The Curious Case of the Collyer Brothers

My hubby and I love the old TV show Frasier. We own every season on DVD (except the first one, which I refused to buy because Kelsey Grammer’s hair was so bad that year.)

We never really watched the show when it originally aired but, after our first baby was born, when we were housebound in the evenings (and stupefied with exhaustion), we started watching Frasier episodes, one after the other, on DVD. Even in our foggy post-baby state, we loved how smart and fearless and funny the show was. The acting was pitch-perfect, the writing was beyond clever – it still makes us laugh today, even after repeated viewings.

Anyway, this post isn’t about Frasier. It’s about a passing reference that was made in one show. In that episode, Frasier and Niles were acting even more neurotic than usual, and Frasier’s dad (an ex-cop) warned them that they could turn out like the Collyer brothers.

Well, that sort of thing is just catnip to me. I headed to the Internet.

Turns out, Homer and Langley Collyer, well-educated brothers born in the 1880’s into a distinguished New York family, were quite famous for being eccentric recluses. Once they reached adulthood, they lived together in a large, beautiful brownstone on Fifth Avenue for two decades, shunning human contact and existing without water, electricity or gas because they wouldn’t pay the bills (although they did have money in the bank.) They never threw anything away; instead, they piled up junk in their home and made small tunnels through the mess so they could move around. They were extreme “hoarders” 50 years before the term was coined.

During the last several years of their lives, they were rarely seen in public. In 1947, working on a tip about a terrible smell coming from the house, police entered their home and after hours of tunneling through junk, they found the body of one brother. An extensive search went up for the other brother, while workmen started removing debris from the home. After more than two weeks of this, the body of the other brother was found – just ten feet from where his sibling had been recovered. Here is a police photo:

Langley Collyer had died while crawling through a tunnel to bring food to his brother; a pile of junk had collapsed and crushed him. Homer, who was blind and depended on his brother for survival, starved to death a few days later.

There are so many degrees on the mental health spectrum, from well-adjusted to eccentric to completely mad. Nature, nurture, a little of both? Evidently the boys’ physician father was quite peculiar, paddling a canoe to his job at the hospital and eventually abandoning the family. We’ll never know exactly what the boys suffered from, since they were never treated (although that may have been a blessing, for them – the 1940’s were the heyday of the horrifying lobotomy craze.)

A final note: 130 tons of garbage were eventually taken from the Collyer’s home, and the building had to be razed. Among the items removed from the house were some 25,000 books.

Which is the one part of this story that sounds perfectly normal, to me.


10 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Collyer Brothers

  1. Never heard of these guys.

    But I knew a guy in jr. high school whose bedroom looked just like that. I once went to visit him at his house. His mom told me he was in his room. I knocked on the open doorjamb. He called from the opposite side of the maybe 10′ by 10′ room to let me know he was there, but it took me three or four turns around floor-to-ceiling doric columns of books on their sides before I could confirm that it was really him.

    No idea what happened to him. I should look him up.

    I wonder if I should add that his mother, who weighed about 450, once stood up and moved as if she was going to sit on me. She found my sudden panic to be one of the funniest things she’d ever seen.

    Other than that, my life has been perfectly uninteresting, boring, and normal.

    • I too had a friend in H.S. whose family were hoarders. There were always terrible smells and a tiny little pathway to get from room to room. My friend is now a complete neat freak – not that I blame her!

      And yes, Cathy, I can imagine you cruising, oh so casually through the crime scene, sneaking a book or two when the police aren’t looking.

  2. cathy – i am trying to imagine what would happen if you had stumbled upon those 25,000 books. i realize this was nowhere remotely close to the point of the story, but it was still my favorite part. 🙂

  3. Wow, that is incredible! We love Frasier too 🙂 Have you seen that crazy show “Horders; Burried Alive” that’s on TLC now? I haven’t actually watched it, but it’s insane that they can find that many people that do it to make an entire series!

  4. So very sad and so strange. I’ve heard of these brothers but I’d never really read about them. My daughter always kids me that my books are going to take over my house. I mean, I really do hate to get rid of any. Luckily for me, I’ve lately been using the library more than not. 🙂

    • I have over a thousand books…which doesn’t seem like that many. I HAVE been utilizing the library more, since the babies…but I still like to own them. Even though there’s really no chance that I’ll be doing repeat readings, at this stage of life.

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