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It's the stuff of legend and the legend of stuff. With a front-page headline heralding "Homer Collyer, Harlem Recluse, Found Dead at 70," the New York Times reported on 22 March 1947, that "the circumstances surrounding the death of 70-year-old Homer, blind as the poet he was named for, were as mysterious as the life the two eccentric brothers lived on the unfashionable upper reaches of Fifth Avenue, in the middle of Harlem."1 Tipped by an anonymous phone caller the day before, police found Collyer's emaciated corpse in his Harlem brownstone located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street. Days later, officers discovered the rotting body of his brother, Langley, lying several feet from where Homer had died. Buried beneath mountains of material, Langley had been crushed to death by fallen stacks of bundled newspapers, one of the many booby traps that he had rigged to ward off priers. Their bodies included, over one hundred tons of material ranging from several grand pianos to scads of pinup posters were excavated from the dilapidated mansion. Condemned as unsafe, the house was razed, and the city would later dedicate the lot as Collyer Brothers Park.

This sensational story of two elderly white men living and dying in a predominantly black neighborhood has sparked fascination and anxiety from the mid-1930s to the present day, and the following pages argue that the Collyers were pivotal in advancing a sea change in a curious identity-category—the hoarder—that proved inextricable from their "mysterious" household effects as well as the "unfashionable" district of Harlem. I'll detail these unlikely confluences in a few pages. For now I note that these two men have also lent their names to Collyer Brothers syndrome, a novel psychological disorder that is better known today as hoarding. Hoarding refers to the extreme—and too often pathologized—accumulation of material things, or "the acquisition of, and failure to discard, possessions which appear to be useless or of limited value."2 Also called collector's [End Page 159] mania, pathological collecting, syllogomania, and, more often, chronic disorganization, this definition is shared by news media and medical experts alike. Notes a New York Times journalist, "At its most extreme, chronic disorganization is called hoarding, a condition many experts believe is a mental illness in its own right, although psychiatrists have yet to formally recognize it."3 And note Randy Frost, a clinical psychologist, and Gail Steketee, a social worker, who have together tried to legitimize this condition as a mental illness for the past two decades: "Clutter in the homes of people with hoarding problems is extremely disorganized; valuable objects (and sometimes money) are commonly mixed in with trash. Even in cases where the volume of possessions is not large, considerable dysfunction can result from the gross disorganization."4

With this passing reference to "sometimes money," these definitions of Collyer Brothers syndrome alert us that contemporary definitions of hoarding markedly differ from earlier formulations. Prior to fallout from the Collyer mansion, hoarding referred primarily to the accumulation of wealth—not to trash.5 Dismayed at the "tight-fisted," Dante assigned hoarders to the fourth circle of Hell in his fourteenth-century The Divine Comedy.6 Citing Shakespeare's late-sixteenth-century play Henry VI, Part 3, the Oxford English Dictionary defines hoarding as "the accumulation and hiding of money."7 And Silas Marner, a Victorian protohoarder, stockpiled bags of guineas in George Eliot's 1861 novel of the same name. Signaling this definitional fault, one recent medical expert writes that "unfortunately, Langley Collyer lived in an era when problems such as compulsive hoarding were regarded as eccentricities; something to be laughed at or ridiculed."8 Casting hoarders as "public nuisances or even health risks," his description is revealing because it records this cultural shift in how hoarders have been perceived. While previous centuries viewed the act as a sign of financial greed, it now functions as a psychopathological diagnosis that treats someone like a Collyer and their attachments to goods as a mental—and a social—aberration.

Such being the case, late modern accounts of Collyer Brothers syndrome are far removed from fictive accounts of Silas Marner in the 1860s even as they insist on transhistorical continuity. They often tend to recursively diagnose behaviors such as Homer and Langley's as an off-shoot of an obsessive-compulsive disorder or an impulse control disorder—the latter an umbrella term for a bundle of culturally deviant acts such as kleptomania, pyromania, and compulsive shopping.9 Yet, in so doing, these accounts represent "problems such as compulsive hoarding" not as questionable constructions under strain but as innate aberrations of gray matter that lead to "considerable dysfunction" beyond a well-stocked house. [End Page 160] One neurobiologist makes the incredulous claim that hoarders "have a different pattern of glucose metabolism in the brain" as well as "distinct susceptibility genes."10 Others stress that unchecked hoarding results in a "substantial social burden," including "lower rates of marriage and higher rates of divorce" and what is vaguely listed as "social, marital, and recreational impairment."11 Here hoarding is not simply the quirk of genetic code or the domestic disaster of a particular household, but a societal pathology of the brain, as well.

Typically, these scientific findings also shore up their claims for Collyer Brothers syndrome with footnotes that date back to psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, Karl Abraham, and Ernest Jones—even though these early-twentieth-century thinkers refuted causal links between disorganization and accumulation.12 In his "Anal-Erotic Character Traits" (1918), Jones stresses that "all collectors are anal-erotics, and the objects collected are nearly always typical copra-symbols: thus, money, coins (apart from current ones), stamps, eggs, butterflies—these two being associated with the idea of babies—books, even worthless things like pins, old newspapers, etc."13 But Jones also insists that these individuals express "intolerance for disorder."14 Freud earlier noted in his "Character and Anal Eroticism" (1908) that "the people I am about to describe are noteworthy for a regular combination of the three following characteristics. They are especially orderly, parsimonious and obstinate."15 Highlighting that "dirt is matter in the wrong place" for such tidy persons, he, like Jones, approaches individuals who accumulate things as too clean, not as too messy.16

But if glucose, bad genes, and a nod to some founders of Western psychoanalysis fail to make sense out of those who really, really, really like their possessions, then what does? Perhaps another allusion to Freud—that by Mary Douglas—can be of some help. Douglas's famous formulation of "dirt as matter out of place" in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo alerts us that mental and material disorganization comes from somewhere other than timeless brain fluid, and it returns us to the importance that a place like, say, Harlem plays in defining dirt.17 For the anthropologist, dirt and one of its synonyms, social disorder, are culturally (and, we'll find, racially) specific concerns. In her succinct phrasing, dirt is "a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt, then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system" (44). For Douglas, "there is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder" rather than a lobe in the skull (2). And certain individuals like, say, a Collyer, come to exemplify particular forms of disorder vilified by the eyes of a particular social body, and "which persons may set off knowingly or unknowingly, which are not [End Page 161] part of the psyche and which are not to be bought or learned by initiation and training" (140).

Douglas's take on site-specific forms of disorder and those who may unknowingly trigger these dangerous events is useful. Her theory lets us consider the historical confluences that enabled hoarding to emerge as a disorder about disorganization in the twentieth century, one that medical experts elide when they present hoarding as an absolute neurobiological ill. What follows thus refutes Collyer Brothers syndrome as a continuum of anal eroticism or as a biochemical imbalance and instead treats hoarding as a chapter in the unfinished cultural history of disorder and "gross disorganization." Taking a cue from cultural critic Jani Scandura, who argues that "in the late 1930s, when the Collyer brothers gained notoriety in newspapers, they seemed to embody a threat more culturally resonant than what might be dismissed as individual eccentricity," I detail how and why the disorderly Collyers and their disturbing matter-out-of-place resonates in midcentury Harlem and the decades thereafter.18

This is a brief history, then, of how a few truckloads of stuff and the two people who owned them became deviant. I undertake a genealogy of Collyer Brothers syndrome, and I argue that representations of the Collyers were unwittingly pivotal in constructing a paradigm shift in hoarding as a curious abnormality—a shift that helped make chronic the gradual psychopathology of gross disorganization. To support these claims, I first turn to their mansion and explore how Harlem and its residents became metonyms for a social disordering that the Collyers would personify in the press. I then look inside the brownstone to track how this narrative converged with complementary tales that cast the Collyers' personal belongings—and, by extension, their owners—as queer oddities. I finally address the afterlife of this curiosa as these two interlocking narratives further aligned and as the brothers became synonymous with a narrative of irrational hoarding. Throughout I contend that representations of these two men shifted from eccentric New Yorkers to pathological hoarders as these depictions reconfigured anxieties of social and material disorganization that, for far too long, wound not around the strands of DNA but rather a few streets north of Central Park.


It is, following Douglas, difficult to understand the emergence of the modern hoarder without entertaining the role that place plays in accounts of chronic disorganization. Given the frequent emphasis on "unfashionable" [End Page 162] Harlem in accounts of the Collyers, it is equally difficult not to attend to the role played by race in the hoarder's crystallization. As much as these two men are now linked to the psychopathology of compulsive hoarding, I illustrate how they were once wedded to the supposed social and racial pathologies of Harlem. While connections between the neighborhood, the brothers, and their eponymous disorder are not transparent, this section teases out these relationships since they are a neglected link in the history of chronic disorganization as a mental disorder.19

We can begin to see a few of these connections in a recent online newspaper that ponders why the brothers "descended into madness" and diagnoses them with the unfortunate neologism "Harlemitis":

Homer and Langley Collyer were written about in medical journals and even had a disease (Collyer Brothers Syndrome) named in their honor to account for this neurotic inability to dispose of things. Perhaps there should be a corollary to this disease as it applies to their stubborn refusal to leave Harlem, even as it descended into an entropic urban wasteland. Perhaps we can call it Harlemitis.20

With these two hesitant "perhaps," the journalist acknowledges the significant role Harlem played in the Collyers' history, yet the pat formula begs some questions. First, why would a white body take ill for holding onto things in black Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s? Second, why is the Collyers' desire to stay in this neighborhood a "stubborn refusal" or, ratcheting up the rhetoric, an act of madness? Third, why is Harlem characterized as an "entropic urban wasteland"?

The answer to these questions lies in the journalist's suspect juxtaposition of "Harlem" and the suffix "itis," the latter translated as an inflammatory disease of a bodily organ. While it may be difficult to trace the Collyers and their attachment to personal property as a symptomatic dysfunction, it is too easy to find representations of twentieth-century Harlem (the district, the houses, the apartments, its working-class residents) as a descent into pathology: sociologists, historians, and news media had been doing so for several decades prior to the Collyers' demise. Originally a haven for middle-class and upper-class whites such as the Collyer family in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Harlem witnessed waves of black migration that spiked in the 1920s and continued well into the 1930s and 1940s. Following panicked white countermigrations into the suburbs as a response to this population shift, the neighborhood became a largely black vicinity that many—by no means all—derided as an [End Page 163] "entropic urban wasteland," a slum replete with "deteriorating" houses and "immoral" bodies.21

Presenting the district, its properties, and its working-class inhabitants as a locus of psychic, moral, and material impairment, these disease tropes painted parts of black Harlem as a site of social decay, and such skewed portraits were often inseparable from what was referred to as urban maladjustment. The eminent sociologist Robert E. Park, for example, stressed in 1925 that "disturbances in metabolism" and the "abnormalities in social metabolism" coincided with "the great influx of southern Negroes into northern cities since the war."22 Other sociologists in the 1930s and 1940s traced the "disturbed social relationships" and "the growth of definitely anti-social attitudes" found in metropolitan "race colonies," "disorganized Negro districts" such as Harlem, and the slum, which "has always been known as the breeding-place for vice, crime, and demoralization of all kinds."23 Yet another stated in 1939 that "disorganization and apparent lack of direction" defined Harlem's denizens.24 For these supposed experts, the neighborhood brimmed with "manifold social and economic disorders," immorality, and anomaly.25 The district was, to rephrase Mary Douglas, a deviant outbreak of city-based social pollution, a prime instance of metropolitan matter out of place.

Harlem, stated otherwise, was cast as chronically disorganized throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and as two quotes from the previous paragraph typify, these modern tropes of urban pathology were frequently shorthanded as social disorganization, a term coined around the same time that the neighborhood witnessed initial waves of black migration. Similar in kind, if not degree, to earlier conflations of African American populations and urban disorder, the term social disorganization was first introduced by sociologists William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki in their five-volume The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20), and while the term did not originally signify pathologized African Americans (or the Collyers) it soon would.26 These men—Thomas, a University of Chicago professor, and Znaniecki, a professor at Poland's Poznan University (both affiliated with Chicago's School of Sociology)—studied the cultural flux prompted by the migration of millions from the Old World to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Across their fourth volume, Disorganization and Reorganization in Poland, and their fifth, Organization and Disorganization in America, they characterized the moral disruptions caused by these transnational relocations as social disorganization, a term that originally referred to a breakdown in marriage bonds of first-generation immigrants. "We can define social disorganization briefly," Thomas and Znaniecki write, "as a decrease of the influence [End Page 164] of existing social rules of behavior upon individual members of the group. This decrease may present innumerable degrees, ranging from a single break of some particular rule by one individual up to a general decay of all the institutions of the group."27 In shelves of case studies, subsequent sociologists and other thinkers adopted this influential concept of social disorganization as they applied it to seemingly foreign bodies—other immigrant and black populations—in towns and cities across America.

Despite its objective-seeming approach to ethnic immigration, though, The Polish Peasant also theorized social disorganization as an urban maladjustment wedded to nonwhite bodies, as a social evil that advanced marital, familial, and social pathologies. While Thomas and Znaniecki intended social disorganization to be "a neutral term that could lead toward greater individual autonomy [and] new forms of the family"—a pit stop toward social reorganization—the term carried negative connotations of deviance that were soon applied to urban "abnormalities," including places such as Harlem.28 With their passing reference to general decay, for example, the sociologists embedded themes of moral decline and cultural corrosion that overshadowed their original definition. The Polish Peasant also noted that "the general background of the disorganization of the marriage group among Polish immigrants is the decay of the large family" (272), deemed disorganization a "social evil" (192), and suggested that "demoralization is the decay of the personal life organization of an individual member of a social group" (256). As much as the book used sociological science to rationalize the plights of working-class Poles at a moment of national insecurity regarding eastern European immigrations, it thus helped render disorganization both deviance and disease, and academics, artists, and laypeople soon embraced the term to disparage Harlem as an abnormal "breeding-place" for "disorganized"—and usually working-class—black bodies.

And, paradoxically, the Collyers. Despite its implicit contrast to organized Anglo-Saxons, social disorganization and its deviant connections to upper Manhattan were useful for describing some of the seemingly odd behaviors of the neighborhood's more famous white residents—even though one of the brothers denied this association. Like many, the Collyers seemed to have bought into racist discourses regarding Harlem. As one of the "marooned white families" who did not make a suburban migration in the 1920s or 1930s, they would have found little issue with questionable caricatures of the neighborhood as an entropic urban wasteland.29 In a summer 1938 interview with Helen Worden, a journalist whose exposés vaulted the brothers into local and national prominence before and after their deaths, Langley denounced his fellow black neighbors: [End Page 165]

"These terrible children. They called me the spook. They say I drag dead bodies into the house after dark and string them up from our old elm tree." He waved his fist in the general direction of Harlem. "They break my windows. They make my life miserable. They even put a sign on my door saying, 'This is a ghost house!'" . . . "My brother Homer and I were born in E. 35th St., on Murray Hill. We came here in 1909. This was a beautiful neighborhood then. We feared Murray Hill was growing commercial. When there was talk of the Triboro Bridge, Homer bought this house—2077. We thought that the section would pick up again. Look at it now!" . . . His voice rose to its hysterical pitch, then subsided to its monotone as he switched to a happier topic. "Our family is one of the oldest in New York. Our ancestors came to America on the Speedwell, which had a better passenger list than the Mayflower."

With his mournful self-representation that his family arrived in Harlem when it was "a beautiful neighborhood," Collyer presents a biased summary of the migratory changes in a section of Manhattan that many had begun to dismiss as a disorganized slum. Describing himself as a well-to-do and implicitly white member of New York's finest society, he contrasts himself and his family members with the predominantly black residents who now surround him, and he impresses on Worden that he and Homer are not affiliated with the neighbors who allegedly taunt him. He thus confirms historian Gilbert Osofsky's claim that "it seemed unbelievable to some that theirs, one of the most exclusive sections in the entire city, should become the center of New York's most depressed and traditionally worst-housed people."30 Noting that the family name is "one of the oldest," Collyer confirms this line of thought as he depicts himself as a bastion of Old New York, and his brother's former occupation as a Columbia University-trained admiralty lawyer and his father's as a renowned physician across several of the five boroughs buttressed this claim.

Langley's suspicions of his neighbors may have been mutual, given that some black residents of Harlem saw the two brothers as a "neighborhood curiosity." Yet local newspapers—despite earlier associations between the Collyers and an elite whiteness—just as often presented the two recluses as strange "objects of great curiosity," as a disorganized mess in contrast to these earlier self-presentations as cultured gentlemen. Collyer, in fact, seems to protest too much in his interview with Worden, and this may be [End Page 166] because the disordered representations that he personally disavowed were ones with which he and his brother became closely associated. Ironically, the more he publicly cultivated rhetorical reserve ("Look at it now!") and privately cultivated domestic distance (the booby traps of material things placed inside the house) from the perceived black disorder he saw around him, the more he, his brother, and their home came to represent the disorganization held by many to inhere in neighborhood—a disorganization that would later apply to their mental states and their supposed inability to let go of their stuff.

One instance of this conflation occurs in the same interview where Collyer chides his neighbors. In the midst of his rant, Worden informs readers that Collyer "drew his ragged coat together, fastened it with a safety pin. 'I have to dress this way. They would rob me if I didn't. We make our home look as if no one lived in it. We would be murdered otherwise.'" Later in their discussion, Worden adds that "Langley's body was clad in a weird assortment of filthy, tattered garment." Under the auspices of trying to protect his self from the perceived threat of the neighborhood's black inhabitants and to distinguish himself from his neighbors, Collyer's tattered self-presentation mirrors a hallmark of the district's supposed disorder, the "decay of the personal life" revealed in personal attire. Hence his rationalized anxiety over racial pollution in his interview with Worden: his furious exclamations at Harlem signal that narratives of deviant disorganization had intercepted his biography of Puritan whiteness, and at such a moment Collyer reified the discourses of disorganization that he sought to deflect. That is, the further he tried to disentangle himself from the pathologies of social disorganization, the further he appeared less a carryover from the Speedwell and more an exemplar of slumdom.

Unwittingly and unknowingly, the Collyers began to personify pathological discourses of Harlemitis. As interest in their mysterious lives historically coincided with the crystallization of Harlem as a disorganized slum across popular and academic discourses, one gradually became a corollary for the other. A few days after their deaths, in an article entitled "Mystery of Collyer Brothers Made Big News for a Decade," a reporter forged this connection when he observed that "in some mysterious manner—for he later declared that he never looked at newspapers—Langley knew of the grotesque picture being painted, and he resented it." This "grotesque picture" refers to the ghost house that neighborhood children allegedly mocked, but it also references the abnormalities thought to haunt Harlem (and Langley's reference to the racial slur "spook" is telling in this regard). Though the brothers attempted to avoid this guilt-by-association ("these terrible children"), they did not sidestep the disorganization thesis of early-century to [End Page 167] midcentury Harlemitis. Hence another way to approach his interview with Worden: as much as he attempted to manage his public image as a privileged white man removed from working-class blacks, he also tried to neutralize the "abnormalities" of Harlem's "social metabolism" by presenting himself as an upstanding New Yorker of fine Puritan stock.

Hysterical rhetoric, torn clothes, and decrepit housing, however, told a different story, and the Fifth Avenue brownstone they inherited only furthered this deviant narrative along—especially since the brothers "made our home look as if no one lived in it." It's important to note that nowhere in Collyer's statement about trashing his "ghost house" does he refer to or have awareness of what scientists now call hoarding tendencies—that would, we'll find in the next section, be imposed on them shortly after their death. Collyer insists instead that his home's exterior appears disorganized so that he can stave off the imagined threat of Harlem's disorder. Despite his paranoid fears of blackness, though, this home, much like his verbal protests and his "tattered" attire, only strengthened links among deviance, disorder, and the eccentrics. Just as disorganization discourses derided Harlem bodies as "abnormalities," so too did they frequently deride Harlem's houses as "breeding-place[s] for vice," and the press likewise depicted the façade of 2078 as a hovel.31 Worden's interview, for instance, begins by noting that that house's "doors were barred, its wooden shutters drawn . . . and its basement gate wired tight together. The stone balustrade which guarded the crumbling stoop had collapsed." Highlighting the brothers' "eccentric existence," another reported that there was "no effort to keep the house in shape." Another states that "this morning the mysterious old brownstone mansion . . . looked just as it has for the last five years: windows broken, storm doors shut, decaying front stoop with its balustrades lopped off and rubbish piled high in the basement entrance." And soon after their bodies were found by police their mansion appeared in scare quotes: "Today the Collyer 'mansion' is just another dirty, abandoned building." If Harlem's homes—as much as some of Harlem's citizens—were treated like metonymies of urban social disorder, then the Collyers' "Harlem mystery house" became exemplary stand-ins of this cliché.

As a result, newspapers emphasized the brothers of Harlem rather than the brothers in Harlem. One of their nicknames in the press—the "Harlem Mystery Men"—cemented this association, and journalists repetitively cited the Collyers as "the Hermits of Harlem," the "hermit brothers of Harlem," and "the recluse brothers of Harlem." Despite Collyer's professed distance from his black neighbors, newspaper photographs published before his death also featured him in close proximity with his fellow residents (figure 1). These visual and rhetorical conjunctions were [End Page 168] complemented by announcements that the Collyers were on familiar if not always pleasant terms with their neighbors—one reported that "[a] disciple of Father Divine muttered, 'Peace, Mr. Collyer'"—as well as notices that the brothers in their "once fashionable house" resided in a "virtually all-Negro district." Although the Collyers may have professed to elite whiteness, they became intimate with sociological disorganization and disorderly decline. Investigations into the city's abnormalities coincided with investigations into the Collyers' eccentricities, and each made good on Scandura's hypothesis that "the hoarder, disorder and mess, these facets of modern urban culture are inextricably linked" via Harlem's most famous recluses.32 The modern discourse of social disorganization, I've suggested, hastened these connections as the two brothers became the neighborhood's greatest mystery, and, eventually, one of the most mysterious compulsive hoarding cases of all time.

A letter to the editor of the New York Sun published two days after their deaths made explicit these connections. Entitled "Junk in Old Slums: Collyer Case Brings Back Memories of Hazardous Living," the anonymous letter opined,

Sir: The junk-packed Collyer mansion brings back recollections of this writer, who was born and raised in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York City some fifty years ago where tenements filled with human beings were also the scenes of congested junk piles. Yet they were not quite so bad as the Collyer condition. Tenement streets were often crowded with ten or more loaded garbage cans.

Figure 1. "Langley Collyer Chatting with Neighbors Outside," ca. 1943. Courtesy of Corbis Images
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Figure 1.

"Langley Collyer Chatting with Neighbors Outside," ca. 1943. Courtesy of Corbis Images

What's striking is that the letter's reference to the Collyers' Harlem mansion makes an even earlier connection between the brothers and the "hazardous" conditions of urban immigrant life. The commentary doesn't compare the "junk-packed" house to The Polish Peasant, but it does situate the mansion alongside residences of Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood composed mainly of working-class Irish immigrants "some fifty years ago." Tracing what the author later [End Page 169] terms "the slum days of years gone by, with dark and dreary tenement hallways," the letter explicitly compares seemingly dirty tenements ("ten or more loaded garbage cans") and the Collyer house. To rephrase this point: an explicit connection is made between the social disorganization of quasi-white Irish migrants and the tenement-identified Collyers.33 Yet the letter nevertheless notes that the Collyer house—with historical ties to threats of urban immigrant disorder—is disorganization run even more amok: "[T] hey were not quite so bad as the Collyer condition."

The letter does so because the Collyers turned the "social abnormalities" of Harlemitis into what curious readers and social commentators began to diagnose as a personal condition with historical antecedents. According to the OED, a new definition of condition emerged in 1920s America that redefined one meaning of the word as "a state of health; esp. one that is poor or abnormal; a malady or sickness."34 As much as the Collyers personified social disorganization in general and Harlem's disorganization in particular, they tweaked the neighborhood's supposed pathologies into this novel condition of a personalized abnormality. While they were not alone in this shift—sociologists by the 1930s and 1940s stressed that "social disorganization is an extension of individual disorganization in that it is a projection of the neurotic traits of disorganized individuals into the field of interpersonal relations"35—grotesque representations of the brothers nevertheless reified social disorganization into a chronic condition, something that would come to look more like the derisive malady of a hoarder and less like a quaint "gentleman of the 1880's."36 In so doing, they enabled modern disorganization discourses surrounding immigrants and African Americans to mutate from a social pathology into a psychological one.

Across overlapping public registers, the intersecting signifiers of clothing, rhetoric, and reportage gradually cast the Collyers' extreme eccentricity as a neurosis or as "a descent into madness," and some journalists prior to and after their deaths cited the brothers for being as "mad as [their] eccentric habits might indicate." Thus, it's not simply that the brothers seemed crazy for staying in Harlem—one problematic definition of Harlemitis—but that they seemed neurotic for their intimate associations with the neighborhood disorder that they abjured. In their refusal to depart, they became unconditional members of a fictive communal pathology, and they augmented social disorganization theories with an unexpected corollary: the personal neurosis of chronic disorganization. As their cultural deviance became indistinguishable from their individual disorganization, their personae laid down track for scores of future hoarders once the Collyer condition gradually became [End Page 170] the Collyer Brothers syndrome. But this is half of the story that hoarding's modern emergence can tell us when we attend to the Collyers. Focusing now on the flip side of Harlemitis—Homer and Langley's "neurotic inability to dispose of things"—I trace how their deviant possessions further expedited their eventual descent into the madness of medicine.

Filthy Riches

My genealogy of the modern hoarder has linked the Collyers with social deviance and suspect theories of racial and immigrant disorganization. Yet as we intuit from the New York Sun letter to the editor, this emergent narrative relied not only on two persons and their unfashionable home address, but also on their ruined things—their "junk-packed" home and its similarities to "scenes of congested junk-piles" and "loaded garbage cans." Such explicit associations between the brothers and disorganized rubbish were not, however, unique to this reminiscence. Just as popular and academic discourses of Harlemitis facilitated the pathologization of the Collyers, other narratives surrounding the contents of their house would also enable the portrait of an entropic domestic wasteland. Sensational photographs and tales of these strange possessions enthralled the public, and they proved a complementary step in reconfiguring definitions of hoarding as an abnormal condition that conflated mental and material disorganization—particularly given that the term's original definition emphasized immoral stockpiles of money.

I noted earlier that Langley Collyer tried to portray himself and his brother as rich and reclusive eccentrics while they became enmeshed in discourses of Harlem-centric disorganization. Companion pieces to this story were tales of their rich and reclusive things—both monetary and material—as rumors circulated about the Collyers' wealth throughout the late 1930s and into the early 1940s. Newspapers reported that the brothers "were wealthy beyond the dreams of a Croesus [a king of Lydia];" and even that the mystery men of Harlem secretly owned "Half of [the] Waterfront." Riffing on earlier definitions of hoarding as the excessive accumulation of money, these same papers speculated that the Collyers "had secreted a hoard of money" ever since they moved to Harlem in 1909, and that police would discover "the millions that the Collyers were reputed to have hidden in the house."37

Amidst these anecdotes about their cash hoarding were unconfirmed reports about their fantastic things, a material opulence thought to best [End Page 171] their outstanding personal savings. In 1942, a journalist conjectured that "the tales of what the sheriff will find when he finally gains entrance to the old house rival a thrilling mystery novel. Behind the dust-covered windows, the stories go, will be found a house full of antique furniture and rare books." Local newspaper headlines likewise hyperbolized: "Neighbors Say Old House Has Grand Piano in Each Room." Such exaggerated accounts of spectacular things were in keeping with depictions of the Collyers as Old Society hailing from Murray Hill, and a few treated the façade of disorganization that characterized the Collyer mansion as precisely that—a cover-up to their interior riches. After detailing "the neighborhood, mainly inhabited by Negroes, in which the Collyer Brothers, members of an old New York family" lived, one correspondent suggested that "others said he would find, behind the outward appearance of filth and squalor, a veritable Arabian Nights of Chinese rugs, cut-glass rarities in antique China closets, thousands of morocco-bound books, and more than one grand piano."38

That didn't happen. In the weeks after police discovered their corpses, representations of filth and squalor in the press—explicitly connected to threatening social fantasies of Harlem's urban disorder—displaced this hearsay of the Collyers' hoarded wealth, and rampant speculation about the elite contents of the house changed course. Following the discovery of Homer's body, crowds gathered in the streets outside the mansion, and newspapers reported on the fascination and repulsion prompted by the items pulled from the mansion. As these congregations grew in number and as newspapers tracked their reactions, the Collyers' things shifted status from rarities hoarded in a mansion to trash packed into a decrepit old house: "[T]he interior of the house was an incredibly dirty mass of debris, old newspapers, cartons, broken furniture and all sorts of junk that Langley had lugged in."39

As we see from this last quote, the majority of these postmortem descriptions rested on recurring motifs of dirt and debris (and their synonyms: junk, refuse, rubbish, "pot pourri"40). These depictions, in turn, advanced an emergent narrative that objects of former opulence had degenerated into an "incredibly dirty" mess. Almost every news outlet shared this tale, and the crowds did, as well. Take but two select quotes. One: "Then Langley—engineer, musician and cultured gentleman who turned his back on the world to create a fantastic debris-filled cosmos—will be buried beside Homer, the onetime admiralty lawyer, who preferred rubbish to riches." Two: "The mountain of rubbish cluttering the second floor" was full of "ingenious piles of rubbish" where "tons of paper and cardboard were interlaced with butts of metal and stone to form a [End Page 172] booby trap for unwary intruders." Aided by photographic splashes of the mansion's insides, these narratives of incredible trash displaced narratives of incredible affluence—a story that paralleled the brothers' decline into Harlemitis, and one that further set the stage for later depictions of the two men as strange hoarders of junked goods (figure 2).

The chronicles of 2078, in other words, did not stop there: as visual and rhetorical representations of a rubbish-to-riches narrative cohered, the press sensationalized descriptions of the Collyers' once-opulent objects. Newspapers played up tropes that centered on the strange accumulation of oddities and shocking curios, and they referred to "an incredible collection of junk," "stacks of fantastic junk," and "the amazing accumulation of junk and bric-a-brac piled up from floor to ceiling." Citing "More Collyer Curiosa Dug Up," journalists highlighted the "new oddities" that police uncovered as "once handsome Victorian furniture were scattered in disorderly fashion amid indescribable filth," and they retroactively imagined the Collyers collecting "newspapers, trash and any portable oddities" on midnight walks before their deaths. Such oddities not only included several grand pianos, but any and every piece of minutiae tucked inside the brownstone: "Among the curios were several tickets to the annual excursion of the Sunday School of Trinity Episcopal Church to Glen Island on Sunday, July 8, 1905." Every piece of supposed junk became a remarkable curiosity, and every "dirty" item became a point of interest in this popularized discourse of spectacular debris.

Figure 2. Collyer library, 1947. Courtesy of Corbis Images.
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Figure 2.

Collyer library, 1947. Courtesy of Corbis Images.

Hence while much of the mansion's materials were often referred to as worthless (thereby debunking the scads of hidden money myth), the mountains of things in the Collyer house were nevertheless characterized as "fascinating," "amazing," and "incredible," and newspapers delighted in titillating audiences with sensational catalogs of excavated items. Headlines proclaimed a "Weird Yield of Relics" or "Oddities Tossed Out," and papers rattled off lists of objects such as an automobile radiator, a doll carriage, a child's chair, and a horse's jawbone. Also removed from the building were mantel clocks, phonograph records, a wooden cradle filled with human bones and skulls, violins, a cello, bottles, hats, revolvers, a 1914 program for the Metropolitan Opera House, elementary [End Page 173] school conduct reports, sheets of Braille, music scores, bicycles, radiators, stoves, Christmas tree ornaments, oil lamps, tools, newspaper bundles, balls of twine, cereal boxes, piles of books, piles of papers, piles of tin cans, piles of broken furniture, pinups of women, and a Model T Ford.

As papers recorded these sensationalized items, discourses of disorganized Harlemitis began to accompany another deviant narrative, that of the queer curio. Traditionally, curiosa refers to curiosities or oddities, whereas a curio a refers to "an object of art, piece of bric-à-brac, etc., valued as a curiosity or rarity; a curiosity; more particularly applied to articles of this kind from China, Japan, and the far East."41 We see references to these two interlocking definitions with the Orientalist Chinese rugs and the cut-glass rarities from antique China closets that some journalists imagined inside the mansion in the late 1930s. By comparison, postmortem references to the Collyer curiosa and their spectacular oddities tied the brothers to another root source of these terms—that of the curiosity cabinet. Adjectives used to describe their curios, such as "fantastic," played on themes inherent in these cabinets, and I want to briefly condense the centuries-long history of this item, since it aided perceptions of the Collyers as pathologized hoarders of debris as much as social disorganization contributed to perceptions of the brothers as pathologized exemplars of personal disorder.

Also referred to as wonder cabinets, curiosity cabinets first appeared in mid-fifteenth-century central and western Europe to display the majesty of the known world, though by the twentieth century the term would refer to a shelf of bric-a-brac. Originally referred to as Wunderkammern (cabinets of wonders) or Kunstkammern (cabinets of art objects), typical curiosity cabinets were large rooms whose display shelves featured collections of objects categorized according to mirabilia (marvels), animialia, and naturalia. These two cabinet styles became Kunst- und Wunderkammern by the mid-sixteenth century, and such rooms exhibited marvels as various as seashells, precious stones, stuffed animals, and instances of "nature deformed" oddities such as a two-headed sheep.42 Likewise, these wonder cabinets would sometimes include examples of what would come to be known as Americana, or exoticized cultural artifacts from the Americas.43

Popular among the aristocracy and eventually adopted by bourgeois collectors, the curiosity cabinet possessed three goals: first, "the ability of such collections to dazzle";44 second, to display exotic things; and third, to produce "a perfect and completed picture of the world."45 By the eighteenth century, emphasis on mirabilia waned as collections of animalia and naturalia evolved into the rationalized displays of natural history museums.46 The presentation and cultivation of dazzling objects would, nevertheless, [End Page 174] influence twentieth-century art movements, and some have traced the cabinet's continuities to spectacles of foreigners at U.S. world fairs, and even to curiosity collections of toolboxes featured in mass-produced magazines such as Depression-era Popular Mechanics.47

This last tidbit of trivia is useful for tracking how discourses of the modern-day curiosity cabinet and its curios would inform representations of the Collyers' "debris-filled cosmos" in Harlem. By the mid-1930s, wonder cabinets evolved not only into natural history museums but also into affordable pieces of furniture reproduced on "a large-scale mass."48 Across the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one update of the cabinet became the popular display case, or what we today refer to as a corner curio cabinet. These corner curios retained the mirabilia of earlier cabinets, yet they translated wonder for the dawning age of mass production that many displayed in their private homes. In 1901, for instance, the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog distributed an advertisement for "Book Racks and Music Stands" that included a "$1.65 Bamboo Corner Cabinet," "a beautiful corner cabinet for bric-a-brac or books" (figure 3). These inexpensive corner cabinets were meant to showcase semiprecious collections, and they encouraged the display of marvelous bric-a-brac and oddities such as a "Star Sea Shell," fortune-telling cards, and orientalized straw boxes—all for thirty-three cents apiece (figure 4).

Figure 3. Bamboo corner cabinet advertisement. Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalogue, no. 110 (Spring 1901): 1119. Courtesy of Sears Holdings Archives.
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Figure 3.

Bamboo corner cabinet advertisement. Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalogue, no. 110 (Spring 1901): 1119. Courtesy of Sears Holdings Archives.

As much as we have situated the Collyers in the contemporaneous history of social disorganization, then, we see that their riches-to-rubbish curios became snagged in the centuries-spanning spectacle of the cabinet [End Page 175] as a form of elite and mass-produced wonder—but with notable deviations. Across early and later periods of modernity, the cabinet was a tasteful mirror of the curator, yet Collyer curiosa was a dismal failure of connoisseurship. Cultivation of a cabinet or a curio collection epitomized order, yet the Collyers' curios were not spatially well organized: workers found "tons of junk mixed indiscriminately with valuable belongings in the weird three-story brownstone mansion." Further, whereas wonder cabinets were confined to a display room or a corner display case, piles of supposed exotica overtook every inch of the Harlem brownstone. Marking these distinctions (if not their deep history), newspapers thus represented the Collyer house as a decrepit Kunst- und Wunderkammer that was a site of repulsion rather than a scene of refinement. Instead of producing delight, their house became a horrifying display of disorganized curios, "an amazing accumulation of junk and bric-a-brac piled up from floor to ceiling." Such descriptions confirm James Clifford's observation, in his overview of the modern-day curiosity cabinet, that "the good collector (as opposed to the obsessive, the miser) is tasteful and reflexive. Accumulation unfolds in a pedagogical, edifying manner. . . . Indeed a 'proper' [End Page 176] relation with objects (rule-governed possession) presupposes a 'savage' or deviant relation (idolatry or erotic fixation)."49

Figure 4. Advertisement for mass-produced curios. Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalogue, no. 120 (Spring 1910): 392. Courtesy of Sears Holdings Archives.
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Figure 4.

Advertisement for mass-produced curios. Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalogue, no. 120 (Spring 1910): 392. Courtesy of Sears Holdings Archives.

This emphasis on a miser's "deviant relation" to their strange things is important. As I have hypothesized, the Collyers' effects harkened back to themes of the wonder cabinet even as they spoiled these tropes with their "amazing rubbish." But their incredible piles of junk also incorporated another definition of accumulated curiosa—one emerging not in the early modern period but in the later nineteenth century—as deviant objects. Unusual forms of curios, for some, signaled more than oddities such as a stuffed alligator since curiosa also came to refer to a euphemistic description of "erotic or pornographic books" by the 1880s.50 Newspaper references to "several pin-up girls" found in the mansion appear to confirm this definition of erotic attachment with regard to the brothers' material things,51 but it's also the case that every extracted item was treated as a queer curio, and reporters noted this: "All sorts of queer objects were removed from the building, including an intricate potato peeler, a nursery refrigerator, a beaded lampshade, a box of boy's tops and a toy airplane."52

Given these intertwined yet discontinuous definitions of curiosa, and given the brothers' "deviant relation" to their curios, it's clear that the Collyers were not only pathologized by the aberrance of social disorganization: they were also queered by what I theorize as material deviance, the pathologization of disorderly oddities that were extracted from their mansion in the spring of 1947.53 So often figured as strange, fantastic, filthy, and weird by the press, their curios became a poor reflection on the brothers, and these possessions realized a now-popular misconception that "people who hoard appear to find it difficult to define the boundary between 'who they are' and 'what they own.'"54 Local New York newspapers, I stress, manufactured this boundary confusion by conflating the queer curiosa of the house with the supposedly aberrant personages who inhabited it. As much as the brothers were racialized by Harlemitis, then, they were just as much queered—made abnormal—by their improper relation to curiosa. While such queerness is not entirely unrelated to sexual deviance (Scandura references the Collyers as "two bachelor brothers descended from Pilgrims and dependent on each other in a way more incestuous than fraternal"), I spotlight a non-normativity associated more with material attachments than with eroticized corporeal relations.55 Deviant goods thus became cross-identified with deviant ownership, and thanks both to disorganization theories and to the botched disordering of the curiosity cabinet, material oddities became human ones, as well. [End Page 177]

We could rephrase this last claim by returning again to the New York Sun letter to the editor: the Collyers' queer things became part of the Collyer condition. As police extracted items, a new definition of hoarding as the aberrant accumulation of a person's disorganized things coalesced, and a new definition of the hoarder as a material and mental deviant rather than a mere eccentric came into view. One nonmedical expert, Coleman O. Parsons, made these two points explicit in an interview published with the World-Telegram in the spring of 1947. The author of an unpublished manuscript on hoarders ("Studies in Eccentricity"), Parsons was invited as expert witness to comment on the Collyers and their deviant things. In a newspaper write-up by Norton Mockridge, the article first identifies Parsons as a member "of the City College English Department, who has made a study of more than 120 misers and eccentrics in the past year and a half." Parsons then offered this diagnosis:

"In the final judgment, Homer and Langley Collyer will take their place among the great hoarders and recluses of history." He [Parsons] declared that persons who hoard gold or other objects of value exhibit rational behavior, but that the Collyers "who practiced unselective hoarding showed definite irrationality." He compared them with a nineteenth-century French hoarder who accumulated huge stores of butter during a shortage with the expectation of selling at a profit. When the price boom failed to materialize, he stubbornly refused to sell. After his death, the vast cache of rancid butter was found stored away in his home.

Charting a shift in original definitions of hoarding as the stockpiling of "gold and other objects of value," Parsons fuses the Collyer brothers to a novel form of this act, and his assessment marks an epistemic break as his diagnosis moves hoarding from eccentric accumulation to pathological pile-up. He makes no mention of careful selection in terms of the Collyers' curiosities but instead psychologizes them to find that the brothers engaged in "unselective" hoarding, and he connects them to "definite -irrationality"—thinly veiled code for the madness of a personal disorganization that we also saw at work in discourses of Harlemitis. Thus, we're back to the Collyer condition in "unfashionable" Fifth Avenue but with an added layer of historical complexity: a messy domestic interior equates with a messy psychological interiority, and nonnormative material relations give rise to an irrational relation to one's things. As the brothers became [End Page 178] spectacles of curious material and mental disorganization, their minds, like that of the French hoarder who accumulated tubs of butter, went rancid.

Drawing on older definitions of the curiosity cabinet as well as novel takes on curiosa, late 1940s reports on the Collyers and their "irrational" things introduced the modern conceptualization of hoarding. In the early 1930s, the contents of their house may have been a potent scene of material opulence. By 1947, the home was a sorry site of oddity, amazing junk, material decline, and shocking debris—a dynamic process of material aberration facilitated by sensational reportage, photography, and testimony by individuals such as Parsons. But given that dirt and disorder are always in "the eye of the beholder," it is also useful to remind ourselves that the Collyers may have viewed their things as normal (or at least as ingenious traps for would-be burglars). We'll never know their final appraisal, but in the eyes of the press and its readerships the brothers were no longer wealthy white eccentrics warding off potential black intruders. They were instead filthy, irrational hoarders of Harlem, given "the bizarre conditions under which the brothers were living." In fact, the queerest curios extracted from the brownstone were not a toy airplane or a faded pinup but the literal and figurative remains of Homer and Langley. Within "Harlem's House of Horrors," opulence became rubbish became curiosa became the horrifying specter of irrational hoarding, and the Collyers became a Kunst- und Wunderkammern of personal and social disorganization in their much-maligned neighborhood—a queered cabinet of curious urban disarray.

"Posthumous Infamy"

As these narratives of Harlemitis and queer curiosa coupled, the fallout was immediate and gradual in terms of what would become known as Collyer Brothers syndrome. Days after the last brother's body was found, the article "Collyer House May Be Museum" reported,

The possibility that the ramshackle Collyer house at 2078 Fifth avenue may one day become a commercial museum designed to attract visitors interested in the now-solved mystery of the dead Collyer brothers was seen today in the remark of a man who stood gazing at the dilapidated structure as laborers resumed the removal of junk and occasional items of value from the house. The man declined to identify himself, but told reporters he was considering [End Page 179] buying the three-story building with a view to cleaning up the place, converting it into a curio house and charging admission to those who would like to wander through the old house in which Homer and Langley Collyer lived like hermits amid cobwebs and tons of junk for many years.

Here we see a convergence of the themes that enabled representations of the Collyers to become a harrowing pathology in midcentury America and the decades thereafter. The article highlights their "tons of junk" intermixed with "occasional items of value," and it reveals that early modern definitions of Wunderkammern were reconfigured as the anonymous entrepreneur considered transforming the Collyers' possessions into a tourist site for curious visitors. Most important for this final section's argument, the newspaper account foreshadows how the Collyers became ongoing objects of sensational inquiry for the interested masses in the years following their deaths.

This proposed business venture to renovate the mansion into a curio house didn't pan out, but, then again, it didn't have to once the Collyers began to saturate popular memory as odd legends of pathological hoarding. In fact, their queer curiosa became the talk of many towns. As New York reporters puzzled out their mystery, their story began to resonate with mass audiences across the United States via popular magazines. Filed under "National Affairs," Time published a report on 7 April 1947 entitled "The Shy Men" that condensed and disseminated the guiding narratives of pathological hoarding for audiences beyond the Big Apple. The article noted that "for 38 years, as the great city boiled and throbbed around them, as their house became part of Harlem and Negroes seeped into their neighborhood, they lived in greater & greater seclusion" (the Harlemitis thesis).56 It detailed that, "as the years passed, legends sprang up about the spectral old house. The persistent: it hid a fortune" (the hidden-opulence thesis).57 It then informed readers that "the police found five grand pianos, a library containing thousands of books on law and engineering, ancient toys, old bicycles with rotting tires, obscene photographs, dressmaker's dummies, heaps of coal, and ton after ton of newspapers—the fruit of three decades of hoarding" (the queer curio cabinet meets the aberrant hoarder thesis).58 A few paragraphs condense links between "Harlem and Negroes," "incredible masses" of curiosa, and the "three decades of hoarding" that we have previously detailed. These movements are consolidated under the Collyer legend, and the brothers are turned into a national affair rather than a localized public menace. [End Page 180]

Other newspaper articles about the Collyers continued to crop up and, eight years after their deaths, audiences were privy to the fictionalization of their lives with Marcia Davenport's middlebrow best-seller My Brother's Keeper. Published in 1954 as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, the novel, like postmortem press reports, merged anxieties of urban social disorganization, material deviance, and the figure of the irrational hoarder into one coherent narrative.59 Based on the same newspaper accounts that I've traced, My Brother's Keeper tells the byzantine story of two wealthy white brothers, Seymour and Randall Holt, and their strange demise—all imagined through the eyes of a banker, Dick Wycherly, who tells us from the start that "like the rest of the world I first knew of the Holt brothers through the newspapers which made them a sensation" (3). In the novel's opening pages, Wycherly details "that derelict house crammed from cellar to roof with one hundred and seventy tons of hoarded rubbish" (3); and he tells the strange tale of the Holts, their hoarding, their overbearing grandmother, and their bizarre love triangle with an Italian opera singer.

It's not necessary to track how these narrative twists come about, but I stress that Davenport's book connects the Holt hoarders to a racialized urban disorganization—only the author substitutes Chelsea for Harlem. Describing their "fetid black hole" full of "stacks and piles of I did not yet know what" (9), the narrator states,

Nothing on Manhattan Island is more obscenely derelict than the few of those yards that remain, abandoned to filth, trash, rats and the savage stray cats who hunt them; to the ruin wrought by the most wretched type of slum which seems infinitely uglier and crueler than the vilest railroad tenements of the Lower East Side or dark Harlem. These Chelsea houses were once dignified and beautiful, homes of which gracious people were proud, homes which they loved in much the same way as the children raised in them.


After linking "the lower East Side" and "dark Harlem" to "obscenely derelict" Chelsea, and disgusted that the neighborhood is now full of "drifting slum-dwellers" and "crazy variegations" (8), Davenport has one of the brothers observe that

Chelsea was turning into a bleak and ugly district, its fine houses one by one degenerating into rooming-houses, its pavements unmended, its trees unreplaced when they died. Many of the neighbors among whom he had grown up had [End Page 181] moved away to other parts of the city, eastward and downtown. And here he was, with Randall, condemned to live in the Chelsea house no matter what Chelsea was becoming.


These descriptions of the Holts' socially disorganized slum district are then connected to "the strange story" of their hoarding, "with its crazy embellishments" (13).

Like Time, My Brother's Keeper further inceptioned the Collyers in the national imaginary as a "harrowing and ghastly" legend that built on social panics over seemingly disorganized immigrants and African Americans (3), but Davenport also made them into an international phenomenon: Dick Wycherly learns of the Holts-cum-Collyers through the press "like the rest of the world" (3), and his reference to the global reach of their legend suggests how widespread their narrative became by the mid-1950s. In fact, a few years after her novel's publication, northern European medical journals—not only a professor of English like Parsons—began to categorize irrational hoarding as a psychological aberration connected expressly to the Collyers. In the 1963 article "Collector's Mania," Scandinavian physician Jens Jensen wrote that "a case of collector's mania on a gigantic scale is that of the brothers Collyer. It has only been described in daily press and in 'Time' and 'Life' and in 'True', never in a medical journal" (612).60 He found that this disease "consists of a compulsory, panic collecting and hoarding of many different objects, useful or useless, but very often things of repulsive, insanitary nature" (606), and he emphasizes that such "panic collecting and hoarding" is an "offense against public order and cleanliness" (607). He then proceeds to tell the detailed story of the Collyers as prime exemplars of this deviant phenomenon.

These are just a few examples of how post-1947 Collyer hoarding became further pathologized across media such as literature, psychology, and reportage. There are many more, and the Collyers' legend remains ongoing. My Brother's Keeper went through numerous trade paperback editions from 1956 until 1982, and the Collyer mystery continued to seep into popular memory as hoarding became further associated with mental aberration and public offense. Stephen King, for instance, would use the Collyer mansion as inspiration for his fictive house of horror in his 1975 vampire novel 'Salem's Lot; and E. L. Doctorow published a counterfactual novel about the two, Homer and Langley, in 2009. To cap off this cultural inundation, in 2004 the journal American Speech celebrated the noun Collyer in its annual list of New Words as a "pack rat; a person who collects and stores an unreasonable number of things. . . . A pair of New York recluses who achieved [End Page 182] posthumous infamy after their bodies were discovered amid more than 100 tons of carefully accumulated debris in 1947."61

Thus, "the cases never cease to fascinate," states one Times reporter in 2003, as "some pass into legend, like the Collyer brothers, 'the hermit hoarders of Harlem,' who in 1947 were buried by the piles of urban junk that filled their four-story Harlem brownstone."62 Here the "posthumous infamy" of the two brothers continues into the present decade, even as the emphasis on Harlemitis disorder and the spoiled curio cabinet that spurred their narrative has receded in neurobiological circles—so much so that one of the most popular guides to compulsive hoarding titles itself, with no irony, Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding. In this 2007 self-help guide written by three proselytizers of gross disorganization, the authors note that "the concept of 'chronic disorganization,' used by professional organizers, is similar in many ways to compulsive hoarding."63 While the book makes no mention of the Collyer brothers or their syndrome, their disorganized status haunts this text: the front cover to Buried in Treasures reproduces a cropped 1947 newspaper photograph taken from inside the Collyer mansion that I have reproduced as figure 2. This photograph is never referenced in Buried in Treasures, nor is it identified on the back cover. I nevertheless emphasize that, in the midst of recent scientific (and pop psychological) claims for the deviant category of the pathological hoarder, the foundational roles that Harlem and queer curiosa played haunt the scientific unconscious of those who now popularize this aberrant condition.

The absent presence of the two brothers in a text like Buried in Treasures suggests that the history of Collyer curiosa that enabled hoarding to legitimize itself as "a problem of emotional, mental, behavioral, and social well-being" has been displaced by clinical psychology's allegiance to the gray-matter thesis that my introduction reviewed.64 Buried in Treasures begins by noting that compulsive hoarding is "a potentially serious problem that many doctors and healthcare professionals have never heard of,"65 but I've argued that the archive proves otherwise, and the recall of the repressed cultural history of the modern hoarder has been my central aim. In the wrong place at the right time, the Collyer brothers helped catapult chronic disorganization to a national—and swiftly international—prominence that would assume infamous proportions thanks to newspapers, magazines, popular novels, and other forms of media.

Their things long gone, it seems as if the Collyers' unfortunate legacy is here to stay. Hence, when we think about the legions now categorized [End Page 183] as hoarders in the early twenty-first century, we're not just thinking about matter out of mental place. We're thinking about a certain pernicious picture of Harlem that traces back to a certain pernicious fear of migrants in the early- to mid-twentieth-century United States. And when we ogle a hoarder's stuff, we're not that far removed from a sixteenth-century stuffed shark or a Sears whatnot. Behind the Collyers is one lamentable story of working-class immigrants and African Americans, and behind that history is another of modern-day curiosa. At the intersection of these narratives, the brothers unknowingly—to recall Mary Douglas—enabled dirt and disorder to bypass eccentricity and cohere into an aberrant identity-category. When the present-day lot of scientists, social workers, and reporters—all painfully adept at collecting human curios—diagnose their subjects with compulsive hoarding, they bury these materials in the treasures of empiricist research. In so doing, they reconfirm that hoarding is an inherently corrupt form of object relations, and they reinforce what Douglas catalogs as the "social sanctions, contempt, ostracism, gossip, perhaps even police action" that accompany this seemingly disorganized activity (92). Cramped and crushed and created by newspapers back then, Homer and Langley continue to be overwhelmed by other discursive messes right now.

Scott Herring

Scott Herring is an associate professor of English at Indiana University. His recent work includes Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (NYU Press, 2010), and he is researching a study of material deviance in modern America for the University of Chicago Press.


. Unless otherwise noted, all citations from U.S. newspapers regarding the Collyers are from The Collyer Brothers (Homer and Langley): A Collection of Newspaper Clippings, 1937-1962, microform, reel 1 (New York: New York Public Library, 1984), %7CX5?lang=eng&suite=pearl. I thank Denise Cruz, Tim Dean, Jonathan Flatley, Diana Fuss, Jani Scandura, Siobhan Somerville, Jennifer Terry, and Shane Vogel for their generous readings of this essay.

1. Harold Faber, "Homer Collyer, Harlem Recluse, Found Dead at 70," New York Times, 22 March 1947, 1. See also Fred Penzel, "Langley Collyer: The Mystery Hoarder of Harlem" (n.d.), Western Suffolk Psychological Services (WSPS), (accessed 4 June 2011).

2. Randy O. Frost and Rachel C. Gross, "The Hoarding of Possessions," Behaviour Research and Therapy 31, no. 4 (1993): 367-81, quotation on 367. See also "From Dante to DSM-V: A Short History of Hoarding," International OCD Foundation (IOCDF)-Hoarding Center, (accessed 11 June 2011). [End Page 184]

3. Tara Parker-Pope, "A Clutter Too Deep for Mere Bins and Shelves," New York Times, 1 January 2008, F5.

4. Gail Steketee and Randy Frost, "Compulsive Hoarding: Current Status of the Research," Clinical Psychology Review 23, no. 7 (2003): 905-27, quotation on 907.

5. There were a few localized exceptions to this claim. See William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2 (1890; repr., New York: Dover, 1950), on the "mentally deranged" miser whose "hoarding is usually directed to money; but it also includes almost anything besides" (424, 425).

6. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: "The Inferno," "The Purgatorio," and "The Paradiso," trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), 52, line 56.

7. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "hoarding," (accessed 8 January 2010).

8. Penzel, "Langley Collyer."

9. See, for example, Laura C. Hayward and Meredith E. Coles, "Elucidating the Relation of Hoarding to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Impulse Control Disorders," Journal of Pyschopathology and Behavioral Assessment 31, no. 3 (2009): 220-27. For critical examinations of obsessive-compulsive disorders as cultural and historical phenomena, see Lennard J. Davis, Obsession: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Jennifer L. Fleissner, "Obsessional Modernity: The 'Institutionalization of Doubt,'" Critical Inquiry 34, no. 1 (2007): 106-34. For complementary histories of recently diagnosed mental disorders, see Christopher Lane, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); and Emily Martin, Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

10. Quoted in Jane Collingwood, "The Genetics of Compulsive Hoarding" (21 September 2009), Psych Central, (accessed 15 January 2010). See also Sanjaya Saxena et al., "Cerebral Glucose Metabolism in Obsessive-Compulsive Hoarding," American Journal of Psychiatry 161, no. 6 (2004): 1038-48.

11. David Tolin, Randy Frost, Gail Steketee, and Kristin E. Fitch, "Family Burden of Compulsive Hoarding: Results of an Internet Survey," Behaviour Research and Therapy 46, no. 3 (2008): 334-44, quotations on 335.

12. See but two instances in David Greenberg, "Compulsive Hoarding," American Journal of Psychotherapy 41, no. 3 (1987): 409-16; and David Greenberg, Eliezer Witztum, and Amihay Levy, "Hoarding as a Psychiatric Symptom," Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 51, no. 10 (1990): 417-21.

13. Ernest Jones, "Anal-Erotic Character Traits" (1918), in Papers on Psycho-analysis, 5th ed. (London: Baillière, Tindall and Cox, 1950), 413-37, quotation on 431.

14. Ibid.

15. Sigmund Freud, "Character and Anal Eroticism" (1908), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1959), 9:169-75, quotation on 169.

16. Ibid., 172-73.

17. Unless otherwise noted, all citations from Mary Douglas can be found in her Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Routledge Classics series (1966; repr., New York: Routledge, 2002), 44; hereafter cited in the text. [End Page 185]

18. Jani Scandura, Down in the Dumps: Place, Modernity, American Depression (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 165.

19. For two examples, see Franz Lidz, Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders (New York: Bloomsbury, 2003); and the prologue to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 1-15.

20. Mik Awake, "Harlemitis," New York Inquirer, 16 November 2006, (accessed 29 January 2010).

21. For more on these characterizations, see Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 78-82. Necessary counters both past and present to this narrative include James Weldon Johnson, who states that Harlem "is not a slum or a fringe" ("The Making of Harlem," Survey Graphic 6, no. 6 [1925]: 635-39, quotation on 635); and Clare Corbould ("Streets, Sounds, and Identity in Interwar Harlem," Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 [2007]: 859-94).

22. Robert E. Park, "The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project," in The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment, ed. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Robert D. McKenzie (1925; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 47-62, quotation on 54. Exceptions to this urban maladjustment model—there were many—include David Slight, who finds that "changes called disorganization in one generation are often heralded in the next as steps towards a better arrangement of society" ("Disorganization in the Individual and Society," American Journal of Sociology 42, no. 6 [1937]: 840-47, quotation on 844).

23. Mabel A. Elliott and Francis E. Merrill, Social Disorganization (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1934), 8, 25, 589, 592, 596. A small survey of social disorganization proponents in relation to African American urban life in the 1930s and 1940s includes Dan Donson, "The Health of the Negro in New York City," Journal of Educational Sociology 19, no. 2 (1945): 67-75; Robert E. L. Faris, Social Disorganization (New York: Ronald Press, 1948), on high rates of disorganization in "Negro districts" like Harlem (229); Stuart Alfred Queen, Walter Blaine Bodenhafer, and Ernest Bouldin Harper, Social Organization and Disorganization (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1935), on the disorganizing factors of "Negro communities in cities" (243); and Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices (1941; repr., New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992), who finds that living conditions for blacks in urban cities "blights the personalities of our growing children, disorganizes them, blinds them to hope, creates problems whose effects can be traced in the characters of its victims for years afterward" (110). For critiques of these discourses, see Alice O'Connor, Poverty Knowledge:Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); and Roderick A. Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

24. E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States, African American Intellectual Heritage series (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 322.

25. Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto—Negro New York, 1890-1930 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 135.

26. See, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, ed. Isaac Kramnick, trans. Henry Reeve (1835; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), on his claim that "the lower orders which inhabit these cities [Philadelphia and New York] constitute a rabble even more formidable than the populace of European towns" (236). By "rabble," de Tocqueville refers to both "freed blacks" and "a multitude of Europeans who have been driven to the shores of the New World by their misfortunes or their misconduct" (236). For more on specious links between Harlem and disorder during the 1930s and 1940s, see Scandura, Down in the Dumps, 168-73. [End Page 186]

27. William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: A Classic Work in Immigration History, ed. Eli Zaretsky (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 191; hereafter cited in the text.

28. Eli Zaretsky, "Editor's Introduction," in Thomas and Znaniecki, Polish Peasant (see note 27), 4.

29. Quoted in Osofsky, Harlem, 127.

30. Ibid., 105.

31. Elliott and Merrill, Social Disorganization, 596.

32. Scandura, Down in the Dumps, 172.

33. By "quasi-white," I reference the uneven historical identifications of Irish migrants as whites during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a process discussed in Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 43-56.

34. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "condition," (accessed 8 February 2010).

35. Ralph Kramer, "The Conceptual Status of Social Disorganization," American Journal of Sociology 48, no. 4 (1943): 466-74, quotation on 470.

36. Harold Faber, "Police Fail to Find Collyer in House," New York Times, 25 March 1947, 35.

37. Faber, "Homer Collyer, Harlem Recluse," 3.

38. See Thomas W. Kim, "Being Modern: The Circulation of Oriental Objects," American Quarterly 58, no. 2 (2006): 379-406, on the early-twentieth-century infatuation with consumer objects and curios from the Far East, one whose Orientalist "symptoms" he sees in operation today (403).

39. Russell Owen, "Something for O. Henry: Story of the Collyers," New York Times, 30 March 1947, E10.

40. "Langley Collyer Is Dead, Police Say," New York Times, 27 March 1947, 56.

41. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "curio," (accessed 26 February 2010).

42. Patrick Mauriès, Cabinets of Curiosities (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), 111. I borrow my history here from Mauriès (50-55). Further accounts of early modern cabinets of curiosity include Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1992), 78-132; and Russell W. Belk, Collecting in a Consumer Society (London: Routledge, 1995).

43. For more on this form of collecting examples of Americana, see Peter Mason, "From Presentation to Representation: Americana in Europe," Journal of the History of Collections 6, no. 1 (1994): 1-20.

44. Anthony Alan Shelton, "Cabinets of Transgression: Renaissance Collections and the Incorporation of the New World," in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (London: Reaktion, 1994), 177-203, quotation on 199.

45. Ibid., 185.

46. For one example of this line of historical thinking, see Joyce Henri Robinson, "An American Cabinet of Curiosities: Thomas Jefferson's 'Indian Hall' at Monticello," in Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, ed. Leah Dilworth (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 16-41.

47. See Zoe Trodd, "Waste and Wunderkammern: Recycling the American Cabinet of Curiosities," VERB 4, no. 1 (2006): 1-15, on the relationship between wonder cabinets [End Page 187] and world fairs; and Shirley Teresa Wajda, "'And a Little Child Shall Lead Them': American Children's Cabinets of Curiosities," in Dilworth, Acts of Possession (see note 46), 42-65, on updated cabinet of curiosities in 1930s Popular Mechanics magazine.

48. Mason, "From Presentation to Representation," 7.

49. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 219. For more on the queer erotics of collecting, see Michael Camille and Adrian Rifkin, eds., Other Objects of Desire:Collectors and Collecting Queerly (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001); Jonathan Flatley, "Like: Collecting and Collectivity," October 132 (2010): 71-98; and Sara Knox, "The Serial Killer as Collector," in Dilworth, Acts of Possession (see note 46), 286-302.

50. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "curiosa," (accessed 26 February 2010).

51. Faber, "Police Fail," 27.

52. "Collyer Mansion Yields Junk, Cats," New York Times, 26 March 1947, 27.

53. With the term material deviance, I signify on the rich tradition of thinking through the queerness of material cultures that can be found, among many others, in Erica Rand, "What Lube Goes Into," in The Object Reader, ed. Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (New York: Routledge, 2009), 526-29; Erica Rand, The Ellis Island Snow Globe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Renu Bora, "Outing Texture," in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 94-127; Diana Fuss, The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them (New York: Routledge, 2004); Jennifer Terry, "Loving Objects," Trans-Humanities 2, no. 1 (2010): 33-75; and Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

54. Stephen Kellett, Rebecca Greenhalgh, Nigel Beail, and Nicola Ridgway, "Compulsive Hoarding: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis," Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy 38, no. 2 (2010): 141-55, quotation on 150.

55. Scandura, Down in the Dumps, 163.

56. "The Shy Men," Time, 7 April 1947, 28.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid., 29.

59. All citations to Marcia Davenport can be found in My Brother's Keeper (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954); hereafter cited in the text.

60. Jens Jensen, "Collector's Mania," Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 39, no. 4 (1963): 606-18, quotation on 612.

61. Wayne Glowka, Megan Melançon, Danielle C. Wyckoff, and Debra Dent, "Among the New Words," American Speech 79, no. 3 (2004): 306-16, s.v. "Collyer," 307.

62. Nina Bernstein, "So Much Clutter, So Little Room: Looking Inside the Hoarder's Lair," New York Times, 31 December 2003, B1.

63. David F. Tolin, Randy Frost, and Gail Steketee, Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Saving, Acquiring, and Hoarding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 8.

64. Ibid., 29.

65. Ibid., 3. [End Page 188]

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