The story below is an excerpt from our Jan./Feb. 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Our fascination with Chang and Eng Bunker—the eponymous “Siamese” conjoined twins who died more than 140 years ago—seems to have no end: Were they sideshow “monsters” who fell victim to greedy opportunists? Or smart, hardworking businessmen and dedicated family men who gave back at least as much as they gained to their hometown in Surry County, North Carolina?
Walk down Main Street of Mount Airy, North Carolina, and you’ll think you’ve made a wrong turn into the past. Floyd’s Barber Shoppe with its striped pole and “Two Chairs—No Waiting.” Snappy Lunch, featuring its world-famous pork chop sandwich. Wally’s Service Station, with one Regular and one Hi-Test pump minus the credit-card slots. The Mayberry General Store and numerous ice cream, gift and t-shirt shops.
And if you get tired of walking, you can tour the town in a 1962 Ford Galaxy replica of the Sheriff’s Car from “The Andy Griffith Show.” Griffith grew up in Mount Airy, and the town was the model for Mayberry, synonymous with small-town America.
As the bronze sign at the foot of the bronze Andy and Opie statue outside the Andy Griffith Museum and Theater puts it, you’re in “a simpler time. A sweeter place.” The rural South of the late 1950s and ‘60s…before Civil Rights, and Vietnam, and gas lines and 9/11.
Mount Airy is small—just over 10,000 people live there. It lies neither here nor there in North Carolina, part Piedmont and part Blue Ridge, in the shadow of Pilot Mountain and about as far north as you can go before you cross the Virginia line.
But don’t sell the town short. It has produced a disproportionate number of notables. Besides favorite-son Griffith, there’s also country singer/songwriter, Donna Fargo. Old-time musicians Tommy Jarrell and Benton Flippen. Major League baseball players Chubby Dean, Ron Blackburn and Ben Callahan. Virginia Tech Football’s Frank Beamer.
And too the most famous conjoined twins in history, Chang and Eng Bunker…labeled “more famous than Lincoln” and “the Elvis Presley and Madonna of their time.”
How the Siamese twins—born in Siam (now Thailand) just a few decades after the American Revolution—held court around the world, then settled in the wilds of northwestern North Carolina and became in short order the wealthiest plantation owners in antebellum Surry County is a fundamentally American story, in all its paradoxical beauty and horror.
You have to hold both sides of the story in your heart to understand the controversial 200-year history of the Bunker family. Because, in addition to the beautiful possibilities of the American Dream, as historian Joseph Orser puts it, “Siam’s twins reveal America’s monsters.”
Begin at the beginning. Chang and Eng Bunker (born Jun and In) came into the world in May, 1811, born to a Chinese father and Chinese/Malay mother about 60 miles outside of Bangkok. The labor and delivery were unexceptional. But the resulting twins were very exceptional: the attending midwives drew back in horror when they saw that the infants were bound together at the bottom of the sternum by a sturdy, five-inch tube of cartilage that turned them toward one another.