Born into a world that saw them as cursed, the conjoined brothers from the far Orient proved to the world that they were not the “monsters” or “freaks” much of the public saw them as. Instead, the original Siamese twins became businessmen, farmers, husbands, and fathers.
Chang and Eng Bunker were born as In and Jun in 1811. Rumored to have been born on a fishing boat in a small Siam village (now Thailand), the two were born with a ligament joining them at the torso. The villagers were appalled, to say the least. Birth defects were thought to be the work of evil, a bad omen that could bring a curse to anyone who got close to the pair. But their mother protected them, encouraging them to grow strong bodies as the years ticked by.
Both the oddity and curiosity of the twins created a lot of attention and opportunity. Among those fascinated by Chang and Eng was King Rama III, and he welcomed them into his court. Others took notice of the boys, some wondering how they could profit off the rarity of what they saw before them. British merchant Robert Hunter definitely saw opportunity. After enlisting the help of sea captain Abel Coffin, the two convinced the boys’ mother and the King to let them take the boys on tour to America.
Chang and Eng were seventeen when they landed on American shores. They found a life much different from Siam and possibly not what they had expected. Here, they were touted as freaks. For a little over three years, the twins were escorted across the United States and Britain, awaiting those gathering under the tent to see “The Monster” or “Siamese Double Boys.” Hunter became increasingly wealthy, although the boys saw much less profit.
When they turned twenty-one, they legally dissolved their contract with Hunter and ran their own show. If anyone was going to make profit off their somersaults and other feats, it was going to be them. And, indeed, they made plenty of it. But after ten years since they left Siam, the Bunkers (a surname rumored to have been chosen because they overheard it while applying for their citizenship) were tired of being a sideshow act and craved a fuller, more normal life—although “normal” didn’t come easy to conjoined twins.
During a tour, the pair had met Dr. James Calloway, a young doctor from the small town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Taking the fortune they had made from running their tours, Chang and Eng bought land there in 1838 and soon became successful tobacco farmers with a handful of slaves and a spacious home. But despite their success and popular opinion as to what fit into the status quo, the twins from Siam wanted families of their own.
A neighbor of the Bunkers, David Yates, had two daughters, Adelaide and Sarah. Chang quickly fell for Adelaide, and the feeling was mutual. Although Chang and his love encouraged a relationship, romance came slower for Eng and Sarah. However it came about, a handful of years later the twins proposed marriage. But their father refused his blessing on the marriage of his daughters, not because of the physical circumstances of the men but because they were Asian.
Despite being wealthy, active in the community, and members of the local church, the Bunkers were a scandalous duo. And the thought of their marriage only added to the mix. Eventually, however, Yates consented to his daughters’ marriages. The couples had a double wedding and soon moved into the home on Chang and Eng’s plantation. To make them even more a subject of gossip, both men quickly became fathers.
Eventually, each brother having his own family, it was best (and it placated their wives) to build another house for Eng and Sarah. Their agreement was to spend three days at a time between houses. And two houses became a necessity by the time all of their children were born: totals were ten for Chang and eleven for Eng.
As if life as a conjoined twin wasn’t complicated enough, the Civil War wiped out both the tobacco farm and the fortune they had acquired. With two families and twenty-five mouths to feed, the Bunker brothers turned back to life on the road. They toured England, Germany, and Russia, with Chang suffering a stroke in Europe. Life on the road brought on additional stress, and Chang turned to drinking while Eng chose to gamble his wages at poker. Content much of their lives with their lot in life, they consulted doctors about possible separation, but most had the same diagnosis: to separate the twins would likely kill them both.
In the winter of 1874, Chang contracted bronchitis and died the night of January 17, 1874. Upon waking to find his brother dead, Eng panicked and told Sarah, “I am going!” Eng was dead a few hours later. The autopsy showed he likely died from fright, but it confirmed what doctors had suspected. The twins shared a liver, and the complexity of the ligament joining them, if severed, would have killed them both. Today, a cast of their bodies is on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.
Seen as monsters, freaks, or even cursed, the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, not only made history by their birth but also by attempting to break cultural barriers of normalcy. It’s estimated that the Bunkers have some 1,500 descendants living today. Several twins have been born in the generations since Chang and Eng were born on the floor of the fishing boat so many years ago, but none have been conjoined quite like the brothers from Siam.
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