The A&E television show “Hoarders” has brought the problem of hoarding to the attention of the masses. Hoarding is a mental disorder characterized by the compulsive acquiring, purchasing, searching, and saving of items most people would consider useless, or even garbage. Some people hoard animals, housing sometimes hundreds of animals they are unable to properly care for.
A hoarder is not someone who is a collector or whose home is simply cluttered; hoarding involves amassing possessions to the point where the home is virtually uninhabitable. The hoarder (and anyone else living in the house) may have to sleep on a couch or chair because they don’t have access to their beds. The house may be infested with pests, putting the residents at risk for health issues. Hoarders are generally reclusive and embarrassed at their behavior but experience extreme anxiety when they have to discard something.
While people are more aware about hoarding thanks to the television show, the problem is nothing new. Hoarders have always existed, and some of the more serious cases of hoarding have garnered great media attention. Here are five of the most famous hoarders to hit the headlines.
1. Edmund Trebus
Edmund Trebus was featured in the 1999 television documentary “A Life of Grime.” An eccentric hoarder and Elvis Presley fan who lived in London, Trebus brought his neighbors’ trash into his home and also had bags of rotten vegetables piled in every room. When neighbors complained of the smell, he would tell them to “stick it up your chuffer!” He also accumulated building materials, washing machines, bicycles, newspapers, children’s toys, cameras, and vacuum cleaners. His hoarding wasn’t limited to the inside of his home. His yard was so filled with junk he needed a ladder to get in and out of his house.
2. Langley Collyer
Langley Collyer is the subject of probably one of the saddest and most famous hoarding stories. He lived in a New York City brownstone and took care of his blind and paralyzed brother Homer. The home was filled with 136 tons of debris including human medical specimens preserved in glass jars, gas chandeliers, a rusted bed spring, old newspapers, and thousands of medical and engineering books. Tunnels were made through the junk in the home and were booby trapped. On March 21, 1947 the police came to Collyer home due to an anonymous tip that there was a dead body there. After sifting through rooms of rubbish, the police found the body of Homer, but could not find Langley. It took 18 days of searching through the home to find Langley who had been dead for weeks. Autopsies and a police investigation came to the conclusion that Langley was crawling through one of the tunnels to deliver food to his brother but triggered one of his booby traps causing him to suffocate. Homer didn’t eat for several days and is said to have died from a heart attack, emphysema, and bronchitis. The home was eventually razed and is now a parking lot, but there is a tiny park in Harlem named after the brothers.
3. Bettina Grossman
New York City’s Chelsea Hotel has a long history of housing famous musicians, artists, and writers including Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and Mark Twain. One of its residents was artist Bettina Grossman who moved into the hotel in the 1960s. During her 30+ years at the hotel she had become a recluse and stored hundreds of boxes, floor to ceiling, in her small two room apartment. Most of the boxes were filled with her works of art that were never shown to anyone. Documentary filmmaker Sam Bassett was also a resident of the hotel and discovered the eccentric Grossman sleeping on a lawn chair in the hallway outside of her apartment. Bassett gained her trust and became Grossman’s friend, eventually encouraging her to display and organize her previously hidden artwork, which Grossman agreed to do. Sam Bassett also made her the subject of the documentary film, “Girl With Black Balloons.” Now in her 80s, Bettina Grossman is currently living in a Brooklyn nursing home.
4. The Women of Grey Gardens
The story of Edith (“Little Edie”) Bouvier Beale and her mother Edith Ewing Bouvier proves that hoarding can be a problem for anyone, even the wealthy and well-connected. These two women were relatives of Jackie Onassis. Beale had a privileged upbringing and went to some of the most prestigious private schools in the Northeast. It is said she had proposals from Joe Kennedy, Jr. and that she dated Howard Hughes. In 1952 she went to live with her ill mother at the Grey Gardens house, located in one of the most expensive oceanfront neighborhoods of East Hampton, NY. Her mother, who was divorced from her father and had received no alimony, was living in squalor and poverty. During their years at Grey Gardens they let the once-beautiful house become in such poor condition that they were raided by the Suffolk County Health Department. Inspectors found a five-foot mountain of empty cans and piles of human and animal waste. Cats, raccoons, and possums lived in the home and the entire house was infested with thick clouds of fleas. The mother and daughter were threatened with eviction, but Jacqueline Kennedy donated $32,000 to clean and fix the house. The story of the two women is featured in the documentary, “Grey Gardens.”
5. Ida Mayfield Wood
Like Bettina Grossman, Ida Mayfield Wood was a New York City recluse who lived in a hotel. And like the women of Grey Gardens, she ran in high society circles for a time. She was married to Daily News publisher and congressman Benjamin Wood who was an avid gambler. After her husband died, she became very frugal with money. She moved into the Herald Square Hotel with her daughter and sister, and became a recluse. When her daughter and sister passed away, Wood was discovered to be living in terrible conditions. There were piles of old newspapers, balls of used string, old wrapping paper, as well as over $750,000 stashed throughout the house in bizarre places like shoe boxes, pots, and pans. It is even said that a Cracker Jack box held a diamond necklace.