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The Curious Story of the Collyer Brothers, History's Worst Hoarders

1800s | September 29, 2017

The phenomenon of hoarding has been around since ancient times. In the past, it could be dangerous, with some hoarders tragically found crushed to death by their towering collection of junk

One of the most famous cases of hoarding was that of the Collyer brothers. The siblings arguably set the bar in hoarding when their dead bodies were found, rotting and trapped by their own belongings.

The brothers came from a well-to-do family. However, their father, Dr. Herman Livingston, was known for his eccentricity. He allegedly married his first cousin, Susie. The brothers were born in 1881 and 1885, and both attended Columbia University. Homer had a degree in law and Langley in engineering.

The brothers lived a normal life until 1919 when their parents separated and they decided to stay with their mother in the family mansion at 2078 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Both Dr. Herman and Susie died by 1929, with the brothers inheriting the family mansion and fortune.

 

Rumors about their eccentric way of life started spreading, but it wasn’t until 1933, when Homer lost his eyesight, that things bizarrely escalated. Langley quit his job to take care of his brother. He came up with a diet plan that was supposed to restore Homer's sight - 100 oranges per week, black bread, and peanut butter. Langley started collecting newspapers so his brother could catch up the news once he could see again.

What started off as a brotherly gesture towards his blind sibling soon became an obsession with collecting junk. As days passed by, the collection filled all the empty space of the house. The brothers had to create tunnels through the pile of junk inside the mansion. They even set up various booby traps that were supposed to protect them from intruders and burglars.

 

The neighbours became more and more curious about the eccentric brothers, Langley was described as “the ghosty man” who wouldn’t leave the mansion before midnight. In 1942, the New York Times interviewed Langley who claimed that since 1928 they had lived without gas and electricity and that they used kerosene to cook and heat their home.

On March 21, 1947, an anonymous man called the police, claiming that there was a dead body in the 2078 Fifth Avenue mansion. The police arrived and broke down the door and was surprised when they discovered there was actually no way inside the house. A massive pile of junk had to be slowly removed before they could even glimpse the interior.

It took them hours to find the rotting body of Homer, but there was no trace of Langley. Soon rumors swirled that Langley left his brother to starve to death. It took around three weeks before they realized Langley's body was actually just 10 feet away from the spot where the body of Homer was found. It appeared that Langley was killed by one of the many booby traps he set up, and police concluded that Homer died of starvation several days later.

 

About 120 tons of junk was removed from the mansion, including 25,000 books, pickled human organs, 14 pianos, bowling balls, and the chassis of an old Model T. The brothers were buried with their parents at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Their house was torn down and the site was turned into a small park, named in their honor.

h/t ATI

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