The Collyer brothers were born into the very best of circumstances. They were descendants of one of New York City's oldest families. Their ancestors came to America aboard the Speedwell way back in the Mayflower days. Their father, Dr. Herman L. Collyer, was a wealthy and well known Manhattan gynecologist. Susie, the mom, was an educated woman and had a great interest in the classics. In 1881, the couple was blessed with the birth of their first son Homer, who eventually went on to get a degree in engineering. Next came Langley, who was born in 1885 and as an adult received a degree from Columbia University and became an admiralty lawyer.
Then, in 1909, the boys’ bubble burst. As unlikely as it sounds for that time period, the couple decided to separate. Dad moved out and the two siblings, both in their twenties, chose to continue living with Mom. Life wasn't too bad for them. At the time, they were living a luxurious three-story mansion at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street.
But times change. The Harlem neighborhood started to decay. Poverty was the norm. Crime was rampant. The Collyer brothers, as a result, retreated deeper and deeper into seclusion from the rest of the world.
But, lets face it. Lack of interaction with the rest of the world can make people very strange. It's the kind of weirdness that brings people like Homer and Langley fame.
Over time, the brothers boarded up all of their windows. They placed booby traps all over their home to ward off intruders. They even had the gas, water, and electricity turned off in their mansion. For a while, Langley tried to produce his own energy using an automobile engine. Water was fetched from a park four blocks away. They cooked and heated their big home with a small kerosene heater. When Homer went blind in 1933, Langley formulated a cure consisting of a steady diet of one hundred oranges per week, black bread, and peanut butter.
In 1942, the Collyer brothers made the newspapers. They had defaulted on the mortgage on their home and the bank came knocking on the door. The Bowery Savings Bank began eviction procedures and a work crew was sent over to clean up the yard. Langley Collyer started screaming at the workers and the police had to be called in. The cops ended up smashing down the front door, only to encounter a wall of junk piled up to keep people out. Silently, Langley wrote out a check for $6,700 and paid off the mortgage in full.
He ordered everyone off of his premises and that was the last that the world had heard of the Collyer brothers.
That was until Friday, March 21, 1947 when a man named Charles Smith called police headquarters at 10 A. M. claiming “There's a dead man in the premises at 2078 Fifth Avenue”.
A patrolman was dispatched to the scene, but he couldn't get into the building. There was no doorbell or phone. The doors to the mansion were locked. The basement windows were broken, but protected by iron grillwork. An emergency squad of seven men had to be called in.
So, what would you do in this situation? There's supposedly a dead body in this house and you cant get in. The most obvious thing to do would be to break the door down, which is exactly what they did. The entranceway was blocked by a wall of old newspapers, folding beds, one half of a sewing machine, folding chairs, boxes, part of a wine press, and many other pieces of junk.
It was clear that the police were not getting through the front door easily…
The policemen decided upon another approach. They got a ladder and threw it against the building. They attempted to go through the middle second floor window instead.
Well, they were out of luck. The brothers had piled even more packages and bundles of old newspapers behind the window opening. The police started to pull all of the junk out and throw it down to the street below. Out came countless old newspapers, empty cardboard boxes that were tied with rope, the frame of a baby carriage, a rake, two umbrellas tied together, and other stuff.
Once some of the material was cleared away from the window, a patrolman was able to step inside. Using a portable light, he was able to shove aside more bundles of rubbish and found Homer Collyer sitting on the floor with his head between his knees. The tiny old manes long and matted gray hair reached down to his shoulders. He was only clad in an old, ragged blue-and-white bathrobe.
Dr. Arthur C. Allen, the Assistant Medical Examiner confirmed that it was the body of Homer Langley and that he had been dead about ten hours. His proclamation was “As Coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined him, and Hess not only merely dead, he is really most sincerely dead.” (Well, maybe those were not his exact words…)
As the crowd outside the mansion swelled to over 600 people, everyone started to wonder where Langley was. Could he be wandering around the city on errands? Could he still be in the house in hiding? Was he the one that called in the tip to the police? No one was really sure.
The following Monday the police began their search of the house for the missing brother. Out came more junk – gas chandeliers, the folding top of a horse drawn carriage, a rusted bicycle, three dressmaking dummies, a saw horse, a doll carriage, a rusted bed spring, a kerosene stove, a checkerboard, a child's chair, countless old newspapers, pinup girl photos, and so on.
But where was Langley?
The next day the police returned and pulled out an intricate potato peeler, a beaded lampshade, the chassis of an old car, children's toys, and over six tons of newspapers, magazines, and wood.
But where was Langley?
On the third day even more stuff was taken out of the house. Anything deemed worthless was just tossed out the window to the ground below. Items of value were placed in storage.
But where was Langley?
On the fourth day the police continued their removal of junk from the home. In the search for Langley, they found an assortment of guns and ammunition. Near the location that Homer died, an assortment of bankbooks was discovered for a total worth of just $3,007.00.
But where was Langley?
On Saturday, March 30th, a report came in that Langley had been seen boarding a bus for Atlantic City. The hunt for the missing brother temporarily shifted to the New Jersey coast, but there was no sign of him.
So, where was Langley?
Monday came around and, again, the police removed more junk from the home. This included over 3,000 books, plenty of outdated phone books, a horse's jawbone, a Steinway piano, a primitive X-ray machine, and more bundles of newspapers. By the end of the day a total of over nineteen tons of junk had been removed from the first floor of the house alone!
So, where the heck was Langley?
And the search continued. Every day more stuff was taken from the home. Old medical equipment, human medical specimens, a wide variety of musical instruments, and (of course) more bundles of old newspapers.
Enough of this garbage. Where was Langley?
On April 3, 1947, the police thought that they had found him. A body was found floating in Pugsleys Creek in the South Bronx. The body sure looked like the missing brother, but it was later identified as a man named Thomas Lynch who had disappeared earlier in the week.
Come on already, where was Langley?
Day after day, more and more junk was removed from the home. By Monday, April 7th, 103 tons of essentially worthless garbage had been taken from the house. (Does the typical house even weigh that much?)
By now you know what the next line is going to be. And you must be sick of me stating it.
Where was Langley?
Luckily, that is the last time that I have to say it, because on Tuesday April 8, 1947 the body of Langley Collyer was finally located. Believe it or not, he was less than ten feet from where his brother Homer had died. His body was partly decomposed and was being gnawed on by a big ugly rat. A suitcase, three metal bread boxes, and – you guessed it – bundles of newspapers were covering his body.
In the end, investigators concluded that Langley was asphyxiated after one of his booby traps collapsed down on him. They believe that he was crawling through the tunnel-like maze in an effort to bring food to his paralyzed and blind brother Homer. With no one to feed him, Homer essentially starved to death.
The brothers' estate was valued at $91,000 in real estate and $20,000 in personal property. What was salvageable from the 136 tons of junk that had been collected sold for less than $2000 at auction. Their once beautiful mansion was condemned, torn down, and is now a parking lot.
Now we have just one unanswered question. What was the deal with all of those newspapers? Langley provided an answer in a 1942 New York Herald Tribune interview. “I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news.”