The fascinating story of the Collyer Brothers, the ‘Hermits of Harlem, is recounted in an article the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
The two brothers became famous owing to them living in a chaotic home in New York City, although both met a tragic end as a result of their accumulation of junk:
Most famously, over decades they had filled the huge brownstone with possessions, newspapers, and just plain junk. After their deaths in 1947, over 130 tons of material was removed. There was so little of value that the few auctioned items fetched only $1,800.
So packed was the home of Homer (aged 64 years at death) and Langley (aged 61) Collyer that the interior was a maze of tunnels, many booby trapped to satisfy Langley’s fear of intrusion. Langley, a failed concert pianist and Columbia engineering graduate, would go out at night dragging a carton by a rope, collecting things. Homer, a lawyer, blind and crippled by arthritis, was entirely dependent on his brother. In the end, Langley was crushed to death by debris triggered by one of his booby traps, leaving Homer to starve to death. Running the story as page-one news for weeks, the media fueled a frenzy of interest after Homer’s body was found and a search for Langley revealed that he was buried [under junk] 10 feet from where Homer had died.
At the time the brothers were considered eccentric but not unusual enough to warrant the attention of a psychiatrist.
The article goes on to discuss who their behaviour might be understood by modern psychiatry, which would likely diagnose it as ‘compulsive hoarding‘, usually thought to be a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD.
However, it the piece also a wide-ranging discussion on what different forms hoarding can take and how it is portrayed by the media.
Don’t forget to check out the Wikipedia entry on the brothers that has many more details and also a list of other famous hoarders at the bottom of page.