Never Alone At Last

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The strangest romance in I he annals of the Old South culminated in North Carolina, not many miles west of modern Winston-Salem, in 1843, when Chang and Eng Bunker, slaveholders and adoptive southerners, married Sarah Ann and Adelaide Yeats, daughters of a Virginia clergyman. It was by necessity a double ceremony.

Today the memory of the bridegrooms is celebrated by a double headstone over their single grave in the cemetery of the Baptist church of White Plains, North Carolina. From great quarries nearby, granite has gone to mark many other graves and to build such monuments as the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk and the Arlington Memorial Bridge across the Potomac. But Chang and Eng’s real monument is not of the familiar Carolina granite, though it may one day prove as enduring. It is the term “Siamese twins.”

Doctors still deal with cases of twins whose bodies are joined together—described rather roughly in the dictionary as a “double monster.” Newspapers and medical journals in recent years have reported successful and unsuccessful efforts to separate such twins, some of whom have qualified for the cruel epithet “monster.” Certainly, however, a century and a half alter the birth of the original Siamese twins, it still seems strange to apply the word to that gay. shrewd, acquisitive, lively, and fertile pair who made their way before an astonished world from Siam to plantations in Surry County, North Carolina. Their lives were almost as dramatic as their deaths.

Chang and ling were born near Bangkok, the capital of Siam, on the river Me Nam, in May, 1811. Bangkok then was a city built largely on lloating pontoons or on piles; in the stagnant, dry season the death rate was high, especially among children, but Chang and Eng thrived. They seemed not at all disturbed by the stout attachment of cartilage and ligaments that joined them together at the breastbone. At first this fleshy tie was short and rigid, but as they grew, the ligament stretched so that they could stand side by side and even back to back.

They also ran, jumped, and swam with ease and astounding co-ordination, indeed, their activities in the water drew them to the attention of Robert Hunter, a British merchant in Siam. At first he thought he had encountered some strange amphibious animal. Soon, however, he realized that here was a human wonder that would appeal to the curiosity of the Western world and might put more money in his pocket than he was making in Asian trade.

In April, 1829, the twins, accompanied by Hunter, sailed from Siam on an American ship, the Sachem. They arrived in Boston on August 16 “in excellent health.” The United States was then already a land of people eager to confront wonders and sometimes to be fooled. When the eighteen-year-old twins reached America, Phineas T. Barnum, “the greatest American showman,” who was to present them later along with other freaks, real and false, was himself only nineteen. However, Chang and Eng, the first genuine xiphopagic twins (as doctors called them) ever seen here, required no genius as showmen to attract great popular and medical interest.

They were already accustomed to the latter. Back in Siam some native doctors had proposed plans for separating the boys. One suggested “hanging them across a fine cat-gut cord, like a pair of saddle-bags, estimating that this would, in time, work its way entirely through the connecting ligature, by degrees, allowing the several parts to heal as it progressed.” Another advised cutting them apart with a red-hot wire. But in the United States, eminent doctors were less inclined to advise such measures.

John Collins Warren, then professor of anatomy and surgery in the Harvard Medical School, made careful studies of the twins. He concluded that the band between them was largely cartilage with an insignificant number of connecting blood vessels, lymphatics, and small nerves. He felt, however, that there was probably a continuous peritoneal cavity within the band which would make attempts at surgical separation hazardous and unwarranted. Other leading American physicians concurred. For Chang and Eng it was probably just as well; if they had been separated, they would have gained comfort and independence, but they would have been reduced to two lonely and insignificant Siamese boys, stranded far from home.

So, still joined, they sailed from the United States to England, where they were enthusiastically welcomed in October of 1829. Crowds poured out to see them, and once again the doctors examined them. Sir Astley Paston Cooper, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, also held back from the suggestion that the twins be separated.

Other medical reports were made. Sir James Y. Simpson, then only beginning his great career as a Scottish physician, found that when potassium iodide was given to one twin no iodide reaction was found in the urine of his partner. Jn a study more comprehensible to the layman, Professor G. B. Bolton fed asparagus to Chang and found its characteristic odor in his urine, but none in Eng’s. The doctors considered it significant that though Chang began to drink heavily as time went on, Eng was never affected even when his brother was drunk.