The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America

By Joseph Andrew Orser | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
The Monster Now before Us

When, in February 1874, surgeons at Philadelphia’s College of Physicians reported the findings of their postmortem examination of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, the world-famous “Siamese twins,” they spoke of “the monster now before us.” The good doctors meant this quite literally. The twins had long been classified in the field of teratology—teras was Greek for “monster”—as Xiphopages, which Dunglison’s definitive Medical Lexicon identified as “a monstrosity in which twins are united by the epigastrium, as in the case of the Siamese twins.” Additional specialization in the field of “diploteratology”—the study of “compound human monsters”—further categorized the twins as Xiphopages of the third order: terata anacatadidyma. The twins were monsters; great books and learned men said so.1

And yet, it should go without saying, they were not monsters. They were men, individuals, who were joined from birth at the chest by a band of flesh and cartilage.

Chang and Eng were born in Siam in 1811, in a village sixty miles southwest of Bangkok. Their father was a migrant from China; their mother likely had a Chinese father and Siamese mother. In the mid-1820s, a British merchant saw them playing in a river. At first, he thought they were some sort of creature, but then, realizing they were boys, he recognized he might make a fortune exhibiting them and what he considered their monstrous bodies. In 1829, when the brothers were eighteen, the merchant teamed with an American sea captain to contract their services to travel to the United States and Europe and display their physical anomaly. The brothers believed they would be gone for a short while; instead, they spent the rest of their lives in the West, in the public eye, as part of a larger trade in freaks of nature and Oriental curiosities.

In the 1830s, they traveled throughout the United States, to Canada and Cuba, and across Britain and western Europe. In 1839, at the age of twentyeight, they withdrew from public performance, settling in North Carolina as

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The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction - The Monster Now before Us 1
  • Chapter One - In and Chun 9
  • Chapter Two - Under Their Own Direction 37
  • Chapter Three - The Connected Twins 76
  • Chapter Four - Asiatic Americans 105
  • Chapter Five - Southern Curiosities 147
  • Chapter Six - Over Their Dead Bodies 174
  • Epilogue - The Past Rears Its Head 193
  • Notes 203
  • Bibliography 243
  • Index 253
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