January 23, 2012

The Hoarding Collyer Brothers

written by Rosa Morgan

"Langley? Brother, what happened? Are you alright?" The plaintive cry came from Homer, who sat entombed in the pitch black two by two foot space he used for sleeping, eating, and using the bathroom. Narrow pathways through the junk filled, three-story Harlem brownstone led to him, but he was blind and paralyzed, and it was years since he'd last navigated them. And even if he managed the treacherous way, he didn't know where his brother, Langley, had set up the booby-traps. Again he called out, "Langley, can you hear me? Did you fall?"

Desperate hours passed before sixty-six-year-old Homer, heard a faint confirmation. A mere ten feet away, beneath a stack of weighted suitcases and newspapers reaching floor to ceiling, lay the broken and dying Langley. He moaned, "I can't move my legs." The immediate relief Homer had felt upon hearing the familiar voice, turned to horror. He relied on his younger brother for everything. "Langley, I warned you we'd fall prey to one of those damn traps well before any thief would?"
Realizing their hopeless situation, tears filled the eyes of gruff old Langley. Even though the two misers could have easily afforded it, they'd let their utilities go unpaid and eventually turned off. Candles and kerosene replaced electricity, water was hauled from a nearby park, and the phone that could now possibly save their lives, had long been disconnected. "I'm sorry," Langley said, groping for the flashlight, just beyond his reach.

Even if Homer wasn't blind, and there was a source of light, he couldn't have seen his brother lying on the floor. Between them was a piano, one of fourteen in the house, mountains of books and junk, and parts of a Model T Ford that Langley had adapted to generate electricity. Homer called in the direction of the labored breathing. "You could've left me to fend for myself like father did, but instead you took care of me; kept every paper printed for the past twenty years, so when I got my sight back, I could read them. You're an inventive genius, and would've made a success of your life if I hadn't been an albatross around your neck. That means a lot to me."

In those few hours left to share, the devoted brothers reminisced. Langley recounted, "Do you remember mother's sweet voice; she was an opera singer who could have had a brilliant career." Homer opined, "The neighborhood went down hill after the war. Everyone said we were off our rockers; supposedly because Mother and Father were cousins, but honestly "I didn't give a fig what people said about us, as long as they left us alone."

Langley said with pride, "Found some salami in the butcher's garbage this morning. It's a travesty how people throw away perfectly good food." Homer mused, "One man's junk is another man's treasure. Did you get my oranges?" With his strength fading, Langley answered, "Of course; a hundred a week will reinvigorate your vision." Homer said optimistically, "I'd like to organize our stuff when I can see again; put everything into alphabetical categories. What do you think?" Hearing no answer, Homer wailed into the silent darkness. Where life could not part them, death had succeeded.

The stench of death brought the police and six hundred curious onlookers to the residence of the eccentric Collyer brothers. With doors locked, the emergency squad broke into a second story window, and began throwing out garbage in order to make their way through. After two hours they found Homer dead of malnutrition, dehydration, and cardiac arrest. Unaware Langley was in the house, a nine state manhunt was undertaken. Eighteen days later they found the crushed body of Langley in the residence

130 tons of garbage were removed from the Collyer brownstone with salvageable items fetching less than $2,000 at auction; their cumulative estate was valued at $91,000. The chair in which Homer died was exhibited at Hubert's Dime Museum.
The house, eventually deemed a fire hazard, was razed and became a park named for the brothers.
Gentle Reader, The Collyer brothers were born in the Victorian era, while their death was after that glorious period, however, I was compelled to write about them, considering their remarkable lives, and my fascination with hoarding.

January 9, 2012

Whaling Disaster of 1871

written by Rosa Morgan

My name is Frances Pickwick of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and like my father and his before him, whaling is in my blood. I teethed on sailor's knots, and rounded the Horn before I was knee-high, but I promised my mother, I'd not sail to Arctic waters, until I had enough hair to shave.

It was June of 1871 when,
I, at seventeen, set sail for the Bering Strait. When I stood on the Bark Massachusetts' deck, and said fare-the-well shoreward, I confess, my heart's desire was conflicted, for a sweet lass had given me my first kiss, and I longed for another.

There was an unending demand for the whales I hunted; their oil illuminated lamps and lubricated machinery, their flesh was sold as meat, and their baleen made everything from corset stays to buggy whips, but it was the magnificent beasts themselves, that captured my imagination.

Bowhead whale were the prey on this particular voyage, and though some reached a span of seventy feet, and their lower jaw could break through a formidable depth of ice, they were in truth, gentle giants. I recall the first time my captain, West Mitchell, sent me out in a shallop to harpoon them. I espied a small herd of these dark-skinnned creatures: several male playfully jostling with two females. They were at their leisure; I imagine singing one of their haunting songs to one another, until they noticed our undue attentions. It was then they dove down and hid beneath the great sheets of ice a good forty minutes. When they finally breached the surface, there was violent tale slapping, and much excitement as we harpooned and lanced them to death.

By August we'd passed as far as Point Belcher, and with forty ships gathered in the area, there was a multitude of hands put to work. Like a well-oiled machine, we slayed the beasts, tethered them to the ship's stern, cut up and boiled their blubber, and then stored it in casks for the voyage home.

So great was the quantity of our prey and so successful our efforts, that the early winter winds took us completely by surprise. Hopelessly trapped, I witnessed placidly drifting ice plates turn to arctic monsters who hungrily ate our hulls with their jagged edged teeth. Only seven vessels escaped in tact, leaving a thousand or more of us sailors adrift in small whalers and crossing seventy miles of open sea. Though the loss financially was enough to sink many a whaling company, blessedly, not a soul was lost, and when I tell this tale to my grandchildren sitting on my knee, I cannot help but laugh that those beautiful whales had surely beat us that day.
(The bowhead's population was severely reduced by whaling, but has significantly rebounded by a 1966 moratorium. The population is estimated to be over 24,900 worldwide, down from an estimated 50,000 before whaling.)