Collyer's Mansion Conditions

I received an email from Rob in Danvers Mass. who wanted to know if I had ever heard of a term called "Collier mansion condition," and if I found any information on it could I please forward it to him. This gentleman had found two references concerning this, but after reviewing information I could not determine what it meant.

The first reference I came across was that a firefighter from the FDNY had crawled through a "colliers mansion condition" to rescue two occupants and for this was rewarded one of the medals given out during an FDNY medal day presentation. I started to search for fire conditions or smoke conditions such as chimney, stack or wind effect. I sent out emails to everyone hoping for a lead. One of my associates responded that it was a "FDNY" term for a cluttered residence. My next move was to call the FDNY public education unit. I talked to a Captain who was on duty. He confirmed that it meant a residence that was cluttered by a collector or "pack rat." The official name for the condition is "Collyers mansion syndrome," but for now we will learn were the term came from, so here is the story of the Collyer brothers.

Dr. Herman L. Collyer and his wife the former Susie Gage Frost bore two male children in the years 1881 (Homer Lusk Collyer) and 1885 (Langley Collyer). The Collyer family resided in a section of New York City called Murray Hill. The Collyer family was descendants of a long line of aristocrats who had come to the new world onboard a ship named the "Speedwell". Langley Collyer would later state to a reporter that the Speedwell had a more prestigious passenger list than the Mayflower did. The Collyer family had deep roots in New York. Many of the relatives resided in or around the Hudson valley area for nearly 300 years.

In the year 1909, Dr. Collyer decided to move the family into a 4-story Brownstone mansion located at 2078 5th Ave. at 128 St. in Harlem. At the time Homer was 27, and Langley was 23 years of age and both were still living at home. The borough of Harlem at the time of the 1800's was considered to be both exclusive and fashionable due to a speculative development boom that had occurred. To the borough of Harlem this brought wealth and luxury. Harlem had been known for its lavish apartment buildings, museums, and institutions of culture and the neighborhood was prosperous.

Dr. Collyer was an eminent, well-known and wealthy Manhattan gynecologist at Bellevue Hospital in 1909. After the move to Harlem Dr. Collyer separated from his wife and two children. It is about this time that the brothers would begin to shut their lives off to the outside world. But Susie Collyer would continue to raise her children to be gentlemen and scholars. Susie Collyer was well educated and would read the classics of literature to her children in Greek. Both Langley and Homer would attend the prestigious Columbia University in New York City. Homer attended law school and after passing the New York City BAR exam would pursue admiralty law.

Homer who had graduated in 1904 earned an MA, LLB, and LLM. This type of law deals mainly with marine law, the law of marine insurance and the law of the sea, ships, shipping, fisheries and offshore oil and gas. Langley studied chemistry and mechanical engineering, but during this time he also developed a talent for playing the piano. Instead of gaining employment, Langley would devote his life instead to music.

Dr. Collyer Passed away in the year 1923. The doctor had amassed a collection of books, medical equipment and residential furniture in his home. Upon his death all of these belongings were moved to home on Fifth Avenue. This home would now have the belongings of two homes within one.

African-Americans in large numbers started to move into Harlem in the year 1911. Harlem was known as an upper-class predominately white suburb but by 1925 it would become an African-American community. While the whites who lived in Harlem moved out due to the influx of African-Americans the Collyer's decided to stay.

Homer started out by first gaining employment at the law offices John McMullen. Mullen had served as the Collyer's family lawyer for many years. Homer was employed there from 1928-29. Homer then changed jobs and moved to the City Title Insurance Company located at 32 Broadway in Manhattan. Homer would spend his days in the Hall of Records doing research. Homer was known as being sociable and easygoing gentleman who wore old-fashioned clothing with high-collars and who had elaborate sideburns. When people saw Homer he reminded them of Charles Dickens. In the year 1929 Susie Collyer would pass away and the sons would remain in the mansion.

Langley who studied engineering never held a paying job, but he occupied his time by always working on new inventions. Langley worked inventions like a vacuum device that would be used to clean the inside of a piano's. Another of Langley's ideas was how to make a model-T engine run by use of electricity. Homer Collyer would last be seen in public in 1932. It is believed that in 1933 Homer suffered a stroke causing hemorrhages to both his eyes that led to him becoming blind. Homer also suffered from rheumatism that would eventually paralyzed him. Seeing what had occurred to his brother and what had befallen him, Langley then dedicated his life caring for Homer.

The brothers had a personnel distrust for doctors. Having a wealth of approximately 15,000 medical journals to reference, Langley would experiment with different "magic potions" in an attempt to cure Homer of his blindness. Once such cure consisted of intentionally resting them by keeping them closed. Langley would feed Homer such strange food as black bread and peanut butter. One of the most unusual of these diets was that Homer would eat 100 oranges a week.

Langley would now have numerous tasks to carry out in the home. He would now have to care for Homer and perform the cleaning, feeding, clothing and provide for mental stimulus. Homer had failed in his many attempts to read in brail. Langley instead would read Homer the classics and play sonata's for him on one of the many pianos that were in the house. Langley was once asked why they possessed so many grand pianos (14), Langley stated that each piano tone gave a differing resonance and produced a different emotional effect on Homer. Along with the 14 grand pianos there were two organs and a clavichord. And as time went by the brother's seclusion grew greater.

At night people would see a man in the shadows walking the streets and search through the trash. Langley would soon get the name "The Ghost man of Harlem." Langley would roam the allies and city streets at night using a rope to pull a cardboard box. He dug through garbage cans for food and would beg for meat scraps from the nearby butcher. It was said that Langley would walk to Brooklyn to get loafs of stale bread. In rare occasions Langley would be seen peering through the door of a liquor store. Upon seeing in the store was nearly empty he would sneak in for medicinal purposes by a pint of whiskey.

For some reason that is unknown, Langley stopped payment on the house utilities and mortgage bills. When the payments stopped it is believed that the Collyer brothers had a fortune somewhere over 100,000 dollars. Soon the gas, electricity and water service was shut down for bills past due. For a time Langley attempted to create electricity by using the model-T Ford but that soon failed. For the preparation of meals and heating, the brothers were content on using small kerosene stove. A standpipe at Mount Morris Park provided water located four just blocks from there home. Langley would use demijohns to bring the water back to the home. Demijohns are very large bottles, which sometimes have a 10-gallon capacity. Some of these bottles were hand blown and were used to hold wine, molasses, and other liquids.

There was no phone service to the house because Langley once explained " we are being charged for long distance calls that they had never made." Langley also had a philosophy that there was no one whom he particularly cared to call. Langley was also asked once why his brother and him lived like recluses. Langley responded by saying that the lifestyle they lived was business between his brother and him. That it was no one else's business and that put simply they did not want to be bothered.

Due to their hermit lifestyle, rumors began to circulate throughout the Harlem neighborhood. One of those rumors was that the brothers were the richest people in New York and the fortune was hidden in the house. Rumors like this eventually led to attempted break-ins by people trying to steal the rumored fortune. But the house was not an everyday home and the amount of trash and rubbish thwarted the attempted robbers who attempted entering but had triggered the traps that deluged them but never trapped them.

To ward off further burglary attempts Langley began to board up all the windows. To add further deterrence he wired all the doors shut. Langley Collyer, being the engineering genius that he was decided to complicate things even more. If a burglar did manage to get through a window or door would he be able to find his way through a series of integrate tunnels, nests, walkways and interlocking tiers of cartons and boxes. The honeycombed tunnels were pure genius as Langley concealed many of them and some were engineered so well that they passed through rooms and sometimes floors. Only Langley could find his way through the maze, anyone else would have to remove the debris to do so. Langley would also place different types of "booby" traps through the maze. These traps were activated by rope or trip wires and if activated would collapse massive piles of newspapers, luggage or other debris down upon the unsuspecting intruder. In some cases this debris may have weighed tons.

The year was 1938 and the home was not messy, but by the year 1942 the house was now packed full of newspapers, crates, cartons, boxes, cans and other refuge from Langley's nightly excursions. The Collyer home was now a mountain of garbage. Langley had turned the home into a fortress of debris. When asked about the mass amounts of newspapers that were in the house Langley stated that he collected them for Homer. From the time of Homers blindness Langley would collect every newspaper printed in New York everyday in the hope that when Homer was finally cured of his blindness he would be able to read the papers to catch up with the news that he had missed. This was also the year that Langley stopped the mortgage payment.

The Bowery Savings Bank was the titleholder when the payments stopped in 1942. After a period of time the Bowery set out to collect their money, first by sending collectors to the Collyer home. The collectors would spend hours knocking on the door. These hours eventually turned into days then weeks and the Collyer's never once answered the repeated knocks. The Bowery also sent mail notices that only led to a pile of envelopes on the porch. Finally the Bowery Savings went to court requesting an order for eviction of the Collyer brothers.

While waiting for the eviction notice to be approved the Bowery Savings had hired a work crew to clean out the yard of the Collyer's mansion. The yard was cluttered with broken glass, furniture, bedsprings, washers and dryers, cabinets, etc. When the workers began to clear the yard of the accumulated junk, Langley Collyer began to yell at them from an upstairs window. Langley could be heard shouting, "You can't take that! You have no right! That's my property! Leave that alone!"

The Bowery Savings Bank received the court order to evict the Collyer's and officers of the NYPD were then sent to the mansion. Once at the mansion the officers repeatedly knocked on the door and received no reply. Police then smashed in the front door but their entry was impeded by trash. The trash was stacked about 5 feet high and contained newspapers, crates, boxes barrels and wire net.

The officers of the NYPD persisted through the debris and eventually caught up with Langley. Langley was finally found hiding in a clearing among the mountain of debris. Upon being tracked down he silently filled out a check for the amount of $6,700.00. Langley handed the check to the officers and ordered everyone to leave his home. The check paid off in full the balance owed to the Bowery Savings for the mortgage.

On March 21st 1947 at 8:53 am a mysterious phone call was made to the NYPD police headquarters from a man named Charles Smith. Smith reported that there was a dead body inside of 2078 fifth Ave. Around 10:00 am police arrived at the mansion to find a crowd gathered outside. Police roped off the area and began to force open the mahogany front doors with no success. Police then removed the doors from their hinges and were confronted with a solid wall of trash that reached to the ceiling. Officers then attempted to enter through the basement, but passage to the first floor was blocked by another wall made of packing cases. Officers then gained access by breaking through the shutters on the first floor. Inside they were confronted by ceiling high debris that was infested by rats. The stairs to the second floor were also impassable.

Two hours after their arrival police used a ladder to gain access through a second floor window. Officer William Barker entered the second story room and started to make his way through the ceiling high garbage. It took Barker several hours to navigate through the debris nest, tunnels and walkways but he eventually made it to a clearing within the maze. There he found Homer Collyer in a crouched position with his head on his knees, he had long hair and a long beard that reached to the floor and he was clothed only in a tattered robe. Homer was also dead and there was no sign of Langley. Was Langley hiding or had something happened to him as well.

The examiners report on Homers death would state that Homer had died as a result of starvation. Homer had no food in his stomach tract. Dr. Thomas Gonzales stated that Homer had nothing to drink or eat for approximately three days prior to his death. Homers body showed signs of dehydration and was severely emaciated. Other noticeable finding by the coroner was that Homer suffered from severe bronchitis, senile pulmonary emphysema and a large untreated bedsore that had become gangrenous.

Many of the Harlem neighbors had come to see what was happening but it did not take long for the smells coming from the house to drive the majority away. Only a few stayed and braved the odor. Building inspectors were called in to examine the safety of the structure. What they found inside was a world of rot. There was rotting garbage, newspapers and animals feces. What they found was that the building was also rotting away, mold had taken grip of the house due to opened windows and leaks in the roof. It was bad enough that bricks had lost there mortar and had begun falling from the house and that the walls and floors had started to buckle and rot under the load of debris within the house. And there was still no sign of Langley.

A city administrator and a court official soon took over responsibility of the Collyer home from the NYPD. The city's administrator hired professional movers on March 31st to begin cleaning the home of all debris.

They began at the basement entrance were the Collyer law library was located. The movers extracted approximately 2500 law and other related books but this would be only 1/10th of the total number of books in the house. Numerous family items were discovered and removed. This included oil painted family portraits, hope chests, silk and wool materials and finely crafted dishtowels.

By April 3rd the movers had taken from the house 51 tons of waste, and had only reached two rooms located on the 1st floor. On April 8th 103 tons had been removed and 19 days had passed. While combing through the debris a worker had noticed a rat the size of a cat in one part of the house. After retrieving a flashlight he probed the area and noticed a leg sticking out of the debris. The rodents had obviously fed upon the leg, but finally the search for Langley Collyer was over.

Langley had dead as a result of setting off one of his own "booby traps". Langley was found only eight feet from were Homer was found. Langley had been in the process of bringing Homer food. Langley had been wearing burlap, draped over his shoulders when it obviously snagged on a trip wire bringing down tons of debris upon himself. They only other clothing that Langley had on was a bathrobe, four pairs of pants, three jackets and had a scarf around his neck made from a white onion sack that was fastened with a safety pin. He did not have on any underwear or socks on. Langley had died on his right side and the rats fed upon his body as well. Now the story can be completed. Homer had heard the crash of the debris and had known what had just occurred. Homer was now alone and he sat and awaited death that would soon be coming.

Robert F. Wagner who at the time was the City of New York's Commissioner of Housing made a statement that the Collyer Home was unsafe and a menace to life and property in the neighborhood and would be demolished. A year later it was torn down.

The Public Administrators office made burial arrangements and both Homer and Langley were buried in the family plot at Cypress Hills Cemetery on April 11th. Many of the Collyer relatives discovered by the press did little but filed claims against the estate but no great wealth would ever come from the brother's holdings. The surrogate court released the figures on the Collyer's wealth in 1949. The wealth was broken down into:

  • Real estate: $60,000
  • Sale of personnel property: $4000
  • Savings: $2000

But claims buy the government would diminish these final numbers. There was 15,000 owed for estate taxes, and thousands owed in federal, state and city taxes. It is believed that of the forty claimants of the Collyer fortune that none of them ever received a penny of the brother's holdings.

This is a partial list of the valuables removed from the Collyer home, they include:

  • 136 tons of debris
  • 14 Grand pianos
  • 2 organs
  • 1 clavichord
  • Human medicine specimens (in glass jars)
  • Model-T Ford chassis
  • Approx 15,00 medical and engineering books
  • Weapons
  • 6 US flags
  • 1 Union jack
  • 1 x-ray machine
  • 34 bank deposit books: balance $3007.18
  • Baby carriages
  • Plaster statues and chandeliers
  • Gardner baskets and picture frames
  • Old Christmas trees and press makers dummies
  • Bundles of sheet music
  • Newspapers: Langley collected every newspaper published in New York City since the years 1918. He did this in the hope that Homer would someday regain his sight. Langley once stated that he did that "so when Homer regains his sight he can catch up on the news".