Monday, August 8, 2011

Conjoined Twins in Philadelphia History

This appeared in the August HSP email publication, History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania. For a free subscription, enter your email here.

Though rare, conjoined twins are not a new physical phenomenon. The lives of conjoined twins have been remembered and documented throughout history and their stories reveal fascinating accounts of devotion, passion, and perseverance. The following two sets of twins have histories tied to Philadelphia.   
Millie-Christine McKoy were born as the slave daughters of Jacob and Monemia, property of a blacksmith named Jabez McCoy in Whiteville, North Carolina in July 1851. Recognizing their potential commercial value, McCoy sold the twin girls when they were ten months old. Millie-Christine eventually became the property of Joseph Pearson Smith, but were freed after the Civil War. The sisters became an entertainment sensation in both the United States and Europe, sometimes referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World or as the Two-Headed Nightingale. They performed in Philadelphia's concert hall at Chestnut and 12th Streets in the mid-19th century (see advertisement below). With the wealth from their career, Millie-Christine bought the former McCoy property where they had been born as slaves. The sisters died in October 1912 and their headstone was inscribed: "A soul with two thoughts. Two hearts that beat as one."  
Philadelphia playbill advertisement for Millie-Christine: Eighth Wonder of the World
Philadelphia playbill advertisement for Millie and Christine: Eighth Wonder of the World and Two-Headed Nightengale

Arguably the most famous conjoined twins were two brothers, Chang and Eng Bunker, who were born in 1811 in Samut Songkram, Thailand (in older literature their birthplace is named Mekong or
Life of the Siamese twins
Cover image for an 1853 book,  
"Life of the Siamese Twins"
Bangaseau in Siam). The brothers were the first to be referred to as Siamese twins. Chang and Eng were brought to Boston, Massachusetts in August 1829 by a New England sea captain, Abel Coffin, to tour with the famous P.T. Barnum Circus.  

After decades of touring, Chang and Eng accrued a substantial amount of wealth (over $60,000), became naturalized U.S. citizens, and settled as farmers in Wilkes and Surry Counties, North Carolina. The two brothers married two sisters from North Carolina, Sarah and Adelaide Yates, on April 13, 1843. Eng and Sarah had ten children, while Chang and Adelaide had twelve. Chang and Eng became the owners of eighteen slaves and were quite disgruntled at the end of the Civil War, when their slave property was lost with the defeat of the Confederacy.
Adelaide.  Chang.  Eng.  Sarah.
From left to right: Adelaide, Chang, Eng, Sarah.
In January 1874, Eng awoke to find his brother dead, and he died the next day at age 63. The bodies of the twins were eventually brought to Philadelphia, where an autopsy by physicians revealed that they could not have been separated because their livers were bound to each other by important blood vessels. Chang and Eng were buried in the White Plains Baptist Church cemetery in Surry County, North Carolina. Today, you can see the fused livers of the conjoined brothers as well as a death cast of their bodies at the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
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