The Collyer Brothers of Harlem

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


Two years
after the Collyers’ arrival, African-Americans began settling in Harlem
in large numbers. By 1925, Harlem had been transformed from an upper-middle-class
white suburb into the center of African-American life.

But while
nearly all the other white folks left, the Collyers did not. Dr. Collyer died
in 1923; Mrs. Collyer in 1929. Their sons remained in the mansion. According
to Trinity Church’s baptismal records, Homer Collyer was born on Nov. 6,
1881. Langley was about six years younger. Both men graduated from Columbia:
Homer, who graduated with the class of 1904, earned an MA, LLB and LLM and practiced
admiralty law. Langley took his degree in chemistry and mechanical engineering.
He never worked for a living, devoting himself to music.

In 1928-’29,
Homer worked in the law office of John McMullen, who would become the family
lawyer. Homer then worked for City Title Insurance at 32 Broadway, spending
his days researching in the Hall of Records. A former colleague described Homer
as an affable, courtly, Dickensian type, with old-fashioned clothing, high collars
and elaborate sideburns who wrote with an elegant Spencerian hand.

Langley,
who was last photographed in 1946, looked like a stereotype of an aging late
Romantic poet, with an old-fashioned bowtie, formal black jacket and vest, gray
striped trousers, a long gray mustache and longish hair.

By 1917,
the Collyers’ telephone had been disconnected because, as Langley explained,
they were "being billed for long distance calls they didn’t make."
In 1928, the gas was shut off. The brothers began going without steam heat and
hot running water, using kerosene for lighting and cooking. The Encyclopedia
of New York City
and Jan Morris in Manhattan ’45 claim they
had no water or sewer connection; no contemporary sources go that far. Some
of the local kids threw stones through their windows and after Langley had spent
large sums to replace the glass, he decided it was better to board them up and
close the inner shutters.

Most sources
agree Homer last appeared in public in 1932. In 1933, he suffered a stroke,
with "hemorrhages in both eyes," and went blind. Thereafter, Langley
cared for him. They avoided doctors, treating Homer’s illnesses with special
diet and rest. Langley said Homer ate 100 oranges a week and treated his eyes
by consciously resting them: keeping them closed at all times.

Their solitude
was first violated by the press on Aug. 11, 1938, when Helen Worden wrote an
article for the World-Telegram about Maurice Gruber, a real estate agent
who wanted to buy Collyer property in Queens. When the Collyers did not respond
to his letters and then his personal visits, Gruber staked out the house. By
the following day, Worden found Charles Collyer, a distant cousin working as
a ticket agent for the Long Island Rail Road, who suddenly and conveniently
became worried that Homer was dead. Worden’s article was accompanied by
photographs posing Charles Collyer and his wife on the front steps of the mansion.
Worden called Langley "the mystery man of Harlem." She recapitulated
every street rumor that behind the shabby facade was a veritable Arabian
Nights
’ palace of Chinese rugs, rare antiques and thousands of morocco-bound
books, including piles of money Langley was afraid to put in the bank.

She then
staked out the mansion herself. One night she caught Langley slipping out to
go shopping and began her interview by calling out, "Good evening, Mr.
Collyer. The neighbors tell me you keep a row boat in the attic and a Model
T in the basement."

Strangely
enough, he responded. "Yes and no," Langley replied. The boat, he
explained, was his father’s canoe. "He used to carry it to the Harlem
River on his head and paddle down to [Bellevue] every morning and back every
evening. The auto was his, too. I never got around to putting it together again
after he died."

Langley
later claimed all his troubles dated from these articles. Jan Morris wrote that
"…nobody ever interfered with them it seems, or tried to make them live
like everyone else. They were the Collyer Brothers, Harlem’s Most Fascinating
Mystery, as the tabloids like to say, and fashionably mysterious they were allowed
to remain."

But they
were not left alone. As the Daily News wrote, "folks attempted to
see for themselves." This phrase is ambiguous. The clippings on the Collyers
leave a strong impression that from the late 30s, nosy neighbors knocked on
the door, nasty kids threw rocks at the house, broke their fence and smashed
bottles in their front yard, and reporters kept interviewing obscure relatives
on the steps of the house, expressing concern over poor cousins Homer and Langley.

Another
story quoted a neighbor describing Langley as "the ghosty man… He did
have a brother, Homer, but nobody’s seen him in a long while. They ain’t
seen his ma, either. She was s’pose to be dead, but she never had a funeral…
He’s like haunts in graveyards, he don’ come out before midnight."

Langley
panicked. Though gloomy, the house had not been messy in 1938. By 1942, Langley
had singlehandedly accumulated vast quantities of newspaper, cartons, tin cans
and other refuse, transforming the mansion into a fortress. He apparently applied
his engineer’s training to arrange packing boxes and cartons in interlocking
tiers with concealed tunnels passing from one room or one floor to another.
Langley alone was familiar with the maze. Anyone else would have to remove the
entire barricade to pass. He also booby-trapped massive piles of newspapers
and old luggage with trip wires.

Their final
drama began at 8:53 a.m. on March 21, 1947, when a man who gave his name as
Charles Smith telephoned police headquarters, saying, "There was a dead
man in the house at 2078 Fifth Avenue." Police arrived around 10 a.m. to
find a crowd of Harlem residents outside the house. The police roped off the
house. Some officers tried forcing the mahogany front doors. Then the police
took them off their hinges. There stood a solid wall of boxes and debris, up
to the ceiling.

Other officers
entered the unlit, cluttered basement. The way from the basement to the first
floor was blocked by a solid mass of packing cases. Then, the police forced
the shutters on a first floor window. Within lay a desolation of ceiling-high
stacks of boxes, paper and furniture, crawling with rats. The officers found
the stairs to the second floor blocked with yet another mass of packing cases.

Two hours
after the police first arrived on the scene, officers finally clambered from
a ladder into a second-story room. There they found Homer dead. He was emaciated,
bearded (Daily News) or mustachioed (Times), clothed only in either
a tattered robe (Times) or a few ragged fragments of clothing (The
Sun
), and lay with his knees drawn almost to his chin. Dr. Thomas Gonzales,
the medical examiner, said that Homer’s body was extremely emaciated and
dehydrated. "There is no question," Gonzales said, "that he had
been neglected for a long time." There was no food in his stomach or his
digestive tract, indicating he had nothing to eat or drink for at least three
days before his death, which was attributed to chronic bronchitis, gangrenous
decubital ulcer (a large, untreated bedsore), and senile pulmonary emphysema.

The story
was a wild sensation: on March 22, 1947, even the Times printed a front-page
story on Homer’s death. By the end of the second day, according to the
Times, the police had removed 19 tons of debris from the first-floor
hallway alone.

As the search
for Langley continued, thousands of curious citizens walked or drove by the
house. According to the Daily News, "few lingered at the scene.
They were driven away by the smells."

A friend
whose father covered the story for one of the dailies told me the cops lit up
cheap, foul-smelling cigars against the overpowering stench of organic corruption–"like
a blow from a mailed fist." For not only the newspapers, garbage and animal
wastes were rotting, but as a city housing inspector told The Sun, even
the house was rotting: Its floor and walls were saturated because of the open
windows and roof leaks, the beams were rotted and buckled from the weight of
the junk and bricks were falling from the walls.

The New
York County public administrator, a Surrogate’s Court official, took over
the search from the police. On March 31, the public administrator hired six
professional movers to remove all articles of value from the house. They tore
out the basement entrance and began emptying the law library. The 2500 law books
were merely a tenth of the volumes in the house. They found numerous family
oil portraits. They found Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, jammed with unused
piece goods, silks, wool, damask and brocade; three bolts of embroidered white
curtain material, each containing 54 yards, that had never been unwrapped; and
a batch of fine linen dish towels, stamped "Collyer," that had never
been used.

They found
telephone directories, three revolvers, two rifles, a shotgun, ammunition, a
bayonet and a saber, a half-dozen toy trains, toy tops, a toy airplane, 14 upright
and grand pianos, cornets, bugles, an accordion, a trombone, a banjo; tin cans,
chandeliers, tapestries, a portrait camera, enlarger, lenses and tripods, a
bowling ball in a canvas bag, bicycles and bicycle lamps, a rolled-up 100-foot
rug runner, a 9-foot-tall mahogany clock with a music box inside and pastel
painted figures on the broad face; 13 ornate mantel clocks, including one contained
in a metal bust of a girl whose ears and bodice dripped coins, 13 Oriental rugs,
heavily ornate Victorian oil lamps and vases, white plaster portrait busts and
picture frames. They found a static machine, an electrical device manufactured
during the 1890s for the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism and other ailments.
They found five violins, at least two dating from the 18th century, two organs
and scores of 7-inch gramophone records dating from 1898, including "Round
Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon for her Lover Who is Fur, Fur Away,"
"Atta Baby" and "Nobody In Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like
Mine." They found sheets in braille from Homer’s failed attempts to
learn the system. And they found a certificate of merit for punctuality and
good conduct awarded to Langley at Public School 69, 125 W. 54th St., for the
week ending April 19, 1895.

These things
merely salted the vast sea of junk and paper.

By April
3, according to the Herald Tribune, the searchers had removed 51 tons
of waste. They had only reached two rooms on the first floor. By April 8, 19
days after the search began, The Sun reported 103 tons of debris removed.
Then they found Langley’s body.

He had been
buried alive in one of his booby traps while crawling to bring Homer food. He
had been only eight feet from his brother. He was wearing burlap draped over
his shoulders as a cape, and police speculated this had snagged on a wire and
tripped the booby trap. Langley wore no underwear or socks. He had on a bathrobe,
three jackets and four pairs of trousers. Around his neck as a scarf was a white
onion sack fastened with a safety pin. He lay on his right side and the rats
had been at him. Both The Sun of April 8 and the World-Telegram
of April 9 stated a preliminary examination indicated Langley had died quite
some time before his brother. Apparently, Homer had died utterly, horribly alone.

On May 9,
1947, Robert F. Wagner Jr., the city’s commissioner of Housing and Buildings
(later Manhattan borough president and mayor), announced the mansion would be
demolished as unsafe and a menace to life and property. It was torn down within
the year.

Langley
was buried in the Collyer family plot in Cypress Hills Cemetery on April 11.
The funeral arrangements were made by the public administrator’s office.
The numerous relatives produced by the press apparently did little more than
attend the services and file claims against the brothers’ estates.

There was
no great wealth. The Surrogate’s Court probated the estates in 1949: $60,000
in real estate holdings, $2000 in savings, $4000 from the sale of personal property.
Against this were claims for $15,000 in estate taxes and thousands more in city,
federal and state tax arrears. It is unclear whether the 40 claimants against
the estate ever saw a dime.

The only
explanation Langley ever provided for the brothers’ behavior was that they
preferred to live alone.

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