This week, I’m starting a new tradition of the retelling of famous New York legends. These are true and gruesome tales that you’ll enjoy.
First up is the Collyer Brothers.
New Yorkers love a cautionary tale, and this is one of the cautionary-est. And everyone likes to see crazy rich people come to a bad end, and the Collyers were that and did that. They might not have been the richest, but they were definitely the craziest.
If you’re a true New Yorker, you’ll already know this story. If you’re a New York Mom, you’ve probably already said something to your children along the lines of “Clean this room! You think a dirty room can’t kill you? Tell that to the Collyer brothers.”
The Collyer brothers were born into a prosperous family of professionals in the 1880s. They began life with all the advantages money could buy. Their childhood was well-provisioned, their family associated only with the snootiest East Siders, and both brothers graduated from Columbia University. In time, they inherited the family’s four-story brownstone on Fifth Avenue and 128th Street in Harlem.
Things went south from there. As the decades went by, New York City changed around them. They lived through the roaring twenties, the depression years, the Harlem Renaissance, and two world wars. Through everything, Homer and Langley Collyer stayed put. They never married. They stopped socializing, and then they stopped paying for heat and electricity. Gradually, they ceased going outside altogether (not entirely true, as Langley apparently foraged for food regularly around town after midnight).
When Homer Collyer became blind and bedridden, Langley quit his job as a lawyer to stay home and care for his brother. And that was pretty much the last anyone saw of them, until one day in 1947 when the neighbors started to complain of an odd smell coming from the crumbling brownstone. No one answered the bell, so the police broke a window and climbed in to find the body of Homer, dead in his bed. His brother, Langley, was nowhere to be found.
The reason the police had to enter via the window was that the 5-floor brownstone was packed, floor to ceiling, with over 100 tons of junk. Not pounds. Tons. The house was a maze of tunnels built out of and through piles and piles of stuff: 25,000 books, countless bundles of newspapers, yards and yards of fabric, 14 pianos, thousands of bottles and jars, pickled medical specimens, musical instruments, plaster busts, the jawbone of a moose (or possibly a horse), and an old Model T chassis. The brothers slept in “nests” that had been hollowed out of what we call “landfill” today.
The concept of hoarders was not yet in the national psyche, and crowds of people lined up on Fifth Avenue to see the spectacle. The only pathway through the house was via the narrow tunnels that had been used by Langley Collyer so he could bring food to his brother. Unfortunately, Langley had also installed clever homemade booby traps inside the tunnels, to prevent intruders from stealing all his valuable stuff. To be fair, there had been a rumor in the neighborhood that the eccentric pair were storing piles of cash, so there was some reason to fear a break-in. At any rate, the police soon learned to be cautious.
It took the authorities a month to clear enough junk out to find the decomposing and rat-eaten body of Langley, buried under metal breadboxes, newspapers, and suitcases. It was only then that the full story could be pieced together. Langley had tripped one of his own booby traps, causing a mountain of debris to fall on him. He had died of asphyxiation. Without his brother to bring him food, the bedridden Homer had died slowly of starvation and then quickly of heart failure.
The story of the Collyer brothers is uniquely New York. It illustrates the perfect combination of personal freedom and complete anonymity you can obtain here. If you want a rich and varied social life in New York, you got it. On the other hand, if you wish to live as completely isolated as though you were in a cave in the Andes, you got that too. In fact, I bet people in caves in the Andes get more visitors. I can easily see tour guides knocking on a rock wall, showing the impressed tourists the last remaining Olmec Cliff-Dweller*, then splitting the proceeds with the “cliff-dweller” later. But if you lock your apartment door and never come out again, no one will bother you until they smell something.
So happy holidays to all! If you have to create tunnels to navigate your apartment, I suggest you don’t include booby traps. And if you do, please remember where they are.
*I made that up. There are no Olmec cliff-dwellers.
Don’t forget to visit the memorial park where the brownstone once stood.