Throughout history, some people have decided to forgo human contact and live a life of solitude. Whether for religious reasons or simple preference, these hermits become objects of gossip and curiosity in the surrounding community.
While history is scattered with such lonely souls, one of the saddest and strangest stories of self- imposed solitude is that of the Collyer brothers. The descendants of one of the country’s oldest families, Homer and Langley Collyer were wealthy eccentrics who med a sad, lonely end after years of solitude in their New York brownstone mansion.
Upbringing and hermitage
Homer Collyer was born in 1881, while Langley was born four years later. Their father, was Herman Collyer, a prominent New York doctor. They grew up i the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, and summered on Long Island on the family’s spacious country estate. Both brothers attended college: Homer graduated from City College in 1902, then moved on to study law at Columbia. Langley studied electrical and mechanical engineering, also at Columbia.
In 1909, Herman Collyer purchased the brownstone manner on 2078 Fifth Avenue, where his sons would meet their sad fates 38 years later. Herman and his wife separated sometime after that, allegedly because Herman wanted to turn the brownstone into a sanitarium and his wife disagreed. After the split, Herman moved into another house, where he lived until his death in 1923. Mrs. Collyer lived the remainder of her life with her sons in the brownstone, until she passed away in 1929. The brothers Collyer inherited their father’s estates, and with the death of their mother, they withdrew more and more into their reclusive little world.
A reclusive life
“All we want is for people to leave us alone. A man’s home is his castle. What we do inside it is our business.” Homer Collyer
After their parent’s deaths, the Collyer brothers withdrew into their three story brownstone. Homer briefly worked for the City Title Insurance Co., from 1929 to 1931. But by 1932, he told a neighbor that he was going blind. After that, the neighbors never saw him leave the house again.
Langley followed his brother’s lead. He only left the mansion at night, when he bought food and dumpster dived for cast-offs with which he increasingly hoarded their home. He fed Homer 100 oranges a day, hoping it would cure his blindness. He bought several daily papers for his brother, which he kept in boxes so that his brother could catch up on current events when his sight returned.
Conditions in the house deteriorated as the hoarding situation worsened and the brothers withdrew into themselves. The city cut power because the brothers would not allow anyone in to read the meter. In response, Langley rigged up a generator to provide electricity, but the system proved too cumbersome to use so the brothers resorted to kerosene for light and heat.
Rumors began to spread about the brothers. Many assumed that the dilapidated house contained a trove of riches: from rare antiques, to valuable artwork, to safes full of cash. Neighbors frequently knocked on the front door, while vandals threw rocks and bottles at the windows.
The unwanted attention made Langley paranoid. He boarded up the windows and formed all the junk he had accumulated over the years into makeshift barricades and a maze of tunnels rigged with booby traps that would drop hundreds of pounds of garbage upon any hapless intruder.
By 1940, Homer’s health was in decline. Rheumatism paralyzed his body. Langley moved him to a barricaded room where he attended his brother’s every need. The last time anyone saw Langley alive was six years after Homer was stricken with Rheumatism. He testified against a man accused of attempting to break into his house.
During the trial, Langley claimed that he had ten grand pianos in the house, one of which was a gift to his mother from Queen Victoria. He played this treasure for his brother. It was later found that the total was not ten as he had claimed, but fourteen. Perhaps this lapse was a sign of Langley’s deteriorating mental state, or a simple oversight by a man who owned far too much to keep track of it all.
A mysterious call and a grisly discovery
The morning of March 21, 1947, a man calling himself Charles Smith called the police, saying that there was a dead man in the Collyer house.
Officers arrived to find that they couldn’t force the front doors. When they took the doors off the hinges, they found a wall of boxes. Upon breaking the first floor window, they found that the ground floor was crammed with stacks of junk to the ceiling.
By noon, officers found entrance through a second story window. They wound their way through the piles of junk to find the corpse of Homer Collyer. He had not eaten or drank for three days before his death. He died from a combination of chronic bronchitis, gangrenous bedsores, and emphysema. Langley was nowhere to be found. Officers suspected that he was the one who placed the call once he found his brother dead, and he then slipped away.
On the second day, clean up began. By the end of the day, officers had removed 19 tons of trash from the residence. The curious gathered, but didn’t stay long due to the horrendous stench. Police smoked cheap cigars to ward off the foulness. A housing inspector present at the scene said that the house was rotten inside and out due to a leaky roof and open windows.
By March 31, the city hired movers to finish the clean up. The hoard was an eclectic mix: 25,000 books, 14 grand pianos, hope chests, toy trains, 13 ornate mantel clocks, fine violins, two organs, and ton after ton of papers, assorted bric-a-brac, and trash. By April 3, the movers cleaned 51 tons of trash from just the first floor rooms.
On April 8, after removing another 52 tons of junk, the movers made a grisly discovery: a foot poking out of a pile of garbage. It was the body of Langley Collyer. Officers believed that, when crawling through a tunnel in the garbage, his cloths caught on a trip wire and he was buried under tons of garbage. He eventually suffocated to death.
Once the mansion was cleaned out, the city’s building commissioner ordered it demolished.
Bryk, William. “The Collyer Brothers.” NYSun.com. April 13, 2005. The Sun. October 21, 2015. http://www.nysun.com/on-the-town/collyer-brothers/12165/
“The Collyer Mystery Solved.” The Pittsburgh Press. April 9, 1947. Pg 21
“Police Await Hermit’s Return Following Death of Brother.” The Pittsburgh Press. March 22, 1947. Pg 3