The “There but for the grace of God go I” wince-factor associated with the misfortune of conjoined twins, often morphs into a head-shaking, disbelieving giggle when confronted with the sheer absurdity of 2 people sharing one belly button or the same eardrum. As is the case with many strange things in life, this condition is a very unfunny cosmic joke. The closest we stand-alone creatures come to experiencing this involuntary merge is when we run in a 3-legged race or file joint tax returns. Conversely the closest Siamese twins come to experiencing separateness, is when they’re happily dreaming about deftly slipping through a revolving door all by themselves.
Oh well, “There but for the grace of God go I,” said the author, shaking his head while stifling laughter.
Use a mainstream disability as comedic fodder and you’re invariably accused of crassness or insensitivity. But tread on a disability that doesn’t have a high-profile spokesperson or social media vigilantes and you can pretty much say whatever you please without fear of being called out. Such is the case with Siamese twins whose condition is so rare (1 in 180,000 births) and fixable (many can be separated after birth) that the only group willing to champion their cause is the Super Glue Mishap Advisory Board. So few defend the rights of conjoined twins that you’ll probably never see a protest sign saying “Siamese Lives Matter.” Although logically, if all lives matter, then Siamese lives should matter twice as much.
I encourage you to relax the muscles around your eyes, soften your throat and cultivate a sense of being in the moment. Prepare to delight yourself in my withering cannonade of comedic Siamese fodder as I attempt to blow your mind and shatter your funny bone – but in a peaceful and light-hearted way. And to my fellow humans who suffer the unbidden imprisonment of being Siamese twins I can only offer this one comforting thought: Just be thankful you’re not Triamese Triplets – you think agreeing on a show to watch is hard with 2; try 3. Indeed an extremely rare case of Triamese Triplets was reported in the Outback of Australia in the late 1940’s. However further investigations revealed it was just the Bee Gees – Maurice, Robin and Barry.
So it is with one foot firmly planted in a clear-eyed assessment of unwelcomed fetal-fusing and the other foot mired in a mush of infantile puns, that I load my cannonade of louche commentary on the lives of trailblazing Siamese twins Chang & Eng Booker. You could easily follow the trail they blazed because of their telltale footprint patterns. In this essay I hope to be on target with both empathy and humor. That is my twin aim – so to speak.
Decidedly Not Separated at Birth
Chang and Eng Booker were born in the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) in 1811. They were celebrity conjoined twins who earned a living touring the world and saving money on travel by buying tickets for 1 instead of 2 (I’ve got a few more of these before I move on). No one knew what to call these amalgamated creatures until their promoter asked, “Hey, Chang, what nationality are you?”
“I am Siam,” joked Chang.
And conjoined twins have been known as Siamese twins ever since.
One supposes if Chang & Eng had been black, and born in Holland, they would’ve been called Double Dutch Chocolate. But since they were born in Siam (as in the Siam featured in The King and I) we are stuck with the moniker Siamese twins. Early on Chang became very attached to his brother Eng. Unfortunately that attachment occurred in utero. And from that day forward they were inseparable (almost done here). Their parents had trouble telling them apart and for some unknown reason would often refer to them as Mary-Kate and Ashley. Growing up, their favorite pet was a Siamese cat they named Redundant. Of course by definition all cats in Siam were Siamese cats.
As toddlers the conjoined twins were rarely lonely. They really seemed to enjoy each other’s company and went everywhere together. They were truly inseparable. In the 8th grade they won their school’s talent competition for a very funny ventriloquism act where Chang was the close-lipped ventriloquist whose mouth never moved at all, while Eng played a convincing and talkative dummy. They won the competition strictly on talent, although I’m told Chang pulled a few strings. During their introspective teenage years they developed split personalities and sought the counsel of a village elder who quadrupled his fee for the boys, figuring he was now treating 4 people. Soon a Scottish merchant named Robert Hunter realized the profit potential in such an integrated duo and promoted them on a tour as a curiosity in Bob Hunter’s Politically Incorrect Side Show. When that tour ended the pair decided to go their own way and nearly ruptured their shared liver trying to do so. Ultimately they decided to stay together. A decision made much easier by their fused sternum. Yet through thick-ened skin they always remained close.
Eventually they made their way to the United States and earned a handsome living putting themselves on tour (and you thought only models could earn a handsome living). By 1845 they had amassed the tidy sum of $60,000 (that’s almost $10,000 in today’s dollars) and bought a plantation in North Carolina where they were busy raising cane. The crops they grew however were tobacco and cotton. In an act of peculiar enlightenment so common to persons who’ve experienced a disability, they purchased slaves to do the backbreaking work on the plantation; even though they themselves could do the work of 2 men.
At a Tobacco Road hootenanny celebrating “The Many Wonders of our Life-giving Tobacco,” the Booker brothers met the Yates sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Anne. After what I imagine was a non-traditional courtship, where everyone was a third wheel and all love-making was, at minimum, a ménage à trois, the couples married in 1843. They were registered at Dicker & Dicker of Mayberry. It was a successful marriage as measured by their 21 children (all born as separated, standalone units). Chang would jokingly refer to his wife as “my better third.”
The marriages, however, were not completely successful if you factor in the sisters’ growing dislike for each other. Their hatred grew so passionate that, rather than everyone living in the same household, they had to separate (so to speak) and keep distinct households. Three days a week Chang was obliged to spend with Eng’s wife and the alternate 3 days the brothers moved to another nearby house to be with Chang’s wife. This may have been the inspiration for the TV show Big Love. These disabled, slave-holding immigrants actually had sons fight and die for the Confederacy in the Civil War – a war that left them penisless…I mean penniless.
In an attempt to recoup their war-ravaged savings, the Booker brothers went back on tour in Chang & Eng’s: Till Death Do Us Part, World Tour ‘66. But times had changed. Thanks to the shameless hucksterism of PT Barnum, the postbellum nation had had their fill of ogling curiosities of nature in macabre sideshows and the tour was minimally profitable. However there was always a strong connection between the brothers. A bond that would remain unbroken to their dying days.
Speaking of which; on January 17th 1874 Chang awoke to find his brother unresponsive. He called to him – “Can you hear me Eng? Can you hear me now? You must be in a dead zone. How about now?” – but there was no response. This made it very difficult for Chang to get out of bed. He immediately began feeling great remorse over having spent so much money on Eng’s now unneeded Christmas gift – a scrimshaw pipe. More importantly though, he realized he probably wasn’t long for this world. A doctor was summoned to surgically separate Chang’s deceased brother from his body (in 1874 it was probably more accurate to say “A doctor was summoned to saw them in half without anesthesia” instead of “to surgically separate them”). But by then it was too late. Chang died 4 hours after his brother did. His last words were allegedly, “I’ve got no bars Adelaide.”
In their shared grief the Yates sisters overcame their animosity and saved money on services by holding one double-wide funeral.
Chang & Eng demonstrated grace under trying circumstances. They were patient, cooperative and productive people. While others tried to copy their inseparable companionability (Brangelina comes to mind), none could achieve their level of loving coordination. It is therefore altogether fitting we should salute those souls who through intestinal fortitude (some of which was shared) were able to overcome their disabilities and forge a righteous life for themselves while doing justice to others.