The dark history of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker

By Sanj Atwal
split image of the bunker twins

In 1811, conjoined twin brothers Chang and Eng Bunker were born in Siam (now Thailand). They were joined at the sternum by a short, flexible band of flesh and cartilage, through which their livers were connected.

Although they weren’t the first conjoined twins in history, their eventual fame in America would lead the term ‘Siamese twins’ to become synonymous with conjoined twins.

The Bunker twins remained unseparated throughout their entire lives, but that didn’t stop them from marrying and having children.

In fact, they had a total of 21 children between them, setting a record for the most children born to unseparated twins.

However, their biological offspring weren’t the only children under their ‘care’: Chang and Eng were Confederate slaveholders and owned several child slaves.

Read on to learn the dark history of the ‘original’ Siamese twins.

The Bunker Twins stood up

Chang and Eng were discovered in 1824 by a Scottish businessman named Robert Hunter. Sensing their money-making potential, he convinced the twins to come to America, although rumours later circulated that the twins' mother sold them to Hunter.

It took Hunter five years to get the twins out of Siam as the king reportedly forbade them from leaving the country. Chang and Eng eventually arrived in America in 1829, aged 17.

The twins made a name – and a small fortune – for themselves by touring in America.

Their early shows saw them performing physical feats such as somersaults and swimming, however, after touring the British Isles, learning to speak English, and then getting out of their original contract, Chang and Eng took control of their act. They hired their own staff and began to engage audiences in a more formal parlour setting, where they talked and answered questions.

Flyer for the Siamese twins show

The Bunker twins eventually settled in North Carolina and gained American citizenship, which they enjoyed the full benefits of: over 15 years after allegedly being sold into servitude by their mother, Chang and Eng bought their own slave plantation.

They married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates and set up two separate houses, spending three days at a time in each.

Between them, the twins fathered 21 children: Chang and Adelaide had 10, whilst Eng and Sarah had 11.

With Chang and Eng it was never really documented how they conducted themselves in a sexually intimate way, but it is interesting to note that when the wives had their children, they delivered only maybe four or five days apart, which suggests some kind of coordination. – Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief 

The Bunker twins with their wives and two kids

In 1850, over half of the Bunker twins’ slaves were under the age of seven. These children would either grow up to be sold for profit or they would work the plantation fields.

The press described the twins’ treatment of their slaves as harsh, but Chang and Eng rejected these accusations. 

The Bunkers' ownership of slaves, in addition to their support for the Confederacy during the Civil War, negatively affected the way their audiences viewed them when they returned to touring after the war.

The twins persisted nonetheless - mostly due to financial necessity after losing their slaves – presenting themselves as poor old men with large families to support. They also tried their luck in Europe, making trips to Britain, Germany and Russia.

In his late fifties, Chang suffered a stroke. It didn’t kill him, but it did leave him severely debilitated, requiring Eng to help him with most daily tasks. With this, their career was over.

The Bunker twins sat down

On 17 January 1874, at the age of 62, Chang died in his sleep. Upon waking up to find his brother dead, Eng realized he too would soon pass away, and reportedly did so two hours later.

Their final autopsy reported that Chang most likely died from a blood clot in his brain, whilst Eng’s cause of death remained unclear. A prevailing theory is that Eng died of shock, although alternate theories propose that he died of blood loss due to the failure of the twins’ connected circulatory systems.

The Bunker twins held the record of oldest conjoined twins ever, until it was broken by Ronnie and Donnie Galyon (USA; 1951 - 2020), who lived to be 68. 

With modern medical technology, Chang and Eng could most likely have been easily separated. However, back in the nineteenth century, the procedure would have been fatal, thus most doctors advised the twins against surgery.

Though, even if it was possible, the twins never actually expressed any desire to be separated.

They were born that way, they were used to it and they were able to function and have a normal life without being separated. – Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief 

Today, Chang and Eng have thousands of descendants. Every May, their extended family gathers together to commemorate the legacy of their famous great-great-grandfathers.

Group photo of the Bunker family