Both born today: Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese Twins” (1811-1874).
Their professional name belies this origin; they were from a region close to Bangkok in what is now known as Thailand. Ironically, they were not ethnically Thai. Their father was Chinese; their mother was half Chinese, half Malaysian. In 1829, they were discovered by a Scottish merchant, who signed them to a world tour. They performed for audiences for close to a decade before becoming exhausted and resolving to live a sedate, bucolic life.
The pair purchased a plantation in North Carolina, including 33 slaves to work it, and married two local sisters named Yates, and turned out close to two dozen children among them. At first the two couples slept in the same oversized bed in the same house. Over time, the two sisters couldn’t stand each other any more and two separate households were set up, with the brothers taking turns at each house, splitting the week down the middle.
By 1860, their older sons were ready for college, so the brothers decided to go back into show business to generate some revenue. This is when their famous association with P.T. Barnum began and it is through his promotional efforts and advertising genius that the pair became the well known cultural phenomenon that they remain to this day.
Yet this period in the museums and on the circuits was to be brief. Note the timing! The Civil War broke out and their home was in North Carolina. Each had a son who fought for the confederacy. Naturally they lost everything in the war, which was not incidentally a good thing for their 33 slaves.
After the war they went back on the circuits and enjoyed a second burst of fame, including a newly renewed association with Barnum. In 1869, Mark Twain wrote a humorous story inspired by them “The Personal Habits of the Siamese Twins”. Unfortunately, Chang was a dissipated drunk, making life difficult for Eng, who was perfectly healthy and normal. In 1870, Chang suffered a stroke, making it necessary for Eng to drag him around from place to place. The touring stopped. Four years later Chang died in his sleep. Eng awakened to discover that he only had a short while to live. He lived in terror for four hours, still attached to his deceased brother. But it turns out they were immortal. To this day, many people refer to conjoined siblings as “Siamese Twins”.
But they also achieved something like corporeal immortality! Portions of them are still on view! The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia not only has a plaster cast of the brothers, but also, their actual conjoined livers! I have seen them with my own eyes! Gaze, gaze! Are they not hypnotic?
Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, were inducted into Coney Island USA’s Sideshow Hall of Fame in 2011.
To my astonishment, there are something like a dozen books about Chang and Eng out there, and countless more articles, monographs, etc. If you haven’t sufficient time or obsession to read them all, might we recommend Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture by Cynthia Wu, a scholarly tome that slices its complex topic up and examines it from a wide variety of angles: social, cultural, philosophical, economic, and by race, class, and gender, drawing from a wide variety of primary sources. Get it here.
And to find out more about the history of American show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.