Born in 1811 in Siam, now known as Thailand, Chang and Eng Bunker were the very reason behind the inspiration of the term, “Siamese twins”. They were a phenomenon in their time and well after. They had an extraordinary life and toured the U.S. with carnivals; later becoming U.S. citizens. After becoming permanent residents, they opened their own store as well as built their own home. The pair triumphed over extraordinary odds and appalling prejudice in 19th-century America and Britain. Here’s an unusual story about the original Siamese twins who, with their biological irregularity, managed to live an extraordinary life.
Born on May 11, 1811 in Thailand, the Thai-American conjoined twin brothers had their roots more in China than in Siam.
Born to a Chinese fisherman father and a mother who was half-Chinese, half-Malay, Eng and Chang Bunker were conjoined twins; sometimes called Siamese twins. While their 35-year-old mother was giving birth, the two midwives who helped were shocked to witness the thick ligament connecting the babies just above their waists. The midwives were superstitious and were afraid to handle them. Their mother, however, took them in her arms, untwisted the ligament (which had been connected to a single umbilical cord) and laid them staring into each other’s eyes.
They were initially named In and Jun (anglicised to Eng and Chang).
The twin brothers were born with fused livers that were connected by a small piece of cartilage at their breastbones. Chang was slightly shorter than Eng and the upper half of his body arched away from his brother. After realizing their biological irregularity, their mother encouraged them to exercise as often as possible; which gradually stretched their ligament to more than five inches.. This allowed them to run, swim or perform any other tasks as a regular person could.
In 1829, when the boys turned 18, a British merchant named Robert Hunter found them to be interesting and persuaded their parents to present them at exhibits.
Robert Hunter, a British merchant, discovered the twins as they were swimming in a river. He considered them to be ‘some strange animal’ and found commercial potential with them. Eng and Chang Bunker helped their family preserve and sell duck eggs. Since the family was poor and was desperately in need of money, Hunter didn’t have trouble persuading their parents. Although he obtained their permission, Siam (now Thailand) was still under the rule of the king.
The king was reluctant to let the twins leave the country. Finally, after five years and with the help of a sea captain, Hunter was able to bribe the king with a telescope and some temple dancers. Hunter paid the twins’ mother $500 (£300) to allow them to go on tour with him for 30 long months.
The twins became a sensation in theatres and halls across the U.S.
The twins’ first performance was in Boston, which caused an immediate sensation. After they became famous as the Siamese twins, they performed all over the U.S.; four hours a day, six days a week.
The twins worked hard and Hunter paid them well for their efforts. After the contract with Hunter expired, the twins decided to settle down and live a normal life. They purchased an 11-acre farm in North Carolina and married two local women.
At the time, North Carolina was a slave state. Under the U.S. law, the twins considered white; allowing them to own slaves. They purchased slaves to work on their 200 acre farm. They also opened a store; making them industrious businessmen.
On April 13, 1843, Eng and Chang married the daughters of a neighboring farmer, David Yates; since marrying two sisters made sense. Although the foursome was happily married, their wedding provoked national scandal and people went as far as accusing their marriage of being be ‘bestial’. When both the wives gave birth, the accusations started to fade away. Together, Eng and Chang Bunker fathered a total of 21 children; 11 by Eng and 10 by Chang. Their descendants now number more than 1,500.
The sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Anne, initially slept with Eng and Chang in the same bed. Their marital bed was built for four, with Chang and Eng in the middle and their wives on either side. But several years later, the sisters moved out to separate houses and had an agreement where the twins would stay at each house for three days per week.
On January 17, 1874, as a result of an injury, Chang passed away. His brother Eng woke up to find Chang dead. Eng lived for another two and half hours before he too passed away.
During the American Civil War, the defeat of the Confederate Army resulted in the twins losing all their savings. Nevertheless, they stayed positive and started working at public exhibitions. Although they were once a huge sensation, people lost interest and their efforts proved to be of little success. The twins struggled but kept their hearts true. They were well known by neighbors, as well as townspeople, to be of high standards and for keeping their promises.
During an exhibition, the twins lost their balance while atop a carriage. The fall did not hurt Eng but Chang was injured severely. Soon after the fall, Chang fell ill and developed severe bronchitis. On January 17, 1874, Eng woke up to find his brother dead. He summoned a doctor who rushed to perform an emergency surgery. The doctor hoped that the surgery, if successful, would save Eng’s life. Two and half hours after Chang’s death, Eng too passed away.
The doctor recalled Eng crying, ‘Then I am going!’, just before his death. After their deaths, doctors finally received the opportunity to learn how complex and connected the twins were. A post-mortem examination found that Chang may have died due to a cerebral clot, while Eng died of fright. They also discovered that their connecting ligament was complex and even if they had separated Eng from Chang, he wouldn’t have survived for long.
Although they are no longer alive, their legacy still continues with over 1,500 descendants. Many of the Bunker descendants have managed to live a successful life and one of them was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. Chang and Eng Bunker’s grave resides in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Family members often conduct a meeting there every year, to remember and mourn the twins.
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