When the police broke down the door of a Harlem brownstone on March 21, 1947, they had no idea they would find what would be one of the most infamous examples of obsessive hoarding.
They’d been tipped off on a possible death in the home, but it took two hours for them to find the first body, and the second was still missing. The brownstone on Fifth Avenue at 128th Street had been the home of Homer and Langley Collyer. They’d been living as recluses for decades since the deaths of their parents, and as the Harlem neighborhood around them shifted they were the victims of some robberies and kids got in the habit of throwing rocks at their windows. This, combined with their existing eccentric nature, drove the lawyer and concert pianist to board up the house and rarely stray outside.
Inside the home of the Collyer Brothers (via Wikimedia)
Yet no one could have known that they’d also been amassing 140 tons of trash. And in that heap the body of Homer was first found, dead from starvation. His brother Langley, however, was nowhere to be found. Police even went to Atlantic City to look for him, only to find that he had been buried in a mound of paper not ten feet from Homer. He’d been attempting to bring Homer, who was blind, his food, which consisted of over 100 oranges each week to attempt to bring back his sight. Yet Langley had set booby traps all over the house to keep out intruders and accidentally triggered a tripwire, crushing himself beneath a cascade of paper.
In addition to the two brothers, the following items were removed from the house: the jawbone of a horse, hundreds of yards of fabric, tens of thousands of books, human organs pickled in jars, the top of a horse-drawn carriage, 14 pianos, chandeliers, five violins, dressmaking dummies, paintings, statues, bowling balls, bicycles, guns, cameras, musical instruments, baby carriages, and all the newspapers since Homer had lost his sight in the hopes he would someday read them. There were also eight cats prowling around, and an infestation of rats.
Collyer Brothers Park (photograph by Jim Henderson)
The house is long gone, torn down since it was fire hazard. The land was turned into a park, one of the first of the New York City “pocket parks,” and named Collyer Brothers Park in their memory. While there has been some controversy over the honor, as they didn’t exactly do much for their neighborhood aside from live in fear of it, it remains a reminder of their strange sequestered lives.
COLLYER BROTHERS PARK, New York City, New York
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