Conjoined twins are not as rare as they once were, for several reasons: if birth anomalies occur in a percentage of the population, there will be more of them in a larger population, and with advanced medical procedures, they are more likely to survive birth. However, they are not the celebrated “freaks” they once were. More such twins are able to be separated, while others choose to live private lives. And conjoined twins who are open to publicity contribute to a public that is more at ease with “human oddities” due to familiarity. But only a few decades ago, the fate of conjoined twins was usually to be exhibited to the public. It was the easiest way to earn a good living, and life in a “freak show” often came with the comfort of living with others who knew what it was like to be different. Here are the stories of a few sets of conjoined twins who gained fame in the past.
1. Byzantium Twins
A pair of unnamed twins in the 10th century managed to survive infancy and were documented by several authors of the time. Records of conjoined twins from so far back are quite rare, as birth anomalies in the ancient world were often deemed to be a bad omen and the children allowed to die. The boys were born in Armenia, and came to Constantinople as adults. They were known at the royal court, but also wandered the countryside exhibiting themselves. Sometime during the reign of Constantine VII in the mid-900s, they returned to Constantinople. One twin died, and emergency surgery was attempted to separate them -the first known separation attempt. The surviving twin lived only three more days.
2. The Hungarian Sisters
Helen and Judith were born in Hungary in 1701, supposedly three hours apart. Whether or not this is true, it brings up an image of a terrifying experience for a frightened and exhausted mother. The girls’ pelvises were fused, back to back. From age two through nine, the girls were exhibited all over Europe, and examined by doctors from each country. They learned many languages, and sang together for audiences. Judith, the twin whose birth was delayed, was the weaker of the two. She suffered a stroke at age six, which left her paralyzed on the left side. Afterward, she leaned heavily on the more robust Helen. When the girls were nine, they entered a convent, where they lived in privacy until their death on the same day at age 22. Alexander Pope wrote a poem about the Hungarian Sisters that gave them immortality.
"Two sisters wonderful to behold, who have thus grown as one,
That naught their bodies can divide, no power beneath the sun.
The town of Szoenii gave them birth, hard by far-famed Komorn,
Which noble fort may all the arts of Turkish sultans scorn.
Lucina, woman's gentle friend, did Helen first receive;
And Judith, when three hours had passed, her mother's womb did leave.
One urine passage serves for both; one anus, so they tell;
The other parts their numbers keep, and serve their owners well.
Their parents poor did send them forth, the world to travel through,
That this great wonder of the age should not be hid from view.
The inner parts concealed do lie hid from our eyes, alas!
But all the body here you view erect in solid brass."
3. Chang and Eng Bunker
Chang and Eng Bunker were born in Thailand (called Siam at the time) in 1811. Their birth was so shocking that the King of Siam ordered them killed -but their mother refused to hand the boys over, so the order was never carried out. They achieved such fame that the term “Siamese twins” would come to be used to describe the condition of conjoined twins, when in Chang and Eng’s case, it was used simply to denote their homeland. British merchant Robert Hunter encountered the twins as teenagers and arranged to take them to England. They toured England and the U.S. for years, exhibiting their bodies and abilities. When they turned 21, Chang and Eng took charge of their own affairs and began to make serious money. In 1839, they quit show business and bought a farm in North Carolina. They married two sisters (over their parents’ objections) and raised 21 children between them. Chang and Eng pursued the possibility of separation several times, but doctors at that time could not predict what would happen. So they remained conjoined until 1874, when they died three hours apart.
4. Millie and Christine McKoy
Millie and Christine McKoy were born in North Carolina in 1851, to a slave family owned by Jabez McKay. He sold the twins and their mother to showman John Pervis when they were eight months old. Pervis sold them to Joseph Pearson Smith and his partner named Brower. The twins were kidnapped by another exhibitor and only found three years later, in England, and returned to the States. As the girls grew, they learned to sing in harmony at their shows. When their exhibitor Smith died in 1862, the twins were inherited by his son Joseph, Jr. who revamped the twins’ publicity. Instead of being exhibited as conjoined twins, they were advertised as one girl with two heads (and four arms and four legs). Billed as “The Two-headed Nightingale,” Millie and Christine were renamed Millie-Christine, as if they were one person. They sang, danced, and played musical instruments to great acclaim, and earned plenty of money on their own after slavery was abolished. They retired from show business at age 58, and settled in Columbus, North Carolina, becoming once again Millie and Christine. They lived to age 61, when they died of tuberculosis in 1912, seventeen hours apart.
5. Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci
Giacomo and Giovanni Battista Tocci were born in Locana, Italy, sometime between 1875 and 1877. Their father was so shocked by the twins' appearance that he was sent to a mental asylum for a month. The boys appeared to be one boy from the waist down, but were two full boys from the waist up. And, as doctors all over Europe examined them, their anatomy was pretty much that way. Each twin could feel and control only one leg. They never learned to walk upright, but they could crawl. The twins got along with each other most of the time, but would settle their differences by punching each other. After a childhood of exhibition in Europe, the Tocci twins came to America in 1891 and stayed for five years. In 1897, after barely reaching adulthood, Giacomo and Giovanni retired to a villa in Venice, becoming recluses from the public for the rest of their lives. Little is known of them afterward. There were rumors that they had married two women, but it was never confirmed. They died sometime after 1912, but it is not known exactly when.
6. Rosa and Josepha Blažek
Rosa and Josepha Blažek were born in Skrejšov, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), in 1878. The two girls were fused at the pelvis, with enough connected bone to make separation impossible. The Blažeks toured for years, but eventually the crowds grew smaller and profits were down. Then in 1909 the papers were full of the news that Rosa was pregnant. In 1910 she gave birth to a boy she named Franz. Depending on the source, the story is that father of the child was identified but was refused a marriage license because that would be bigamy, or that they were married before he died in the war, or Rosa never identified the father, or the child was never hers, but was an orphan used to bolster the twins' career. Little Franz accompanied Rosa and Josepha on their exhibit tours. When the twins fell ill in 1922, a brother the twins had never mentioned came forward to take care of their end-of-life needs—mainly to make sure they were not separated and that he inherited their fortune. The twins died, unseparated, within a few minutes of each other. Their fortune turned out to be a mere $400.
7. The Orissa Sisters
The adorable Radica and Doodica Neik were born in Orissa, India, in 1888. The local villagers saw the babies as a bad omen, and their father wanted to separate them himself. instead, they were taken in by a monastery. Radica and Doodica were joined by a band of cartilage between their chests, much as Chang and Eng Bunker. In 1888, the girls were purchased by a showman named Captain Colman, who exhibited them in Europe as The Hindoo twins. They achieved lasting notoriety when Doodica developed tuberculosis in 1902, and Dr. Eugene-Louis Doyen of Paris stepped in to separate the twins, with the aim of saving Radica from the disease.
The teenage twins were successfully separated, but Doodica died the next day. An autopsy determined that she had died of advanced tuberculosis, and not the separation surgery. Radica had barely missed being attached to a dead sister. But Radica also had tuberculosis, and died a year later in a sanitarium in Paris. Dr. Doyen had filmed the surgery, and the film was sent on exhibit in place of the twins.
8. Violet and Daisy Hilton
Violet and Daisy Hilton were British conjoined twins born in 1908. They were joined at the pelvis but shared no major organs. Mary Hilton bought the twins from their barmaid mother, who worked for Hilton. They went on their first exhibition tour at age three. The girls sang, danced, and played musical instruments throughout Europe and the U.S. When Mary Hilton died, her daughter and son-in-law took charge of the twins. They sued their managers in 1931 for their freedom and $100,000. Violet and Daisy then staged their own vaudeville act, which they continued into old age. They starred in two movies: Freaks in 1932, and their own highly-fictionalized biopic Chained For Life in 1951. In 1961, their tour manager abandoned them in North Carolina, so they got a job at a local grocery store. There they stayed until they were found dead of flu in 1969. According to a forensic investigation, Violet had survived two to four days after Daisy died, but had no means to call for help.
9. Simplicio and Lucio Godina
Simplicio and Lucio Godina were born in Samar, the Philippines, in 1908. The two boys were connected by skin and cartilage at the pelvis, back-to-back, but were flexible enough to twist in relation to each other. While on exhibit in the U.S., the boys were adopted at age 11 by a wealthy Filipino, Teodor Yangeo. Yangeo took them to Manila and raised the boys in luxury, making sure they were well-educated. In 1928, Simplicio and Lucio married identical twins Natividad and Victorina Matos, after a court battle to prove that Simplicio and Lucio were, indeed, two people. The question arose when a clerk refused to grant them marriage licenses. The four newlyweds went on the road again, with Simplicio and Lucio playing musical instruments and dancing with their wives. The Godinas were still young in 1936 when Lucio fell ill with pneumonia. An emergency separation was performed immediately after Lucio died, but Simplicio developed spinal meningitis and died 12 days later.
10. Margaret and Mary Gibb
Margaret and Mary Gibb were born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1912. In contrast to the stories of other conjoined twins, their parents did not want them exhibited or exploited. Nor did they want the twins separated, although several doctors approached the family about it, no doubt inspired by Dr. Doyen’s success. Margaret and Mary were educated at home privately. But at age 14, they took control of their own lives and went to New York hoping to break into vaudeville. Margaret and Mary performed on the vaudeville stage and with traveling circuses for the next couple of decades. There were two instances in which Margaret became engaged to be married, and one highly-publicized planned separation. But the twins were never separated, and neither married, so the stories could have been publicity stunts. The twins returned to Holyoke in 1942 and opened a store, and retired completely in 1949. They lived a quiet life until 1966 when Margaret was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even then, the Gibb twins refused to be separated, and they both died within minutes of each other in 1967.
One has to wonder what it is about North Carolina that causes the state to figure in so many of these stories. This is not an exhaustive list of historical conjoined twins. Several pairs of twins who were exhibited but did not survive childhood were deliberately omitted, as were modern-day twins. See also: