Chang and Eng Bunker: Tied Together by a Living Knot









After months of trying to coordinate schedules and weather forecasts, I finally made it to the grave of Chang and Eng Bunker at White Plains Baptist Church in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It was a warm but beautiful day and fortunately for me, I showed up in time to see grave offerings of flowers and small liquor bottles left in front of the tombstone. I don’t know if the water bottle was part of the gift or if it was accidentally left by another visitor as garbage, so I left it alone. I hear that it’s important to stay hydrated when consuming liquor, so maybe someone had a reason for leaving it there. That’s beside the point.

There is no shortage of biographical information about the Bunker twins out there so I’ve provided links to additional reading and sources throughout this post. If you’re familiar with my sister site, Misc. Tidings of Yore, you know that I have a soft spot for historical newspapers. Some of what you read here will be based on old clippings from the archives.

Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives

Eng and Chang were born May 11, 1811 in the fishing village of Meklong in Siam (now known as Thailand). Initially King Rama II regarded the birth of conjoined twins as a bad omen and sentenced them to death, but luckily he changed his mind. Chang and Eng received gifts from King Rama III and from time to time participated in ambassadorial expeditions. The brothers displayed an astute business sense, selling duck eggs in the village after their father’s death when they were eight. Their marketing skills would benefit them greatly down the road.

Chang and Eng’s geographical location and their anatomical uniqueness is where the phrase “Siamese twins” originated. The brothers were xiphopagus twins, joined by a band of skin, blood vessels, and cartilage approximately five inches wide at the base of their chests. Reports as to the size of the band vary from 3 to 6 inches because over time the cartilage stretched, allowing them to stand in a more comfortable position. Even though their livers were fused each body functioned independently. When Chang, who was said to drink heavily, imbibed his brother didn’t suffer from its effects. From the Abbeville Press: “They are, therefore, independent in personality and are simply two persons tied together by a living knot.”

At age 18 the sea captain and merchant duo of Abel Coffin and Robert Hunter paid the twins’ mother $500  to exhibit them around the world. There had been a promise to return them to Siam after a certain number of years, but that promise was never fulfilled. Coffin and Hunter served as the twins’ agents for several years until they decided to take charge of their business affairs. The brothers refused to participate in demeaning “freak shows” that other people born with conditions that society considered “monstrous” were forced into. Chang and Eng carried themselves with dignity and class and they earned the same respect that any  human being deserved. Having said that, I’m sure that they still encountered their fair share of gawking from and cruelty at the hands of the ignorant.

R: Chang, his wife Adelaide, and their son Patrick Henry; L: Eng, his wife Sarah, and their son Albert. (1865)

Eventually the world-famous brothers left the spotlight and settled down on a plantation in Mount Airy, North Carolina. In 1839 they became American citizens and took the surname Bunker. Chang married Adelaide Yates and Eng married Adelaide’s sister Sarah in 1843. Their nuptials weren’t well-received by some factions who objected to the union of Asian-born conjoined men with white sisters in rural North Carolina as you can see in the Jeffersonian Republican clipping below.

Jeffersonian Republican 3 May 1843

According to this article, the Yates’ father wasn’t unsettled because his daughters married conjoined twins but rather the fact that the Bunkers were Asian.

Chang and Eng built separate houses for each wife, living three days at one residence and three days at the other. The Bunkers’ living situation, which lasted over three decades, probably raised a few eyebrows here and there but overall the Mount Airy community accepted them as they were. Over the years they sired a combined total of 21 children. (Some sources claim that there were actually 22 offspring.)

The Ouachita Telegraph 17 Sept. 1870

After the Civil War the Bunkers found themselves in financial trouble due to a crippled economy, their use of Confederate currency in business dealings, raising a large family, and property loss from an 1865 Union attack in their area. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves on the plantation which also contributed to the decline of their farming income. By 1868 the twins returned to show business and even traveled to Europe hoping to restore their fortune. Life on the road wasn’t as prosperous as it’d been in the past. Health problems and the public’s waning interest in their brand of anatomical curiosity forced their return to North Carolina.

Abbeville Press 23 April 1869

Chang suffered from a stroke in 1870 which left him paralyzed, forcing Eng to support both bodies physically with the aid of crutches and ties. On January 17, 1874 Chang died, followed by Eng less than three hours later.

From the Spirit of the Age on February 5, 1874: “Thursday, Jan. 15 was the day for Chang to visit Eng’s house. The former was the weaker of the two, having been paralyzed three years before on the right side, and ever since suffering from chronic pneumonia. On this night the extreme cold, the rough road, and an open carriage, caused Chang a severe attack of his affection of the throat, and he sent word to his wife next day that, though better, he thought he would have died that night. On Friday night the twins slept in the second story of the house, having no one in the room but a  little negro, who said they got up after midnight and sat around the fire. Chang complaining very much of his throat. Eng wanted to go back to bed, but Chang said it hurt his breast too much to lie down. However, they did soon afterward go to bed, and nothing more was heard till, toward daybreak, Eng was heard crying out for his son William, who slept in an upper room. When the family was aroused, after repeated callings from Eng, they found Chang dead, and Eng with the cold perspiration starting out from his face, pallid, and complaining of excessive cold in his feet, and asking them to pull and rub them. However, in about 1-1/2 hours after the alarm, Eng expired, all the symptoms of death being present. During the interval they had sent for Dr. Hollingsworth, five miles away in the village of Mount Airy, but before he could arrive death had come to both. The wife of Eng said that he was as hearty as ever he had been the night before, having eaten a substantial supper, and was in no wise apparently affected by his brother’s indisposition. After the doctor arrived he found them both dead and observed no difference in their condition from that of ordinary corpses.”

The brothers were originally interred in the cellar underneath Sarah’s home, something I didn’t know until very recently. The Feb. 10, 1874 issue of The Indiana State Sentinel provided an account of the day that the bodies were removed from their original resting place and taken to Philadelphia for examination. From that article: “In the midst of deep silence, and with great solemnity, the earth was then removed from around the outer wooden case, which was lifted from its position and conveyed to the apartment without. Here the outside case was then taken off, the charcoal removed, and the tin case presented itself to the view. Proceeding in order, the tinner then opened the latter and the inside coffin was exposed. With great care this was then carried to one of the rooms of the house upstairs, where a full and excellent light was obtained, and, after being placed in a proper position; the cover was taken off. All the members of the commissions and several others bent eagerly over the coffin, the first sensation they experienced being a cadaveric odor, which, however, was not at all repulsive. A white gauze muslin covering being drawn off, the faces of the dead twins were exposed. The features of Chang were partially discolored, those of Eng being natural. Both the bodies were habited in neat black suits, the coffin was nicely lined with muslin, and, from the indications so far, they seemed to be in a very good state of preservation. Both the widows then came into the room, each going to the side of the coffin upon which lay the remains of her husband; and with a mournful sadness that was very touching they took a final farewell, and left them to the doctors.”

The bodies were autopsied at the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and Chang’s death determined to be the result of a cerebral blood clot. At that time they attributed Eng’s death to shock or “sheer fright” from finding himself attached to his twin’s corpse. I imagine that would’ve been a fairly terrifying situation to find oneself in.

Even though a 19th century doctor probably wouldn’t have been able to separate the twins without causing the death of one of them, it’s likely that such an operation would be successful with today’s medical advancements. The brothers’ death cast and livers are on display at the Mutter Museum.

White Plains Baptist Church is a charming piece of architecture and the view of the mountains from the graveyard behind it is absolutely breathtaking.

The Andy Griffith Playhouse a few blocks from White Plains houses the “Siamese Twins Exhibit.”

Spirit of the Age 5 February  1874
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