Strange Geographies: Freaks in Mayberry

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Mount Airy, North Carolina is known to most tourists as the birthplace of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry, where his titular sitcom was set -- and indeed, if you walk down its main street, as I did last week, you'll find nothing but Andy Griffith memorabilia: tee-shirts in every window, restaurants named for its characters, Barney Fife's face peering at you from life-sized cutouts. They even pipe the Andy Griffith Show theme song into the air on a semi-continuous loop (I still haven't been able to get it out of my head). But in the 19th century, Mount Airy was home to someone considerably more famous. Two people, actually: Chang and Eng, the legendary conjoined twins, who after years of touring the world with P.T. Barnum, married a pair of local sisters and settled in Wilkesboro, a small farming community just on the outskirts of Mount Airy.

A community stuck happily in the 1950s, where today many of the 1,500 descendants of the world's most famous sideshow freaks reside. It's as strange a juxtaposition of culture as I've ever run across.

Along the main drag in town, you'll find lots of signs like this:

But a few miles outside of town you'll find this sign:

As the sign above notes, the twins were born in "Siam," in what is now the city of Bangkok, to a poor fisherman and his wife. They were not the first conjoined twins in recorded medical history, but they are unique in that they were allowed to live -- many children with such defects, especially in 19th century Asia, were simply killed at birth -- and that the term "Siamese Twins" originated with them.

Their names mean "right" and "left." As teenagers they were purchased from their widowed mother when an enterprising American ship captain spotted them swimming, and after years of successful touring with the captain and later with P.T. Barnum, they settled in what they deemed the most beautiful and peaceful place they'd encountered in all their travels: North Carolina.

When they applied for citizenship, however, they were told that they needed a last name. Having only ever been known as Chang and Eng, they were stumped until the man behind them in line, Fred Bunker, offered them his name. And so they became the Bunkers of Wilkesboro, and from the 1840s-70s, they had 21 children there with their wives, the sisters Sarah and Addie Yates.

They bought a thousand-acre farm and six slaves and became gentlemen farmers. Each couple had a house of their own, and they would spend three days at one house and the next three at the other, either Chang or Eng alternating as guests in the other's house. Two of their children fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. They were avid churchgoers, and the White Plains Baptist Church, where they attended services and where they are buried, still operates today (that's it behind the Chang and Eng roadside sign, pictured above).

The graveyard is full of Bunkers -- all descendants of Chang and Eng -- as is the community itself.

Perhaps in an effort to reconcile the bizarre juxtaposition of celebrity in Mount Airy, every year the Andy Griffith Playhouse in town puts on a show called The Wedding of the Siamese Twins, which details some of the more salacious and comedic aspects of the many compromises that the twins and their wives had to make in their respective relationships. (It's perhaps best not to dwell on this aspect of their lives overmuch.) Their story, in any case, is a fascinating one -- and in some ways it's a uniquely American one, too. So maybe it's perfectly fitting that Andy and the Siamese twins shared the same stomping grounds.

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June 8, 2010 - 6:59am
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