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

By Grace Taylor

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.

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.

Currier and Ives lithograph dated 1860 which depicts "The World Renowned United Siamese Twins" Chang and Eng Bunker. (National Library of Medicine/Wikimedia Commons)

Back On Tour And Permanent Retirement

After the Confederate loss of the Civil War, Chang and Eng abandoned plantation life and went back on tour. This time, they teamed up with none other than P.T. Barnum, who had displayed a wax replica of the twins in his American Museum for decades, for a six-week tour, followed by another long stint in Europe.

By 1870, however, Chang's health began to decline, and he suffered a terrible stroke that left his right side partially paralyzed. On January 7, 1874, Eng woke up to find that his brother had died in his sleep. Horrified, the family sought a doctor with the hope of saving Eng, but the mourning brother told them he knew he, too, was going to die. After 62 years together, Eng only experienced two hours without his brother before passing as well. They were the second-longest-living conjoined twins of all time.

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Grace Taylor