March 21, 2008

March 21 | Homer and Langley Collyer

November 6, 1881 and October 3, 1885 - March 21, 1947: Ages 65 and 61

Homer and Langley Collyer were well-to-do New Yorkers who grew up in a fashionable brownstone in Harlem with their mother and father. They both had degrees, one in engineering and one in law, but preferred music and inventing, respectively. The family's relatively comfortable finances meant they didn't have to make any serious effort to make a living, and when their parents died in the 1920s they simply stayed on at the family home.

By this time, the neighbourhood had changed. With the explosive growth of the suburbs, Harlem had many vacant homes, which were rapidly filling up with Manhatten's African Americans displaced from other areas of the city. Although the neighbourhood had already been racially mixed, the sudden increase of blacks and decrease of whites left it almost entirely black by the 1920s. The Collyer brothers, now in their 40s, stayed where they were, simply cutting themselves off from the world.

Rumours of their wealth encouraged people to try to burgle the house, and the young people in the neighbourhood spread stories about the inhabitants and enjoyed throwing rocks at the windows. The brothers became more fearful and paranoid, boarding up their windows and creating complex booby traps to discourage intruders. They stopped paying their bills, and when their gas, water, and electricity were turned off they started warming the house with a small kerosene heater. One of the brothers, Langley, would walk about at night, fetching water from a fountain in the park nearby, and in the process dragging home any junk he found along the way.

By 1933 Homer had severe rheumatism, and went blind. Langley prescribed a diet of 100 oranges a week, plus black bread and peanut butter. He began saving newspapers, and when the brothers drew public attention in a kerfuffle over their mortgage, he told newspapers that he was saving the papers so that his brother could catch up on the news when he regained his sight.

The kerfuffle was this: they stopped paying the mortgage, but when the bank began eviction procedures they insulted and threatened the cleanup crew who was sent over. Police were called, but unable to enter the house. They tried to smash down the front door by were foiled by the mountain of junk piled on the other side. Suddenly Langley appeared and made out a check for $6,700, the balance of the mortgage, and ordered everyone off the premises.

On March 21, 1947, police received a tip that there was a dead body in the house. Eventually a team of seven men were able to gain access by slowly taking out the junk in the front hall, piece by piece, to make their way into the interior of the house: a wall of old newspapers, folding beds and chairs, half a sewing machine, boxes, parts of a wine press, and more. The presence of a dead body was made clear by the smell, but where was it? One patrolman broke in through a second-floor window where he found more boxes and newspaper bundles, the frame of a baby carriage, a rake, and old umbrellas tied together. After a two-hour crawl through the junk he found Homer Collyer dead, his head resting on his knees.

The medical examiner confirmed that it was Homer, but indications were he had not been dead more than ten hours. There was no sign of Langley, or rather there were too many signs to be able to figure out where Langley was.

They began searching the house, systematically removing the junk: books, guns and ammunition, an x-ray machine, a horse's jawbone, a piano, and always more newspapers. More than 19 tons of junk was removed from the ground floor alone; there were two other floors above. In the end, the total was more than 100 tons of rubbish.

Finally, on April 8, a workman came across Langley's dead body, just ten feet from where Homer had died. His body was partially decomposed and was being consumed by rats. He had been crawling through a tunnel of newspapers to bring food to Homer when one of his own booby traps had fallen down and crushed him. Homer, blind and paralyzed, died several days later of malnutrition, dehydration, and cardiac arrest.

More items from the house, as posted on Wikipedia:
Items removed from the house included rope, baby carriages, a doll carriage, rakes, umbrellas, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer's hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a checkerboard, a child's chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands of books about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, a beaded lampshade, the chassis of the old Model T Langley had been tinkering with, one British and six American flags, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, fourteen pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and, of course, countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old. Near the spot where Homer died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks with a total of $3,007.18.

I trust you are appropriate inspired to commence spring cleaning.

Source: Wikipedia

No comments: