Chang And Eng: The Conjoined Twins Who Profited As 'Freaks' And Owned Slaves

By | June 3, 2021

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The Siamese twins, Chang and Eng. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Conjoined twins are exceedingly rare, thought to occur when a fertilized egg splits, normally resulting in identical twins, but doesn't fully separate, leaving the twins connected, usually by the abdomen or, less commonly, the skull. You may have heard these kinds of siblings called by the very defunct term "Siamese twins," but there's actually a reason for that. Chang and Eng Bunker, born in Siam (now Thailand) in 1811, were the first well-documented case of conjoined twins.

Robert Hunter, Chang, And Eng

In 1824, Scottish businessman Robert Hunter was working his way through Siam when he spotted the curious sight of Chang and Eng swimming very close together in the Menam River. When he realized the 17-year-old boys were conjoined, attached at the sternum by a four-inch band of cartilage which fused their livers together, all Hunter could see was dollar signs. Human exhibitions, known as "freak shows," were an extremely lucrative business in the West, so the boys agreed to accompany Hunter to America to work as human curiosities. Although their original agreement was only for five years, they never returned to their homeland.

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This family portrait from the 1860s shows Chang and Eng Bunker with their wives and 18 of their 22 children. It also includes Grace Gates, one of the 33 slaves on their plantation. (Syracuse University/Wikimedia Commons)

Success And Love For Chang And Eng

For four years, Chang and Eng toured the United States and the British Isles, doing parlor tricks, playing chess, and performing acrobatic stunts in matching outfits. Their act earned a lot of money for Hunter but not much for themselves, so at the age of 21, having become proficient in English and tired of all their money going to Hunter, they fled their manager and went into business for themselves. For the next decade, Chang and Eng toured around the United States and Europe before they finally earned enough money to give up showbiz and settle in North Carolina, where they purchased a plantation, lived off their crops (and slave labor), and married sisters Sarah and Adelaide Yates in a joint wedding on April 1, 1834.

The idea of conjoined twins marrying sisters was decried as incestuous and "below the very Sodomites in lasciviousness," and outraged locals defaced the sisters' home the night before the wedding, but the couples were apparently very happy together, producing a total of 21 children (10 by Chang and Adelaide and 11 by Eng and Sarah) over the course of their marriages. They originally shared a home, but as the families grew, the Bunker bunch purchased a second home and the brothers divided their time equally between their respective wives' abodes.