"We don't mind having people stare at us. We're used to it. We've never known anything else."
- Daisy Hilton
On February the 5th 1908 in Brighton, England, an unmarried barmaid named Kate Skinner gave birth to twin girls. Not really an amazing event you might say, until you discover that the twins were conjoined at hips and buttocks. Their lower spines and pelvises were fused and they shared blood, circulatory and nervous systems. They faced away from each other and in photos appear to be standing almost back to back, slightly turned towards the camera. The pygopagus conjoined twins shared no major organs but did have to learn how to separate themselves mentally due to their shared nervous systems. It is reputed that Harry Houdini taught them this mental trick and they became able to block out the other sister completely.
Their mother was unable or unwilling to care for her unusual children and sold them to a midwife named Mrs. Mary Hilton within two weeks of their birth, thus Violet and Daisy became the first Hilton sisters. Life for these particular Hilton Sisters was not a plush one, as Mary “Auntie” could see the worth of the children. They began their touring lives at the tender age of three years old and were hauled across England, Europe and Australia and exhibited for gawking crowds; in 1916 they were taken to America. She and her husband “Sir” made a fortune from the girls, who were hidden from public view when not performing, and abused for any infraction. The girls were schooled in singing, dancing and musical instruments including piano, violin, clarinet and saxophone.
Unbelievably, when Mary Hilton died in 1930 the girls were left in her will to her daughter and son-in-law. (Some accounts name Mary's latest husband instead of the son-in-law). Edith and Meyer Meyers also took the girls touring and finally moved from the freak sideshows into vaudeville.
During this time the sisters managed to hire a lawyer and sue for divorce from their keeper and were paid $100 000, a large fortune in anyone's money but nothing compared to what they had really earned.
It would be nice to think these bright young women retired at this point and grew vegetables and had hordes of children in a quiet country town that accepted them for themselves. Unfortunately this was not the rest of the story.
They went on to film Freaks, now a cult classic, in Hollywood in 1932 and then moved into vaudeville to perform in the “Hilton Sisters’ Revue”. They managed their own careers and began to dress differently to be told apart. Daisy dyed her hair blonde in response to continued confusion over names.
Their love lives are a tangled web of affairs and short marriages. As you can expect being brought up in near isolation meant that they went slightly mad with men. It was almost like a competition. The whole concept of being conjoined and having a love life almost does not bear thinking about but from all reports they did manage to both marry. The marriages where short lived (one was two weeks) and words like bigamy were bandied about. One website suggests that marriage licenses where applied for in 21 states. They were rejected for “reasons of morality of public decency”, and each rejection was heavily publicised.
Slowly the appeal of side show freaks waned and the twins moved to Miami. There they opened a hamburger stand call the Hilton Sisters' Snack Bar; when it went bust they turned back to Hollywood. They starred in the B-movie clanger Chained for Life released sometime in the 50’s. It was poorly produced but apparently showcased the twins' singing voices. A sequel to Chained for Life, called Torn by a Knife, was produced but never released. In 1962 Freaks was re-released to cult audiences and the twins went on a national publicity tour of drive-in theatres across the Untied States.
At a drive-in at Charlotte, North Carolina they were left stranded by their agent. They had nowhere else to go and began to work in a grocery store. They stood at two counters and weighed produce. The layout of the counter was such that few people realised they were joined at the hip. They went to church in the small town and rented a home around the corner.
In December 1969 Violet caught influenza, (some sources say Hong Kong Flu) and just as she was recovering Daisy caught the virus. On The 4th of January, their boss became concerned when they did not answer their phone. The Hilton sisters were found dead on a heating grate in their hallway. They were 60 years old.
During their lives the Hilton sisters overcame many obstacles and lost and made a number of fortunes. They were celebrities of the time and performed with the likes of Harry Houdini and Bob Hope. Much of their story is conjecture and publicity material designed to draw audiences and it is hard to sort truth from fiction but one would hope that they were happy when they died.
In 1997 the musical, Side Show, was first performed. It is loosely based upon the sisters' lives.