It all began on November 27, 1947 with an anonymous phone tip to the New York Police Department telling that "there's a dead man in 2078 Fifth Avenue." The house in question was a once-fashionable mansion owned by Homer and Langley Collyer, two elderly recluses who had become the stuff of local legends due to their virtual isolation from New York society. Though Langley was still seen on occasion, mostly because he was acting as his older brother's caregiver, nobody had seen Homer Collyer in decades. This was all the more remarkable considering that both brothers belonged to one of New York's oldest families (their ancestors had come over on the Speedwell, sister ship to the Mayflower) and were apparently affluent despite their isolation.
In fact, one 1938 newspaper article about Langley Collyer hinted that he owned half of New York's waterfront with much of his wealth being inherited. The article scarcely mentioned Homer at all but New York Telegram reporter Helen Worden described him as "a slight figure in a ragged overcoat held on with a safety pin and wearing a droopy Lord Dundreary moustache". Like everyone else, Worden had no idea of what was actually inside the Collyer mansion but Langley told her he had ten pianos which he enjoyed playing. Even a process server trying to serve a summons relating to his aunt's will had no luck reaching Langley.
And Langley guarded his privacy jealously. When the occupants of a neighbouring house disturbed his solitude, he reportedly bought their house and kept it vacant. One real estate broker, trying to purchase some of his property, practically camped out on the Collyers' front porch and shouted out to them that he wanted to pay them $125,000 for their land. Nobody responded and the broker went away frustrated. Even their few remaining family members had no idea of what was happening in the house. With no other sign of their rejoining society, the Collyer brothers faded into local legend.
While wild rumours flourished about what lay inside the house and the wealth that the Collyers were reputedly afraid to trust to banks, nobody expected what police would actually find there when they investigated that anonymous tip. After getting no answer from the house, one officer broke into a second-floor bedroom window to find the home filled with cobwebs and literally tons of newspapers and litter that had apparently accumulated over decades. The stench from the house was so bad that searchers needed to exit the house frequently for fresh air. It was in a second-floor bedroom that they found the body of 75-year-old Homer Collyer.
Homer, who had once been an admiralty lawyer with multiple degrees from Columbia University, was dressed in a crumbling gray bathrobe and was sitting on his haunches. A physician determined that he had been dead for about a week, apparently of heart failure and starvation. As for the house itself, all the police found was tons of trash in unsightly heaps wherever they looked. There was certainly none of the fabulous antiques and other examples of Collyer wealth that local legends spoke about. Along with enormous piles of newspaper, searchers found an old automobile seat, a battered radio cabinet, the frame from a baby carriage, etc. It would take days for the tons of junk found in the house to be cleared away.
What the police couldn't find however, was any trace of Langley Collyer. Langley also held degrees from Columbia University (his were in mechanical engineering and chemistry) and had been the only brother that neighbours ever saw. His last real interaction with the world, aside from leaving the house to buy groceries, was in 1942. This was when the bank holding their mortgage was threatening both brothers with foreclosure. The Collyers had been making regular mortgage payments until 1940 when the payments suddenly stopped. While all utilities, including gas and telephone, had been shut off years before, it was the imminent threat of eviction that finally brought Langley Collyer out of hiding, at least temporarily.
It was around that time that one determined New York Herald-Tribune reporter finally managed to interview Langley by simply sitting on the front steps of the mansion waiting from someone to come out. The reporter described him as wearing old shoes, rumpled trousers, a boating cap, and a black bow tie. After being told of the impending eviction, Langley said that he hadn't been aware of any difficulty. Chatting in a low, cultivated style that reflected his upper-class heritage, Langley said that caring for his brother was his only real concern in the world.
In an interview conducted while Langley was walking to a local bakery to buy buns for his brother, he described Homer as being blind and in poor health. "But his health is improving," he said. "You must remember we are the sons of a doctor. We have a medical library of 15,000 books in the house. Homer and I decided we would not call in any doctors. You see, we know too much about medicine. Doctors would remove Homer's optic nerve and he would be blind forever and they would treat his rheumatism with drugs that would shorten Homer's life. No, we decided to do it our own way, by diet and rest."
He added that they weren't bothered by the lack of utilities. Being a former engineer, Langley was able to build a generator from automobile parts and had also built a crystal radio so Homer could listen to broadcasts. Life was simple though he had boarded up the windows of their house after vandals smashed them. The lack of light didn't bother either of them.
After the interview ended and being taken home in a taxi, Langley apologized for not inviting the reporter into the house. He explained that the newspaper and pianos he had around the house made it too difficult to navigate. He was saving the newspapers for when Homer regained his sight and the pianos were left over from his old piano repair business. As for the mortgage, Langley paid it off in full using what little money he had left in his bank accounts (so much for his fabulous wealth).
All of which still left the question of what happened to Langley Collyer. While police speculated that he had been the one to make the anonymous call that led to Homer's body being found, rumours that he had fled to New Jersey caused police to turn their attention there and, eventually, to a nine-state manhunt. In the meantime, clearing out the house became a major effort due to all the accumulated junk. Crowds gathered as they watched the house being gradually cleaned up.
Finally, on April , 1947, a workman found the remains of Langley Collyer only ten feet away from where his brother had been found. The body was buried under tons of junk and had also been half-eaten by rats. Police later determined that Langley had been crawling through a tunnel he had made in the junk which collapsed on him as he was trying to reach his brother. In all likelihood, he had accidentally set off one of his own booby-traps (there were a few others in the house). He died of asphyxiation and Homer apparently died soon afterward. It was a neighbour who had anonymously called the police, apparently alarmed by the smell of rotting flesh coming from the house. Both bodies would eventually be buried next to their parents in Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Cemetery.
As for the house itself, police would eventually remove more than 120 tons of junk and debris. Along with tons of newspapers and possessions inherited from their parents, there were thousands of books, an early x-ray machine and pickled human organs in jars (likely part of their father's medical practice), the remains of Langley's pianos, eight live cats, thousands of bottles and jars, and a horse's jawbone. Once it was finally emptied, the house was deemed "unsafe for human habitation" and razed later that same year. Many of the more unusual items, including the chair Homer died in, were briefly displayed in a local museum before being sold to private collectors. But there was still some property and assets eventually valued at nearly $100,000. After years of property squabbling (neither brother had a will), the property went to various distant relatives. And so ended the local legend of the Collyer brothers.
While compulsive hoarding has only recently been identified as a mental disorder, Langley and Homer became the unofficial patron saints of hoarders everywhere. The term "Collyer mansion" is now used by firefighters to describe an extreme hoarding situation that poses a danger to emergency responders as well as occupants. E.L. Doctorow even wrote a novel, Homer and Langley, speculating on their early lives though he changed many of the details of their story.
A strange legacy for two aristocratic brothers who literally shut out the world for decades.