ometimes, even the perfection within our DNA code can not be read with accuracy by cells, or something goes wrong on a biological level and people are born with abnormalities such as extra hands, legs, or other parts of the body. This is something that has been recorded many times in history. However, having people being born conjoined is something that was truly pulled out of a fantasy book until the 19th century.
The Bunker brothers are considered to be the first conjoined twins recorded in history who gained a lot of popularity during the middle of the 19th century, as people had to see it to believe it. Chang and Eng Bunker from Siam (today known as Thailand) were born in 1811 in a small fishing village near Bangkok. Their original name was In and Jun, but due to their popularity, they had to have an English name which is why they were later named Eng and Chang.
Their mother was frightened at first when she saw what she gave birth to. Even to this day separating conjoined twins is quite a difficult surgical procedure, but there are chances of success depending on each situation. Back in the early 1800s, there was no chance for such a procedure to succeed. Some people in the village saw them as a blessing whilst others said that their mother gave birth to a devil.
Despite all this, their mother tried to raise them up as if they were as normal as possible, and thought them how to live despite being conjoined. Sharing the same blood (literally) meant that whatever they would consume would affect them both, if one started drinking the other brother would also feel the effects if one of them was sick so would the other be.
The man who brought them fame
If it wasn’t for Robert Hunter, it is most probable that we would not even know about the existence of the Bunker brother or would not even consider them to be the first conjoined twins. Yet, it is difficult to say if Robert Hunter improved their life or not, to that I will let everyone be their own judge. Robert Hunter was a British merchant who happened to be in Thailand for some business. One day he was on a stroll outside Bangkok near the river, which is where he saw for the first time the Bunker brothers.
His first idea was probably the amount of money he could make off the backs of the brothers. He easily persuaded them as well as their parents to take them to the western world in order to give them a better education and quality of life. The first time Hunter saw them he thought they were “a weird exotic animal” and all he could think of is a successful career in the FreakShow which was quite popular in the 19th century around the western world.
People were paying good money to see “different people” and this surely impressed the world. After some negotiation with the King of Siam (Known as Thailand today) and with the help of Captain Abel Coffin who offered to take them to Massachusetts. Onboard, the brothers with the help of some natives who knew their language as well as English, showed everyone that they are quite intelligent and not stupid as people thought due to their predicament.
Success and Fame overnight
Once they reached the United States, the brothers became famous overnight, making a sensation in many major theaters in the East of the United States. Although many people thought that Hunter was exploiting the boys, they were paid a good sum of what he was making from the shows, or at least this is what author Yunte Huang says in the book he has written about the two conjoined brothers entitled “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Wins and their rendezvous with American History”.
Doctors and Medical experts were quite impressed by how they survived for so long conjoined. That is why they were examined quite often and the results were quite fascinating. Compared to other Siamese twins within history or those present today, they were special. It seems that one had the sensation feelings of another and vice versa. If Eng would get tickled Chang would feel it. If Chang would eat something, Eng was able to taste it in his mouth without eating anything. The same applied to pain. The only sense that didn’t apply was hearing, if someone whispered in Eng’s ear, Chang would not be able to hear it.
Something more interesting was their very different personalities, although they were both intelligent, Chang would dominate Eng by always being the one to talk and the confident one, and I believe that the expression on their faces portrays this difference.
The burning question that all medical experts were asking themselves is what were the chances for them to survive if they were surgically separated? Some were sure that the surgical procedure would be a success whilst others said that it would be fatal. One interesting remark made by Sir Astley Cooper known as the Lion of British Surgery within the 19th century really gave some logic to this medical issue:
“One thing is for certain, these boys make more money if they are conjoined rather than being separate. Why should we separate them if they are happy the way they are?”
The hunt for a normal life
In 1831 the boys became known around the world, they were only 20 years old yet famous, rich, and quite intelligent for their age when it came to wisdom. Their story became known, and their fans kept accusing their mother of selling them as slaves, which wasn’t the case. They asked for respect from the public who didn’t understand the situation. For the next 7 years, the boys wandered around America, making shown and becoming really wealthy in the process. In 1839 they had enough and wanted a normal life, to get married and have kids.
The boys settled in North Carolina where they bought about 80 acres of land and a big house. With an entrepreneurial sense, the boys opened a shop where they would sell fruits and vegetables grown on their land.
The story became very interesting for the public, the boys who were “sold as slaves” now owned over 100 slaves that were working on their farm.
Before getting the wrong idea, as we all know using slaves for farming was something normal during the 19th century. The brothers treated the slaves, not like slaves, but as workers, building a good relationship with each and every one of them and offering them a decent quality of life.
Everything that was missing now from their lives was a woman or woman. As the author mentions in the book, the boys quite enjoyed the company of beautiful and extravagant women. The newspapers at the time started developing various stories about their love life, despite their predicament, they also needed to fulfill certain physical needs. The newspapers also took interviews of apparent women that have been with either Eng or Chang in a romantic relationship saying that most of them were put off by always being in the presence of the other brother…
Something soon changed after the brothers fell in love with the daughters of David Yates, a neighboring farmer. The sisters were also in love with the brothers and this is how a crazy and complicated relationship started. Can this be categorized as a foursome? Chang was in love with Adelaide Yates and Eng with her sister Sarah Yates. Marrying two sisters seemed like the right choice in their predicament, as based on the social culture at the time, it did not seem right for a woman to share an intimate time with another woman unless they were sisters.
Both couples got married in 1843 and didn’t yet know how this marriage would go. Before the wedding, the brothers actually wanted to get surgically separated, but hearing of how dangerous this procedure was, the sisters stopped them as they were about to go forward with the procedure and told them that they will accept them together.
This Marriage caused a big problem in America. The public didn’t agree with the marriage due to various reasons. According to historian Joseph Oser, the first man to write a biography about the brothers mentioned that one woman complained to the public that she gave birth to conjoined twins because she saw pictures of the Bunker brothers before having the baby, blaming the brothers for the conjoined twins she just gave birth to.
The family had 21 children in total, 11 were Eng’s and 10 were Chang’s. As time went by the sisters started arguing and it got to the point where Shara took her children to a separate house. In order to keep the wives happy, they had to spend a week in one house and the next week in the other house. I would not want to even imagine that awkwardness in bed.
In 1850 the brothers were not doing very well financially and this was due to the Civil War. as they had over 21 mouths to feed they had to make a lot of money and the best way they knew how to make money was through shows. So they started going around the United States. The audience was bored of them and felt that they have passed their time, that is why they had to move to England, where the fresh audience was captivated by them, that is how they started going around the world.
Later in 1872 when they were returning from Russia doing a show, Chang suffered a cerebral attack and half of his body was paralyzed. In 1974, at the age of 62, he got diagnosed with Bronchitis. After two days, Eng woke up screaming for help as his brother was dead. After two hours since his brother died, Eng also passed away, proving to medics that the surgical procedure would have never worked.
The autopsy however mentioned that Eng died from a big fright caused by his brother’s death, but the medical archives seemed pretty inconclusive. Nevertheless, the brothers definitely created an amazing legacy and they deserve to be remembered as the first conjoined twins.
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