Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Collyer Brothers

This is a totally true story about two brothers who used to live in New York City.  One of them was named Homer, and he was born in 1881.  And the other one, whose name was Langley, was born in 1885.  These brothers became very famous for the reasons that (1) they were weird, (2) they mostly hid out in their house, which made people wonder what they were up to, and (3) they hoarded tons and tons of stuff.

Mom first found out about the Collyer brothers when she was doing some in-depth research on hoarders, which is a topic she likes to learn about.  Then she listened to an audio book called Homer and Langley, which was written by a man named E.L. Doctorow.  I couldn't help hearing most of this book, and I thought it was pretty interesting, but Mr. Doctorow lied about a bunch of things that he said the Collyers did.  Mom says this is not lying, it is just something people do when they write fiction, and it's okay to do it.

Well, I am not going to lie to you about the Collyer brothers.  I am going to tell you only true facts.  And one true fact is that they didn't have any dogs, but they did have cats, so that's something, at least.  Also they had rats, but the rats were not pets.

Anyway, the Collyer brothers were pretty ordinary when they were growing up, except for being rich.  They lived in a 4-story house called a brownstone in Harlem, at 2078 Fifth Avenue.  At that time, Harlem was a fancy place to live, but that changed later on.  The father of the Collyer brothers was a doctor who treated women patients, and their mother was a society lady who could sing and play the piano.

Mr. Homer went to Columbia University and became a lawyer, and Mr. Langley got a degree from the same school in chemistry and engineering.  But Mr. Langley preferred to play the piano, which he could do very well, and he even played at Carnegie Hall.  In 1923, Dr. Collyer died, and Mrs. Collyer died in 1929.  By then, lots of black people had moved to Harlem, so the white people mostly moved out.  But not the Collyer brothers.  They stayed in their house even after their parents died.  And they started filling the house up with all sorts of odd things that Mr. Langley found and brought home because he thought he could maybe use them somehow.

The Collyers had their phone disconnected in 1917, and in 1928, the gas was turned off.  They used kerosene to cook with and for lighting.  They didn't go out in public much anymore, and the last time anybody saw Mr. Homer was in 1932.  He had a stroke in 1933, and that made him go blind.  Later on, he got rheumatism so bad that he couldn't walk anymore.  So Mr. Langley took care of his brother and brought him food and everything he needed.

Then some newspaper reporters got interested in the Collyers and in whether Mr. Homer was even still alive, and there were lots of rumors about how the brothers probably had millions of dollars hidden in their house, which they didn't really.  And kids started throwing rocks at the windows and breaking them, so Mr. Langley put boards over all the windows.  Also he got really worried, thinking about how somebody might break in and rob them or something.  So he used all his engineering skills to make booby traps, and that way if somebody came in, they would trip over a wire, and a whole bunch of stuff would fall down and smash them.

Mr. Langley was the only person who knew where all the booby traps were and how to get through them without pulling on the wires.  Mr. Homer had to stay in bed all the time, so he didn't need to know where the traps were.  And his brother brought him food by crawling through the tunnels he had made.

So that's how they lived for several years.  But on March 21, 1947, a man called the police to say there must be a dead body in the Collyer house because there was a bad smell there.  And the police came to the house, but they couldn't get in because of all the stuff piled everywhere against the door and the windows and in the basement.  But finally they got in a window and after two hours, they found Mr. Homer, who was dead from lack of food and water and also because his heart stopped beating.  He had only been dead about 10 hours, so his body wasn't making the bad smell.

But the police couldn't find Mr. Langley, so they started looking for him, both inside the house and outside the house.  Meanwhile, they had to take tons and tons of stuff out of the house, while people stood around outside and watched.  Then finally, after about three weeks, they found Mr. Langley, who was dead because one of his booby traps fell on him while he was trying to take food to his brother.  Also the rats had been eating him, which is yucky to think about, but it's what any sensible rat would do.

In the end, there was a total of 136 tons of garbage and stuff that was taken out of the Collyer house.  Here are some of the things that were in there:  newspapers, cartons, tin cans, old luggage, rope, baby carriages, rakes, umbrellas, bicycles, old food, potato peelers, guns, an x-ray machine, thousands of books, a horse's jawbone, human organs pickled in jars, 1 UK flag, 6 US flags, 14 pianos, 2 organs, a clavichord, 5 violins, family portraits, hope chests full of piece goods, toy trains, chandeliers, tapestries, 13 ornate mantel clocks, 13 oriental rugs, the top of a carriage, and the chassis of a Model-T Ford.

There was an auction to sell the nicer things, but the money from that only came to about $1,800.  The whole amount of the Collyer estate was $91,000.  The house had to get torn down because it wasn't a nice place to live anymore.  Now if you go there, you can see a little park where the house used to be, and it's called Collyer Brothers Park.  Which seems like kind of a nice way to remember these two strange brothers.

14 comments:

  1. Wow, crazy stuff! I think the story of Big and Little Edie Beale is really interesting too, for a lot of the same reasons. Good blog post, Piper

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  2. only $1800. back then that was a lot

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  3. I am not too far from the area and often tourist ask about the name of the park and I give them reference to the namesake of that area. Compulsive Hoarders on AETV is based on these two "famous" brothers.

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  4. Dear Anonymous,
    Mom and I are totally hooked on watching the "Hoarders" show on A&E and also that one called "Hoarding: Buried Alive" that is on TLC or maybe Discovery Health -- they keep showing it on different channels in the Discovery Channel group. Mom had an aunt who was a hoarder, and she is still trying to figure out what made her aunt be that way.
    Sincerely, Piper

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  5. True fact ?
    Is there such a thing as a false fact ?

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  6. Hahaha! Of course there is no such thing as a false fact. I was just making a little tiny joke. But thank you for reading my blog!

    Sincerely, Piper

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  7. I was examining the Google Earth Satellite photos of 2078 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan: it seems that the ENTIRE brownstone building was not demolished (see photo #2 above). Only the first part of the building from the corner of 128th St. (3 windows in on 5th Ave with the first staircase)was demolished. The other two sections of the building (both on Fifth Avenue, the building with the second staircase and the three rooms built onto the roof), and the third section of the building still survive. Can someone examine the Google Earth streetview of this current area and confirm this? Thanks!!!

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  8. Hello
    I'm from Barcelona ( from Catalonia). I know the history of Collyer Brother's afert read the novel of Doctorow (a great book). This past july i stayed in NY for a week and i went to visite the site where lived the Brothers. I t was a moment very special
    I can confirm all that "anonymous" says in post of 18 july 2011.
    Greetings to all who like literature and love the Homer an Langley

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  9. A short, but informative and interesting read

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  10. When I was a little girl, my mother would chide me to clean up my room by saying "you don''t want to end up like the Collyer Brothers, do you?" It was not until much later that I learned the story of this fascinating pair.

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    1. It seems like your mother's threat wouldn't mean much if you didn't know who the Collyer Brothers were or how they ended up. But maybe not knowing made it even scarier! Anyway, I hope you learned to clean up your room. :-) The Collyers were definitely very interesting people!

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  11. A terrific book (fiction, but based on the Collyer Brothers) is "My Brother's Keeper," by Marcia Davenport. It was published back in the 1950s and makes for a fascinating read. It's my all-time favorite book.

    Feb. 25, 2014

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    1. I haven't heard of this book before, but it sounds good. I will have to have my mom look for it, so maybe we can read it.
      Sincerely, Dorrie

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