Chang and Eng Bunker were the original Siamese twins who wanted to live ordinary lives after touring as freak-show attractions for years. But considering they were connected at the liver, this could never truly be.
Today, referring to conjoined twins as “Siamese twins” is considered rude and derogatory. But the term comes from the best-known conjoined twins in history: Siamese brothers Chang and Eng Bunker.
Born in Siam — present-day Thailand — Chang and Eng were connected at the sternum. Though their livers were fused together, making separation impossible, the twins otherwise had fully formed, separate bodies.
They spent most of their lives on display, traveling in “freak shows” at the behest of the businessman who’d taken them from home. But Chang and Eng eventually took hold of their own destiny. Before they died at the age of 62, they’d married, established a successful farm, and had 21 children.
The ‘Siamese Twins’ Leave Siam
Born on May 11, 1811, in Siam, Chang and Eng Bunker drew attention from the start. In a biography of the twins called Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History Yunte Huang writes that the boys were initially seen as “evil omens.” The king of Siam even ordered their deaths, but apparently never sought to reinforce his order.
Instead, the boys grew up unmolested along the Mekong River. They spent their days selling duck eggs, and many nights swimming in the river, which is where Scottish businessman Robert Hunter first spotted them.
To Hunter, they seemed like something of a Greek mythology. More than that, the twins seemed like a ticket to money and fame. But the king of Siam refused to let the boys leave the country. It took Hunter five years to convince him, and the king agreed to let them go on a five year tour in 1829.
With a small suitcase in hand, Chang and Eng Bunker bordered a ship to Boston. They would never return to Siam or see their family again.
Chang And Eng Bunker Tour The World
Though they had been called “Chinese twins” in Siam — their father was Chinese and their mother was Chinese-Siamese — Chang and Eng were dubbed “Siamese twins” when they arrived in the U.S., according to NPR.
There, boys were subjected to a variety of tests. According to The Lives of Chang & Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth-Century America by Joseph Andrew Orser, one American doctor examined the fleshy band that connected them, and discovered that they both felt pain near its center. However, on either side of the center only one twin felt pain. The doctor also noted that “when one experienced a sour taste, the other did as well,” and that “tickling one of them resulted in the other demanding a stop to it.”
In the U.S. — and in Europe — the two 17-year-olds were also put on public display. They were not part of a “freak show” or a circus, but billed as a separate attraction. According to Guinness World Records, their show originally consisted of physical acts like backflips and swimming. But as they traveled the British Isles and learned English, the Bunker brothers also started interacting with the audience by talking and answering questions.
They also became determined to break out on their own. As Huang told NPR, they had been “tricked” into signing an exploitative contract with Hunter and an American captain named Abel Coffin, who had helped arrange their departure from Siam. Though Hunter eventually sold his share, Coffin remained in charge of the twins until 1832. Then, Chang and Eng turned 21 and declared their independence, telling him: “we are on our own.”
Until 1839, Chang and Eng Bunker toured independently with the help of a manager they’d hired, Charles Harris. They made enough money to buy property, and decided to settle down in Traphill, North Carolina, where they purchased land and started building a house. The twins also became naturalized American citizens and adopted the last name “Bunker.”
There, the Bunker twins came to embrace a traditional Southern lifestyle — in more ways than one.
The Bunker Twins’s Family Life
After settling down in North Carolina, Chang and Eng Bunker got married to two sisters, Adelaide and Sarah “Sally” Yates, in 1843. They had known the girls and their family for years. But the marriage still raised eyebrows — and some fierce objections — in the pre-Civil War society.
According to Orser’s book, newspapers in the North and South reported on the marriage, often in mocking or negative terms. Not only were Chang and Eng marrying white women, but they were also seen as “freaks” by many in the country. When the newlyweds went riding through town in an open wagon, one local paper reported that “all hell broke loose.”
“A few men smashed through some windows at [Mr. Yates’] farmhouse,” while others “threatened to burn his crops if he did not control his daughters,” the paper reported.
That said, the marriage went forward. In celebration of their marriage, the Yates family even gifted the Bunker twins with an enslaved woman named Grace Gates. She was the first of many enslaved people owned by Chang and Eng, who had once been effectively enslaved themselves.
In an effort to lead separate lives, the Bunker twins built two homes, one in Mount Airy and one in Traphill. Huang tells NPR that they would alternate between wives: three days were spent with Chang’s wife in Chang’s home, and then three days were spent with Eng’s wife in Eng’s home. Chang and Adelaide eventually had 10 children; Eng and Sally had 11.
“With Chang and Eng it was never really documented how they conducted themselves in a sexually intimate way, but it is interesting to note that when the wives had their children, they delivered only maybe four or five days apart, which suggests some kind of coordination,” Craig Glenday, the Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief, remarked.
Huang suggested that the twins practiced “alternate mastery.” Used by other conjoined twins, it means that one twin can disassociated — nap or read a book — while the other dates or has sex.
In all, it seems that Chang and Eng Bunker had succeeded in establishing normal lives outside of the spotlight. The Raleigh Register even wrote approvingly in 1853 that the twins were “altogether American in feeling.”
But things turned bleak for the twins after the Civil War.
The Deaths Of Chang And Eng Bunker
When the Civil War broke out, Chang and Eng Bunker full-heartedly supported the Confederacy. They invested financially in the Confederate cause, and the American Battlefield Trust reports that two of their sons even became Confederate soldiers.
But when the war ended, the Bunker family was financially ruined. Not only had they poured much of their financial resources into the conflict, but they could no longer rely on slave labor to run their farm. With little choice, Chang and Eng Bunker went back on the road.
They traveled through the United States — where Northern audiences were less than enthused to support ex-Confederates — and Europe, visiting far-flung places like Britain, Germany, and Russia. By this point, the twins were in their 50s. And touring started taking its toll.
On their return journey from Europe in 1870, Chang suffered from a stroke. He was paralyzed on the right side of his body, the side closest to Eng, which meant that their touring career was effectively over. It also limited their mobility, as Chang had to use a crutch and lean on his brother.
Chang started drinking heavily, and his health began to suffer. Atlas Obscura reports that the twins became despondant and frustrated, and begin to consider surgical separation for the first time in their lives.
But this would never come to pass. On Jan. 17, 1874, Chang died in his sleep, from a cerebral blood clot in his brain. Eng awoke to find his brother dead, and knew that death would soon find him, too. As Huang told NPR, his final hours were probably “horrifying.” Though the twins had planned to be separated if one died, the doctor didn’t get there in time.
A few hours later, Eng died too. Doctors at the time surmised that he’d died of shock, though he may have died from blood loss as the circulatory system he shared with his brother failed.
Yet the story of Chang and Eng Bunker does have one final chapter.
An Eternity In Plaster
After their deaths, Chang and Eng Bunker’s bodies were dissected, studied, and photographed. Their remains were rushed off to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia where their bodies were pulled apart and studied as scientific anomalies.
Examining the fleshy band which connected them, which had eventually stretched to be six inches, doctors determined that separating the twins would have been fatal. They were connected at the liver, and would have certainly died if the band had been severed.
In death, the Bunker twins left behind an incredible legacy. Side by side, the twins from Siam came to the United States, won their freedom, and established normal lives. They became citizens, married, and had almost two dozen children between them.
They also inspired a story by Mark Twain, a novel by Darin Strauss, a play by Philip Gotanda, and were featured in the Hollywood film The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman. Plus, they inspired the (now largely defunct) term: “Siamese twins.”
Today, they have more than 1,500 descendants, many of whom still meet up at family reunions. Some have gone on to accomplish incredible things – like their Pulitzer Prize-winning great-granddaughter Caroline Shaw.
And the brothers themselves are still together, eternally linked in a plaster death cast on display at the Mütter Museum.
Together was the only way they could ever be in their time. Indeed, Chang and Eng Bunker literally couldn’t live apart.