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Episode 16 - Siamese Twins

Updated: Feb 6

Listen: https://www.americathebizarre.com/listen/episode/453c2b3e/16-siamese-twins


In 1824, Robert Hunter, a businessman from Scotland made his way to Siam to establish trade relations with King Rama III. Hunter had brought a thousand muskets as a gift for King Rama and was rewarded with a house, honorary title, and with being an established trade partner with Siam. That August, Hunter was making his way along the Meklong River on his boat, The Friends. The Meklong River was filled with boathouses that made up a floating market. You could buy dried fish, vegetables, fruits, household items, and more at the market. When the sun began to set on the river, lanterns and torches would appear on the front of the floating houses, which allowed enough light for Hunter to see while navigating his boat. While standing on the gunwale of his boat, Hunter could see a large creature swimming in the river that had two heads, four arms, and four legs. When Hunter got closer, he discovered that the creature was actually two teenage boys that were connected at the waist.

Robert Hunter approached the conjoined twins and asked them all sorts of questions bout their lives, their family, etcetera. Their names were In and Chun and they lived with their widowed mother and sold ducks and duck eggs at the market. They were only connected by a 4-inch-long band of flesh at the bottom of their chest and shared one belly button. The boys had had normal childhoods and had a lot of freedom to run around the village to play and swim. (Just a little context, about one in 200,000 births today produce conjoined twins. 50% of those are stillborn births and 33% of conjoined twins that are born alive end up dying within 24 hours.)

Hunter promised the boys that he would return. When Hunter did return, he convinced the twins and their mother to let him take them on a tour of Europe and America. He offered to show the twins the world and offered their mother a large sum of money and to return the twins safely back home after the tour was over. Hunter then approached King Rama III the ask for permission to take the twins out of Siam. The King declined Hunter’s request, but Hunter refused to give up on taking the twins out of Siam.

In late 1828 and early 1829, there was a rebellion in Laos that King Rama was trying to squash, and luckily for Rama, an American named Abel Coffin showed up just in time to sell him muskets. After the rebellion was ended and the rebel leader was captured, King Rama invited Coffin to come watch the rebel leader be tortured. Coffin and King Rama became friends during this time. Knowing this, Hunter proposed to Coffin that if Coffin could convince the king to let the twins out of Siam, they could be business partners in exploiting the twins. Coffin asked King Rama to let the twins leave Siam and the king agreed.

Hunter and Coffin gave the twins’ mother $500, promised to bring them back in 5 years, and allowed for the family’s neighbor to travel with the twins as a friend and caretaker. The twins, who were now 18, signed a contract with Hunter and Coffin on April 1st, 1829 that read “We agree to engage ourselves with our own free will and consent (also that we have the free will & consent of our Parents and the King of our country) to go with Captain Abel Coffin to America and Europe and remain with him wherever he chooses until the expiration of the time agreed upon between Captain Coffin and the government of our country, and that he, according to promise, will return us to our Parents and friends anytime within five years, and that Captain Coffin will allow us from his profits, ten Spanish per month and pay all our expenses, and nothing is to be deducted from the money allowed our mother.” This is when it is believed that their names were changed from In and Chun to Chang and Eng Bunker.

After signing the contract, the boys grabbed the little luggage they had along with their pet python and

said goodbye to their mother. They boarded a double-decked, three-masted ship named Sachem and headed off towards the West.

The voyage from Siam to Boston took 138 days. During the four and a half months aboard the ship, Eng and Chang learned how to climb the mast, play chess, speak English and do a backflip. When the Sachem docked in Boston Harbor, Captain Abel only declared two other passengers on board, Robert Hunter and Teene, the twins’ neighbor from Siam. The twins were hidden under a tarp and smuggled into Boston in a carriage. However, Coffin and Hunter had allowed a reporter to see the twins and the day after their arrival, the Boston Patriot ran an article about them that read “The Sachem, arrived at this port yesterday, has on board two Siamese youths, males, eighteen years of age, their bodies connected from their birth. They appear to be in good health, and apparently contented with their confined situation. We have seen and examined this strange freak of nature. It is one of the greatest living curiosities we ever saw.

The two boys are about five feet in height, of well-proportioned frames, strong and active, good-natured, and of pleasant countenances, and withal intelligent and sensible – exhibiting the appearance of two well-made Siamese youths, with the exception that by a substance apparently bony or cartilaginous, about seven inches in circumference and four in length, proceeding from the umbilical region.”

Several doctors also came to examine the twins. Dr. John Collins Warren was the first dean at Harvard Medical School and the founding member of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Warren examined the twins several times and published two reports on them. He spent a lot of time feeling the connecting band between the twins and experimented with how much pain they could feel from the band. He would use a pin to prick the connecting band and found the spot where if he pricked it, both twins would tell him that it hurt. Dr. Warren also made observations about their personalities and intellect. Chang was more insightful but had a bigger temper than Eng. After all of these examinations, the twins were ready to hit the road as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

When the twins made it to America in 1829, Andrew Jackson had just been sworn in as the 7th president and the country was busy building infrastructure, from railroads to canals. After a long hard day at work, most Americans were seeking out entertainment and that usually included getting drunk while playing card games or watch a cock fight. There has been a note found written by President Andrew Jackson that read “How to feed a Cock before you have fight. Take and give him some pickle beef cut fine.” Freak shows started to become a popular area of entertainment as well. Martha Ann Honeywell was born without limbs, but she was put on display at the Peal Museum in New York where people would watch her drink and do needlework. A monkey head and torso was sewn to the tail of a fish and was billed as the mummified Feejee Mermaid.

Chang and Eng made their debut in Boston. They would stand side by side with each one having an arm over the other twin’s shoulder while people would look at them and they answered questions from the audience. They had a great sense of humor and were quick-witted. During one show, they saw a man in the audience that only had one eye. They told him that they would refund half of his admission fee because he was only seeing half of the show. At another show, they noticed a legless man in the audience and offered a refund and a cigar “to atone for the fact that they had four arms and legs between them.” After Boston, they hit the road, visiting large cities and small towns. They began to add new material to

their show, so it wasn’t just people coming in to gawk at them while they stood there. They would do backflips, somersaults, play badminton and challenge audience members to a game of chess. During one performance, they carried a 280-pound man around the exhibition hall, which was even more impressive considering that the twins only weight about two hundred pounds.

The twins sparked interest in the philosophical community as well. Theologians pondered what would happen if one brother converted to Christianity while the other remained a Buddhist and if both souls would be saved. One Boston journalist posed the question: “What if one of them committed a crime? Would you indict two men as an individual? Dare you send Chang and his brother to jail when only Chang shall happen to break the peace? Or if Chang and Eng should fall out together, tell us, could Chang have his action for being assaulted by his other half, that is by himself?” Two months after the twins arrived in America, the term “Siamese Twins” was added to Noah Webster’s second edition An American Dictionary of the English Language. Siamese Twins was described as a metaphor for inseperable unions.

The twins were drawing in large crowds and bringing in some serious cash. They could make up to $1,000 a week (about $24,000 today). Hoping to continue with the success that they found in America, Abel Coffin and Robert Hunter decided to continue the tour in Europe. On October 17, 1829, they all boarded a ship in New York City that was headed for England. Before leaving though, Coffin took out a $10,000 life insurance policy on the twins in case they died during the trip. Coffin also packed molasses and mercuric chloride that could be used to embalm the twins in case they died so that he would be able to continue to display them, dead or alive. Once they got on the ship, the twins discovered that while Coffin had book first-class tickets for himself, his wife Susan, and their manager James Hale, the twins and their friend Teene were forced to travel in steerage. The twins took it up with Coffin, but Coffin blamed the ship captain, saying that he had bought first class tickets for all of them, but the cabins had been overbooked.

They arrived in England in 1829 and toured through the major cities of the UK and Ireland for the next two years until they made their way back to the United States. In the summer of 1831, during a break between shows in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, the twins decided to go hunting. While they were out, a dozen local men came up to them and started to taunt them. The twins got angry and ended up hitting a man named Elbridge Gerry with the butt of their gun. Gerry then threw a big rock at one of the twin’s head (I don’t know which one) and drew blood. So then the twin’s aimed their gun at Gerry and fired. The gun wasn’t loaded, but it scared the local men enough that they ran off. The next day, charges were pressed against the twins and they were arrested for disturbing the peace. They were released after paying a $200 fine.

While doing a show in Alabama, a surgeon in the audience asked to come up to the stage and perform an examination of their connecting bond. The twins refused to let him come examine them, so the surgeon yelled “You are all a set of imposters and pickpockets.” Then other audience members started to throw objects at the twins. The twins were forced to pay a $350 fine for disturbing the peace.

In late 1831, Coffin boarded a ship for Asia while the twins were still touring the United States. He told them that he planned on returning by January 1832. January came and went and the twins hadn’t heard anything from Coffin. They were getting anxious for him to return, because they were hoping to negotiate an end to their contract when they turned 21 in May of that year. When Coffin finally returned to America in July of 1832, he couldn’t find Chang and Eng. He finally tracked them down in Bath, New York where

they informed him that he was no longer in charge of them or their show. The twins were now managing themselves and keeping every penny that they earned.

Between 1835 and 1836, the twins visited Western Europe to go sight-see and didn’t perform at all, instead enjoying their vacation. They returned to America in 1836 and continued their show, touring across America. In July 1839, the twins were in Jefferson, North Carolina to perform. The Blue Ridge Mountains reminded them of the mountains in Siam. They decided it was time to retire. In October 1839, they bought 150 acres near the town of Traphill in Wilkes County. The twins enjoyed hunting deer and catching trout, just soaking up the country life. Chang and Eng became friends with the elite citizens of Wilkes County like the county sheriff, the superior court clerk, and postmaster. The superior court clerk administered the twins’ oath of allegiance so that they could become naturalized American citizens even though there was a federal law that only allowed naturalized citizenship to free white persons.

Chang and Eng spent their money on building an elegant house and decorating it lavishly. Being rich landlords in the South, Chang and Eng intended to become more like the other rich men in the area and turned their land into a plantation and bought several slaves. Not only did they buy slaves, they were slave traders. The twins would buy young slaves, raise them, and then sell them for a profit. Chang and Eng saw owning slaves as a way to position themselves as honorary whites. They ended up owning a total of 32 slaves.

In an 1840 profile in the Tennessee Mirror, the twins made it clear that they were ready to find some ladies and settle down. While attending a friend’s wedding, Chang met Adelaide Yates and fell for her hard. Adelaide liked Chang too. Adelaide and Chang wanted to get married, but they didn’t want Eng to be left out so they decided to set him up with Adelaide’s sister Sarah, except that Sarah didn’t like Eng. The twins and Adelaide made a plan that they would have all the women from neighboring towns over to their house for a quilting party. While everyone was busy quilting, Eng flirted with Sarah and eventually she gave in.

Now that they had their ladies, Chang and Eng discussed being separated but Adelaide and Sarah were very against it. They didn’t want to risk losing them if the surgery went bad. That choice was probably for the best, because it was discovered that the twins shared a liver which would’ve made the surgery fatal at the time (totally doable today though). So they decided to not get separated, but they twins would marry their ladies all the same. One more thing stood in the way of the marriage though, marriage between whites and non-whites were illegal. Chang and Eng were some of the first Asian-Americans and they weren’t black, so they decided to each pay the $1,000 fine beforehand and just go for it. In April of 1843, Chang married Adelaide and Eng married Sarah in a double wedding.

In order to make the marriages work, they set up two separate households, one for Chang and Adelaide and the other for Eng and Sarah. They would spend three days and nights at one brother’s house and then they would go to the next brother’s house for three days and nights and so on and so forth. Depending on who’s house they were currently in, depended on which brother was in charge of making decisions. If they were at Chang’s house and Chang and Adelaide wanted to get it on, then Eng would just go into a meditative state while the married couple got busy. Chang and Adelaide ended up having ten kids while Eng and Sarah had eleven kids.

Abraham Lincoln was elected as president of the United States in 1860 and the Civil War broke out in 1861 when the Southern states seceded form the union. The twins sent two of their sons to go fight for the Confederacy and converted all of their money in Confederate States Dollars. When the Confederacy was defeated, all of the twin’s money was useless and they were essentially broke. Chang and Eng were forced to back to touring to earn money to support their large families. The twins signed with P.T. Barnum for a month and were billed as an exhibition in Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. After that, they travelled with a circus and toured across Europe. They would bring a couple of their children with them to help their kids see more of the world.

In 1870, Chang and Eng visited Germany and Russia. They wanted to keep exploring Europe, but tensions were rising amid a developing Franco-Prussian War, so they decided to head home. While on the ship back home, Chang who was a heavy drinker, suffered a stroke and his right side became paralyzed. Eng would now have to drag his brother around everywhere they went. In January of 1874, Chang contracted bronchitis. The family doctor recommend that the brothers stay indoors and rest. On January 15, the brothers travelled through the cold to get to Eng’s house so they could spend time with his family there. Early in the morning of January 17, one of Eng’s sons went to go check on his dad and uncle. He woke up his dad and told him “Uncle Chang is dead.” Eng responded “Then I am going.” A few hours later, Eng was dead too. Their good friend Jesse Franklin Graves said of Eng “His kindness was received with the warmest appreciation by Chang, whose disposition was very different from the morose, ill nature so falsely ascribed to him by the press.” They had lived until the age of 62, the longest known lifespan of any conjoined twins in history up until 2012.

Their obituary was ran in newspapers across the country and a public autopsy was performed on their bodies in Philadelphia. Doctors promised Adelaide and Sarah that their bodies would be returned to them intact, instead Sarah and Adelaide received the bodies with some of the organs removed. Chang and Eng’s joined livers are on display at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. Sarah and Adelaide buried the twins in a double-wide casket under a single headstone in a cemetery in Mt. Airy, North Carolina.

Every summer, the Bunker’s host a family reunion in Mt. Airy with hundreds of attendees. Chang and Eng’s descendents have had some notoriety. Alex Sink (who’s real first name is Adelaide) was the democratic nominee for governor of Florida in 2010, Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Caleb Haynes was a decorated veteran of both World Wars.

Some of the twins’ descendents wear shirts reading “Our Family Sticks Together” with a picture of Eng and Chang on the back. Random fact: Mt. Airy is the town that Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show is modeled after and has the Andy Griffith Museum. In the basement of the Andy Griffith Museum, there is an exhibit dedicated to the Bunker twins.

Sources:

“The Lives of Chang & Eng: Siam’s Twins In Nineteenth-Century America” by Joseph Andrew Orser

“Inseperable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History” by Yunte Huang

“Death of An American Story: Chang and Eng Bunker” in Mobituaries by Mo Rocca

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