Monday, March 8, 2010

Collyer Brothers

Homer Lusk Collyer (November 6, 1881 – March 21, 1947) and Langley Collyer (October 3, 1885 – March 1947) were two American brothers who became famous because of their snobbish nature, filth in their homes, and compulsive hoarding. For decades, neighborhood rumors swirled around the rarely seen, unemployed men and their home at 2078 Fifth Avenue (at the corner of 128th Street), in Manhattan, where they obsessively collected newspapers, books, furniture, musical instruments, and many other items, with booby traps set up in corridors and doorways to protect against intruders. Both were eventually found dead in the Harlem brownstone where they had lived as hermits, surrounded by over 130 tons of waste that they had amassed over several decades.

On March 21, 1947, an anonymous tipster phoned the 122nd Police Precinct and insisted there was a dead body in the house. A patrol officer was dispatched, but had a difficult time getting into the house at first, noting however that an awful odor was emanating from somewhere within the building. There was no doorbell or telephone and the doors were locked; and while the basement windows were broken, they were protected by iron grillwork. An emergency squad of seven men eventually had no choice but to begin pulling out all the junk that was blocking their way and throw it out onto the street below. The brownstone's foyer was packed solid by a wall of old newspapers, folding beds and chairs, half a sewing machine, boxes, parts of a wine press, and numerous other pieces of junk. A patrolman, William Barker, finally broke in through a window into a second-story bedroom. Behind this window lay, among other things, more packages and newspaper bundles, empty cardboard boxes lashed together with rope, the frame of a baby carriage, a rake, and old umbrellas tied together. After a two-hour crawl he found Homer Collyer dead, wearing just a tattered blue and white bathrobe. Homer's matted, grey hair reached down to his shoulders, and his head was resting on his knees.

Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Arthur C. Allen confirmed Homer's identity and said that the elder brother had been dead for no more than ten hours; consequently, Homer could not have been the source of the stench wafting from the house. Foul play was ruled out: Homer had died from the combined effects of malnutrition, dehydration, and cardiac arrest. By this time, the mystery had attracted a crowd of about 600 onlookers, curious about the junk and the smell. But Langley was nowhere to be found.

In their quest to find Langley, the police began searching the house, an arduous task that required them to remove the large quantity of amassed junk. Most of it was deemed worthless and set out curbside for the sanitation department to haul away; a few items were put into storage. The ongoing search turned up a further assortment of guns and ammunition. There was no sign of Langley.

On April 8, 1947, workman Artie Matthews found the body of Langley Collyer just 10 feet from where Homer died. His partially decomposed body was being eaten by rats. A suitcase and three huge bundles of newspapers covered his body. Langley had been crawling through their newspaper tunnel to bring food to his paralyzed brother when one of his own booby traps fell down and crushed him. Homer, blind and paralyzed, starved to death several days later. The stench detected on the street had been emanating from Langley, the younger brother.

Both brothers were buried with their parents at Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn.

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