Excerpt: The Lives of Chang and Eng, by Joseph Andrew Orser

orser_livesConnected at the chest by a band of flesh, Chang and Eng Bunker toured the United States and the world from the 1820s to the 1870s, placing themselves and their extraordinary bodies on exhibit as “freaks of nature” and “Oriental curiosities.” More famously known as the Siamese twins, they eventually settled in rural North Carolina, married two white sisters, became slave owners, and fathered twenty-one children between them. Though the brothers constantly professed their normality, they occupied a strange space in nineteenth-century America. They spoke English, attended church, became American citizens, and backed the Confederacy during the Civil War. Yet in life and death, the brothers were seen by most Americans as “monstrosities,” an affront they were unable to escape.

Joseph Andrew Orser chronicles the twins’ history, their sometimes raucous journey through antebellum America, their domestic lives in North Carolina, and what their fame revealed about the changing racial and cultural landscape of the United States. More than a biography of the twins, the result is a study of nineteenth-century American culture and society through the prism of Chang and Eng that reveals how Americans projected onto the twins their own hopes and fears.

In the following excerpt from The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth-Century America (pp. 147-151), Orser shares some of the stories and images in which Americans viewed Chang and Eng as analogous to the union or division of the United States.


The Siamese twins had long been used ironically as symbols of American nationalism. The earliest pamphlet about the twins published in the United States in the early 1830s featured a title page image of a flying eagle carrying a banner that read “E Pluribus Unum,” and beneath that was the phrase, “United We Stand.” This appeared opposite a frontispiece that pictured the twins as dark-skinned boys wearing queues and loose Oriental garments. The 1836 pamphlet published under the twins’ direction similarly featured a bald eagle clutching the national shield, beneath which were the words “Union and Liberty, one and inseparable, now and forever.” Analyzing the Siamese twins and American identity, scholar Allison Pingree argued that these exhibition booklets, which juxtaposed the parlance of the day describing conjoinedness—“united brothers” or “united twins”—with the symbolism of the American eagle holding an “E Pluribus Unum” banner in its beak, were playing to political concerns of the period. Even as nationalists appropriated the bond to symbolize union, proponents of states’ rights could claim that “connecting the states too closely was ‘monstrous’ and excessive.”[1]

This symbolism of the 1830s carried even more resonance in 1860. By this time, with the twins famously slaveholders and family men, representations of the twins and union were framed around the theme of a house divided, brother against brother, and the absurdity and tragedy of the moment. The political imagery began in July when the Louisville Journal took aim at discord in the Democratic Party. “It is said that Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins, differ in politics,” the widely reprinted “news” item reported. “Both are veteran democrats, but Chang is now for Breckinridge, and Eng for Douglas.”[2] The idea that the twins, longtime Whigs, supported either Democratic candidate—Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, who many southerners believed would not protect slavery, or Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who was staunchly proslavery—apparently proved too much for a Surry County neighbor. The twins “are not now and never have been Democrats [and] they say they never expect to be Democrats,” the neighbor wrote to the Fayetteville Observer, which had published the report from Louisville. Instead, the anonymous neighbor wrote, they both supported John Bell of Tennessee, a pro-Union slaveholder who was running under the Constitutional Union Party, a coalition of former Southern Whigs and Know-Nothings that performed well in northwestern North Carolina but did not carry Surry County.[3] True or not, the significance of these assertions is the symbolism each carries: In the first report, the brothers were at odds, spelling doom for party and country, whereas in the second, Chang and Eng saw eye to eye and backed a candidate who similarly promised union.

Stories that used the twins to illustrate the sectional divide continued to pit brother against brother. A New York Tribune report claimed to describe a confrontation that occurred between the twins while on exhibit at Barnum’s American Museum in early November. Chang, “a North Carolinian and a secessionist”—and apparently quarrelsome—first insisted that the ligament connecting the two brothers be painted black, suggesting to readers the centrality of slavery to the Union. When Eng voiced his preference for its natural color, Chang demanded that the union between the two brothers be dissolved. Eng, “of a calmer temperament,” persuaded Chang to wait at least until March 4, 1861, when the new president would be inaugurated. Meanwhile, a “Dr. Lincoln” was called in and offered the prognosis that the surgery would be “dangerous for both parties” and that “the union must and shall be preserved.”[4] The Baltimore American similarly predicted that separating this union would cause mortal injury. “If one of the Siamese brothers . . . rudely tears himself away, snapping asunder a bond that God and nature intended to be perpetual, he inflicts upon himself the same precise injury that he inflicts upon his fellow. . . . He commits fratricide and suicide at once.” A North Carolina newspaper reprinted the item, observing that the report “likens secession to a supposed separating of the Siamese twins.” The paper, however, titled the report “A Forcible Comparison,” suggesting that it did not see such dire consequences in the prospect of disunion.[5]

The most elaborate analogy came out of another state that straddled the growing divide between North and South. For border states such as Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky, which allowed slavery but, because of their strategic locations and profoundly divided populations, felt themselves tugged mightily in both directions, the imagery of the united twins perhaps had the greatest resonance: united they stand, divided they die. Missouri’s governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, had led proslavery forces into “Bleeding Kansas” in the 1850s and now was determined for his state to “bind together in one brotherhood [with] the States of the South.” The military commander of the U.S. arsenal in St. Louis, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, had faced off against Jackson in Kansas and had pledged to keep Missouri aligned with the Union. That state was about to undergo as bloody an internal struggle as any other over the question of secession.[6]

It should come as little surprise, then, that a Missouri paper published one of the most violent and grotesque analogies pitting the twins against each other. In February 1861, St. Louis’s Daily Missouri Republican related an incident while stating that it “does not vouch for its truth.” At some unspecified point in the past, the paper reported, Chang had emancipated his slaves and wanted Eng to do the same. Eng refused and, what was more, wanted to use his slaves to work “an outlying lot, which had been considered more than the rest of their plantation a piece of common property.” Chang forbade this, and the two quarreled. Eng threatened to cut their tie; Chang defied him to do so. Eng insisted that Chang had wronged him and demanded redress; Chang argued that Eng had no cause to complain and refused to consider his brother’s demands. Finally, slaveholder Eng, “tired of remonstrating and offering compromises, suddenly cut the tie and the two stood apart, no longer one!” Chang fell upon his brother, and the two engaged in a bloody fight. “It is doubtful whether both, or indeed, whether either of them will survive the cruel and unnatural encounter,” the author commented.

On both sides, the families were the victims of the brothers’ falling out. Some troublesome neighbors robbed them of valuables, a “scoundrelly land-shark” had set up fictitious claims to their lands, and each brother was killing and crippling children of the other. Chang even set Eng’s slaves “to pillage him and take his life.” Throughout, Chang insisted that Eng was still tied to him, which Eng derided “as ridiculous and nonsensical.” “The warm pulsations, flesh and blood tie, which once joined them has been separated and can never be reunited, any more than the dead man can be brought to life,” Eng told his brother. Of course they could be joined once again, Chang responded, suggesting that a rope could be tied around Eng’s neck and Chang’s waist, and if Eng failed to follow the path set by his brother, Chang could drag him along. This proposal suggested to doctors that Chang’s mind was “disordered.”[7]

Although the analogy to the greater sectional conflict was obvious, there were also in this report some notable parallels with the lives of the twins and families. They had, for instance, divided their estates, both in slaves and in property. This was a legal divorce of sorts, which some observers pinned on conflicts between the families and others on overcrowding. In fact, the division of estates codified living arrangements that had been in place since the years immediately following their weddings.[8] The report’s drift into fiction was equally obvious. Of course the twins had not killed any of their children or, as far as we know, come to physical blows of any sort. And, for those paying attention to the several analogies appearing in newspapers around the country, there were clear inconsistencies. The Missouri example posed Eng as the intransigent slaveholder, while the Maryland paper had placed Chang in that role. The significance of these analogies was not their relation to the actual lives of the Bunker brothers but the metaphor the united twins offered for a nation in crisis.

For readers of the St. Louis Republican, the coming war between the states—as well as the ongoing battle within Missouri and the recent memories of Bleeding Kansas, in which many Missourians participated—provided the real framework for this mournful account of the twins and their families. The fears about deadly violence were clear, pitting brother against brother, of course, but also involving uncles killing nephews and family members unleashing slaves against other family members. And for what? For outsiders to come and lay claim to the land, to plunder and pillage while the women and children were weakened and the brothers were mortally wounded. The article came down harshly on Unionists, that is, Chang. They placed onerous demands on slaveholders, they clung stubbornly to their own beliefs, and their proposals for reunion amounted to little more than placing a leash on a disobedient mutt. But secessionists, that is, Eng, received criticism as well. They were hotheads who acted rashly and, in rushing to sever the tie that bound the two together, mortally wounded each and unleashed misery on their families.
The Republican concluded:

All the real friends of these unfortunate parties are much concerned at this unhappy quarrel and its results. How it will finally terminate cannot be wholly foreseen. But this case seems to be hopeless. The constitution of neither of them can probably withstand the injuries and sufferings they have incurred; and that which should, and with an ordinary exercise of moderation and good sense would have remained a goodly heritage for their children, will be divided among strangers.[9]

The article spoke fondly of the twins, of the promise of a secure and bountiful future they had offered to their families. The united brothers had become symbols of the American union and the promise it offered to its citizens. Ultimately, however, the twins were scorned; they had become symbols of the nation’s disunion.

In truth, the twins themselves did not separate; their union held. But as the nation approached its greatest crisis, the twins made their stand clear, hurrying from California to North Carolina, to their plantations, their slaves, and their families. The Bunkers were southerners, and they would remain southerners after the war, at home and abroad.


From The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth-Century America by Joseph Andrew Orser. Copyright © 2014 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Joseph Andrew Orser teaches history at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.

  1. [1]Pingree, “America’s ‘United Siamese Brothers,'” 94–95; Hale, An Historical Account of the Siamese Twin Brothers; [Hale], A Few Particulars concerning Chang-Eng.
  2. [2]The item was reprinted in such diverse locations as Lowell (MA) Daily Citizen and News, July 30, 1860; Daily Cleveland Herald, August 4, 1860; Fayetteville (NC) Observer, August 6, 1860; Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, August 8, 1860; and Charleston (SC) Courier, August 11, 1860.
  3. [3]“The Siamese Twins,” Fayetteville (NC) Observer, August 16, 1860.
  4. [4]This story first published in the New York Tribune was widely reprinted in such papers as Boston Daily Advertiser, November 13, 1860; Lowell (MA) Daily Citizen and News, November 14, 1860; Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1860; and Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, November 17, 1860.
  5. [5]“A Forcible Comparison,” Fayetteville (NC) Observer, April 4, 1860.
  6. [6]McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 290–92.
  7. [7]“The Latest Report of Chang and Eng,” Daily Missouri Republican, January 30, 1861. Italics in the original.
  8. [8]See Chapter 4.
  9. [9]“The Latest Report of Chang and Eng,” Daily Missouri Republican, January 30, 1861. Italics in the original.