Shekalim 7: The Half Shekel of Siamese Twins
The Half Shekel From the Perspective of Chang and Eng Bunker (1811-1874), the original “Siamese Twins”
“Chang and Eng … never really needed [showman P.T.] Barnum at all. [They] had been born near Bangkok, Siam, in 1811,
bound tightly stomach to stomach by an unforgiving, armlike tube. Asian doctors had recommended separation, but Chang and Eng’s parents instead encouraged them to learn how to coexist. Working daily to stretch the thickening ligature, ultimately three and a half inches in length, eventually the boys could stand side to side, dress separately, walk and run. …
“In 1829, Chang and Eng were ‘discovered’ by an American ship’s captain and whisked away to Europe and America to make their fortune. World fame came quickly, but at a price; by 1838, after seven years of exhibiting themselves in the U.S., the twins were exhausted. Sick of the roving show-life, and wealthy enough now to retire, they had adopted American citizenship and taken the name Bunker, after a Boston acquaintance. Purchasing a plantation in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, including slaves to go with it (eventually 33 of them), the brothers settled into an agrarian life that included marriage to unjoined [American] sisters, and, very quickly, the fathering of numerous children. … Forced by their fleshy bond to sleep face to face, needing to cooperate on everything, they divided their time between two houses and two families, alternating three-day periods during which one or the other was in full charge of their whereabouts and activities. …
“In 1860, Barnum’s big chance came finally came. Self-educated and literate, possessing a fine penmanship, Chang and Eng decided to come out of retirement in order to raise money for the college tuitions of their now huge brood of children. … and they [signed with Barnum] and arrived at Barnum’s for a six-week engagement at [his] American Museum. … Barnum had no control over these independent minded-brothers, or their families. ‘The truth is,’ he wrote later … ‘the wives of the twins (who are sisters) fight like cats and dogs and they want their husbands separated.’ But it was not just the wives; increasingly, the heavy-drinking, irritable Chang was coming to dislike his quiet, teetotaler brother….
“In 1865, their wealth demolished by the [Civil War], Chang and Eng came out of retirement once again. … Separation was increasingly on the twins’ minds. On August 31, 1868, Chang and Eng met again with Barnum … [and he] announced his decision to send them on a tour of Great Britain and on a search for a surgeon who might separate them. The tour occurred, but the separation did not. Chang suffered a stroke in 1870 and from then on had to be partially carried by Eng. Just four years later, on January 17, 1874, to the horror of his brother, 62-year-old Chang died. Eng managed to live on for four fearful hours.”
Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, P.T. Barnum, Alfred A. Knopf, Copyright 1995 by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, pp. 144-147.