On 11 May, 1811 in a floating riverside house in a fishing village in Siam, twin boys were born to a Chinese Thai fisherman and his half-Chinese half-Malayan wife. The new parents were delighted at the birth of their healthy sons, but the midwives had looks of fear at the plain sight of the twins, who were physically different from others.

The twins were conjoined at the midsection by a small band of tissue – anatomical anomalies that they would grow up to gain international fame for.

They were named Chang and Eng.

Persecuted by villagers for their physical anomaly

With encouragement from their mother, Chang and Eng learned to run and swim, and could even handle a boat with skill, but back in the early 19th century when understanding of medical knowledge was limited, superstitious villagers naturally considered the twins as bad omen.

"They thought they would bring bad luck, and some members of society wanted them put to death, but their mother protected them," said Jim Haynes, Chang’s great-grandson. "Others wanted to separate them, and came up with crazy ideas like suspending them over a wire that would slowly cut through the join."

News of the twins spread to the capital and came to the attention of the king of Siam, Rama III, who made them his personal emissaries and would show them off at court. However, Chang and Eng were also noticed by a Scottish trader by the name of Robert Hunter, who quickly realised the boys’ potential for profit if they were to go abroad and travel on display.

In order to persuade them to let the twins travel to the US, Hunter allegedly paid the boys’ mother a sum of $500 and bribed the reluctant king with a troupe of dancers and a telescope, and in 1829, the twins found themselves on a ship to Boston.

Freak show raised the “Siamese Twins” to fame

The “Siamese Twins” as they became known, were exhibited all over America and in England, where over 300,000 paying visitors flocked to watch them play chess or perform acrobatics. During their travels, many doctors would also attend to see the twins, often examining them as well. Their fame made a fortune for their managers, but when Chang and Eng turned 21, the boys dissolved their contract and continued to tour on their own, making their own fortune.

A poster for Chang and Eng’s travelling show. Photo credit: ABC News/ University of North Carolina Wilson Library
A poster for Chang and Eng’s travelling show. Photo credit: ABC News/ University of North Carolina Wilson Library

In 1838, the twins decided to retire from their endless travel and settled in North Carolina. They were awarded citizenship in the US and arbitrarily picked Bunker as a last name, bought acres of land and became tobacco farmers with slaves who laboured on the plantation.

Chang and Eng married, respectively, sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates in 1843, and despite some intolerance by the public to their marital state – either due to racial mixing, or opposition against intimacy between the four – the twins went on to father 21 children, ten by Chang and 11 by Eng.

Brothers who lived and died together

Their wealth dwindled during the Civil War, and the twins returned to travelling and performing to earn a living. By then, the twins were in their fifties, and their former fame had long diminished. Chang started drinking in excess, and though Eng was not affected by the intoxication, the brothers often argued – severely enough for them to contemplate surgical separation.

“They went down to see their friend Dr Hollingsworth,” said Haynes. “He had them on the table and he said: ‘We may as well cut your heads off at the same time because it’s going to amount to the same thing. You are not going to survive.’”

“So they stayed together,” he added.

Chang and Eng with their wives. Photo Credit: Listverse/ Mathew Brady
Chang and Eng with their wives. Photo Credit: Listverse/ Mathew Brady

At the age of 59, Chang suffered a stroke that “paralyzed his right side, the side closest to his brother.” Though Eng nursed him the best he could, Chang never returned to full health. One winter night in January 1874, when they were 62 years old, Chang developed bronchitis and died in the night. When Eng realised that his brother had passed, he exclaimed, “Then I am going,” and died less than three hours later.

A post-mortem at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia revealed that the twins actually shared a liver and would not have survived a surgery to separate them. A death cast was made of their anatomy, and resides in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia to this day, in memory of the original Siamese Twins and their shared legacy. MIMS

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