Awesome Men Throughout History: Chang and Eng Bunker
My column has a fan! Not only that, but a fan who contributed a good idea for this week’s Awesome Men Throughout History – take the “Men” part literally and look into Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined twin brothers who were the medical and colloquial basis for the term “Siamese twins.” So I did, figuring that I could just take all the credit if it turned out well. Oops.
Anyway, Chang and Eng were born in Thailand (then called Siam) in 1811, and were fused together at the sternum by a piece of cartilage. Surgical techniques being what they were in the early 19th century, they opted to stay that way. Their poor mother, though, was set upon by everyone ranging from doctors who wanted to literally saw her twins in half to the king of Siam, who issued a death sentence that was thankfully never carried out.
Their lives somehow spared, Chang and Eng figured out how to run, swim, and jump in unison, and were providing for their household by selling duck eggs when British merchant Robert Hunter found them and convinced their mother to basically sell the twins to him, so he could exhibit them abroad as a medical curiosity. Hunter and his partner Abel Coffin (whose name sounds like the minor antagonist in a Dickens novel) ran the twins ragged in theaters and concert halls until they turned 21, at which point they managed themselves.
What Chang and Eng really wanted, when it was all said and done, was a normal life. Granted, they had to fund it off the profits generated by touring themselves as a freak show, but they proved to be able businessmen, buying a 110-acre property in Wilkesboro, NC and marrying sisters Adelaide and Sarah Anne Yates. They also bought slaves, which was unfortunately considered normal behavior back then.
Chang and Eng were also set on the idea of having children, which of course prompts the really uncomfortable question of how sex worked when both men and their wives had to share a single bed. Evidently they figured something out, because the twins fathered 21 children, two of whom fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Given that information, it’s reasonable to assume that both Chang and Eng had pretty strong game.
Honestly, the whole thing is remarkable. Two conjoined twins who were condemned to die in their home country, and who lived in defiance of that era’s medical logic, ended up living relatively happy, long lives (they died within hours of each other in 1874) full of joy and family and more than a few fine cigars. Indeed, their tours of America and Europe made them international celebrities, a title they didn’t share with many other people.
What I take away from Chang and Eng’s story is that it’s possible to make your own destiny, no matter what your handicaps are. It’s not guaranteed to be easy or fun, but it is possible. That, and the fact that two medical oddities in a relatively savage time got themselves laid on the regular. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.