to fear that he might be dead. It would be a full week and 120 tons of trash later before they received an answer.
On April 8, the body of Langley Collyer was discovered in a two-foot-wide tunnel lined with rusty bed springs and a chest of drawers. His body was in an advanced stage of decay and partially eaten by rats. The medical examiner determined that he had died around March 9th. Apparently, Langley had fallen victim to one of his own booby traps and was crushed by debris while crawling through the tunnel to bring food to Homer. The cause of death was ruled as asphyxiation. His body lay only ten feet away from where Homer was found. It is estimated that Homer Collyer lived as long as two weeks, alone, and blind in his chair, before finally starving to death.
After years of neglect, the Collyer’s brownstone was deemed unsafe and was demolished in July of 1947. Today, a tiny pocket-park marks the site in remembrance of two of New York City’s strangest residents.