Conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy in the early to mid-1890s.
A hundred years or so ago, few conjoined twins would have been likely to survive more than a few weeks; indeed, even today, only one in four cases survive. Yet, back in the days when people were less scrupulous about what constitutes public entertainment, those born with this condition could become celebrities over night – whichever part of the world they came from. Likely facing limited options in terms of earning a living, many conjoined twins became sideshow attractions, turning their lives into one long public display. Beyond photographs and medical records, some history about these individuals has also survived – and it makes for fascinating reading.
7. Liou Seng-Sen and Liou Tang-Sen
The ‘Korean’ twins in 1903, aged around 7 years old.
Conjoined twins Liou Seng-Sen and Liou Tang-Sen were born in Nanjing, China, in 1886, or thereabouts. Their juncture was classified as xiphopagus, meaning they were joined between the navel and breastbone, as we can see in this image. Though quite solid looking, the connection between the pair was actually quite flexible, allowing them to stand side-by-side as well as facing each other. The twins’ mother died when they were only two years old, leaving their father as their guardian. However, from age six onward, they were readied for a life in show business, traveling from fair to fair in China, and later to Korea, Japan, India, Australia and Europe.
Liou Seng-Sen and Liou Tang-Sen with their father in 1905.
In 1902, the Liou twins traveled to the United States with their father to join the Barnum Circus – but not before being portrayed as ‘Korean’ to circumvent a ban on Chinese immigration and general anti-Chinese feeling. Unlike many other conjoined twins, Liou Seng-Sen and Liou Tang-Sen retired from show business while still young, returning to Nanjing at the age of 19, where they both got married and had children. However, with their fortunes dwindling, the brothers were forced to make a brief comeback, aged 63. Then, in 1957, one of the twins fell ill with bronchitis. In a revolutionary operation performed in Beijing, the twins were separated, with the ailing brother dying while the other survived. Having lived to the age of 71, they were the longest surviving conjoined twins on record.
6. Rosa and Josefa Blazek
Earliest known photo of the Blazek twins as babies
Rosa and Josefa Blazek were born on January 20, 1878 in what today is the Czech Republic. Despite being fused from the ninth vertebrae down, they were delivered normally to parents – who must have been shocked, to say the least. But Mr. and Mrs. Blazek were also superstitious, and following a local medicine woman’s instruction, apparently did not allow the infants to eat or drink water for eight days. When the twins survived – quite miraculously, given this barbaric treatment – the parents and those around them appear to have understood it as God’s will that put their progeny on Earth.
Josefa and Rosa Blazek in the 1880s.
This ‘diving purpose’ perceived by the Blazek parents was, of course, for the twins to be shared with the world – and thus generate money in the process. So it was that from age one onwards, the twins were put on display in country fairs. At the age of four, they started to learn the violin, and as their fame grew, they took on a manager to organize and make the most out of their performances. In 1893, they even went to the United States to perform at the Columbian Exposition in New York.
The Blazek twins at age 15.
Before their trip to America, on April 16, 1910, Rosa, the more extroverted of the twins, caused quite a stir when she gave birth to a baby boy at the age of 32. In light of the twins’ physical condition, their fame, and the fact that Rosa wasn’t married, it seems they tried to pass Rosa’s ‘sickness’ off as appendicitis. Nobody was fooled, however, and the doctors, too stunned to give any proper medical account of the birth, provided more fodder for a sensationalizing media through their silence. The papers went haywire, making up various stories about Rosa’s sexual encounters and loose morals as well as the delivery itself. The newborn boy was called Franz, after his alleged father, who died fighting in the Austrian army in 1917 – although not before he had married Rosa.
Family portrait with Rosa’s son Franz.
The twins moved to Chicago after traveling to the States again in 1921, seeking to join vaudeville. However, their American experience was cut short when Rosa fell ill with the flu. Worse still, by the time Rosa recovered, Josefa had fallen sick, too, and she slipped into a coma on March 25, 1922. While discussions were being held over whether or not to separate the twins, they died, on March 30. Nevertheless, an X-ray taken postmortem showed that the operation would not have been possible because the sisters’ spines were too inextricably fused.
5. Simplicio and Lucio Godina
The Godina twins in 1930.
The difficulty of the decision surrounding whether or not to operate on conjoined twins is shown in the case of the Samar brothers – so named after the island of their birth – Simplicio and Lucio Godina. Born in 1908, these boys from the Philippines later made the trip to the United States, where they became sideshow attractions in such hubs of ‘entertainment’ as Coney Island. In 1928, after various legal difficulties – including narrowly avoiding jail when a man was injured in an alleged drunk driving incident – they got married to identical (but not conjoined) twin sisters, Natividad and Victorina Matos, in Manila.
As for their condition, according to Louis R. Sullivan, from the American Museum of Natural History, who examined them briefly on July 31, 1918, the bodies of the Godina brothers were “entirely distinct except for a juncture of the right buttock of one of the twins with the left buttock of the other”. In medical terms, theirs was a pygopagus juncture – where the bodies are joined at the pelvis – very rarely seen in male conjoined twins, as most die at or before birth.
The Samar twins in an orchestra bound for the United States.
Although the Godina twins’ bodily connection was quite flexible – allowing one to stand while the other lay down – it was critical in that they shared one large intestine and anus. When Lucio died of either rheumatic fever or pneumonia in 1936, surgery was performed to separate the twins. It was a risky operation as the connection between the twins consisted of muscle 24 inches in circumference at the bottom of the spine. After the separation, Simplicio had to undergo another operation in which the outlet of his colon was reconstructed. After 28 years of being joined to another person, Simplicio experienced the feeling of being physically unattached to anybody – but sadly only for a few days. He died less than two weeks later of spinal meningitis.
4. Giacomo and Giovanni Tocci
The Tocci twins, circa 1891.
As we can see in these images, the Tocci brothers were dicephalic conjoined twins; that is, they had one body with two heads, and were often dubbed ‘the two-headed boy’. Like Millie and Christine McKoy (see entry 3), they were often referred to as one person rather than two distinct personalities – as they were! The twins were connected from the sixth rib down, such that each had a pair of arms but shared two legs with the other. They also had separate hearts, lungs and stomachs but common genitalia. Like the parents of many other conjoined twins, mamma and papa Tocci realized the potential commercial advantages of their boys, preparing them for a life in show business and putting them on show when they were as young as one month.
The Tocci twins with their parents and younger sister in Berlin, 1891.
Although it is known that the Tocci twins were born in Locana, Italy, on October 4, the year of their birth is hazier – but is reckoned to have been sometime between 1875 and 1878. Unlike the other twins described here, the Toccis never learned to walk, but instead moved around using all six limbs or else traveled in a wheelchair. It has been suggested that this lack of mobility arose because the brothers were too busy with their hectic performance schedule. Other conjoined twins who shared two legs have been able to walk; and, interestingly, the twins did have vastly different temperaments, with Giovanni bright, loquacious and highly artistic, and Giacomo just the opposite.
Much of rest of the Tocci twins’ life is shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that after shuttling from city to city in their early childhood, they journeyed to the United States in the 1880s. There, Mark Twain saw them in one of their shows, inspiring the great man of letters to pen his story “Those Extraordinary Twins”. They returned to Italy in the 1890s and not only retired from show business but also vanished altogether from public view – behind the high walls of their home. Whether they ever got married, as some sources claim, and even when they died, is unclear, though 1912 is likely the year at least one of these significant events took place!
3. Millie and Christine McKoy
Millie and Christine in Philadelphia, 1871.
Millie and Christine McKoy were born, joined at the base of the spine, on July 11, 1851, the eighth and ninth child of Monimia and Jacob McKay, slaves owned by a blacksmith in the small town of Welches Creek, North Carolina. At only ten months old, they were sold along with their mother to a showman, who in turn sold them on to two more men in the same trade, looking to make a quick buck. It seems to have been around this time that their last name was changed to McKoy.
Millie and Christine in Brighton, England, in 1873.
While still very young, the McKoy twins were kidnapped at an exhibition in New Orleans by yet another showman, who exhibited them another year, including at Barnum’s American Museum. Sold yet again in 1855, this time to a professor, they ended up in Canada, and then Europe, where former owner Joseph Smith reunited them with their mother and brought them back to the United States.
Millie and Christine, advertised as the ‘Two-headed lady’, in 1882.
Joseph Smith and his wife educated the McKoy twins, focusing on music and languages. The girls had a gift for singing and could soon also speak in four or five different tongues. Yet, while to some extent it is true that the sisters enjoyed a successful career in museums and the circus, it should not be forgotten that they were also exploited since they were young girls – and, as female slaves, more so even than the other conjoined twins listed here. Indeed, they are held to have been overworked, beaten, raped and sexually abused – including, it’s suggested, during the numerous medical ‘examinations’ they had to endure.
Free at last following the Emancipation Proclamation, in the 1880s the McKoy sisters retired from show business and went back to their hometown in North Carolina, where they bought a small farm. However, after a fire that weakened their health, the twins’ lives were claimed by tuberculosis, contracted by Millie, and died on October 8, 1912. They lived until the ripe old age of 61, the oldest female conjoined twins to date.
2. Daisy and Violet Hilton
The Hilton twins, aged 4.
Daisy and Violet Hilton were born on February 5, 1908, in Brighton, England. Their young, single mother must have been quite overwhelmed at giving birth not only to twins but a pygopagus set – meaning those siblings joined at the pelvis. Evidently not realizing the financial potential of what were allegedly the first conjoined twins born in Britain to survive beyond a couple of weeks, the twins’ mother ‘gave’ them up for adoption to her landlady and midwife, Mary Hilton, when they were less than a month old.
As we can see in this image, the printing machines of the time were rolling out postcards of the Hilton twins, who must have been a marketing man’s dream. Dressed in identical outfits, one sister plays the violin while the other accompanies her on the piano. They were already performing by the age of 3, and the postcard text here reads, “If we have interested you, kindly tell your friends to visit us.”
Recognizing their commercial promise, Mary Hilton started exhibiting the twins soon after she had acquired them, and they would be taken on tour to Germany, Australia and the United States. Interestingly, at one stage they were shown together with Rosa and Josefa Blazek (see entry 6) – quite possibly the first time ever that two pairs of conjoined twins were exhibited together. The Hilton sisters soon gained a fair bit of fame and generated no small fortune through their work. When Mary Hilton died, she ‘left’ Daisy and Violet to her daughter, Edith, and the latter’s husband, Myer Myers.
Show poster of the twins, circa 1920.
The Myers relocated to the United States with the Hilton sisters, using the twins’ money to build a luxury home in San Antonio, Texas. With their singing and dancing routine, the twins were an instant hit in vaudeville and toured the States throughout the 1920s, and numbered Bob Hope and Harry Houdini among those in their social circle.
‘English Siamese Twins’, Daisy and Violet Hilton.
Eventually, the Hilton twins found a sympathetic lawyer in one Martin J. Arnold, and so broke free from the allegedly abusive treatment they suffered at the hands of the Myers. In 1931, Arnold helped the sisters to sue the Myers, freeing them from their contract and legal bind with their custodians and netting them as much $100,000 in damages. Apparently predestined for a life in film, the twins starred in the 1932 movie Freaks, which speculated on the love lives of conjoined twins. Then, in 1950’s Chained for Life they played vaudeville singers Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton, based loosely on themselves. Too risqué for its time, the later exploitation movie flopped, forcing the twins – now at the end of their savings – to search for other means of making a living.
After being abandoned by an unscrupulous agent while attempting a comeback, Daisy and Violet ended up working at a grocery store in Charlotte, North Carolina. However, on January 6, 1969, they were found dead in their trailer, having succumbed to a bout of Hong Kong flu.
1. Chang and Eng Bunker
Chang and Eng Bunker as painted in 1835 or 1836.
Chang and Eng Bunker top our list because they are probably the most famous among all the conjoined twins. Indeed, theirs is the reason the expression ‘Siamese twins’ was coined. They were born on May 11, 1811, in Samutsongkram, a province of what is now Thailand but was then known as Siam. So renowned did the brothers and their condition become that the term ‘Siamese’ was soon applied to conjoined twins in general.
Chang and Eng in 1865 or 1870.
As xiphopagus twins (like Liou Seng-Sen and Liou Tang-Sen, see entry 7), Chang and Eng were joined only by a small section of cartilage around the lower breastbone (sternum), sharing a liver but no other organs. While they are often shown standing side-by-side, the twins managed to achieve this only after practice and by stretching the connecting tissue gradually. Not much is related about the twins’ early life – whether they were ever exhibited by their parents or simply lived a fairly normal life in their rural riverside community – but what is known is that by the time they were 18, their lives had changed drastically.
Chang and Eng in their later years.
According to one source, Chang and Eng were ‘discovered’ while out swimming one day in 1824 by an associate of the American showman Abel Coffin, who recognized their commercial potential. According to another source, it was British merchant Robert Hunter, who made the find in 1829 and paid the twins’ family to exhibit them to the world at large. Whatever the case may be, they embarked on a world tour, traveling with the famous P.T. Barnum’s circus.
A family portrait, taken around 1865. Chang with his wife Adelaide and son Patrick Henry on the right; Eng with his wife Sarah and son Albert on the left.
Eventually, after their contract had expired, the so-called Siamese twins set up their own business, settling in the United States – specifically Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The twins adopted the last name Bunker, bought a plantation and slaves, and married two sisters, Adelaide Yates and Sarah Anne Yates (allegedly after threats from locals who objected to the courtship). Chang had 10 children, Eng 11 or 12, and today the twins’ descendants are said to number more than 1,500, among them sets of non-conjoined twins.
Chang and Eng in later life.
The Bunker twins died on January 17, 1874, after Chang fell ill with pneumonia and died in his sleep. Even though the surgery of the day may have been sufficient to finally separate the twins, Eng is said by some sources to have refused the operation and in any case died a few hours later. The Bunkers’ shared liver can be seen in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum to this day.
Doctors separating conjoined twins, sometime between 1910 and 1915.
Notwithstanding the obvious physical difficulties they endured, the stories of conjoined twins are often shocking because they show how easy it was for them to succumb to unscrupulous individuals seeking to exploit their condition (not only monetarily but also sexually). Being referred to as one person – despite having quite distinct personalities – may well have been among the lesser evils some of them suffered while being exhibited in circuses and sideshows around the world. What’s more, some of the twins appear to have embraced show business (Daisy and Violet Hilton), were able to lead relatively normal lives (Chang and Eng Bunker), or simply took being stared at every single day of their lives in their stride.