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Series Feature #3 – Life In The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – Siamese Twins (Bunker Twins Chang and Eng)

Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit.  The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.

In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue on our journey to future modern circus entrepreneurs. We last visited with John Ricketts of 1793, who became of the first to head to America to bring us the modern circus. But of course there are more pioneers that we will certainty visit which includes the great P.T. Barnum.

Last week we had the opportunity to explore the introduction of animals, which I consider one of the most important aspects of the circus but also one of the reasons we no longer have animal lead circuses today. Going back we focused on Captain Jacob Crowninshield as the first elephant to be exhibited. Going through the history there was also Old Bet between 1809 to 1816.

This was during this time of other important innovations took place such as the circus tent or “Big Top” which was first used in 1825 by the American J Purdy Brown show. Once brown died in 1834 I would be nearly four decades before entrepreneurs would re-emerge and expand the circus once again. 

The United states became the world leader in circus innovations with the introduction of famed clowns such as Dan Rice and the household name P.T. Barnum. To continue our tradition of history lets focus on the next great household name of P.T. Barnum.

The Arrival of P.T. Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum also known as P.T. Barnum (July 5th 1810- April 7, 1891)

An American showman, politician and businessman. Remembered for promoting hoaxes and for founding the Barnum and Bailey circus. He was an author, publisher and philanthropist though he said of himself “I am a showman by profession and all the gilding shall make nothing of me” Barnum became a small business owner in his early twenties and founded a weekly newspaper before moving to New York in 1834.

He embarked on an entertainment career, first with a variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical theater” and soon purchasing Scudder’s American Museum which he named after himself. 

He used the museum as a platform to promote hoaxes and human curiosities such as the Fiji mermaid and General Tom Thumb.

Jenny Lind and her Promotion

In 1850, he promoted the American tour of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, paying her an unprecedented $1,000 a night for 150 nights.

He suffered economic reversals in the 1850’s due to bad investments, as well as years of litigation and public humiliation. Barnum served two terms in the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a republican for Fairfield, Connecticut.

In 1875 he was elected as the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut where he worked to improve the water supply, bring gas lighting to streets and enforce liquor and prostitution laws. He was also instrumental in starting Bridgeport hospitals in 1878 and was its first president.

Nevertheless, the circus business, began when he was 60 years old and was the source of his enduring fame. Establishing P.T. Barnum ‘s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, Hippodrome in 1870, a traveling circus, menagerie and a museum of “Freaks” which adopted many names over the years.

Barnum had several businesses over the years including a general store, book auctioning trade, real estate speculation and a statewide lottery network. Starting a weekly newspaper in 1829 called the Herald of Freedom in Danbury, Connecticut. 

Joice Heth and her exploitation by P.T. Barnum

In 1835 when he was just 25 was when he began his career as a showman with the purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost paralyzed slave women  name Joice Heth. Although slavery was already outlawed in New York, but he exploited a loophole which allowed him to lease her for a year for $1000, borrowing $500 to complete the sale.

Heth died in February 1836, at no more than 80 years old having worked her for 10 to 12 hours a day, and he hosted a live autopsy of her body in a New York Saloon where speculators paid 50 cents to see the dead women cut up, as he revealed that she was likely half her purported age.

When acquiring the New York’s Museum, turning it into a showcase for the sensational and bizarre, having over 82 million visitors including such notables as Henry James, Charles Dickens, and the Prince of Wales. 

Curiosities Was Big Business for P.T. Barnum

There existed such curiosities as Chang and Eng, the “Original Siamese twins), some bogus (such as the “Feejee Mermaid,  a creature fabricated by attaching the body of a fish to the head of a monkey) Barnum closed the museum in 1868 after losing it twice to fire and spent a few years promoting Jenny Lind before becoming partners with W.C. coup in 1871.

Before 1872 most circuses moved from town to town by horse and wagon. In the spring of that year, Barnum and his partners loaded their show onto 65 railroad cars and thereby gave birth to the age of giant railroad circuses. Due to movement by rail circuses could go greater distances and perform in towns  that had the space and population to support large shows.

Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” eventually traveled on three separate trains, going distances of 100 miles or more in a single night. American Circus thus became models of logistic efficiency, their methods leading to the creation of the modern system of rail-truck freight handling.

P.T. Barnum was definitely one of the most important figures in the modern circus but we must not forget who helped make him great which included the so called freaks and so in this next series we would like to focus on the next iconic performer as the Siamese Twins Chang and Eng among others.

Chang and Eng (Siamese twin) Born May 11, 1811 – January 17, 1874)

Siamese American conjoined twin brothers whose famed propelled the expression “Siamese twins”. They were widely exhibited as curiosities and were “two of the nineteenth centuries more studied human beings”

The brothers were born with Chinese ancestry in today’s Thailand were brought to the United States in 1829. Physicians inspected them as they became know to American and European audiences as “Freak Shows”.

Their father, Ti-eye was a fisherman of Chinese descent and their mother’s orgin is unclear with varying accounts suggest she was Siamese, Chinese, part-Chinese, part Siamese. Despite being joined at the sternum, they were lively youths, running and playing with other children. Their mother raised them like other children, in a matter of fact without special attention on being conjoined.

The discovery of the brothers is to the Scottish merchant Robert Hunter, a trusted trade associate of the Siamese government who traveled with considerable freedom. In 1824, Hunter reportedly met the twins while he was on a fishing boat in the Menam River and the twins were swimming at dusk.  Mistaking them for a strange animal, but after meeting them saw an economic opportunity to bring them to the west.

It was said that the king of Siam hard ordered the brothers deaths and had originally forbidden them to transport them out of the country. It took five years for Hunter to bring them  away as Hunter and an American sea captain Abel Coffin departed to the United States with the twins in summer of 1829.

A contract Hunter and Coffin signed with the brothers stipulated that their tour would last for five years, but rumor has it their mother sold them into slavery.

Chang and Eng were only 17 years old when they traveled to the United States with Hunter, Coffin, a crew of 18 men and a Siamese translator. They were soon inspected by physicians, many who judged them to be Chinese. Their arrival was excitedly reported in newspapers with varying degrees of racial stereotypes and falsehoods.

Marriage and Family Life

In 1840, a profile of the twins in the Tennessee Mirror made clear the twins intentions to marry. Many newspapers regularly joked about this, discouraging their marriage not just with objections over the twins deformities but because of their race. Nevertheless, on April 13, 1843, Baptist preacher Colby Sparks officiated the weddings between Eng and Sarah Yates, and between Chang and Adelaide Yates.

By the late 1840’s, the twins spoke English fluently, had voted and had filed criminal charges against several white people. They had also adapted the English language surname Bunker, in honor of a women whom they met in New York and admired.

The Bunkers carved a unique place in Americans perception of race, they were considered nonwhite but were afforded many of the privileges of whiteness, being fairly wealthy southern slaveholders with property rights.

Newspapers and the public were initially sympatric to them, and within three years they left the control of their managers, who they thought were cheating them, and toured on their own. 1839, after a decade of financial success, the twins quit touring and settled near Mount Airy, North Carolina.

They became US citizens, bought slaves, married local sisters and fathered 21 children, several of whom accompanied them when they resumed touring. Chang’s and Eng’s respective families lived in separate houses, where the twins took alternating three-day stays. After the Civil War, they lost part of their wealth and their slaves. Eng died hours after Chang at the age of 62.

The Death of the Twins

An autopsy revealed their livers were fused in the ligament connecting their sternums. The New York Herald ran a front page story about the Bunker’s deaths which attracted public demands for an autopsy as well as the attention of William Pancoast, who successfully petitioned for the opportunity to study the twins.

It was rumored that Pancoast and other physicians offered money to Chang and Eng widows to inspect the twins, but more likely the doctors pressured the sisters into giving up the bodies by framing this donation as their duty to science and humanity. The bodies were preserved for two weeks by cold weather, then an express train delivered them to the college of physicians of Philadelphia, where an autopsy was performed.

The final report said that Chang had likely died of a cerebral blood clot, while the cause of Eng’s death was unclear. Pancoast and colleague Harrison Allen attributed to shock, that is Eng died of fright upon seeing his dead brother.

Others suggested alternative theories that Eng died of blood loss as his circulatory system pumped blood through the connecting band into his dead brothers body and received no blood in return.

The Bunker brothers coined the term “Siamese twins” having been used since 1829 to described other conjoined pairs. Before their bodies were returned to North Carolina for burial doctors took photographs of the connecting tissue and hired sculptor John Casani to make a plaster cast of the twins.

Their Bodies Live On in Science

The Bunkers fused livers are preserved in fluid and displayed in a jar along with death cast in Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum as a permanent exhibition. Other exhibitions exist as well such as at Andy Griffith Museum contains an exhibit of the twins. The Circus World Museum houses life size figures of the twins.

The Twins had the longest known lifespan of any conjoined twins in history until 2012, when their record was surpassed by Ronnie and Donnie Galyon. Eng was remembered as a caring supporter of his brother, especially during their final years, when Chang developed severe illnesses.

The lives of Chang and Eng will forever be in the history books and although they were thought of as freaks, they were human beings used for the pleasure of men and women. Yes they became very wealthy due to their appearance and in most parts lived fairly normal lives that involved marriage and love. 

Although there have been other conjoined twins in history these are one of the most well known today. What’s amazing is that this deformity did not change the way the could live their lives as they were two people nonetheless with different personalities as it was said Chang was the quarrelsome one of the two brothers.

Normalcy for the Twins

What is also interesting is that they also worked for P.T. Barnum for a month and exhibited in Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. Barnum did NOT create the Bunkers careers; in fact they were competitors in the entertainment business and the twins had already become world family from their own tours.

They were also slave owners as of 1850, ten of their 18 slaves were under the age of seven, some being owned only to be sold later for profit and others growing up to work the fields. The Bunker plantations produced wheat, rye, corn, oats and potatoes.

In addition, they raised cows, sheep and pigs.  The press characterized the Bunkers treatment of slaves as particularly harsh, though the twins decried accusations of cruelty and said their wives supervised the slaves and raised money for their education.

A life of Privilege

I think its important to note once again the twins were treated with privilege and although they were gawked at for entertainment they made money, because frankly what else could they have done they were two people in one body. I tend to think how would society treat twins in today’s world, as I believe we too would exploit their differences, but they would probably be rewarded handsomely.

The twins were world renowned and traveled not only in the United States but also in Europe wearing their American suits speaking English showing off their wit and political knowledge. Appearing educated and polite appearing as a distinguished southern family on display except for the fact that no family of distinction would exhibit itself to the public.

There is so much to their story to fit into one blog as there are aspects to their life I did not include here, but encourage you to search and learn about Chang and Eng.  As we continue to get to know those in the life of the circus although it doesn’t state their traveled with any particular circus exclusively but traveled independently they should still be included in this world as oddities, curiosities in that life of entertainment.


21 thoughts on “Series Feature #3 – Life In The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – Siamese Twins (Bunker Twins Chang and Eng)”

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