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Chang and Eng: The story of the twins that originated the term ‘Siamese twins’

Por: María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards 27 de junio de 2022

Chang and Eng weren’t the first recorded set of cojoined twins but they were certainly the most popular to the point that they coined the term ‘Siamese twins.’

Very few individuals in history have had such importance to coin a term everybody will use in the future. That is the case of the conjoined twin brothers Chang and Eng, whose many believe their names meant “right” and “left.” The brothers became so popular in the entertainment circles known as freak shows that they became the most studied individuals of the nineteenth century coining the term Siamese twins for every pair of joined twins. Why? It was all a publicity stunt.

Chang and Eng were born in a small town near Bangkok in Siam, now Thailand. They were born in a family with Chinese ancestry in 1811 and were known locally as the “Chinese twins” since they weren’t considered Siamese by their own people, still, when they were discovered, Siam seemed like the perfect “exotic” publicity their owner needed to make them famous.

Chang and Eng weren’t the first recorded case of cojoined twins sold and displayed for entertainment and money, but they were certainly the most popular in history. Joined only by a bit of flesh on their abdomen through their livers, Chang and Eng were considered medical marvels due to the great mobility and independence they seemed to have, but also because of their bubbly personalities.

The discovery of the twins

Chang and Eng were raised like any other kid in their town. Their mother, a humble farmer, made no difference between her children, and the twins had a normal upbringing playing and swimming like the others. One good day, while the 17-year-old twins were having fun at the river, they were sighted by a Scottish businessman called Robert Hunter. He had great connections with the King of Siam and managed to get an easy deal with Chang and Eng’s mother to buy the twins.

Hunter promoted his new acquisition through a sad story that would move the audience. He said that the King of Siam had ordered the death of the twins and had managed to smuggle them out of the country saving their lives. This was far from being accurate, in fact, freak shows were a booming business, and cojoined twins from a faraway land seemed like a gold mine.

After touring Asia and some cities in Europe, Chang and Eng arrived in the United States in 1829. Naturally, Hunter wanted their entrance to the national business to be grand, and the moment they touch American soil he had them publicly inspected by physicians who corroborated they were actually joined and not a scam. Being the 19th century, these included outdated and controversial medical procedures like phrenology, a theory based on racial prejudices and stereotypes.

Besides the morbidity of seeing the twins being examined by doctors, Chang and Eng’s show included some acrobatics that delighted the audiences with their synchrony, humorous bits, and even just answering people’s questions about their lives and condition. However, despite the frenzy these siblings caused in the US, they soon realized Hunter and his team were just making money at their expense, and they wanted a piece of that cake for themselves.

Hunter advertised the brothers as the “Siamese youth” but only had a contract of indentureship for 30 months. When the brothers turned 21, they left Hunter and started touring on their own. For over eight years, they traveled all over the country and the world making a small fortune. They decided to rebrand themselves with the name of the “Siamese twins,” and changed some bits of their performances, mainly taking away the exoticization of their characters. They got rid of the “oriental” costumes and ponytails and started wearing regular western clothes. They became local legends.

A calm but controversial life

After a decade of touring in the US, in 1839, Chang and Eng decided it was time for them to pursue a normal and calm life. They had gathered a good fortune and after becoming American citizens, they were able to buy a nice farm in Traphill, North Carolina. They thrived in their new yet controversial life. Following the customs of the time and region, Chang and Eng became the owners of a plantation and a set of enslaved people, who according to the rumors of the time were mostly children and treated quite cruelly.

Chang and Eng were living the full American dream, but they were missing something; well, Chang was missing something... love. The twins befriended two sisters, and Chang immediately fell for one of them, the lovely Adelaide Yates. Chang told his brother he wanted to marry Adelaide, and although Eng didn’t feel anything for her sister Sarah, he agreed to marry her so his brother could be happy.

The “Siamese twins” had managed to mingle with their neighbors, but when they announced their wedding to the Yates sisters, the locals made sure they knew they didn’t approve of two white girls marrying non-whites, let aside, “freaks” as they called them. Still, despite the backlash, the Bunker brothers, as they named themselves when becoming citizens, married the Yates sisters in a joined ceremony; they ended up having 10 and 11 children.

At first, the two couples moved to the farm and even had a shared bedroom. Naturally, Sarah and Adelaide got tired of their living conditions and demanded a home each. The brothers complied and would live three days with one and the following with the other.

With so many children coming into this world, Chang and Eng’s finances started to become challenging. Although their plantation was profitable, they didn’t exploit it to its full, so after years of living a calm life, the twins decided to go back on tour. They partnered with P.T. Barnum and worked at his museum for a month in New York City. They were a success and even toured in the UK with the Prince of Wales as one of their most renowned regulars.

The last days of the Siamese twins

Eventually, people started losing interest in the twins and the tour stopped being profitable. Not only that, with the outbreak of the Civil War, Chang and Eng bet on the wrong side and invested a lot of money in the Confederacy side, something that obviously didn’t pay out. When the war was over, the twins were bankrupt and tried to tour once again. Now in their 50s, their show didn’t work as it used to.

Chang didn’t take things easily and fell into a terrible depression followed by alcoholism. His health deteriorated fast even causing him a stroke that left him half paralyzed. Eng was perfectly healthy taking care of his brother but even contemplated for the first time having surgery to separate themselves. It wasn’t viable with the medical technology of the time, and Eng had to devise a system with crutches and ropes to be able to drag him.

The self-destructive path Chang chose came to an end in 1874, when the twins were 63. Chang insisted they could ride in an open carriage during the winter and got bronchitis. Poorly treated, his health deteriorated and one good day in January, Eng woke up to find out his brother was dead. Not only was this devastating for Eng, but he knew that it would be a matter of time for him to have the same fate despite him being extremely healthy. Three hours later, Eng passed.

No rest for the twinsChang and Eng had a difficult life but not even death would give them rest. When news of their passing reached the public, doctors forced their wives to donate their bodies to be examined as to their “duty to science and humanity.” Their bodies went through endless studies and dissections at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Although they didn’t suffer the horrors of many of the so-called “freaks” of the time during life, by the end of it they were treated and exhibited to please the morbid curiosity of the people. Studies determined Chang passed of a cerebral blood clot, and many agreed Eng followed due to a broken heart, although most likely his body suffered a generalized shock caused by the joined liver that had shot down.

Today, Chang and Eng have over 1,500 descendants and most of them meet annually in North Carolina. They had the record for the longest lifespan of cojoined twins until 2012. A plaster of the brothers was made after the autopsy and is still on display at the morbid fre

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