No matter how many episodes of the various hoarding shows they air, it’s still tough to believe that anyone really lives that way. And yet there are thousands of people in America nearly trapped inside homes that are overflowing with papers, clothing, collectibles and plain old trash. It’s disturbing, sad and frightening. And when things get really out of control, the end result is devastating. People literally die in these homes, crushed or hidden beneath their stuff and sometimes found only weeks later when the stench of their decomposing bodies alerts authorities that something horrifying has happened. Such was the case with…
10. Deforrest “Skip” Bynum Jr.
Skip Bynum was a Texas man who died in his hoard in March 2014. His neighbors had their suspicions that he was a hoarder for quite some time — it was hard to miss the fact that the only thing to see when looking into his windows was a ceiling-tall pile of random junk. The outside of the house was kept up okay (minus some complaints about weeds that he’d dealt with in a timely manner), and he wasn’t bothering anybody so no one thought there was a reason to intervene.
Though the neighbors didn’t know a whole lot about him, their general consensus was that he seemed like a nice guy. He had a variety of eclectic interests that kept him busy, including a love for model trains and a fascination with ham radio. He didn’t leave the house a lot but he wasn’t a recluse either, regularly attending meetings with other model train enthusiasts as well as going to regular church services and visiting his friends.
Those friends reported him missing to authorities in mid-March. They hadn’t seen or heard from him in awhile and they knew that he’d been feeling ill. Rescue workers pushed their way into the home past piles and piles of things. The 1372 square foot house was completely cluttered with debris. They couldn’t even get into some rooms through the doors; they had to cut holes in the roof to get in through the attic. Authorities looked around the house as much as they could that first day, but there was no sign of Bynum. Even rescue dogs were no help finding him in the home. It wasn’t until five days later that the man’s dead body was found amongst his things. His little Chihuahua, a dog that none of the neighbors even knew he had, was found alive after several days of cleaning.
Bynum was an only child with no surviving family members. He’d drafted a will many years ago but never signed it, so the big question after his death was what should happen to his overflowing estate. That’s a lot of stuff that needs a responsible owner.
9. The Collyer Brothers
Homer and Langley Collyer are among the most famous hoarders of all time. The brothers lived together in their home for about five decades, during which the managed to hoard a whopping 130 tons of random stuff. Although it’s unlikely that anyone would ever want it they were compulsive about protecting it, creating elaborate booby traps consisting primarily of 100-pound newspaper bundles designed to protect the rest of their things.
Their lives went on that way until 1942, when the disgusting smell of their rotting bodies alerted locals to the fact that they had died inside the hoard. Authorities had to break both doors and windows to get into the home. A policeman crawled around for two hours inside of the mess before finally coming across Homer’s dead body. Langley’s body was located just ten feet away, yet it took another three weeks for searchers to find it amidst all their stuff. Apparently Langley had been trying to bring food over to Homer when one of his booby traps went off and he was crushed under his newspaper collection. Homer was so arthritic that he couldn’t get up to save his brother or even himself; he died of starvation while his brother’s body rotted near him.
8. Billie Jean James
In 2010, Bill James reported his wife Billie Jean missing. Authorities searched for her to no avail. They came to her house multiple times with search dogs to find out if she was somewhere inside, and even flew helicopters with infrared technology over the home, but found nothing.
Four months passed and Bill had no idea where his wife could have gone. Then one day he saw her feet popping out from underneath a pile of stuff that rose all the way to the ceiling. It’s impossible to imagine that he was living with that smell and didn’t realize that she was dead in the home, but reports indicate that he thought it was the normal repulsive smell of the home, which had been disgusting for a long time due to the odors of animals, rotting food, decomposing trash and various other things that nobody should be living with.
Like many hoarders, Billie Jean James was an eclectic but interesting woman. She was an environmentalist who moved to the Las Vegas area because she was in love with the desert. She was a film buff who went to the movies almost every day. She was a feminist who taught English to Saudi women and also taught poetry workshops and English classes. But when her only son died in a tragic car accident she began to collect things obsessively. Although she tried to keep her clutter organized, it eventually took over the home.
7. Gladys Bergmeier and Gladys Stamsbury
How long can a dead body be kept undiscovered by the outside world? In this case, at least 20 years. Gladys Bergmeier kept her dead mother’s remains inside of her home — they were only discovered after Bergmeier herself died in the building.
Bergmeier was 75 years old when she was found dead inside of her Missouri home. She had lived there for 35 years, and she had been a recluse in the home since her husband’s death in the late 1980s. The home was packed to the brim with newspapers, plastic bags and other trash. It was a horrifying ordeal for her relatives who had to come clean out the space after Bergmeier died.
But the trash was just the tip of the iceberg. Her mother, Gladys Stamsbury, had been missing for twenty years. Relatives had no idea what happened to her until they were cleaning out Bergmeier’s home and found the decayed body between a wall and a bed, wrapped in fabric and trash bags and mummified by time. It turns out that Gladys the elder had come to live with her daughter a few years after her daughter’s husband had passed away. They’d stayed away from other relatives and eventually people just stopped asking questions about where the mother had gone. Well, she hadn’t gone anywhere.
6. Gaye Miville
Gaye Miville and her husband Leonard were responsible for nearly 200 animals that they kept hoarded inside of their home. Shockingly, nobody in the neighborhood seemed to know that the place was packed with skinks, snakes, birds, cats and dogs, at least until authorities had to come into the home after Gaye died inside of the mess.
People did have their suspicions, because you can’t hide the kind of smell produced by 200 animals stuck in cages and crates from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. There was animal feces all over the floor to the point where it was difficult to breathe. But when neighbors had previously reported their suspicions, the Mivilles insisted to authorities that they only had three dogs, three cats and one bird. The authorities never went into the home because they said that the outside of the house — which included blacked out windows — didn’t look bad enough to warrant a search.
When Gaye died of what appeared to be natural causes, emergency crews were called and the animals were all removed from the home. Some had to be put down because they were so ill, while the others were taken care of and found new homes. Leonard had to move out of the house but didn’t face any criminal charges associated with the animal hoarding — losing his wife and 200 pets is enough punishment.
5. Margareta Scheibe
In early 2012, Bill Scheibe Jr. got a concerned call from a cousin who said that Scheibe’s 72 year old mother, Margareta, hadn’t been seen or head from in nearly a month. Margareta regularly attended church services and wouldn’t miss church unless something was terribly wrong.
Scheibe also knew that his mother was a hoarder, but he didn’t really know the extent of her problem because it had been two decades since he had been inside her Illinois home. Her hoarding had got out of control after Scheibe’s father passed away sixteen years ago. When he got to the house to check on her, Scheibe saw that there was so much trash piled up to the ceiling that it was literally beginning to pop through the windows.
He tried to get into the home, but there were too many items blocking the doors. The smell of decomposition emanating from the basement had him fearing the worst. Others in the neighborhood had noticed the smell, but they had reported smells before and nothing had been done to get the home’s problems under control. Scheibe had received orders in the past to clean up her yard, which she did, and that was that.
Scheibe called in authorities to find his mother in the hoard. They spent three hours sifting through debris in search of her body but found nothing. They talked to Bill’s brother, who living in the home with her, and got no answers. Three days later they returned and questioned him again; he admitted that she might be dead downstairs. It took several days of cleaning to get to her body, which was buried in the basement under at least a foot of trash.
4. Maria Elena Cimino
Can you imagine what it must be like to be one of the people who has to sift through hazardous trash to find a decomposing dead body? Just try to picture it for a moment. Now add a little bit more to that picture — 31 cats and a Phoenix area home with temperatures well over 100 degrees. That was the situation facing the folks who had to search for the body of Maria Elena Cimino, who died in her hoard in 2012. A neighbor described the conditions inside the house as “very bad,” with “feces all over the house,” although both her and another neighbor described Cimino as a nice woman, a reputation that had prevented the police from being phoned earlier. While two of the cats were dead, and others severally ill, the animals were rescued. Cimino herself had apparently died of natural causes.
3. Mrs. Martin
It’s bad enough to be the person paid to sift through that hoard, but it’s got to be even more devastating to be the family member left behind to cope with the mess after a loved one has died in their cluttered conditions. That was the case for Greg Martin, who spent more than eight months trying to clean out his mother’s California home after she died in 2011.
The floor of the house was completely hidden beneath about eighteen inches of magazines, papers, books and clothes. Martin had to walk atop those things against piles of other stuff stacked six feet high. It’s hard to imagine his 83-year-old mother making her way through that mess. She didn’t really go far, as she basically lived inside of a little pocket of space near the front door. That’s where she was found dead.
2. James Shields
84 year old James Shields was wheelchair bound and living mostly on the second floor of his Ohio home. He had purchased a space heater to try to keep warm in his cluttered space. A space heater combined with a massive paper-rich hoard produced a fire hazard, and soon a fire began.
The fire rapidly got worse. Items that burn easily, like papers and furniture, were stacked all the way to the ceiling. Firefighters were called and they tried to rescue the man from the blaze, but Shields was stuck upstairs and there was no way to get through the piles of stuff to reach the stairway. He perished before firefighters could reach him.
1. Charles E. Nightingale
Nightingale succumbed to the same fate as Shields, dying in a fire in his home. He was making his way to the door to try to get out, but his piles of stuff simply made it too difficult — it’s not easy for a 68-year-old man to navigate a maze of possessions. The firefighters who arrived to fight the blaze actually had to cut a new entry into the building to get inside. Nightingale was found in the doorway, where he had collapsed from smoke inhalation and died just before getting outside into the fresh air. Like others on our list, Nightingale had eclectic hobbies — he was an amateur artist and spent hours working on a rock garden in his yard. He had also served as a marine, and decades ago he was badly injured in a helicopter crash during training that killed 22 other men.