Jeff Roth’s Archival Pick: The Collyer Brothers

That weird tool in InDesign? That one you never use? Here’s the course that will tell you why it’s important.


This is another in mini-series of archival selections from Jeff Roth, a remarkable archivist, who has not only helped with some of my projects but runs the New York Times morgue, where folders filled with clips and photographs are buried. I’ve asked him to chose five of this favorite images (this is the thirda and tell us why. Today: The legendary urban eccentrics, the Collyer Brothers . . .

The Collyer Brothers“A life in our clipping cards is summed up simply. 699994 – Koko, Gorilla, 855935-  Pierre Laval, Ex-Premier of France, Executed Oct. 15, 1945, 808946 – Allan Franklin Arbus engaged to Diane Nemerov. “The Collyer Brothers“Brothers Homer and Langley Collyer have near identical cards, “Harlem Recluse, 1947.” As New York City history goes, the once well-to-do aged brothers hoard junk and treasure into their family townhouse. Langley dies under his booby-trapped piles of trash. Days later, blind, enfeebled, Homer dies of starvation without Langley to get his food. The tale enters into American slang. ‘Don’t be one of them Collyer Brothers!’ Even the great author, E.L. Doctorow pens a novel about the two, ‘Homer and Langley.'”

“But when he was doing his research finding every article on the famed gentle men, he never saw this one. ‘Rich Brothers Live as Recluses In a Shabby House in Harlem.’ The clipping notes, ‘Killed 1st edition 8/12/38.’ The only edition of the Times saved on microfilm is the ‘Late Edition.’ That’s what’s on-line. Neither the Library of Congress nor the New York Public Library saved ‘Early Editions.’  We did. The first ‘official’ Collyer story runs April 5 1939. But clearly one ran eight months prior. (I did see in their Wiki page a reference to a Times 1938 story, but it’s different and there is no link because again there are no first edition scans). And there lies the tale of what is hidden and what’s the record. Somewhere in their Valhalla of Junque, the brothers approve.”

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