S1E02: Hoarding Can Be Deadly
Two Brothers who literally shut themselves off from the rest of the world nesting in among their many possessions and still accumulating more. Until... the scent of death and decay seeped out... After the police's attempts at making contact, a hatchet was used to break in the front door... you'll never believe what they found.
Season One, Episode 02: Hoarding Can Be Deadly
Released September 24, 2020
Bag of Bones Podcast
Episode 2: Hoarding Can Be Deadly
September 29, 2020
At the address of 2078 Fifth Avenue in New York is a small pocket park that quietly exists amongst the towering spread of suburbia, minding its own business as the world goes on around it.
The Collyer Brothers Park is named after the former owners of the brownstone that stood in the very same place. And they, Homer and Langley Collyer behaved in much the same way as their little namesake park. They just wanted to be left alone and let the world go on around them.
It was 1909 when Dr. Herman Collyer moved his wife Susie and their two grown sons into the three story brownstone home at 2078 Fifth Avenue.
Homer, the eldest brother was accepted in the College of the City of New York at age fourteen eventually earning his bachelors. He went on to graduate with a degree in maritime law while his brother, Langley chose an education in engineering and chemistry, at Columbia University. Langley also pursued a career as a concert pianist. He played professionally included performances at Carnegie Hall.
Homer did practice law for some time while Langley switched gears to piano sales making it convenient to collect more than his fair share of keyboards along the way. The home held over eighteen different pianos before it was all said and done, including a grand, two organs and a clavichord.
In 1919, their father, a gynecologist separated from his wife moving his practice elsewhere. The boys stayed with their mother, Susie.
Only four years after their father moved out, he passed away leaving all of his belongings and his medical practice items to his two sons which they moved back into the brownstone at Harlem.
And then only six years after that, making it 1929, now, their mother passed away, leaving the home and all of her possessions to her sons. The sons who had never lived away from home in their lives, were suddenly thrust into a new position. hashtag, adulting.
The family was already labeled eccentric, the parents being first cousins to start with- but they had excessive amounts of furniture and chandeliers, paintings and other showpieces of wealth and culture. Susie, was an acclaimed opera singer and had quite the collection of music players, rolls of music, musical instruments and the like but perhaps it was the two grown sons that chose not to marry.
Both were eligible bachelors being sociable, intelligent, both taught Sunday school and had pleasant personalities, but never found a mate to call their own.
And then, a few years after the death of their parents the brothers were dealt another blow that would begin their downward spiral into history.
In a moment of entrepreneurship, the brothers decided to purchase the land across the street from their home and build an apartment complex. The plans were halted, however, the very next year, 1933, when Homer suffered a stroke causing hemorrhaging in the back of his eyes leading to blindness. It was then that Langley quit his job to care for his brother full time.
Whispers of the brothers escalating eccentricities spread throughout the Harlem neighborhood and passersby would always slow their walk when passing by the brownstone hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive brothers or peek in a window to see what treasures they might have found while Langley was out and about on short trips to add to their growing collection of items. Without their parents, and Homer’s illness, it was at this same time that the brothers started to withdraw from the outside world more and more.
To make matters worse, this was all happening during the era of the Great Depression. Families were losing their homes and moving away. The structure of the city they once knew was changing and the brothers were watching their once upperclass neighborhood decline in value, safety and a racial demographic shift that made them very uncomfortable.
Homer stayed indoors permanently as inflammatory rheumatism slowly took over his joints and muscles, paralyzing him, leaving him wheelchair bound. Langley was fiercely protective of his brother and trusted no one to see him.
Neither were oblivious to the seriousness of Homer’s injuries, but they were convinced that outside doctors would only do more damage. They believed that these unknown doctors would perform unnecessary surgeries, so- they were convinced that between the two of them was his only hope for a cure.
Being sons of a doctor and surrounded by thousands of medical books, the brothers decided to take on the healing of Homer’s illnesses themselves. Personally, I’m not sure if they actually read any of the books because the course of treatment they came up with consisted of a diet of oranges, black bread which a form of rye bread, and peanut butter.
One hundred oranges per week, to be exact.
Now I am not one to doubt the healing powers of peanut butter and vitamin C, but unfortunately, it didn’t help Homer’s agony in the least.
Langley, however, was so sure of their cure, he began collecting all the newspapers and magazines so that when Homer’s sight did return, he would be able to catch up on all that he missed during his illness.
Spoiler alert. He never regained his sight. Nor, was he able to walk again.
They only slipped further and further into reclusiveness, choosing not to pay their bills, even though they had money to pay them. The first casualty in this new thought process was the repossession of the lot across the street in 1943. They didn’t pay their income taxes since 1931. Langley was very vocal in his protests of the action shouting from a second story window out into the street that they had no income, and should therefore not be required to pay income tax.
In 1937, their phone was disconnected. In 1938 the electric, water and gas were all turned off for failure to pay the bill. But in 1942 when the Bowery Savings of New York began eviction procedures, one- it caused a massive crowd to gather outside the home to watch the proceedings, wondering, possibly hoping to see the removal of the brothers, but two, not surprising, the brothers were not ready to leave.
The bank sent the police to the address on Fifth St expecting a fuss, but they had no idea what waited for them on the other side of the door.
The police attempted to force their way into the front door but soon found it to be barricaded with stacks and stacks of newspaper bundles, cardboard boxes, mattress springs, bicycle parts and various other items restricting their entry.
They cut and carved their way through the wall of trash using axes and finally came to an opening.
There, they met Langley who was waiting for them with a check to pay off the remainder of the mortgage in full and then he promptly ordered them to get off his property.
In their nest of tunnels and openings, they tinkered with various tasks. In the winter they would keep warm with a small kerosene heater. Langley would sneak out to fetch water from a pump at a local park, and they had light thanks to a generator that Langley, the former engineer, made from an old Model T Ford engine.
Langley would read books and stories to his brother and play piano concerts to pass the time.
It got to the point that Langley would rarely make appearances during the day light hours but wait until after midnight to shop and scavenge for food, and also gather items he felt they needed. He was not above digging through dumpsters and trash cans to find the things he was looking for. He never saw a bicycle part that he could leave behind.
Everyone who came in contact with him during his midnight escapades in his tattered clothing held together with safety pins, always said that he was an amiable gentleman, but also added that his was a bit crazy.
Langley fiercely protected their privacy and only wished people would just leave them alone. Once upon a time he was talkative and sociable, but now, he tried to avoid people as much as possible. His obsessive disorder escalated so much that when he caught neighbors in the building next door, trying to peek in the window of their home, he bought the property- paying in full- in cash.
This one transaction sent out a flurry of gossip of the riches and valuables that must hide behind those walls.
Confirming everyone’s thoughts, the NY Times reported a false claim in 1938 that the brothers turned down a bid for the home for $125,000. The article also eluded to an amassed material wealth and treasures hidden inside.
This led to new interest and curiosities about the brothers complete with several break in attempts.
Langley set about putting bars on all the windows and then boarding them up. He took on the task of wiring the entrances closed and blocking them further with walls of newspapers and trash, setting booby traps in various locations of the home to ensnare any would-be burglars.
An obvious sign of wealth in the eyes of onlookers, otherwise, why go through such trouble to hide it.
The tunnels, tinkering and booby traps would ultimately be the brothers own demise.
On March 21 1947, a man claiming to be Charles Smith called the NY’s 122 Police department complaining of the smell of decomposition coming from the Collyer home.
Police responding to the call couldn’t find a way in. They had to use axes to smash down the front door and break the window on the second floor only to be faced with wires, iron bars, boards and then an impenetrable wall of junk.
Newspapers, chairs, boxes, baby carriages, plaster busts, mattress springs… there was no telling what they would find next.
Police began tossing items out onto the street as an audience grew to watch the deconstruction of the Collyer home. They even had to cut a hole in the roof to gain access to the rooms. They tossed items by the arm-fulls over the side of the building to the sidewalk below.
Junk. Items piled from floor to ceiling, wall to wall only navigable through booby trapped tunnels.
Mattresses, sewing machine parts, years of outdated phone books, medical instruments and tools, mannequins, rolls of fabric, oriental rugs, clothing…
Police continued to toss items from the window to search for the source of the smell.
Five hours of digging finally revealed the body of Homer Collyer. They believed that he’d been dead for about ten hours. Cause of death, starvation and heart disease. They found him wearing his blue and white stripped bathrobe, sitting in his wheel chair with his head resting on his knees.
Suspicions immediately went to the younger brother, Langley who was no where to be found. They speculated that either he may have murdered his brother, or being relieved of his brotherly duties fled the area.
Word spread and the calls of Langley Collyer sightings created a nine state manhunt. Police were sent out across the nation looking for clues to the whereabouts of the missing brother.
The city went forward with the funeral of Homer Collyer on April 1, 1947. When Langley failed to appear for his brother’s funeral, suspicions shifted to believe that he too, may also be dead.
As the police continued to excavate the layers upon layers of junk, people claiming to be family members began showing up complaining of the harsh treatment of the items. They insisted that the police begin taking inventory as they continued so as not to destroy items of value.
Medical equipment, including and early model of an x-ray machine. Human organs in formaldehyde. The thousands and thousands of medical books, plus books on every other subject lined the wall in floor to ceiling bookcases, and stuffed into boxes. Their mother’s hopechests, jewelry, tapestries, grammaphones, records and an assortment of musical instruments.
For over two weeks, the crews attempted to remove items both valuable such as jewelry, passports, antiques, and bank books to junk… trash… garbage.
Furniture, baby carriages, toys, a sled, paintings, clocks and clock parts, camera equipment, guns, eight live cats, bolts of fabric… food, tin cans, bottles….
Finally on April 8th, a workman found the body of Langley Collyer. He was completely buried under a pile of items and partially eaten by rats. It became obvious that he was a victim of one of his own booby traps while taking food to his brother.
The medical examiner attributed his death to being buried alive- asphyxiation.
They estimated his actual death around March 9th, twelve days prior to his brothers. In death, they were a mere ten feet from one another.
Langley was buried beside his brother and parents at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.
As it turns out, there were quite a few valuables but that is in the eye of the beholder… or the buyer. Random items were auctioned off earning less than $2,000. The wheelchair that Homer Collyer was found in was sold to private collections for public exhibit along with a few other unique or unusual items. The possessions and the home were valued at over $91,000 which is well over a million dollars by today’s estimates.
People came out of the woodwork claiming to be family trying to benefit from the home, cash, bank accounts and valuables. Twenty- three were found as legitimate relatives and the assets were split equally.
It turned out that the piles and piles and stacks and stacks of items were actually keeping the walls of the old brownstone from caving in. Relieved of their stalwart duty, the bricks would fall onto the workmen when they started removing the debris from the edges of the home.
The house had fallen into such disrepair, but the leaky roof, the creaking walls, the crumbling foundation and mortar went unnoticed by the brothers snug as bugs in their nests of trash.
It wasn’t until the over 140 tons of trash was removed from the home that secret tunnels were discovered in the basement allowing Langley access to come and go undetected even though the doors and windows were completely closed off.
In 1947, the house was razed to the ground. The pocket garden was put there in its place. And still today, parents warn their children of the detriment of not cleaning their rooms or collecting too many things for one would not want the same fate as the Collyer Brothers.