Strange Twins Born in Siam!
Conjoined twins are colloquially known as Siamese twins after Chang (or Cheng) and Eng, a pair from Siam. They were born in 1811 in central Siam - now Thailand - to a Chinese father and part-Chinese mother; they did not have a surname in their youth, for the Thai did not enjoy the nicety of last names until the twentieth century. Like many people in that part of the world even today, the family lived on a simple floating house anchored to the banks of a river or canal, and like their neighbours in this waterborne community, the family was poor. Both parents worked hard raising ducks and selling eggs and fowl to support their family, and all the children helped their parents in this enterprise. Chang and Eng were well-known in the surrounding area; they became excellent businessmen, paddling a little boat about selling their wares. They also learned to swim, and kept their love of boats and water throughout their lives. In 1819 the Siamese population was decimated by a cholera epidemic, and Chang and Eng lost their father and several siblings, as well as the flock of ducks the family depended on for survival. But their enterprising mother, with help from her remaining children, rebuilt the family business.
Evil Oriental Despot!
It is sometimes said that Rama II heard about the boys when they were young, and, fearing that they were an evil omen, ordered them to be killed, but I doubt the veracity of this story. For one thing, the twins were not, in fact, put to death. In addition, "Oriental" kings are often portrayed in the west as cruel barbarians - The King and I being but the best-known example - and this story strikes me as just one more instance of western storytellers portraying eastern monarchs as heartless savages. What is clear is that by 1827 Rama III had heard of the twins and summoned them to Bangkok so he could see them for himself. Accompanied by their mother and sister and a brace of their famous preserved duck eggs, they went to the city and were presented to the king.
See the Freaks!
While in Bangkok, they made the acquaintance of a Scottish trader, Robert Hunter, and New England sea captain, Abel Coffin; though some accounts refer to these men as the twins' managers, it's perhaps more accurate to see them as shysters taking advantage of a decidedly unworldly Siamese peasant family. In 1829 they apparently told the twins' mother that they were going to introduce the twins to the world, and gave her a little money; thereafter they took the twins off to America and exhibited them in freak shows around the country and in England. Chang and Eng were a very popular exhibit and netted the men a great deal of money, but were not paid anything themselves. Having promised to remain with Hunter and Coffin till they were 21, the twins kept their word, though with dissatisfaction; in the meantime, they studied English and accounting and learned to read and write. Finally free, they made a creditable living as exhibits and entertainers, first with promoter P. T. Barnum and then on their own. They apparently played games like shuttlecock on stage, moving nimbly back and forth with the grace of a couple waltzing, and answered questions in clear and articulate English. And of course they were a medical curiousity, probed by doctors along the five-inch band that joined them from sternum to navel. Eng, by the way, was the larger twin and stood on the right side; Cheng, on the left, was an inch shorter than his brother.
Lewd Group Sex!
In the 1830s they made the acquaintance to a New York family by the name of Bunker, and in 1839, deciding to become American citizens, they learned they had to have a last name to qualify, and so adopted Bunker as a tribute to their affection for the family. Finally, tired of touring, they bought a farm and settled in North Carolina, where they met sisters Sally and Adelaide Yeats. After Chang had won the heart of Adelaide, that young lady set about convincing her sister to look more favourably on Eng, and presumably she was successful, for in 1843 a grand dual wedding was held. At first the two couples lived in one house, and within nine months, and only six days apart, both women had delivered children. Sally would eventually have eleven children with Eng, Adelaide ten with Chang. After the brothers were blessed with six children - three each - the wives moved into separate houses, perhaps, as some say, because they needed more space for their growing families, or perhaps, according to others, because the sisters began to fight. Whatever the case, the brothers spent three days in one house, three in other, except for the times they were on the road, for to make ends meet they once again found that they had to exhibit themselves, and were sometimes gone for up to year touring the United States, Canada, and Europe. Finally, in 1874, Eng woke up to find Chang dead, and the terrified Eng passed away before a doctor could arrive to attempt a last-ditch separation. Their widows kept their bodies in a cellar for a year to foil graverobbers, then buried them in Chang's yard. Finally, their bodies were laid to rest in White Plains Church Cemetery in Surry County, North Carolina, and they remain a tourist attraction in the area still. Also, if you're ever in the small village of Samut Songkram, south of Bangkok, check out the memorial statue of the twins there, erected in 1999. The book Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss is a fictionalized account of their lives.