Collyer Brothers Park is a small pocket park in Harlem, providing a temporary reprieve from the surrounding urban sprawl. But visitors taking a break on one of the park’s benches may be surprised to know that the park only exists because of the bizarre behavior of two brothers that would eventually result in their grisly death.
Homer Lusk Collyer was born in New York City in 1881, with his brother Langley born three years later. Their father, Herman, was a successful Manhattan gynecologist and their mother, Susie, was a former opera singer. Both brothers attended Columbia University and Homer eventually became a lawyer and Langley a concert-level pianist.
Although the brothers had shown signs of eccentricity in their youth, their problems began to intensify in 1919 when, for unknown reasons, their father abandoned the family. When their mother died six years later, the brothers took all their possessions and moved them into the brownstone mansion for which they would achieve their infamy. Around that time, the neighborhood was becoming popular with African Americans and two wealthy white brothers in their forties began to look out of place in the minority neighborhood. Perhaps because of this, there were several attempts to break in and local children often threw rocks at the windows. The brothers became paranoid and boarded up their windows, with Langley rigging up the house with various booby traps. From then on, they became recluses, although Langley was occasionally seen outside, scavenging through garbage cans for food to bring back for his brother, who was slowly being ravaged by rheumatism and blindness.
Apart from a few isolated incidents, they were rarely seen or heard until March 21, 1947, when the police were tipped off about a possible dead body in the house. They broke down the door and were confronted with piles of junk so large that it took them two hours to find Homer’s corpse dressed in an old bathrobe with his filthy gray hair reaching down to his shoulders. On March 30, false rumors circulated that Langley had boarded a bus for Atlantic City, but on April 8, nearly three weeks after the alarm was first raised, his decomposing body was found just ten feet from where his brother had perished. He had been crawling through a tunnel of newspapers when he had activated one of his own booby traps, which crushed him. His paralyzed brother starved to death several days later.
In total, 130 tons of junk was removed from the house, including baby carriages, rusted bicycles, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, plaster busts, rusty bed springs, 25,000 books, eight live cats, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos, and a selection of pickled human organs in jars. The brothers were buried in Brooklyn and the same year, the house was torn down. By the 1960s, it was being used as a park, leaving future generations to dwell on the brothers’ strange and tragic lives.
Know Before You Go
On the corner of Fifth Ave. and 128th St. The nearest subway is 125th St. (Martin Luther King Junior Blvd.).