Podcast Episode 193: The Collyer Brothers

the collyer brothers' harlem townhouse

In the 1930s, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer withdrew from society and began to fill their Manhattan brownstone with newspapers, furniture, musical instruments, and assorted junk. By 1947, when Homer died, the house was crammed with 140 tons of rubbish, and Langley had gone missing. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the strange, sad story of the Hermits of Harlem.

We’ll also buy a bit of Finland and puzzle over a banker’s misfortune.


When New Amsterdam governor Wilhelm Kieft tried to outlaw smoking in the 1630s, his citizens literally puffed him into submission.

Residents of the Canary island La Gomera communicate over long distances using a unique whistled language.

Sources for our feature on the Collyer brothers:

Franz Lidz, Ghosty Men, 2003.

Franz Lidz, “The Paper Chase,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2003.

William Bryk, “The Collyer Brothers,” New York Sun, April 13, 2005.

Michael Kernan, “The Collyer Saga And How It Grew; Recalling the Men Who Turned Trash Into Legend,” Washington Post, February 8, 1983, B1.

“Strange Case of the Collyer Brothers,” Life, April 7, 1947.

Robert M. Jarvis, “The Curious Legal Career of Homer L. Collyer,” Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce 38:4 (October 2007), 571-582.

Keith P. Ronan, “Navigating the Goat Paths: Compulsive Hoarding, or Collyer Brothers Syndrome, and the Legal Reality of Clutter,” Rutgers Law Review 64:1 (Fall 2011), 235-266.

Kenneth J. Weiss, “Hoarding, Hermitage, and the Law: Why We Love the Collyer Brothers,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 38:2 (June 2010), 251-257.

Kenneth J. Weiss and Aneela Khan, “Hoarding, Housing, and DSM-5,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 43:4 (December 2015), 492-498.

Scott Herring, “Collyer Curiosa: A Brief History of Hoarding,” Criticism 53:2 (Spring 2011), 159-188.

Patrick W. Moran, “The Collyer Brothers and the Fictional Lives of Hoarders,” Modern Fiction Studies 62:2 (Summer 2016), 272-I.

Jackie McAllister, “The Collyer Brothers,” Grand Street 14:2 (Fall 1995), 201.

Joyce Carol Oates, “Love and Squalor,” New Yorker, Sept. 7, 2009.

“Collyer Mansion Keeps Its Secrets,” New York Times, Sept. 30, 1942.

Harold Faber, “Homer Collyer, Harlem Recluse, Found Dead at 70,” New York Times, March 22, 1947.

“Thousands Gape at Collyer House,” New York Times, March 24, 1947.

Harold Faber, “Police Fail to Find Collyer in House,” New York Times, March 25, 1947.

“The Collyer Mystery,” New York Times, March 26, 1947.

“Collyer Mansion Yields Junk, Cats,” New York Times, March 26, 1947.

“Langley Collyer Is Dead, Police Say,” New York Times, March 27, 1947.

Russell Owen, “Some for O. Henry: Story of the Collyers,” New York Times, March 30, 1947.

“3D Search Starts at Collyer House,” New York Times, April 1, 1947.

“53 Attend Burial of Homer Collyer,” New York Times, April 2, 1947.

“More Secrets Taken From Collyer Home,” New York Times, April 4, 1947.

Harold Faber, “Body of Collyer Is Found Near Where Brother Died,” New York Times, April 9, 1947.

“Langley Collier Dead Near Month,” New York Times, April 10, 1947.

“200 Bid Spiritedly for Collyer Items,” New York Times, June 11, 1947.

“Collyer Home ‘Unsafe,'” New York Times, June 26, 1947.

“Collyer Brothers Park,” Atlas Obscura (accessed March 4, 2018).

Andy Newman, “Origin Aside, ‘Collyers’ Mansion’ Is Code for Firefighter Nightmare,” New York Times, July 5, 2006, B1.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Category:Drugs With Unknown Mechanisms of Action” (accessed March 16, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Theories of General Anaesthetic Action” (accessed March 16, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Paracetamol” (accessed March 16, 2018).

Tanya Lewis, “Mystery Mechanisms,” The Scientist, July 29, 2016.

Bruce Schneier, “Harassment by Package Delivery,” Schneier on Security, Feb. 22, 2018.

Sean P. Murphy, “‘I Just Want It To Stop’: Women Get Sex Toys In Packages They Didn’t Order,” Boston Globe, Feb. 20, 2018.

Sean P. Murphy, “This Couple Keeps Getting Mystery Packages From Amazon They Didn’t Order,” Boston Globe, Feb. 6, 2018.

“Bow Tie – Every Buyer Gets 100 Square Feet of Scandinavian Forest – Hand Made in Finland from Finnish Curly Birch – By Woodinavia,” Amazon UK (accessed March 16, 2018).


This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!