Born Into Slavery, Died As Royal Entertainers: The Journey Of The McKoy Conjoined Twins
Millie and Christine McKoy were conjoined twins who toured the world as "The Carolina Twins" and the "Two-Headed Nightingale" during the 19th century. The children of slaves, Millie and Christine spent time working for P.T. Barnhum as human oddities but were able to transcend that label and achieve international fame. As the only African-American conjoined twins of their time, they received attention from royalty, doctors, and audiences alike, while being poked, prodded and gawked at for their entire lives. Their tragic end, however, may be the most heart-wrenching part of their story.
- Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The Twins Shared A Pelvis And A Lower Spine But Had Their Own Limbs
Millie and Christine were born to Monimia (a Native American) and Jacob McKay (an African) in 1851. Monimia and Jacob were slaves in Welches Creek, NC, owned by a blacksmith named Jabez McCay. Millie and Christine were Monimia and Jacob's eight and ninth children. Millie and Christine were joined at the pelvis and the lower spine, but they each had two arms, two legs, and their own vital organs.
One doctor described their anatomy, although he used language intimating they were just one person, indicating: "Millie-Christine was united at the lateral, posterior portion of the pelvis, the sacrum and the coccyx joined, the lower part of the spinal cord united."
They Were As Sideshow Attraction When They Were Less Than A Year Old
Millie and Christine's mother, Monemia, showed her children to their owner Jabez McKay, who quickly took the opportunity to make money off of their anatomy. The twins could never be workers for him, so McKay sold the twins and their mother to South Carolinian showman John Pervis for $1,000 when the children were just eight months old.
Pervis began putting Millie and Christine on display immediately and gave McKay a percentage of the profits. Pervis sold the twins within two years, however, to Brower, a showman funded by merchant Joseph Pearson Smith.
They Were Bought, Sold, And Kidnapped Numerous Times
After their initial purchase as babies, Millie and Christine changed hands several times before they were 10 years of age. Once John Pervis sold them to Brower and Smith in 1853, they appeared at the North Carolina State Fair as well as numerous road shows as "The Carolina Twins." Only a couple of years later, Millie and Christine were kidnapped from a show in New Orleans, after which they were put on display at P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City.
In 1855, Millie and Christine were acquired by W. J. L. Millar, a former professor who became a showman. Millar exhibited the twins in Canada, continental Europe, and England, where Joseph Pearson Smith was able to locate them. Some accounts indicate Pearson Smith had been aware of the girls' location, but lost track of them around the time Millar began showing them, despite actively searching for his investment.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
They Were Smuggled Out Of The US, And Their Owner Went Overseas To Get Them Back
Once Joseph Pearson Smith found Millie and Christine in England, he gathered up their mother, Monimia, and crossed the Atlantic to reclaim them. By this point, slavery was illegal in England, and Pearson Smith faced a legal battle if he was going to get the girls back. He sued for custody and was allowed to retrieve his property but, technically, they were released back to their mother.
Monimia, in turn, gave them back to Pearson Smith. The girls returned to the United States around 1860 and resumed the road show circuit.
The Twins Performed In French And German
After his return to the US with Millie and Christine, John Pearson Smith soon discovered they weren't as much of a novelty as they had once been. He decided to up their game and, with his wife, began teaching the girls foreign languages, and also how to read, write, sing, and play piano.
Millie and Christine took to singing and featured it in their act, displaying etiquette, sophistication, and grace as they recited passages of French and German for audiences. The girls were later toured as "Two-Headed Nightingale."
The Girls Were Freed But Remained With The Smith Family
During the Civil War, Joseph Pearson Smith kept the girls hidden so they wouldn't be taken from him. After Pearson Smith died in 1862, he willed the twins to his son. Once they were emancipated, however, Millie and Christine stayed with the Smiths even though they were legally free.
It was largely under the tutelage of Pearson Jr. that the girls were exploited as being one person. Because they shared a body, Millie and Christine were often considered a single being, and they even referred to themselves as "I" rather than "we" during their shows. Pearson Jr. decided to use this and billed the girls as "Millie-Christine—the two-headed girl with eight limbs."
In their autobiography, History and Medical Description of the Two-Headed Girl or The History of the Carolina Twins: "Told in Their Own Peculiar Way" by "One of Them," they made it very clear how they felt about their identity and identities:
Although we speak of ourselves in the plural we feel as but one person; in fact as such we have ever been regarded, although we bear the names Millie and Christina. One thing is certain, we would not wish to be severed, even if science could effect a separation. We are contented with our lot, and are happy as the day is long. We have but one heart, one feeling in common, one desire, one purpose.