Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Collyer Brothers, Disposophobia, and excessive hoarding

I've always been interested in the phenomenon of disposophobia, or "excessive hoarding". Long thought to be type of obsessive compulsive disorder, it now appears more likely that it's a separate disorder. One the causes appears to be damage to the part of the brain associated with decision making.

I collected records for many years, and still do in a much more limited way. I never got anywhere close to the excesses I'm talking about here, but I always had more then I could ever listen to.I sold off a couple storage lockers full of records when I moved last year. Many, if not all of them would have sat there for many years, without being listened to.

Hoarding is often associated with isolation and extreme eccentricity, and can be tragic. We have all heard stories of people who have kept large numbers of animals in deplorable conditions.

The most extreme case of hoarding what basically is junk, is the famous case of the Collyer Brothers. They lived in Manhattan in isolation, extreme filth and in a horde of junk that was estimated at 100 tons at the time of their deaths.The disorder disposophobia - the fear of throwing things away - is often referred to as "Collyer Brothers syndrome"

Homer (1881-1947) and Langley (1886-1947) Collyer were the sons of an eccentric New York gynecologist, Herman Collyer, and an opera singer, Susie Gage Frost. They were well educated but never worked regular jobs. Dr, Collyer left his family in 1919, and Susie Collier died in 1929. The brothers remained in the old family home in Harlem,,and increasingly withdrew from the world. Their home was frequently the target of burglars who falsely thought the house was filled with valuables. Langley then boarded up the windows, and set a series of booby traps throughout the house.

Homer went blind in the early 1930's and Langley took care of him, wandering the city searching for food. He also brought piles of junk home with him. Langley once claimed that he was saving the mountains of newspapers stored in the house so that Herman could read them when he regained his sight.

None of the bills owed by the Collyer's were ever paid, and this led to a shutoff of all utilities. Eventually the Bowery Savings Bank, which owned the mortgage on the house began foreclosure proceedings, In 1942 police tried to evict them, following Langley's refusal to allow a cleanup crew sent by the bank into the house. The police could not get past all the junk piled next to the front door. The crisis ended when Langley then wrote a check paying off the entire mortgage.

On March 21, 1947,an anonymous call stating that someone had died in the Collyer house led to the police entering the house through a second floor window,as it was impossible to get in through the first floor due to the piles of junk. A strong stench permeated the house. They found Homer's body, He had been dead only a few hours. Speculation mounted as to the whereabouts of Langley An extensive search for Langley ended when his body was discovered in the house,. It turned out that Langley had died only feet away from Homer. . He had been the victim of one of his own booby traps. Homer had starved to death as a result of Langley not being able to procure food for him.

The hundreds of tons of junk removed form the house included, in addition to massive amounts of books and newspapers, Many bizarre items, including the chassis of a Model T Ford, fourteen pianos, and mounds of trash. The chair Homer died in became a morbid collectors item.

Obsessive hoarding is different from collecting in several ways, most notably that the objects accumulated have little or no intrinsic value. Objects are accumulated with the sense they might be used or become useful someday to one's self or others, no matter how illogical that may be (i.e. Langley holding on to years of newspapers so that someday Homer could read them when he regained his sight). Objects are seen as providing a sense of security, or as a substitute for friends.

Those suffering from disposophobia are often isolated from others. This isolation often helps trigger the hoarding process, and it's perpetuated as the hoarding becomes increasingly obsessive, and living quarters become increasingly filled with possessions

Treatment for disposophobia often involves cognitive-behavioral therapy. Anti-depressant drugs used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder are generally not effective.

Here are some links:

The Wikipedia article on the Collyer brothers:

An interesting, detailed article on the Collyer Brothers and compulsive hoarding in general:

An article by Franz Lidz, author of a book about the Collyer Brothers, "Ghosty Men........"

The psychology of hoarding:

Some photos:

Langley Collier

Part of the Collyer house:

Another photo of the Collyer house:

The chair that Homer Collyer died in:


  1. the chair may just be old, but it almost looks clawed, as though it was another result of an obsessive nature. The entire story is so tragic. The almost sweet caring of saving the newspapers for Homer when he regained his sight is juxtaposed with the negligence of Langley leading to his brother's starvation. Strange, disturbing, sad.

  2. You make a very good point about the chair. As you say, the story is strange, disturbing and sad. Had Langley not suffered with his extreme obsessive disorder, his education, intelligence, and the not insignifcant resources the Collyers had, would have enabled him to take care of Homer as he no doubt would have wished to.

  3. I can't say I have ever seen such a sight as shown.Agreed that is very sad and strange.
    Thanks Bob for sharing !

  4. I think the most saddening point in this story is the unability of making decisions you mention in the 1st paragraph. This clearly is a "déjà-vu" impression AFAIAC, with one of our neighbours back in the 70's.
    Thanks for the post anyway.