Last month there was a sensational story in all the New York papers, and probably reprinted all over the country, about two brothers, Langley and Homer Cohyer, who were misers and accumulators and who met with a horrible end. ON receipt of a telephone call, police broke into a house on upper Fifth Avenue in the Harlem section, a four story house which in this housing shortage could have been converted into homes for four families. They found Homer, who had been blind and helpless, dead from starvation. His brother had disappeared. The house was so filled with junk that Langley had had to tunnel his way through to go in and out of the house to make their few purchases. In fear of intrusion, he made booby traps with hundreds of pounds of old iron ready to fall on whoever threatened their privacy. One of these booby traps caught Langley who smothered to death within a few feet of his blind brother, who on account of the junk, could not reach either his brother or the window to call for help.
He slowly starved to death, while listening to the rats feeding on the corpse of Langley a few feet away.
This story seems to me, a vision of hell, a very literal and appalling sample of the hell that awaits the acquisitive, the greedy, the accumulators, the seekers after markets, wealth, power, prestige, exclusiveness, empire, dominion, of everything opposed to the common good. Here were two old men who epitomized to the nth degree suspicion and hatred of their fellows, and a desire to gather together to themselves everything they could lay their hands on. “They were worth $100,000” the newspapers reported. What a strange use of words! They spent little. Among the things they collected were six grand pianos, dismantled cars, babies’ cribs.
Peter, on the other hand, has accumulated nothing in his life. He has nothing but the suit on his back, the shoes on his feet. He has lived on Bowerys and Skid Roads all his life, not believing that his dignity needed to be maintained by residence at a decent address, or by stopping at a good hotel. To reach one’s fellows by the practice of the works of mercy, AT A PERSONAL SACRIFICE — this meant embracing voluntary poverty. Voluntary poverty as a means to an end, to publish a paper, to put out leaflets, to live on the land, to sever one’s fellows. He has lived these ideas.
By Dorothy Day, “A Letter to Our Readers at the Beginning of our Fifteenth Year” The Catholic Worker (May 1947): 1-3), found in American Catholic Religious Thought: The Shaping of a Theological and Social Tradition, edited by Patrick Carey, 414-415.