The Bunker Boys in Mt. Aireyl Millie-Christine in Welch's Creek; the Hilton girls in Charlotte. Three sets of conjoined twins, famous in their day, lived, and died, here-in the mountains, piedmont, and low country of North Carolina.
Nan Graham begins her 24th year as a WHQR commentator this year.
WHQR Commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of WHQR Public Media, its editorial board, or its members.
Mama used that expression a lot: “Sally and John are so close, I believe they’re joined at the hip.” Chang and Eng Bunker, thos transplants to western North Carolina, were the most famous of that particular kind of couple: they were the original Siamese twins and lent their name to the condition now called “conjoined twins.” Today Siamese Twins is a politically incorrect term; conjoined is what you hear all the time now. The original Siamese twins were called that because they came from Siam, which is not even Siam anymore but Thailand. All this despite their being Chinese.
But Chang and Eng, joined by a wrist sized band at the chest-not the hip-retired to the mountains of North Carolina in the 1830s. With their fortune earned from international tours as box-office hits with traveling shows, the successful Bunker boys became part of the slave-holding Southern gentry, married North Carolina sisters, alternated between 2 separate households, and fathered a grand total of 21 offspring. They have 1,500 descendants living today.
North Carolina seemed a hotbed for such twins. In Columbus County, Millie-Christine, born into slavery in 1854, became internationally known. Educated in Europe, they were emancipated in the United States in 1863 during the Civil War. Fluent in French, German, and Spanish, the girls sang beautifully, one singing soprano and the other harmonizing in alto. They teamed with P.T. Barnum and toured Europe. The wealthy twins sent money to their father in eastern North Carolina to buy the plantation they had been born on. The twins eventually retired to that plantation which they had left as slaves and returned as celebrities in Welch’s Creek. They lived out their days helping the poor in their rural community and even starting a school nearby.
The Hilton girls, Daisy and Violet, were born in England in 1908. Their parents were glad to hand off the double twins to the midwife, who bought (or maybe adopted) the infants and quickly featured them as an attraction in her Brighton pub’s front window. The enterprising midwife/entrepreneur Mary Hilton raked in a small fortune in no time.
Later, parlaying the phenomenon into show biz, Hilton whisked the pretty 8-year-olds off to America. The twins received no education and were routinely beaten as children. Dragged from carnivals and fairs to perform, Violet did learn to play the saxophone and Daisy the violin When Mary Hilton died, daughter Edith inherited (or was given) the 11-year-old twins (details are murky) who began their career as vaudeville performers. Violet and Daisy eventually shared the bill with rising young comic, Bob Hope. As an adult they earned thousands…but never received a penny of it. At 23, the twins sued their manager and own, collecting $100,000 and their freedom.
The girls were each married briefly, but when vaudeville disappeared, so did the marriages, along with their show biz careers. In 1945, they performed in a Charlotte theatre but were abandoned there by their agent who vanished with their earnings. A kindly grocer gave them jobs weighing and checking out produce, constructing a special counter so they appeared to be regular employees.
All of these amazing united twins spent most of their adult lives in North Carolina, where each rests forever…two, yet one.