- Collyer Curiosa:A Brief History of Hoarding
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...