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).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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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!

A Quick Walk

The world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade starts at 11 a.m. today in the Village of Carmangay in Alberta. It should be over by 11:02.

Mayor Kym Nichols told the Calgary Eyeopener, “About 32 years ago, the owner of the hotel, who was Irish, came over to the village office with his shillelagh stick on St. Paddy’s Day and said to the mayor at the time, ‘Why don’t you come across and have a beer with me for St. Patrick’s Day?’ And that started it.”

The Carmangay parade covers less than 100 meters, but Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas holds a 29-meter parade that starts at 7:30 tonight. Presumably there are also quantum parades that are too short to measure.

(Thanks, Dan.)

Road Tunes

Near the village of Katashina in Japan’s Gunma Prefecture, workers have cut 2,559 grooves into a 175-meter stretch of roadway so that motorists hear the tune “Memories of Summer”:

Japan has now built 30 such “melody roads,” and they’re proliferating. The Singing Road in Anyang, South Korea, plays “Mary Had a Little Lamb”:

And the Civic Musical Road in Lancaster, California, plays the William Tell Overture:

A commenter on the last video wrote, “If you drive it in reverse it says Paul is dead.”

Total Recall

Actress Marilu Henner has hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory, a rare condition that permits her to recall nearly every day of her life in almost perfect detail. She’s one of only six cases that have been confirmed in peer-reviewed articles.

“It’s like putting in a DVD and it cues up to a certain place,” she told CBS. “I’m there again. So, I’m looking out from my eyes and seeing things visually as I would have that day.”

Her earliest memory is of her own baptism. “My godmother was a nun, and so she’d talk about my baptism all the time,” she said. “Even as a tiny child, I could recall that event. I know people don’t believe me, but it’s really true.”

The Burger Savant

Phyllis Brienza, a waitress at Manhattan’s Bun & Burger since the day it opened on Oct. 26, 1970, became famous for a unique gift — she had “such an extraordinary memory for the niceties of appetite that regular clients do not have to speak their wishes aloud,” reported Israel Shenker in the New York Times in 1975.

She recognized a customer in a Nehru jacket as “medium with half a bun and French.” A man in a raincoat was a “well,” a well-done hamburger.

“If you order it once one way, that’ll stick in my mind,” she said. “When someone new comes in, I think to myself, ‘That’s a medium,’ or ‘that’s a rare.’ Sometimes they have this serious look and I think, ‘That must be a well.’ Usually I’m right.”

In 1974 she received a Christmas card from a customer whom she remembered at once. It was signed “Medium rare, pressed.”

Eight Lives


In September 1914, a crater wall collapsed on the marine volcano Whakaari, east of New Zealand.

The resulting mudflow overwhelmed 10 sulphur miners.

Three weeks later, when a resupply ship landed on the island, it found Peter the Great, a camp cat, hungry but uninjured.

The bodies of the 10 men and the other camp cats were never found.


A tromboon, above, is a trombone played with the reed and bocal of a bassoon.

A saxobone, below, is a trombone played with the mouthpiece of a saxophone.

If you could play a bassoon with a saxophone mouthpiece I suppose it would be called a saxoboon, but I don’t think that’s even technically possible.

The Jindo Sea Parting

Every year hundreds of thousands of people gather on Jindo Island at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula to watch the sea part, revealing a 1.8-mile causeway that permits them to walk to the nearby island of Modo, where they dig for clams.

Legend tells that Yongwang, the ocean god, split the sea to permit an old woman to rejoin her family. But National Geographic explains that the truth lies in tidal harmonics.

Podcast Episode 188: The Bat Bomb


During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We’ll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.

See full show notes …