Have you ever been flipping through the TV and stumble upon the show Hoarders? The show takes a look at the lives of people who have filled their homes with stuff in ways that threaten to ruin their lives. Some of these people cannot even use their kitchen appliances because there is so much stuff blocking them. Other people collect thousands of household items. One person had allegedly not taken out the trash in seven years.
Hoarders has been on the air for over 10 years, but the history of hoarding goes way beyond TLC. In this video, I want to tell you about one of America’s most notorious hoarders. They are actually a pair of hoarders. They are also probably the only hoarders to have a park named after them. If you have ever been around 5th Avenue and 128th Street in Harlem, you might know who I’m talking about: the Collyer Brothers.
Who Were the Collyer Brothers?
Homer and Langely Collyer were born to a wealthy New York family in the late 1800s. Their parents, who were first cousins, rubbed elbows with Manhattan high society at the time. But they did not stay in Manhattan for long. In 1909, the eccentric family moved to a four-story brownstone in Harlem.
When I say “eccentric,” I mean eccentric. Their father used to take a canoe to work as a gynocologist every day. He kept human organs and medical oddities in a jar. The couple separated in 1923, after his desire to turn the family home into a sanitarium was rejected. The Collyer brothers and their mother started to become more reclusive. By 1929, both of the Collyer parents had died. When their mother died, the brothers asked that the body be picked up - and they sent it out through a first-story window.
Homer worked in real estate insurance, allegedly walking eight miles to and from work every day. Langley worked as a piano tuner and dealer. The pair were odd, but interacted with society until the early 1930s. Homer became blind, leaving his job and leaving Langley with the job of caring for him. Their home had also been the target of a break-in. The Great Depression, particularly in Harlem, made the Collyer house one of particular interest. Rumors swirled that the brothers had money hidden in the walls.
This made the Collyer brothers extremely reclusive. They boarded up their front windows and doors. Langley was only seen leaving through the back door at night to roam the streets. He would carry a wooden box behind him to collect items for the week and other things. He collected odd items: rusty birdcages, tin cans, and piles and piles of newspapers. Due to their father’s extensive library of medical information, Langley believed he could cure his brother of his blindness. Part of that “cure” was to come from a particular diet of 100 oranges a week, peanut butter, and black bread. The newspapers were collected so that Homer would have something to read when he regained his eyesight.
The brothers continued to retreat into the home, saying that they just wanted to be left alone. They also wanted to protect their home from break-ins. Langley created extensive traps and tunnels out of cans, trip wire, and other types of junk. He said it would take him 30 minutes to get from the basement up to the third floor. All the while, Homer was living in a “nest” created by Langely. In addition to blindness, Homer suffered from rheumatism, and was not very mobile.
Neighbors began to treat the home like a haunted house. The only evidence they had of people living in the home was Langley's late-night escapades and the sound of the piano coming from the house. Before Langley had become a piano tuner, he was a professional piano player. He allegedly had performed at Carnegie Hall. Their wealth, esteem, and eccentricies made them the subject of many rumors. The brothers had their water, gas, and electricity shut off. They lived off the grid, although it was later revealed that they were well-versed in what was happening in the world. Langley, who had received an engineering degree from Columbia University as a young man, had fashioned a radio out of a Model T. There were multiple attempts to evict the brothers, as the house was in poor shape and starting to affect the buildings next door. Those attempts were thwarted by the brothers’ massive wealth from their parents. In one instance, Langely paid off their entire mortgage with one check and sent law enforcement officers away.
That all changed in 1947, when police heard reports that one of the Collyer brothers was dead in the home. Although rumors had been swirling about Homer’s death for years, the police decided to check it out. They couldn’t get in through any of the front doors. The foyer was completely filled up with newspapers. Officers had to break into the home through a second-story window. After a few hours of searching, they found Homer’s body, starved, sitting upright in a chair. Langley was nowhere to be found.
A search was put out for Langley. At this point, the Collyer brothers were known throughout the country for their eccentricies. People thought they spotted him all up and down the East Coast. Meanwhile, local authorities continued to clear out the house.
What they found would blow any episode of Hoarders out of the water. There were traps everywhere. One officer even set off one of the traps, releasing a load of rusty tin cans onto him. They removed an X-ray machine, old phonebooks, a horse’s jawbone, the Model T car, bowling balls, and the top of a horse-drawn carriage. Police found over 25,000 books in the home. In addition to a variety of musical instruments, they found 14 pianos. All in all, they removed over 120 tons of junk, some of which was placed into a museum. Removing the junk was a difficult process in itself - the house was so decrepit that the junk was literally holding up the structure of the home. At one point during the search, an investigator fell through the 3rd story floor. Flooding had seriously damaged the floor.
Over two weeks after the officers had found Homer Collyer, they found Langley Collyer. He was mere feet away from Homer. Langley had gotten caught in one of his own traps and was suffocated by all of his junk. In the end, the Collyer brothers and their hoarding caused their own demise.
The house was eventually demolished, and replaced with a small pocket park. It was named the Collyer Brothers Park. Years passed, and people complained that the park’s name was in poor taste. What did the Collyer brothers do for Harlem, anyway? What was their big contribution? Why did they deserve a park?
A name change was even put up to a vote, but city officials voted to keep the park named after the Collyer Brothers. They reminded their colleagues that although the brothers were not known for significant achievements in art or science, they did make a mark on the neighborhood. Parents around New York City would tell their children that if they didn’t clean up, they would end up like the Collyer Brothers.
Why Do People Hoard?
How do people end up like the Collyer Brothers? Some psychologists believe that it is linked to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. Others point to traumatic events. The Collyer family began to retreat after the divorce of the Collyer parents, and things only got worse when the mother of the family died and Homer’s health took a turn for the worse. Anxiety, depression, and even ADHD are tied to hoarding.
What we do know is that hoarding isn’t just something that takes place for a TLC show. And it’s no quirk either - without the help of a mental health professional, hoarding can be fatal.