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Sunday, May 21, 2006

They Never Left Each Other's Side

Some descendants of Chang and Eng Bunker—the original "Siamese twins"—are profiled in the current issue of National Geographic. The brothers settled near Mount Airy, North Carolina, in 1839, married local sisters, and had 21 children between them ... so to speak. Their descendants now number around 1,500.

Open admiration for the twins was not always a given. The older generation preferred a tight-lipped approach. Jessie Bunker Bryant, the 70-year-old grande dame and the force behind the annual family reunion, tells of a Bunker bride who didn't know about her famous relatives until the night before her wedding. "Your fiancé may not want to go ahead with this," warned her mother after disclosing the family secret. Happily, the revelation charmed the groom-to-be. [p. 151]
The article explains that, after 14 contentious years of living under one roof, the brothers agreed to split their time between two homes—three days in one, then three days in the other.

I was curious about how this would be represented in census records. In 1860, Chang's family was listed immediately after Eng's, in the next dwelling (the occupation of each man given as "Siamese Twin"). In 1870, Eng was listed on page 313A of the Mount Airy census, his brother on page 324B. Since the enumerator was supposed to list "every person whose place of abode on the first day of June, 1870, was in this family," shouldn't one of the twins have been found living in his brother's home? Was there a special provision in the census-taking guidelines for conjoined twins living (again, so to speak) apart?

J. Tithonus Pednaud

The laws regarding the rights of conjoined twins seem quite muddled. The Hilton sisters, for example, allegedly traveled to several states before finding one willing to perform a legal marriage. Some conjoined twins were refused a drivers license or issued a single one to share.

The bunkers were notorious for using their condition and the confusing laws to their advantage. They would often buy one train ticket to share. Once, after their train was underway, a conductor demanded a ticket from each. Change presented him with his and then challenged the conductor to throw his brother Eng out.

Chris

Thanks for the insights. As in the case of Myrtle (Corbin) Bicknell, one could easily overlook the special situation of these men using standard genealogical sources (the 1860 census entries being the exceptions). It wasn't unusual for two brothers to marry sisters, or to share a home after marrying. Without sufficient digging, some mighty interesting details can get missed—thought perhaps few as interesting as Chang and Eng's connection.

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