“Like the rest of the world I knew of the Holt brothers through the newspapers which made them a sensation,” Marcia Davenport wrote. “Scarcely anybody has forgotten how Seymour Holt was found dead in that derelict house crammed from cellar to roof with one hundred seventy tons of hoarded rubbish; and how, after a twenty-two day search by the police, Randall Holt’s body was found buried in one of his own booby-traps, in the same room where Seymour died.”
This passage from Davenport’s novel, My Brother’s Keeper, is fact, lightly drizzled with fiction. Seymour and Randall Holt were pseudonyms for two real brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, who were found in their four-story Manhattan brownstone buried in debris. As Davenport indicated, one brother, Homer, who actually starved to death, was discovered nearly three weeks before Langley was detected a mere 10 feet away — ensnared in one of his own elaborate ambush tunnels, where he suffocated. Homer was 65 and Langley was 61.
The Collyer brothers were well known for their bizarre lifestyles in their local neighborhood (corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street) — worldwide media, such as it was in 1947, provided a macabre inside look at the lives of what-had-been “scions of society,” upper class brothers whose distinguished forbearers arrived in America in 1620. How did they end up inadvertently killing themselves in garbage hoarded for decades?
Obviously, there was some serious psychopathology involved in this case — but it has only been recently mental health professionals have gained a true foothold in understanding the disorder that gripped the Collyers.
Hoarding has been part of the human equation since the beginning of time. Dante mentioned it in his Divine Comedy written in 1310. Pioneer analyst Sigmund Freud identified it as anal-retentive behavior characterized by symptoms of withholding.
Serious research really started in the 1990s; it wasn’t until 2013 that Hoarding Disorder (HD) was recognized as a distinct entity. Prior to that it was viewed as part of an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder– consequently, HDs were sometimes medicated like OCDs, a drug regime that was usually ineffective.
Hoarding can best be defined as the repetitive collection of items of little value or use and the failure to discard these items over time. Unlike collectors or clutter bugs, hoarders are indiscriminate: they accumulate possessions excessively and compulsively, employing a compromised decision-making process. Unlike collectors, they do not organize their holdings or take pleasure in displaying them for others to see. Hoarders usually experience shame over their behavior and keep their aggregation out of public view.
Professor Randy Frost, Ph.D., a respected expert in this field, says that HDs see more intrinsic value in a mundane item than the general population does. He cites a simple bottle cap — most are unaffected by its removal and disposal. A hoarder may like its color or shape to the point of not being able to even tolerate thinking about throwing it away. A sentimental bond may be quickly attached to the cap, where it becomes an “extension of self.”
Frost contends that hoarders do not view what they have as rubbish. If separated from their possessions, Frost says they describe themselves as “being violated.”
Any attempt to “clean up” a hoarder’s storage area is almost certain to fail. This purging will cause distress, conflicts, and, because it doesn’t address underlying causation, a new cache of “treasures” will likely appear.
Hoarding patterns often begin in adolescence, but most symptoms peak with age. The average hoarder is 50-plus years old; more men than women tend to be hoarders. It is estimated that there are some 14 million HDs in the United States.
While hoarders appear in the news from time to time — for example, eight years ago, Irene Vandyke was found to have 99 cats alive in her upstate New York home and an additional 67 dead cats stored in her freezer – no single case seems to have commanded the lingering public interest equal to the Collyer brothers. Their names have been invoked on numerous television programs, including The Honeymooners, The Odd Couple, and, more recently, Frazier. Richard Greenberg’s play The Dazzle, which had New York and London runs, speculated on the dynamics surrounding the Collyers retreat into dross. As did E. L. Doctorow’s fine novel Homer & Langley.
“The fact that they had come from a well-to-do family and had more or less opted out was the real mystery of them,” Doctorow said. “They were leaving this country and going into the country of their house…they still make people uneasy.”
The brothers first moved into the stylish brownstone with their parents in 1909. Ten years later, when the marriage dissolved, Homer and Langley stayed in the home with their mother.
Initially, at least from an outside view, the brothers were successful men — Langley as a concert pianist and Homer, a Columbia-trained, Phi Beta Kappa lawyer.
When their mother passed away in 1929, the two became more and more reclusive. Homer had a stroke in 1933 that cost him his eyesight — Langley gave up his profession to become his brother’s full-time caregiver. Neither married.
As the Great Depression continued to grind on, the Collyer home became a target for robbery. Their hoarding behavior, which developed gradually, now took on a defensive purpose. The amassed mounds were turned into a maze of tunnels with traps designed to crush any intruder.
It was around this time that Langley was quoted as saying, “We’ve no telephone and we’ve stopped opening our mail. You can’t imagine how free we feel.” Later, they ceased using both power and water in their home.
On March 21, 1947, the Collyer saga came to a gruesome conclusion. Acting on an anonymous tip, police arrived and attempted to enter the brownstone. The Collyers had created a “sealed fortress of junk.” It took two hours before authorities were able to break through a second story window to find Homer’s emaciated corpse. Weeks later, they uncovered Langley’s equally under-nourished body, which had been partially eaten by rats.
It was theorized that Langley was on his way to feed Homer when he accidently tripped one of the snares and was crushed under hundreds of pounds of trash. Homer, by now, both blind and paralyzed, was left helplessly to die alone.
The tons of material removed from the home included 14 pianos, baby carriages, books, bowling balls, countless vermin, and a huge volume of newspapers.
After the home was demolished, a “vest pocket” park was created on the site. Behind a sign reading “Collyer Brothers Park,” is a small oasis of sycamore trees, plants, and a park bench. An uncluttered space in a bustling city.