Most people would recognize the photograph – an antiqued black and white picture of two well-dressed Asian men who were physically connected at the sternum. Cartilage and a fused liver held them together their entire lives.
What most people probably don’t know about the unusual pair - the most famous conjoined twins of all time – is that they immigrated from their home in Siam (now Thailand) to a small town in North Carolina where they became wealthy farmers, married two sisters and had 21 children between them. Chang and Eng Bunker were the original Siamese Twins, born in 1811, and now have over 1,500 descendants.
Pickens resident Pat Haynes is one of those, the great grandson of Chang. Haynes’ grandmother Hattie Irene Bunker Patterson was Chang’s youngest child. Chang was 58 when Hattie was born. Patterson died when Haynes was five years old.
In day-to-day life Haynes said being related to Chang and Eng doesn’t make much of a difference, but he and his wife attend the annual Bunker family reunions in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, a small town on the Virginia line where his parents are from. Haynes maintains pride for his ancestors who he said were innovators and who overcame great adversity.
Locally, a presentation about the twins have been made to the Marble Valley Historical Society.
“Of course, people say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of them,” Haynes said. “Or they’ll ask, ‘How did they get
married or have children.’ I can’t answer that because I wasn’t there, but that part interests most people about it. They also say, ‘Oh, they were the P.T. Barnum sideshow freaks,’ which is not entirely true. He only exhibited them one time. They didn’t like Barnum so they didn’t go back. I will say I am very proud of them for what they accomplished in overcoming extreme difficulty and prejudice. The fact that they were foreigners themselves, but treated as white people, and the fact that they were landowners and had slaves when whites only had slaves. They were incredible people.”
From Siam to Mount Airy
Haynes’ kitchen table is stacked with books written about the twins over the years; some he likes, others he doesn’t. He’s got an antique wooden cabinet in his dining room that Chang made. It was built to store meat, but now stores the Haynes’ good china.
Chang and Eng’s story began in Siam where they lived in a very small fishing village. Their father died during a cholera outbreak, as did many of their siblings, and they were forced to work as fishermen to help support the family. Their story changed when a Scottish merchant named Robert Hunter spotted them in Bangkok and contracted with the pair to exhibit them around the world. The twins left Siam in 1829 with Hunter and a Nantucket seaman named Abel Coffin. They were examined by doctors all over the world, became national heroes and experienced international fame.
When their contract with Hunter ran out, Chang and Eng begin touring on their own. On their journeys they befriended a doctor who invited them to stay with him in North Carolina if they were in the area to hunt and fish.
“They fell in love with America,” Haynes said. “In their minds Siam was the center of the universe before, but when they got out here they came to believe Siam was a backward country without industry. To me, that is one of the reasons they didn’t go back. They enjoyed luxuries and success here. They also loved the hunting and the fishing, which were favorite hobbies of theirs.”
Chang and Eng applied for American citizenship and purchased a 110-acre farm in Traphill, North Carolina. It’s thought they adopted their last name “Bunker” from an American friend so they could make the purchase. They became successful tobacco farmers and are credited with developing a new way of processing tobacco.
“It was flue-cured tobacco,” Hayne said. “It was cured in a heated barn with wood fires. They also developed a higher quality tobacco, and when they were in Siam they developed a way to preserve duck eggs. They were big innovators and became well-respected for their business sense and integrity. With the last name, they didn’t have one when they first settled here, but needed it to buy property.”
While living in North Carolina, Chang and Eng met two sisters, Adelaide Yates and Sarah Anne, daughters of a preacher. They were married in 1843.
“When they announced they wanted to get married their dad said no way, and forbade them to see each other,” Haynes said. “But they still snuck around and they said if he didn’t allow them to get married they were going to elope, so he agreed to perform the wedding. I think the twins won them over because they were good citizens and respected business people and were wealthy landowners, some of the wealthiest people in the county.”
The twins and the sisters shared a bed built for four for many years, but eventually built two different homes in Mount Airy, N.C. The couples would split the time between the two homes. If they were in Chang’s home, Chang’s rules applied. In Eng’s house, his rules applied.
Despite the twins’ success as farmers and family men they weren’t immune to scrutiny and prejudice. Haynes believes they accepted any discrimination reluctantly, but as a necessary part of being an American. Even though they were respected for their intelligence, industry, business success, honesty and generosity (especially during and after the Civil War when their neighbors and debtors had no money to repay loans or pay for services, and were allowed to repay when they could) - they were still considered "different."
“There are lots of stories, but one I recall is that when they were on the exhibition circuit a man shook my great-grandfather’s hand and squeezed it to hurt him. Chang socked him and the man pressed charges. He was arrested but they said they couldn’t put him in jail because Eng could sue for false arrest. The charges were dropped.”
The twins died in 1874 at the age of 63. Chang, who became an alcoholic later in life, died first from a blood clot and Eng passed away a few days later. Haynes pulled out a letter from one of Chang’s daughters to one of his sons. She wrote the letter after the twins died because they were concerned about what they should do with the body. They feared that because of the twins’ fame and medical oddity their body would be stolen.
Family pride, family tradition
Haynes’ impression is that Chang and Eng’s descendants living in his mother's generation were teased and the subject of shunning and gossip.
“Our family and others of our generation seldom discussed the twins that I can remember,” he said. “When a question was raised it was answered but the subject was quickly changed.”
Still, every year members of the Bunker family converge at the First Baptist Church in Mount Airy to catch up about personal life and any new developments regarding Chang and Eng’s legacy. Oftentimes people interested in researching the pair show up. Recently, the Thai ambassador visited in anticipation of using the twins as a public relations tool.
“I never was that interested in family history as a child, so from the time I got interested all the ones who had a lot of knowledge of the twins had passed on,” Haynes said. “Fortunately, there had been a lot of work done on the history when I started looking into it. When I did I realized what amazing people they were. They didn’t mind being exhibited, or showing their deformity because it was a way to make money, but they wanted to be remembered as people more than freaks of nature. They managed to build a nice life and be great family men and members of the community.”