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10 Stories of Conjoined Twins

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:

The True Stories Behind 11 Famous Sideshow Performers

Coney Island Freaks of Yesterday and Today

Strange Geographies: Freaks in Mayberry

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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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