The lives of Original Siamese Twins Eng and Chang Bunker have spawned an abundance of colorful stories, but an author who spoke in Mount Airy Friday afternoon often is asked to address one issue in particular.
“One of the most frequent questions I get is ‘how did they have sex?’” Dr. Joseph Orser said during a well-attended presentation at the Earle Theatre downtown.
Wanting to know the answer to that is logical for the many Eng and Chang descendants curious about their heritage, Orser agreed. “I think we live in a time when this heritage is discussed openly.”
Even so, “I probably have not thought about their sex lives as much as I should have,” added Orser, the author of a 2014 book, “The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth-Century America.”
A professor of history and a lecturer in the English department at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Orser brought a unique perspective to the subjects of his book, to which he devoted years of research. His mother is Thai and he spent part of his young adulthood studying, teaching and working in Thailand, the homeland of the Siamese Twins.
And while he did not delve into the intimate details of the Bunkers’ reproductive behavior, Orser did highlight various issues Friday regarding the families of the famous pair — who married sisters from Wilkes County and produced 21 children between them. Countless descendants have resulted from that, some of whom will gather for a 26tth-annual reunion in Mount Airy today.
The Siamese Twins, being joined at the sternum by a small band of cartilage, possessed a quality that has both repelled as well as attracted people, the author pointed out during his talk.
Orser, who has attended the Eng and Chang reunions in Mount Airy before, recalled one such occasion that was accompanied by a display of Siamese Twins artifacts by the Surry Arts Council, sponsor of the program Friday.
This included a life-size cutout of the conjoined twins, which caught the attention of a girl who appeared to be about 10 years old, Orser related. After looking at the image of Eng and Chang, the girl said it was the ugliest thing she ever saw.
“And she was quite loud,” Orser remembers. But at the same time, she kept on looking at it, which the author said is typical of how Eng and Chang have been viewed since they were born in a small village in the former Siam in 1811, near Bangkok.
After a British merchant saw the brothers playing in a river in the 1820s and realized the entertainment value of the first-known conjoined pair, they left Siam with him and an American sea captain who traveled with the twins as their agents.
“The brothers believed they would be gone for just a short while — instead they spent the rest of their lives in the West,” Orser said.
Eng and Chang retired to North Carolina in 1839 and married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates.
Their weddings were held at the same time, presided over by a Baptist preacher.
“In just about every respect, this was a normal marriage ceremony,” Orser said.
However, newspapers around the nation were prolific in their reporting of the double wedding, since Eng and Chang were celebrities at that time.
Some referred to the marriages as an “unnatural” event. “Papers were trying to explain how Eng and Chang got into this union,” the author explained.
The fact that they maintained two separate households also raised some eyebrows, but actually was a normal and logical decision, Orser said, given the problems that can occur when two families live under the same roof.
Orser said that based on an 1848 interview with the Richmond Southerner newspaper, the twins did not approve of American religion because it involved too much quarreling about who was right and wrong regarding scripture and beliefs.
“Preachers no speak truth all the time,” one of the brothers is said to have told the Richmond reporter.
Yet Eng and Chang said they still attended church services occasionally with their wives.
Their married lives would lead to daughters being born to each couple within six days of each other in 1844, and as their families grew, the Siamese Twins endeavored to be the typical Southern gentlemen, which included owning slaves.
The emergence of their children led to all kinds of reports in the press about their racially mixed nature, which reflected 19th-century viewpoints on that subject.
This escalated after the brothers resumed their show business careers in 1849 — partly due to financial pressures involved with educating their children — and took some of them along on tour to places such as California and the British Isles.
While some reports portrayed the Bunker kids as “sickly” and “weak-minded,” other accounts referred to them as normal American children except for perhaps having dark complexions and Oriental features.
There were also questions about whether any of the children possessed “Negro blood,” Orser said.
Although the Bunker children were privileged and had access to money, land and travel, they still were discriminated against, he stressed.
Racism especially became an issue around 1860 when the brothers visited California, which the author said was the “epicenter” of anti-Chinese sentiment then. They were linked in a negative way with the Chinese culture, including the use of such terms as “yellow” to describe their appearance.
There were accusations at the time that the children were being exploited by their presence on the tours. But Orser said personal letters he has consulted show the brothers constantly expressing love for their kids at home and how much they missed them. This included being concerned that they not forget about their fathers during those absences.
Eng and Chang cut their 1860 tour short because of the advent of the Civil War, during which the Bunker families fully supported the Confederacy.
The end of the war saw the brothers in dire straits due to most of their holdings being in the form of land, and they also no longer owned slaves. Most of Eng’s wealth was wrapped up in slaves, according to Orser.
Eng and Chang had become prominent citizens in Surry County, which served them well until their deaths in 1874.
“They were very skilled at making connections with the right people,” Orser said. “They were businessmen — they were extraordinarily savvy.”
The brothers were known for lending money to people and otherwise built a network of support which Orser says gave them “protection” in the face of the racial and other issues associated with their existence
“After their deaths, they didn’t have that protection,” Orser said.
He suggested that supposedly close friends they had in Mount Airy essentially saw a way to cash in on the twins for one last time, which included arranging a contract in which their bodies were shipped to Philadelphia for study.
“There are just so many stories to tell about Eng and Chang,” Orser said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.