In 1909, Homer and Langley Collyer moved with their parents into a brownstone on 128th Street and 5th Avenue in Harlem, then an affluent outpost of New York City. Their father, a prominent gynecologist, left their mother Susan, a former opera singer, in 1919.
A Columbia graduate, Homer practiced admiralty law. Langley was a piano dealer who was talented enough to play at Carnegie Hall. However, over the years they began to withdraw from society. They stopped paying bills, so their phone was cut off in 1917. Their mother died in 1929 and around that time they stopped getting electricity, heat, or water. Langley brought in water from a pump from a nearby park.
The brothers didn’t trust doctors, so when they became ill, they tried to cure themselves using a library of more than 15,000 medical volumes. In 1944 Homer lost his sight due to hemorrhages in the back of his eyes. Langley attempted to reverse Homer’s blindness with a diet that included eating 100 oranges a week and resting his eyes by keeping them permanently closed. Langley claimed that the thousands of newspapers crowding his home were beings saved so that Homer could catch up on the news when he regained his sight. Homer then became crippled by rheumatism in the 1940s.
The newspapers piled in their mansion, from the New York Daily News
The neighborhood by then was primarily African American, so the eccentric Collyer brothers stood out more than ever. However they would have continued their weird lives undisturbed if a newspaper reporter for The New-York World-Telegram hadn’t become interested in them in 1938. Helen Worden staked out their once-fashionable house, following Langley as he ventured out for food one night. He uncharacteristically responded to her questions, saying, “We’ve no telephone, and we’ve stopped opening our mail. You can’t imagine how free we feel.” However, she repeated rumors she heard that they hoarded money in their house. This led to a rash of attempted burglaries. Langley began booby trapping the house and creating elaborate tunnels throughout piles of junk. They slept in nests among the debris.
On March 21, 1947, on an anonymous tip claiming a death, police broke into the brownstone. After five hours of digging through newspapers and junk, they found Homer in a bathrobe, dead of starvation. There was so much debris that his body had to be lowered out of the window in a bag. Langley was nowhere to be found. As sightings of Langley were reported in 9 states, the police began to remove junk from the house. They took 9 tons from the first floor, while thousands of people crowded the streets to watch.
Crowds outside of the Collyer brownstone
During the excavation, police found Langley’s rat-gnawed body buried under a pile of debris just 10 feet from where Homer had died. They theorize that he had been dead since March 9th, crushed after tripping one of his own booby traps bringing food to his brother. When he died, Homer had no one to care for him and he starved to death.
Discovering Langley’s body
In total, approximately 140 tons of junk was taken from the house, including, 25,000 books, human organs preserved in jars, 14 pianos, the jawbone of a horse, and the chassis of a Model T car. There was no treasure, just junk. The brownstone was razed, and a small park built where it stood.