Long after Harlem became the center of African-American life, Homer and Langley Collyer, scions of one of the city's oldest families, stayed in their mansion on Fifth Avenue near 128th Street. Both men were Columbia graduates. Homer, born in 1881, practiced law until his stroke in 1933. An affable, Dickensian character, he had affected high collars, sideburns, and an elegant, Spencerian hand. Younger brother Langley, a former concert pianist, favored flowing bow ties.
They disconnected their telephone in 1917, claiming they had been "billed for long distance calls they didn't make." After the gas was shut off in 1928, the Collyers lived without heat and hot running water, using kerosene for lighting and cooking. When vandals stoned their windows, Langley boarded them up.
On August 11, 1938, the World-Telegram reported on realtor Maurice Gruber's complaint that the Collyers wouldn't respond to his offers to buy their real estate in Queens. Reporter Helen Worden called Langley "the mystery man of Harlem." She repeated rumors that the house's shabby facade concealed an "Arabian Nights" palace of Chinese rugs, rare antiques, morocco-bound books, and piles of money Langley feared to put in the bank. She had even cornered Langley one night as he went shopping, calling out, "Good evening, Mr. Collyer. The neighbors tell me you keep a rowboat in the attic and a Model T in the basement."
"Yes and no," he replied. The boat, he explained, was his father's canoe. "He used to carry it to the Harlem River on his head and paddle down to [work] every morning and back every evening. The auto was his, too." Another reporter quoted a neighbor describing Langley as "the ghosty man ... He did have a brother, Homer, but nobody's seen him in a long while. They ain't seen his ma, either. She was s'pose to be dead, but she never had a funeral. ... He's like haunts in graveyards, he don' come out before midnight."
These articles made the Collyers into mysterious local characters. Later stories suggest that thereafter nosy neighbors frequently knocked on their doors. Vandals just threw rocks and bottles at the house. Terrified, Langley transformed the mansion to a fortress crammed with junk-filled packing boxes piled in interlocking tiers that concealed a maze of booby-trapped tunnels.
At 8:53 a.m. on March 21, 1947, police headquarters received a pseudonymous call reporting a dead man in the mansion. After failing to force the front doors, the police unhinged them to find a solid wall of boxes. The basement stairs to the first floor were similarly blocked. After forcing a first-floor window, they saw rooms and stairwells jammed with ceiling-high, rat-infested stacks of boxes, paper, and furniture.
Around noon, officers entered a second-story window to find Homer dead. Whether bearded (Daily News) or mustachioed (Times), clothed in a tattered robe (Times) or a few ragged fragments of clothing (the Sun), he had neither eaten nor drank for at least three days before dying from chronic bronchitis, gangrenous bedsores, and senile pulmonary emphysema.
By the end of the second day, according to the Times, the first floor hallway alone had yielded 19 tons of debris. Thousands of passersby walked or drove by, but the Daily News reported that "few lingered. ... They were driven away by the smells." The cops were smoking cheap, foul-smelling cigars against a stench of organic corruption "like a blow from a mailed fist." A housing inspector told the Sun that even the house was rotting, its floor and walls water-saturated due to open windows and a leaky roof.
A Surrogate's Court official hired movers on March 31 to empty the house. After ripping out the cellar doors, they began removing Homer's 2,500-volume law library, only a 10th of the books in the house. Amidst hundreds of tons of garbage, they found family oil portraits; hope chests jammed with unused piece goods, silks, wool, damask, and brocade; a half-dozen toy trains; 14 upright and grand pianos; chandeliers; tapestries; 13 ornate mantel clocks; 13 Oriental rugs; five violins; two organs, and Langley's certificate of merit for punctuality and good conduct from Public School 69 for the week ending April 19, 1895.
By April 3, the Herald Tribune reported that the movers, in clearing only two first-floor rooms, had removed 51 tons of stuff. Another 52 tons later, on April 8, they found Langley's body. Police told the Sun that his clothing may have snagged a tripwire, releasing a booby trap that had buried him alive in paper. On May 9, the city's buildings commissioner ordered the mansion demolished as a public menace. The brothers' estates totaled only some $66,000 before estate and unpaid property taxes. Whether the 40 relatives who filed claims with Surrogate's Court ever saw a dime is unclear.
All the Collyers had wanted, Langley once explained, was to be left alone.