March 21, 1947, the 122nd Street police station in New
York City received a call from a man claiming that there
was a dead body at 2078 Fifth Street Avenue.
police knew the house, a decaying three-story brownstone
in a run-down part of Harlem, and its inhabitants, Langley
and Homer Collyer, two eccentric recluses.
one could recall having seen Homer for years. There were
even rumors that his dead body was in the house. Langley
was seen only when he went out on furtive sorties, usually
after midnight. He earned himself the nickname of "the
ghostly man." The day after the call, patrolman William
Barker broke into the second-floor bedroom. What he found
there took his breath away.
room was filled from floor to ceiling with objects of
every shape, size and kind. It took him several hours
to cross the few feet to where the dead body of Homer
lay, shrouded in an ancient check bathrobe. The autopsy
revealed that Homer had not eaten for several days and
had died of a heart attack. There was no sign of Langley,
and the authorities immediately began to search for him.
It took 3 weeks to shift through the estimated 136 tons
of junk with which the house was filled. The bizarre collection
of objects included 14 grand pianos, two organs, and a
clavichord; human medical specimens preserved in a glass
jars; the chassis of a Model-T Ford; a library of thousands
of medical and engineering books; an armory of weapons;
the top of a carriage; 6 U.S. flags and one Union Jack;
a primitive X-Ray machine; and 34 bank deposit books with
the balance totaling $3,007.18.
the story of the Hermits of Harlem unfolded, and the presence
of some of the contents of the house began to be explained.
Homer Lusk Collyer and Langley Collyer were born in 1881
and 1885 respectively. Their father, Dr. Herman L. Collyer,
was an eminent gynecologist and their mother, Susie Gage
Frost Collyer, a well-born lady noted for her musical
abilities. The family set up home at 2078 Fifth Avenue
in then-fashionable Harlem. But around 1909 Herman left.
When he died in 1923, all the furniture, medical equipment,
and books that he had collected over the years were taken
back to Fifth Avenue and crammed into his wife's house.
Langley had been trained as an engineer; Homer became
a lawyer. Both were eccentric in innocuous ways - increasingly
so when left to fend for themselves after their mother's
death in 1929. Langley apparently never had a job, but
was always tinkering with inventions, such as one for
vacuuming the insides of pianos, and attempting to make
the Model-T engine run via electricity. In the 1930's
Homer became blind, crippled with rheumatism, and progressively
paralyzed. Langley devoted the rest of his life to caring
of doctors, but with access to his father's extensive
medical library, Langley devised odd "cures"
for his brother's illness, subjecting him to regimes as
a diet of 100 oranges a week, black bread, and peanut
butter. The house was already cluttered with the content
of two large homes, but Langley stuffed it with yet more
objects picked up on his nightly excursions. After all
windows were boarded up, and the gas, electricity, and
water cut off, one small oil stove served all their cooking
and heating needs; Langley collected water from a standpipe
four blocks away. On more that one occasion thieves tried
to break in to steal the fortune that was rumored to be
kept in the house. Langley responded by building booby
traps, intricate systems of trip wires and ropes that
would bring tons of rubbish crashing down on any unwary
honeycomb network of tunnels carved out in the mountains
of junk enabled Langley to grope his way to where Homer
sat. As the world's newspapers revealed the secrets of
2078 Fifth Avenue, there was a final, grisly twist. On
April 8, Artie Matthews, one of the workmen commissioned
to clear the place, raised a pile of newspapers, tin boxes
and other debris near a spot where Homer has been found.
horrified gaze fell first on a foot, then the remains
of a body. It had been gnawed by rats, but there was no
doubt that it was Langley Collyer. Langley had died some
time before his brother, suffocated under the garbage
that had cascaded down upon him when, he had sprung one
of his own burglar traps.
death was now easily explained. Blind and paralyzed, and
totally dependent on Langley, he had died of starvation
and shock. The house was gradually emptied and its more
valuable contents sold at auction. But despite the Collyer
brothers lifelong hoarding, the 150 items raised only
$1,800. The house too has now gone.
as a health and fire hazard, number 2078 Fifth Avenue
was razed to the ground.