The Collyer Brothers: History’s Worst Hoarders

 In the heart of Harlem, New York City, at the northwest corner of 128th Street and 5th Avenue, is a small rectangular space. A NYC Parks Department sign attached to the perimeter fence identifies the nearly empty lot as "Collier Brothers Park." It is one of the smallest parks in New York City, consisting of a few benches, a few potted plants, and several trees to provide shade. New York City has dozens of such 'pocket parks' scattered throughout the city, so this is not unusual. The strangest thing is the story of the brothers after whom the park is named.

Homer and Langley Collier were both born into one of New York's most respected families in the 1880s. Her father was a gynecologist and her mother was a former opera singer and a descendant of Robert Livingston, who was the first Livingston family to immigrate to America in the 17th century, only half a century after the Mayflower's historic voyage. The brothers lived with their parents at 2078 Fifth Avenue – the corner house now occupied by Collier Brothers Park.

Dr. Collier was considered to be of eccentric nature. He often rode a canoe down the East River to the City Hospital on Roosevelt Island, where he worked, and then took the canoe back to his home through city streets on his way to and from the river. As they grew older, the brothers also started following their father's footsteps.

Dr. Collier died in 1923, followed by his wife and Homer and Langley's mother in 1929, leaving the brothers in possession of the Harlem property. For the next four years, Homer and Langley lived a fairly normal life, socializing with neighbors and teaching Sunday school at Trinity Church. Homer was a lawyer, and Langley wa
 an engineer, although he never pursued his profession, preferring instead to devote his time to music. He was a professional concert pianist.

In 1933, Homer lost his vision due to bleeding behind his eyes, forcing Langley to quit his job to care for his brother and the two began to withdraw from society. As time progressed, the brothers became fearful of the changes taking place in the neighbourhood. The Great Depression had dramatically changed the economics of the society, while large numbers of African-Americans moved into neighborhoods they had become distressed. When teenagers started throwing rocks at their windows, they boarded up the windows and closed themselves off from the rest of the world. The more reclusive the brothers became, the more the neighbors became interested in their eccentricities, causing the brothers to retreat further into their dark world. Rumors began to spread that behind their closed doors there were vast wealth and luxuries brought from the East. Actually, the brothers were gradually moving towards madness.

Langley spent much of his time tinkering with various inventions, such as a device to vacuum the inside of a piano and a Model T Ford adapted to generate electricity. If anyone interfered, he also laid booby traps throughout the house. After midnight, Langley would leave the house and walk miles across town to get food. Often, this meant scouring the trash bins outside grocery stores and butchers. He also started dragging home all kinds of useless junk that he liked and filled the house with them. The house soon became a maze of boxes, a complex tunnel system containing junk and garbage with trip wires. There was neither gas, nor electricity nor water in the house – they were all closed due to outstanding bills.

Langley carefully collected thousands of newspapers and stored them away so that her brother could read the news when he regained his eyesight. Langley was confident that his brother would recover, as he had prepared a cure for his blind brother – one hundred oranges, black bread and peanut butter a week. Of course, it didn't work. Instead, Homer's health began to deteriorate and he became paralyzed due to inflammatory arthritis. But the brothers refused to seek medical attention.

Ironically, his eccentric behavior only drew more attention to the fact that the brothers were trying to escape. According to an article in The New York Times, the event once attracted a crowd of a thousand spectators when city workers forced entry into the house to remove two old gas meters.

The severity of the Collier brothers' mental disorder came to light in March 1947 when an anonymous person reported smelling decomposition coming from the house. When the police arrived, they could not enter the house at first. A solid wall of junk made of old newspapers, beds, chairs and boxes blocked the entrance. Eventually, a second-floor window was broken and, after five hours of climbing and sifting through millions of pieces of junk, Homer Collier's body was found in a ceiling-to-ceiling closet surrounded by packed boxes and newspapers. Homer died of hunger. However, his brother Langley was missing.

Police surmised that Langley had fled and launched a massive manhunt, with searches as far away as Atlantic City. Meanwhile, all sorts of strange things kept coming into the house – a horse jaw, an early X-ray machine, baby carriages, numerous guns, more than 25,000 books, human organs in jars, eight live cats, hundreds of yards unused silk, fourteen pianos, two organs, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, among other things. In all, a total of 120 tonnes of debris and junk was removed from the house. Every day a crowd of more than two thousand people stood outside the house to watch the cleaning effort.

Two weeks later, they found Langley Collier's body lying barely ten feet from where his older brother had died. Langley had unknowingly set a booby trap of his own and was buried under the heavy load of newspapers and metal boxes. Langley was bringing food to Homer through a tunnel he had built when the tunnel collapsed and he suffocated. The two brothers died within a few feet of each other. Homer probably died several days after Langley's death.

In July that year, the house was demolished because it was beyond repair, and in 1965, the 140-square-metre site became one of New York City's first pocket parks. Long after their residence was discovered, the Colliers were a household name, such that mothers in New York would lecture their children, "Go over there and clean your room – it looks exactly like the Colliers brothers." To this day, whenever city firefighters find the house filled with trash and debris, they refer to it as "Colliers Mansion".

More recently, in 2013, compulsive hoarding was defined as a mental disorder for the first time, although psychologists still could not decide whether it was a manifestation of another condition, such as OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder. Or a disorder of our own. It is estimated that 2% to 5% of adults suffer from hoarding.

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