The Self-Made Prison Of The Collyer Brothers  

Rachel Souerbry
5.7k views 11 items

We all love a good episode of Hoarders - the shocking filth, the families at the end of their rope, and the people risking their own health by hanging onto things they don't need but are compelled to keep. It looks dangerous, but luckily when it comes to real-life cases, there have been very few people killed by hoarding - the Collyer brothers are two exceptions.

Born in 1881 and 1885 in New York, Homer and Langley Collyer were the children of wealthy yet slightly eccentric parents. They moved to Harlem, where they slowly began to pull away from a community that failed to understand them, and a world they just had no use for. Their lives began as somewhat normal, but as they began to bury themselves in their family mansion, they began to create an elaborate nest for themselves- surrounded by booby traps and secret passageways to keep themselves safe.

On the surface, the facts about the Collyer brothers paint a tale of two hoarders. While that's true, it's also much more than that. It's the story of a debilitating mental disorder, and the unbreakable bond between two brothers who had no one else in the world but each other.

Homer Was Found 10 Hours After He Died - It Took The Police 5 Hours To Get Inside
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It was an anonymous call to the police that sent officers to the Collyer's home on March 21, 1947. It took police five hours to get into the home - the front door was blocked by so much junk that it was completely impassable. Eventually, one officer managed to break into a second story window and gain entry. He was greeted by the corpse of Homer Collyer. The coroner estimated he had been dead for around 10 hours.

Even after the Police gained entry, they still had to contend with the numerous booby traps and tunnels Langley and Homer had constructed. They began the laborious process of clearing away the long-buried possessions, removing a grand total of 140 tons of items, both trash and treasures, over the next three months.

Police assumed Homer was left alone, and he had been completely unable to help himself. He had been blind for years and rheumatism had left him completely paralyzed. Police believed he died from a combination of heart problems and starvation.

Homer Became Blind, So Langley Took On The Job Of Caring For Him
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Before the Collyer brothers locked out the rest of the world, they both received an education and held normal jobs. They reportedly both attended Columbia University, with Homer studying maritime law and Langley studying engineering and chemistry. 

Although neither one of them married and they continued to live in their family's brownstone after their mother's death, they both continued to work until Homer went blind. Homer worked as a lawyer, and Langley bought and sold pianos, and was a talented pianist himself. It was only after Homer's eyesight began to fail around 1932 that Langley stopped working to care for his brother full time.

Langley Was Ironically Killed By His Own Traps
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After the discovery of his brother's body, the police officers immediately labeled Langley Collyer a suspect. He was nowhere to be found, and the assumption was made that he was both the anonymous tip caller and Homer's murderer. A week went by with no sign of Langley, and rumors spread he had fled town; they even conducted a manhunt in Atlantic City.

Nothing could be further from the truth - a few weeks after the police found Homer's body, Langley was finally discovered. His body was only 10 feet away from his brother, completely buried by his own booby trap under a pile of junk. He had been fighting his way toward Homer, but had died before he could get out.

He would have been able to speak to Homer as he fought to free himself, but eventually Homer would have heard silence and known what was coming. Langley had died about two weeks before Homer, and it was assumed the smell of his decomposing body was what the anonymous tipster had called about. 

As Harlem Began To Change, The Brothers Didn't Change With It
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The Collyer brothers moved into their Harlem brownstone around 1925, just as the neighborhood was beginning to change demographically. Harlem was attracting lower-income and African-American residents, and the wealthy, white Collyers didn't quite fit in anymore.

As they began to behave somewhat eccentrically, they drew even more unwanted attention to themselves. Kids threw rocks at their windows, so one by one Langley boarded them up. After a few break-in attempts, he set up elaborate booby traps and secret passageways through their growing piles of junk to protect himself and his brother.