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Eng & Chang Bunker: A Hyphenated Life
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Courtesy Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill
A portrait of the twins as young menMany drawings of the era (about 1830-35) somewhat idealized (or perhaps 'Asianized') the Bunkers' features.
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Courtesy Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill
Circle of lifeThe rich and varied lives of Chang and Eng Bunker are depicted in the 1860 Currier & Ives lithograph. At this point in their lives, they remained vigorously active, but rarely left their North Carolina mountain home to tour; they instead stayed home with their wives (second images from top, left & right) and children.
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Family bliss, circa 1865This photo, by Lincoln photographer Mathew Brady, shows Chang (right) with wife Adelaide and son Patrick Henry; and Eng (left) with wife Sally and son Albert.
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Courtesy Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill
Near the end of lifeThis photo, probably taken in 1865, captures the twins as they planned a tour in 1866 to recoup money lost during the Civil War. The Bunkers died in 1874.
A cry split the night, but for whatever reason, it raised no alarm in the large house outside Mt. Airy, NC. Doubtless just a dream, or more likely, a nightmare. A few hours later, the winter stillness was broken yet again, this time by a different voice. Upon awakening and seeing his twin brother dead beside him, Eng Bunker instantly recognized his fate:
"Then I am going," he cried in anguish. The bed they had shared through the years had become their deathbed, from which neither could escape or rise alone.
Eng and Chang Bunker -- the world's most famous connected twins, the ones who gave us the term "Siamese twins" -- had died on a cold January night in 1874. They left the world virtually the same way they had entered it 63 years before: simultaneously and not without scandal. Their lives had raised not only eyebrows, but numerous medical and philosophical questions. At least one of these -- Would the death of one precipitate the death of the other? -- was settled with their passing.
Or was it?
The cause of death -- half of it, that is -- remains a riddle. Chang had suffered a stroke four years before and his health had become frail. He also had been drinking heavily for some time, had recently been injured in a carriage spill and had acquired a bad case of bronchitis. Eng, on the other hand had been in top form, seemingly unaffected by his brother's declining health.
After their death, one medical camp held that while Chang had died of a blood clot, Eng had died of shock. In other words, believing that the death of his brother would cause his own demise, Eng was scared literally to death. Another theory held that the five-inch-long and three-inch-wide band that connected the twins was a lifeline which, barring immediate surgical intervention, would pass death from one to the other. An autopsy found the blood clot in Chang's brain, but it couldn't resolve the debate over the cause of Eng's death.
This was not the only controversy surrounding the event. But perhaps these extraordinary lives should be put into context. Refer to the "Guinness Book of World Records," and you find a paltry seven-line paragraph. From this, you may learn that the twins were born near Bangkok, in the isolated kingdom of Siam (which became Thailand in 1939), to Chinese parents; they were named "right" and "left," later married sisters from Wilkes County, N.C., and fathered 22 children between them (no pun intended).
Within this brief biography there are no fewer than three errors. Only one parent was full-blooded Chinese. The mother was half Chinese and half Malay. According to the book, "Famous Thai People," the names most likely described the green and ripe states of a native fruit. As to their offspring, Chang and Eng fathered 21 children -- Eng had 11 and Chang had 10, none of which were twins, connected or otherwise.
Certainly, their connected lives aroused much attention and rumor. But behind the speculations and suspicions, were the lives of two sometimes charming, sometimes cantankerous men who, saddled with a dual existence, made a life for themselves that many could envy. They did not die childless and alone, drunkard freaks who had worn out the curiosity of a fickle public. They lived with dignity, and were among few celebrities known and seen across America and much of Europe. Even before they married in 1843, they were described by one writer as "the eighth wonder of the world."
Their birth in 1811 created a sensation. In fact, they might easily have lost their lives soon after. Siam at the time was a feudal society, steeped in superstition. "Anna and the King of Siam" (which was based on the English governess at the Siamese court) was written some 50 years after the twins were born, but the country had not changed much. The king's rule was absolute, as was his unquestioned ownership of his subjects.
When the twins were born, none of the midwives would touch them for fear of becoming cursed. People saw "the monster" as a bad omen, and when the king heard of it, he condemned the infants to death. Luckily, Chang-Eng's mother refused to abandon them at birth, and the king never acted on his impulsive death sentence. Another threat -- from medical doctors who wanted to separate the twins with everything from saws to red-hot wires -- also was averted.
The boys adapted to their dual life, learning to run, jump and swim with perfect coordination. Their activity helped stretch their connecting ligament from four to five-and-a-half inches. By age 14, their father having died six years before, the two were selling duck eggs to provide for the family. About this time, Chang-Eng were discovered by Robert Hunter, a British merchant, who convinced their mother that her boys' future and prosperity lay beyond Siam. It took another three years to secure the king's permission for his vassals to leave Siam. Whether she realized it or not, Chang-Eng's mother had all but sold the boys to Hunter for $3,000. Happily, the terms of bondage would expire in two-and-a-half years, upon Chang-Eng's 21st birthday. Unhappily, Chang-Eng's mother only received $500 of the promised sum.
Hunter and an American partner, Captain Abel Coffin, managed the twins for the next few years, showing them in theaters and concert halls in America and England. Admission was 50 cents a person. The managers drove the twins at an exhausting pace, exhibiting them four hours a day, every day, and touring almost constantly with little rest.
These exhibitions evolved through the years. At their first showing in Boston, a city of 61,000 residents in 1829, the twins simply stood on stage, demonstrated how they walk and run, and answered questions. Soon, they wowed audiences in Providence, R.I., with somersaults, backflips and a show of strength -- carrying the largest audience member, who weighed in at around 280 pounds. In England, Chang-Eng added a badminton-like game -- battledore and shuttlecock -- to the act.
While touring, the Siamese twins were treated respectfully for the most part. When their managers proposed touring in France; however, the government refused, explaining that such an exhibit "might deprave the minds of children" and cause deformities in unborn children. Of course, there were also occasional stupid or indelicate questions, but the twins tried to maintain their manners and good humor throughout.
Gradually, though, their patience began to wear thin, especially since they were not always well-treated by their own managers. One incident in particular raised their ire. On the month-long steamer trip to England, Captain Coffin booked first-class passage for himself. Chang-Eng were relegated to salt-beef-and-potatoes "steerage" class, along with the passengers' servants and ship's crew.
In addition to these annoyances were the financial questions. At first, Chang-Eng received only $10 a month plus expenses. Only after two years was their take increased to $50 a month, still a meager sum, considering that receipts usually averaged $1,000 a month.
It is perhaps fortunate for the twins that their managers were merely exploitative rather than criminal. It is not entirely unreasonable to imagine a sinister handler making slaves of the twins in this pre-Civil War era, or worse, killing them and selling their bodies to some freak show. As it was, when the twins turned 21, they were able to declare their independence and become their own men.
This development parallels that of their personalities. Chang-Eng had evolved from foreign boys with no knowledge of English or the outside world to worldly men with a sharp interest in learning and culture. At about this time, they began in their letters to refer to themselves in the plural "we" rather than in the singular. Clearly, they were becoming aware of their importance (without seeming self-important), and had assimilated the idea of individual freedom.
The twins' intertwined personalities were the subject of much comment in newspaper articles about them. Chang, who was on the twins' own left, was an inch shorter than his brother, but he made up for it in temper. Chang was usually described as the dominant brother, quicker intellectually, but also quicker to anger. Eng was quieter and more retiring, but had wider intellectual interests than Chang. As with most people, these early basic traits hardened somewhat in later life.
Despite minor personality differences, the twins never ceased to astound their audiences and acquaintances with the apparent harmony and synchronicity of their relationship. With only a handful of exceptions, the two seemed to act as one. They shared common tastes, habits and opinions to an uncanny degree. Some observers even speculated that they must be telepathic, because the two rarely were heard to talk to one another. These observations raised numerous questions and spawned many theories among the medical community.
Not surprisingly, the twins' medical history is well documented. This is because their touring routine included an inspection by the local medical authorities in every new city they visited. This not only helped counter accusations of fakery, but lent credibility to the shows. The newspaper articles that arose from these examinations provided good publicity as well.
These evaluations sought to answer one of the questions about the twins that had dogged them since birth: Could they be successfully separated? Opinions varied -- and evolved with increased medical knowledge through the years -- but most of the doctors agreed that the operation would be too risky. Certainly before the Civil War, medical knowledge was not up to the task. Even those who believed that a surgical separation was possible tended to oppose the idea, because the twins seemed perfectly content with their hyphenated existence.
As to their findings, doctors found the connecting tissue to be tough like cartilage, with a common navel. The two weighed 180 pounds in 1830 (this would increase within ten years to 220), and each had a weak eye -- Chang's left eye and Eng's right.
Through the years doctors performed numerous experiments on the twins, hoping to determine the extent of their connection. One doctor fed asparagus to Chang and found later that his urine bore the "distinctly . . . peculiar asparagus smell," but that Eng's did not. On the other hand, when one was secretly tickled, the other sometimes reacted with anger, telling the doctor to stop. In yet another experiment, strong pressure was applied to the band, which caused the twins to faint. It is not known whether they passed out from pain or fright.
After declaring their independence in 1832, the twins continued touring for about seven years. During this time, they met Dr. James Calloway, of Wilkesboro, N.C., who talked them into a much-needed vacation. This proved to be the beginning of a new phase in the twins' lives. They liked the area and the people so much that they decided to retire from the grind of endless touring and settle down.
North Carolina in 1839 had been in the Union about 50 years, but it was one of the country's least developed, sparsely populated and backward states. Its economy was almost entirely agricultural -- the main products being tobacco, cotton and moonshine -- schools, healthcare and newspapers were poor and extremely limited, and disputes were still being resolved by duels. But after 10 years in the public eye, Chang-Eng longed for a secluded, rural life.
Financially comfortable but unable to retire from work entirely, the two soon took up farming, eventually accumulating some 1,000 acres. They also applied for and received U.S. citizenship (adopting the last name Bunker) and took up an interest in two Wilkesboro sisters, Adelaide and Sarah (Sally) Yates.
Chang was the first to fall in love, and he chose Addie, who was a year younger than her 18-year-old sister. Eng and Sally seem to have been drawn into the connection by necessity. Certainly, it would have been difficult for either Chang or Eng alone to marry -- after all, three's a crowd, and people will talk. And given the fact that privacy would necessarily be in short supply in any dual marriage, having wives who were intimately familiar with one another might be an ideal solution. In any case, Sally was the last to commit to the arrangement. Last of the foursome, that is. When townspeople and the girls' parents got wind of the business, rocks and threats flew freely, and numerous objections were raised.
The townspeople were aghast that two of the county's most sought-after belles should be destined to enter an "unholy alliance" with the twins. Even one of Chang-Eng's closest friends considered the idea of marriage for the twins "too bizarre" to contemplate, and "an invitation to disaster."
The parents forbade the union at first, but eventually relented after learning that the lovebirds planned to elope. At this point, the difficulties of their prospective four-way marriage convinced Chang-Eng to risk a surgical separation. The twins secretly traveled to Philadelphia, where surgeons awaited to attempt the risky operation. But before the knife could be employed, Sally and Adelaide confronted them, and with much pleading, weeping and hysteria, brought their future husbands home intact.
After the wedding, which was held at the Yates home in 1843, the newlyweds retired to the house Chang-Eng had built at Trap Hill, 12 miles northeast of Wilkesboro. Soon, however, the house with its double-double bed proved to be too cramped.
Not quite a year after their marriage, Sally had delivered a baby girl, and six days later, Addie had also given birth to a girl. The following year saw two more arrivals, this time eight days apart. A new house near Mount Airy was bought and occupied, and in short order more children arrived.
As of 1860, Addie had brought seven children into the world and Sally had had nine.
By that time, though, Addie was living in another house, which Chang-Eng had bought in 1852. This was not only because of the hordes of children, but because the now-hefty wives were beginning to bicker. This unpleasantness no doubt exacerbated the growing contentiousness between Chang and Eng. Heated arguments became more common and for only the second or third time in their lives, the two had come to blows. Although the exact cause of this violent dispute is not known, part of the problem was Eng's fondness for all-night poker games and Chang's fondness for the bottle.
So the wives lived apart, and Chang-Eng followed a strict regimen of three days at one house and three at the other, with the "guest" brother submitting to his "host" brother's every whim.
This partial separation helped relieve some pressures, but it created an unforeseen disparity that would permanently alter the two families' fortunes. When they divvied up their property, Chang received the lion's share of land. In return, Eng kept more slaves. Although Eng wasn't especially happy with the arrangement, his assets actually exceeded Chang's $16,000 by some $3,000. This at a time when a slave could be bought for $600.
During this antebellum period, the financial pressures of their huge and growing families had twice brought the twins out of retirement from touring, once in 1849 and again in 1853. By 1860, money problems again forced them on the road, this time in the direction of California, the decade-old 31st state. When they returned from their successful four-month tour, they found to a country on the verge of war. South Carolina had voted to secede just two months before.
The Civil War devastated the twins' fortunes. At war's end, Chang was worth only $6,700. Eng, who had owned roughly twice as many slaves as his brother, was hit even harder. He came out of the war with only $2,600 in assets.
To this day, some family members contend that Chang knew at the time that Lincoln planned to free the slaves, but this hardly seems plausible. According to at least one biographer, though, Addie had pressed for land over slaves during the property division. In any case, the disparity would have far-reaching consequences, since modern-day descendants of Eng consider themselves "the poor side" of the family.
Two more American tours followed, but they were not very rewarding. In 1868, the twins left North Carolina with two of their daughters for a tour of England and Europe. A second reason for the trip abroad was to try once again for a surgical separation. Although two medical exams left them little hope for separation, the tour was a great success. But war between France and Prussia in 1870 forced them to return home, and it was on the ship bound for America that Chang suffered his stroke, partially paralyzing his right side.
The twins' last years brought many quarrels, one of which blew up, ending with Chang threatening Eng with a knife. Exasperated, the two went to their family doctor demanding immediate separation. Calmly, the surgeon laid out his instruments, turned to his patients and asked: "Which would you prefer, that I . . . sever the flesh that connects you or cut off your heads? One will produce just about the same results as the other." This was sufficient to cool the twins' tempers.
The good doctor did promise to perform the requested operation immediately upon the death of either one of the brothers. Sadly, he was not on hand when Chang died.
The scandal following the death of Chang-Eng was a function of too much curiosity, attention and imagination. So famous were the twins that their death was front-page headline news in New York City and beyond. Hoping to avert any chance of some body-snatcher digging up the twins and selling them for display, the twins' doctor advised the widows to sell the corpse for either display or medical study. Sally and Addie found both ideas repulsive, but decided to wait for the eldest Bunker son to return from San Francisco. This two-week delay left plenty of time for wagging tongues to do their unsavory business.
In the end, the twins were autopsied -- with no payment made to the family -- and buried. For security reasons, Chang-Eng were interred first in the basement and later in the front yard near Chang's house. Finally, when Adelaide died in 1917, the grave was moved to White Plains Baptist Church, which Chang-Eng had helped build. Sally, though she is included on the common gravestone, had been buried separately on Eng's farm. She, at least, finally found some privacy.
The autopsy made three points on the separation question: Separation as children might have been wise; no such operation would have been worth the risk later in life; and the operation should have been performed immediately upon Chang's death. In 1897, the American Medical Association weighed in for a final judgment: Given advances in the use of antiseptics, had the twins lived at that time, they could have been successfully separated.
Today, a historical marker and gravestone stand on either side of the church in White Plains. Chang's Mount Airy home is occupied by the husband of Chang's granddaughter, Adelaide (one of Albert's daughters). Eng's house burned in 1956, but another house was built on the site. It is still in the family.
Literature about the twins includes poems, plays, and a Mark Twain story, "The Siamese Twins," in which they supposedly fight on opposing sides in the Civil War and even take each other prisoner. More recently, Garrison Keillor worked a fanciful monologue drawn from the twins' lives into his "News From Lake Wobegon" segment of A Prairie Home Companion.
Thankfully, there is little in the way of scandal to disturb the twins' rest today.