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Siamese Twins' 200th

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11.05.11

The world’s most famous conjoined twins were born 200 years ago today in Siam, now Thailand, about 60 miles west of Bangkok. Their names were Chang and Eng (for left and right), and they themselves coined the term "Siamese Twins".

Their bodies were normally formed, except for the five-inch wide ligament that connected them at the base of their chests. Fearful that this bizarre birth was an omen of doom, King Rama II of Siam threatened to put the boys to death but, when he realized that no terrible catastrophe had occurred, relented and allowed them to live.

Chang and Eng were born to a poor family living in a houseboat on the Meklong River and learned early to swim, fish, and row a boat. After a cholera epidemic took their father and five siblings, they developed a successful enterprise selling duck eggs in the market and supported their mother and two remaining siblings.

When the twins were thirteen, a Scots trader, Robert Hunter, discovered them and conceived a plan to export them. After several years’ acquaintance, he convinced their reluctant mother to allow them to tour with him. He promised he would return the boys to her in two and a half years and gave her $500, part of his promised payment for her family’s support. Through his friend, Captain Abel Coffin of Massachusetts, he managed to convince the new king, Rama III, to release the boys. In 1829, at the age of 18, Chang and Eng sailed to America to tour a new world, never to see their mother again.

Coffin exhibited the twins in Boston to enthusiastic crowds by appealing to people’s natural curiosity. They learned to perform tricks and physical feats to demonstrate their strength, and delighted audiences with their sense of humor and good nature. The exhibitions were successful enough that they were taken to other cities, eventually to London and beyond. France, however, refused entry to the twins, fearing that the sight of such an oddity would provoke birth defects in pregnant women’s babies.

Although born half a world away, Chang and Eng came to live in our own back door, so to speak, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Growing tired of being exhibited and of feeling exploited, they took up the offer of a physician friend in New York to visit his home in the tranquil hills of Wilkesboro, North Carolina. There they settled, buying a 110-acre farm in 1839, taking the name Bunker, and becoming naturalized citizens.

Chang and Eng established themselves first as merchants, then gentlemen farmers. Chang fell in love with a local girl and wanted to marry her, and Eng decided to marry her sister. Doctors refused to separate the men for fear one would die, so the parents finally agreed to allow their daughters to marry the twins in 1843. Chang fathered ten children, and Eng fathered eleven. For a few years, they lived in one house, but the sisters argued so they built separate houses and divided their time between them.

Two of their sons served in the Civil War. The twins returned to touring for several years to try to recoup financial losses of the war. The stress of constant togetherness took its toll and they longed to be separated, but doctors were afraid to risk surgery. Chang was temperamental, suffered from depression and drank heavily. He had a stroke while on tour. In 1874, he developed bronchitis and died in the night. Eng, awaking to find his brother dead, went into shock and died a few hours later.

Their homesites are an easy day’s drive from here, and local museums show exhibits about the Bunker twins. The Wilkes Heritage Museum is on Main Street in Wilkesboro, and the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is on Main Street in Mount Airy. Many descendants still live in Surry County; they gather annually for a large family reunion.

Read more about these unusual brothers and their families in The Two, a biography by Irving and Amy Wallace, and Chang and Eng, a novel by Darin Strauss. Photographs, letters, and other documents are accessible in the digitized collections of the University of North Carolina at http://www.lib.unc.edu/dc/bunkers/browse.html.

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