A Harlem park named after two famous hoarders

It’s not as if their Harlem neighbors were close to Homer and Langley Collyer.

The two brothers seemed to want nothing to do with local residents—and the feeling appeared to be mutual.


Born in the 1880s, Homer and Langley resided in a once-elegant brownstone at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street since 1909 with their well-off parents, a physician and a former opera singer.

Homercollyer1939The brothers were always eccentric. But once their parents passed away in the 1920s, they retreated from the world and lived behind locked doors, “hiding from the eyes of curious neighbors,” The New York Times stated.

The 1920s passed, then the 1930s.

Neighbors never saw them, so rumors spread: they were rich, they owned half the city waterfront, they had 20 grand pianos in their basement. No one had been inside, so no one knew the truth.

[Homer, above in 1939, makes a rare appearance on his stoop to fight eviction]

Langleycollyer1946Their phone and gas had been shut off. The brothers had money, they preferred to live in seclusion among thousands of hoarded items: bundles of newspaper, old pianos, car parts, and mountains of other worthless possessions.

[Langley, right, forced to leave the house in 1946 for a court date to battle a condemnation order.]

They met their end in 1947. Langely appeared to die first, felled by one of the booby traps he’d created amid piles of trash to block thieves.

But police found Homer’s body first. The medical examiner determined that he died of malnutrition. Blind and paralyzed, he starved to death days after Langley was caught in his own trap.

Over the next weeks, about 130 tons of garbage were removed from the rotting house, which was bulldozed.


Considering how Homer and Langley had nothing to do with their neighbors, it’s curious that the pocket park occupying the site of their old brownstone bears the name Collyer Brothers Park.

I wonder what they would think of the honor?

[Photos: New York Daily News, Wikipedia]

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13 Responses to “A Harlem park named after two famous hoarders”

  1. Lady G. Says:

    They’d probably think the park looks a little bare…I guess they were such legendary NYC Characters, the city felt it was fitting to give the park their name. It’s very sad how they died alone amongst all that rubbish. If they never left the building, how did they acquire the garbage? There had to be someone who knew something? Maybe they paid people to bring it? It’s actually quite a mystery.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    It’s a fascinating story. One post doesn’t do it justice! But they don’t strike me as the park-loving type, and it’s not like they were civic-minded. Seems like the park could be named for someone who had a positive impact on the neighborhood.

  3. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    It’s fascinating story. I just read about similar case in Chicago at the same time Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy, was also a recluse and used to draw erotic pictures of little girls. Now he would have been arrested and tossed in jail but now he’s considered a great artist

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Darger’s story is fascinating, as is his art. Lets see if Chicago names a pocket park after him!

  4. Ellen Levitt Says:

    My mom told me about them when I was a young teen, as a cautionary tale. But I was never that messy, Mom! : )

  5. Beth G. Says:

    Yes, it was common for New York moms to use the Collyer brothers as a threat to get rooms cleaned. Langley was once asked why he “collected” magazines and newspapers. He respite that he waned his bother to have some thing to read when his eyesight returned. I thought that was sweet, in a twisted kind of way.

  6. Scott Fuchs Says:

    Two fictionalized treatments of this tale:
    “My Brother’s Keeper” – Marcia Davenport
    “Langley and Homer” – E.L. Doctorow

    Each with its own merits.

    • Beth G. Says:

      There’s also a non-fiction book about them and the author’s uncle, who was also a hoarder, called Ghosty Men (the authors name escapes me at the moment). Probably the best recounting of the Collyers’ history.

  7. Damon Campagna Says:

    A part of operational procedure, FDNY warns members encountering an extreme hoarding situation by noting the call is a “Collyers Mansion Condition.” (Medically this is known as Collyer’s Mansion Syndrome). Obviously hoarding is of great risk to firefighters, especially with the possibility of Langley-type boobytraps. The Collyers’ did indeed have 14 grand pianos, as well as a real 2-headed baby in formaldehyde. Some of the oddities in their collection, including Homer’s death chair, were put on public display.

    In 2003, Firehouse Magazine published an amazingly thorough account of the Collyer’s fascinating story and grisly end: http://www.firehouse.com/news/10529720/collyers-mansion-conditions

  8. Phil Says:

    The one brother used to go out late at night to forage for the junk that he hauled home. There are some good books about these sad brothers….

  9. redQueen Says:

    Henry Darger was very interesting, not sure the comparison with the Collyer bros holds, but whatever. From what was displayed of Darger’s work at the Museum of Folk Arts years ago, it didn’t strike me as “erotic” but then I didn’t see the all he did either

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