House of Mystery: The Story of the Collyer Brothers

You better clean your room or you’ll end up like the Collyer Brothers.

New York City, a city crammed of 8.6 million people, is filled with stories of people who just want to be left alone – recluses, hermits, cloistering themselves from the public eye, closing themselves off from scrutiny.

But none attempted to seal themselves off so completely in the way that Homer and Langley Collyer attempted in the 1930s and 1940s. Their story is infamous. In going several steps further to be left alone, they in effect drew attention to themselves and to their crumbling Fifth Avenue mansion – dubbed by the press ‘the Harlem house of mystery’.

They were the children of the Gilded Age, clinging to blue-blooded lineage and drawing-room social customs, in a neighborhood that was about to become the heart of African-American culture. But their unusual retreat inward — off the grid, hidden from view — suggested something more troubling than fear and isolation. And in the end, their house consumed them.

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Homer Collyer, 1939

Langley Collyer, 1942, at his New York Herald Tribune photo shoot

The three remaining rowhouses developed by George J. Hamilton. The middle house gives you some idea of what the Collyer mansion looked like.

Charles Hoff / NY Daily News

No littering in Collyer Brothers Park!

Silent footage taken outside the Collyer house, 1947

FURTHER READING

Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Out of this World by Helen Worden Erskine
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Grail Steketee
Ghosty Men by Franz Lidz

FURTHER LISTENING

We’ve visited the back story of famous recluses last year with the story of Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier

And the story of changing Harlem is profiled in last year’s biography episode of the great Madam C. J. Walker