Siamese twins come to America: Aug. 16, 1829

Two 17-year-old twins, Chang and Eng, arrive in Boston after traveling by boat from their home in Thailand, then known as Siam.  They are connected by a band of cartilage at the base of their chests, but are able to stand side by side.  A Scottish merchant named  Robert Hunter had “discovered” them and paid their mother $500 to let him take them on tour. Chang and Eng become known as “Siamese twins.”

They spent the next three years traveling from town to town in the U.S. and England, appearing in theaters and concert halls where people  paid  50 cents to see them walk, run and even somersault across the stage.  After the arrangement with Hunter ended, the brothers continued to tour, although they were forbidden entry to some countries. In France, for instance, the government banned them because  such an exhibit "might deprave the minds of children" and “cause deformities” in unborn children.

But the twins, who adopted the more American-sounding name Bunker, made enough money that by 1839, they were able to stop touring and buy a plantation, with slaves, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.  They became naturalized American citizens, and ended up marrying two sisters, although many in the community objected to what some referred to as an “unholy alliance.”

At first, they shared one house and a specially-made bed, but eventually switched to two separate households in which the twins split their time evenly. Between them, the brothers fathered 21 children and two of their sons fought for the South in the Civil War.

But the war devastated them financially, and afterwards they had little choice but to put themselves back on public display. As they got older, they argued more often, a situation no doubt fueled by Chang’s fondness for alcohol. A few times, they actually fought physically. It reached the point where they asked their doctor to separate them, but he refused because he didn’t think he could do it safely. He did, however, promise to cut them apart when one of the twins died.

In 1874, four years after suffering a stroke that left the right side of his body paralyzed, Chang developed pneumonia and died in his sleep.  Eng died a few hours later, before the doctor who had promised to separate the twins, could get there.  An autopsy would show that Chang died as a result of a blood clot in his brain.  But no clear cause of the death could be found for Eng.  The doctors concluded that he had died of shock.

Researchers later concluded that both of the twins, or at least one of them, probably would not have survived an operation to separate them for much of the period during which they lived. There would have been too much blood loss. But had they been born 50 years later, according to an 1897 report by the American Medical Association, they likely would have lived, thanks to advances in surgery and the use of antiseptics.

Their fused livers—the organs were connected, but functioned independently—are on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Chang and Eng have more than 1,500 descendants--including several sets of non-conjoined twins—and hundreds of them come together in Mt. Airy, N.C. every July for a family reunion.

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