The Strange Lives Of Chang And Eng Bunker, The Original Siamese Twins

Chang and Eng Bunker were known as the original Siamese twins. Born in 1811, Chang and Eng were raised in a small fishing village where they led somewhat normal early lives. So why were they called Siamese twins? Most conjoined twins born in that era did not survive very long, so the fact that Chang and Eng survived long enough to travel around the world made them unique. They were born in the Kingdom of Siam, now Thailand, which is where the term "Siamese" comes from. 

Although they shared bodies, like the famous conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Bunker twins didn't let that hold them back from leading normal lives. They performed shows for years before settling down to try to live out their days as "southern gentlemen." Chang and Eng were talented and natural showmen, but they were also dedicated fathers and husbands with their own personalities and interests. Their lives were filled with fascinating twists and turns, and their legacy lives on in museums, monuments, and the phrase they coined, "Siamese twins."

  • Their Connection Was A Small Piece Of Flesh

    As Chang and Eng grew, their mother encouraged them to exercise and stretch their connecting band as much as they could to give them more mobility. Chang and Eng were quite active and could do much of the same activities that other children could, like swimming and running. Doctors who studied them saw that both boys could feel a pin prick in the center of the band, but as they moved the pin to one side, only one twin would feel it. Chang and Eng could also feel when the other was being tickled, and could taste whenever the other twin ate something sour. 

  • A British Merchant Plucked Them From Relative Obscurity

    When they were in their early teens, their main role in life was helping their family sell preserved duck eggs in a small fishing village. One day, British merchant Robert Hunter spotted the boys swimming in a river and initially thought they were a strange animal. Although King Rama III wanted to keep the twins in Siam, Hunter was eventually able to bribe him over a span of five years into letting the boys go West. 

  • Their Appearance Was Considered Somewhat Offensive And Dangerous
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Their Appearance Was Considered Somewhat Offensive And Dangerous

    The twins spent about a decade performing around the United States and England. They were skilled performers, able to do flips and other physical feats like picking up very heavy objects. As much as they impressed the public, their reception was not always warm. Some people had concerns in those days before scientific progress, that simply seeing the conjoined twins would have a negative effect on "women of childbearing age." One woman from Kentucky gave birth to stillborn conjoined twins and "claimed she had seen numerous representations of the twins in newspaper advertisements around the time she conceived her children, which affected her imagination.” 

  • They Went From Being Leased To Owning Slaves
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    They Went From Being Leased To Owning Slaves

    Chang and Eng's father died when the boys were still quite young, so when their mother was offered $500 to contract the boys into Robert Hunter's care for 30 months, it was a smart decision for their family. Once the twins became legal adults, they were actually making some money from performing. Eventually, they saved a small fortune and built up their own little homestead in North Carolina. Because they were legally considered "white" in the United States, they were able to purchase a few dozen slaves to run it. 

  • They Married Two (Non-Conjoined) Sisters
    Photo: Mathew Brady / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    They Married Two (Non-Conjoined) Sisters

    In 1838, they decided to settle down and move to North Carolina. It was there that the twins met sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates. Chang fell in love with Adelaide and Adelaide with Chang. They wanted to get married, but it was decided that the marriage couldn't go forward without her sister, Sarah, also marrying Eng. Although they were not in love (they just tolerated each other), the marriage went forward anyway. Their father did not initially approve - not because the men were conjoined, but because they were Asian. 

  • They Had A Large And Unconventional Family
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    They Had A Large And Unconventional Family

    Although very few of their neighbors approved of their marriages, Chang and Eng seemed to lead a normal, if not logistically mysterious, sex life. Their first children were born only six days apart, and another pair were only eight days apart. They would go on to have 21 children between the two of them - Chang and Adelaide had 10 children while Eng and Sarah had 11.