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.