The Collyer brothers, a study in compulsive hoarding

Homer and Langley Collyer were brothers who lived in a Manhattan row house in Harlem in the early part of the 20th century. Their story is bizarre and illustrates the depths people will go to hold onto anything and everything.

The discovery of just how bad the Collyer brothers’ hoarding was came to light in March 1947 when an anonymous person reported there was a dead body in the Collyer residence.

The authorities did not have an easy time gaining entrance to the home. They started by trying to remove tons of garbage from the front foyer, which consisted of newspapers, phonebooks, furniture, boxes, and other miscellaneous debris. Unsuccessful in their attempts, a patrolman broke a window on the second floor in order to gain entry. After climbing through junk for two hours, he found the body of the elder brother Homer among the boxes and trash. Missing from the home, however, was Langley, the younger of the two recluses.

The hunt for Langley began, and authorities searched for him as far away as Atlantic City. A disturbing realization took place three weeks later, unfortunately, when Langley’s body was was found ten feet from his older brother’s. Because of the vast amount of garbage in the house, his body wasn’t unearthed until then. Langley had been crushed to death by one of his many booby-traps that he had made to deter people’s entry into their palace of junk. Langley actually had died first. He was crushed while bringing food to his elder brother, who was blind. Langley fed Homer a diet of one hundred oranges per week to try and restore his sight. Believing that the diet of oranges would restore Homer’s vision, Langley also saved every newspaper so that Homer could eventually read them when his sight returned.

Authorities eventually removed more than 100 tons of trash from the Collyer brothers’ house. Some of the more unusual items included human pickled organs, the chassis of an old Model T, fourteen pianos (both grand and upright), hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, and more than 25,000 books.

To learn more about the Collyer brothers, read Frank Lidz’s famous account in Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers.

7 Comments for “The Collyer brothers, a study in compulsive hoarding”

  1. posted by Keri on

    This is amazing – and extremly sad. =/ I am going to have to read the full story. Thanks for posting.

  2. posted by Nicolette on

    A few years ago I saw a play about the Collyer Brothers at the Roundabout Theatre in NY – I think it was called The Dazzle. The next day I started my spring cleaning! Quite the inspiration. Thanks for reminding me it’s time again!

  3. posted by Vanessa on

    When I was a teenager my grandmother, a New Yorker, used to chastise me about the state of my room, saying, “Good Lord, this place looks like the Collyer brothers mansion.” From time to time after she passed away I would remember this and wonder who she was talking about. I learned a little about them in recent years. Your story gives me much more detail than I’d had before. Thanks very much for filling in that little piece of my childhood.

  4. posted by Sam on

    Nice blog. I’m all over this ‘unclutter’ philosophy. The Collyer Brothers warrants a look. Creepy but educational at the same time.
    Here’s to Spring Cleaning!
    Vanessa’s comment is amazingly unique! This is what blogging (and comments) should be about.

    Blog on!

  5. posted by Metrozing on

    If you or someone you love is a hoarder you may want to go the following website for help: (The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization)

    There are some professional organizers who specialize in helping hoarders. They work with psychiatrists and psychologists.

    Great blog topic!

  6. posted by The View From My Window » How a bunion led to understanding, solace, and hope during the “bazaar” death of print on

    […] my parents’ taunts are true, surely be smothered one day by all her piles of “stuff” like the Collyer brothers. I like to keep books I’ve never read, postcards from friends, catalogues, childhood […]

  7. posted by Homer & Langley « Brian Reads. on

    […] had heard somewhere a while ago that E.L. Doctorow had novelized the story of the Collyer brothers, and I got to look at an advanced reading copy a friend of mine had, so I was eager to read it […]

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